Galle is a living time capsule, a melting pot of colonial grandeur and bohemian chic. Its massive fortified walls protectively enclose densely-packed streets lined with British and Dutch colonial buildings.
The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest fortified colonial city in Asia. But in truth, it’s not that big. Staying at one of the boutique hotels in Galle, you can easily walk to most places you want to visit and, take our word for it, a walk around the city ramparts at sunset is a mesmerising must.
And if the sound of willow on leather has a special place in your heart, Galle can justifiably claim to have the most spectacular test cricket ground in the world.
Close by your luxury hotel in Galle there are hidden rooftop restaurants serving delicious local food, elegant bars with extensive wine lists, creative boutiques and treasure-trove antique shops. And we’ve whiled away many a sun-drenched afternoon enjoying freshly-caught chili prawns and a cold glass of chardonnay (well, even the most dedicated explorer has to park the 4×4 and unwind occasionally!).
The southern beaches to the east of Galle are amongst the best in Sri Lanka. Unawatuna, Thalpe and Koggala are the main areas, with a few smaller bays in between. Although the sea is generally not exactly placid, there are a few lagoons protected by reefs which make swimming safe. And if you stick to the beach, you will find the sand to be heavenly and the views to die for.
Throw in some excellent beach hotels in Galle that sit close by beachside restaurants and bars, and you have a vibrant and laid-back beach scene which fortunately lacks the hawkers and hassle that can be part of other Sri Lankan beach areas.
Galle has an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars. Wonderful, honest Sri Lankan food is plentiful, as well as some more mainstream restaurants serving Western food. Combined with the recent opening of the old Dutch Hospital where some of Colombo’s best restaurants have set up shop, you’ll find that it’s all rather cosmopolitan. You’ll find anything from traditional Sri Lanka roti and dahl to succulent lamb imported from New Zealand. And it can be washed down with superb fresh fruit juices, local Lion beer, New World wines (European wines are fairly rare) or expertly mixed arrack cocktails. (Arrack is a spirit widespread in South-East Asia, usually distilled from coconuts in Sri Lanka.)
And by the way, do not believe a word of the local legend that unlike a hangover, an arrack-over is actually good for you. We’ve been there and it certainly doesn’t feel that way!
Galle is a large fishing town and we’ve enjoyed some of the best seafood in Sri Lanka both inside the city walls and with the sand between our toes on some of the surrounding beaches (most are a 15-minute taxi or tuk-tuk ride). It’s worth the cheap ride. The local food is superb and very reasonably priced.
And if you fancy a change from rice and curry, the best pizza is found in a beachside restaurant which sports its own wood-fired oven.
If you are after hard-core partying, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. But if you want to see a bit of laid-back life, while sipping a few cocktails in style, the beaches to the east of Galle offer the perfect locations.
Finally, there is a small handful of upmarket bars and restaurants in Galle which make for a fun evening should you tire of your hotel’s familiar surroundings.
We would never suggest going to Galle and doing nothing. There’s a bounty of other places in Sri Lanka for blissful idleness. Galle is about discovery and being inquisitive in the old fort. The new city, home to approx. 100,000 people, is modern and unremarkable. That said, the fish market along the seafront outside the old city walls is well worth a visit. We are always staggered at the variety on offer.
Inside the old city, there are intriguing museums, churches and landmarks. In fact, there is so much to do and see in the old fort, flip-flop rub is a serious danger. The splendid colonial architecture is the chief hallmark of Galle and there is no shortage of local books and information guides recounting fascinating stories from the past.
For us, probably the most extraordinary experience in Galle was seeing the law courts in full swing on weekdays. The municipal courts are still located on Magistrates Square. The scene – the square is buzzing with people – is a genuine part of local life and captivating in its very authenticity.
Galle is a city. There aren’t really any beaches or swimming areas in the immediate vicinity (although you will almost certainly see local children hurling themselves off the city ramparts into the blue sea below). The best long sandy beaches lie about 15 minutes by tuk-tuk to the south-east and getting the sand between your toes is an experience not to miss.
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