Heading to the South coast of Sri Lanka? Great choice – with a seemingly endless coastline, you’ll be swimming, surfing and sunbathing to your heart’s content. But it’s not all about the beaches – right on our doorstep we have a true cultural treasure of Sri Lanka – the mighty Galle Fort.
It’s one of Sri Lanka’s 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites (don’t forget to check out our post on all 8 sites!) and while most are in the north and centre, Galle Fort is the closest to The Rockstel Unawatuna (just 5km and a short 20 rupee bus ride away).
A Brief History Lesson
So what is Galle Fort? Who built it? And when? We don’t want to bore you with too much history but here’s the brief lowdown.
Firstly, the name – where does the word Galle come from? There is some disagreement over how the city got its name. “Gaala” in Sinhala means the place where cattle are herded together. This makes a lot of sense as Galle was already being used for trade by the time the Portuguese first arrived.
Another theory is that the word Galle is derived from the Portuguese word ‘Gallo’, which means rooster. Since they began building the fort in the 1500s, the Portuguese have used the rooster as a symbol of Galle. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a great excuse for a game: if you’re feeling competitive, challenge your mates to a game of “Find the Rooster”. It’s still the symbol of Galle and you’ll find pictures of them everywhere – city walls, statues, shop and signs among others.
And the fort itself? The current site of Galle Fort was used for many centuries for trade by the early Sinhala kings, trading with many other nations in Asia. The fort as we know it was begun by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, and was built into the structure we see today by the Dutch through the 1600s – most of the buildings you’ll see were built by them. It was then taken over by the British in the 1800s, they left most of the buildings untouched and remained until Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948.
The fort isn’t just about the walls. True, they are pretty amazing but there’s so much more for you to see.
But that’s where we’ll start. The first thing you’ll spot as you approach Galle Fort are the Walls. You probably already know that Galle was devasted by the 2004 tsunami. While thousands died in the city, the fort emerged largely unscathed, mostly thanks to these sturdy walls.
One of the best things about the walls is that there are plenty of spots for you to access them for a closer look. Exploring the walls gives you a whole new take on Galle Fort, the views are amazing. Look back into the fort and you’ll see cute cobbled alleys, colonial-era shops, even a mosque. Or maybe you’ll find yourself staring out to sea, watching the waves crash relentlessly against the fort walls, wondering which land you’d hit first if you jumped in a boat set sail (Somalia if you head west, Antarctica if you head south)
If you look south, you’ll see Jungle Beach and the Japanese Peace Pagoda (another of our favorite day trips). And if you find yourself in Galle Fort near the end of the day, don’t miss the sunset from the fort walls – we think it’s one of the best in Sri Lanka.
The first thing you’ll encounter are the Fort Gates. Seriously, these are some of the most impressive gates you’ll ever see, especially the main gate opposite the cricket ground. While you’re there, check out how thick the gates are – more than 20 metres! Just don’t get too mesmerised or you’ll be run over by a tuk-tuk!
Easily spotted from almost everywhere in the fort is the Clock Tower. It was constructed in 1883 and paid for through public subscriptions by the people of Galle, in recognition of Dr. P. D. Anthonisz. The clock itself was the sole gift of a grateful patient – he was obviously a pretty good doctor! 😉
As you walk into the fort from the Clock Tower, you’ll notice a pretty impressive church, it’s white walls gleaming in the hot sun. This is the Dutch Reformed Church. Originally built in the 1600s, the version you see today dates back to 1755, and it’s one of the oldest churches still in use in Sri Lanka. While you’re inside, don’t miss the gravestones built into the floor, and the original organ. It’s also the highest point within Galle Fort, 12 metres above sea level so the perfect spot for a church.
Heading east form the church, you’ll soon find the Maritime Archaeology Museum. There are a few interesting things about this. Firstly, you’ll notice it is built into the fort walls itself. Cool, right? Also, it’s next to the second gate of the city – not quite as big as the main gate but possibly more Instagram-friendly if that’s your thing, and always busy with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and tourists. Although the fort itself withstood the waves from the 2004 tsunami, they also had the unfortunate side effect of turning the fort into a goldfish bowl. Plenty of buildings were flooded but one of the worst hit was the museum – nearly half its exhibits sustained flood damage. There’s still plenty in there to make it worth a visit though, especially if you want to know more about the history of Galle.
A great example of an old colonial building is the Old Dutch Hospital. A hospital? That’s right, it was a hospital – built by the Dutch in the 17th century and later used by the British as a military barracks. You’ll soon spot that now is a boutique mall but if you’re not into shopping, don’t let that put you off visiting! It’s still in great condition and worth checking out.
Finally, we can’t miss out the Lighthouse. It’s not the original lighthouse (that was built in 1848 around 100 metres further along the walls but was destroyed by fire), this one was built in 1934 and is probably the most photographed building in the fort – if you need any proof that Sri Lankans love a selfie, here’s your proof. And if you’re here after dark, you’ll notice another cool thing: it still operates!
Swimming, Shopping, Eating and Drinking in Galle Fort
Admit it, that got your attention. But after an afternoon of exploring, we all want to relax, don’t we?
As you walk around the fort walls, you’ll spot a couple of small beaches, filled with young kids swimming and playing. Why not join them? Sightseeing in Galle Fort is usually hot work, this is the perfect place to cool off.
Into shopping? Don’t miss the wide range of shops in the fort. Souvenirs, clothing boutiques, handcrafts, local foods – Galle Fort has it all. Including a shop with an elephant tuk-tuk outside – true story! Check out the Old Dutch Hospital near the lighthouse. These days it’s hard to believe it was once a hospital. Now you can shop for high-end clothes and accessories. Or window shop if it’s a little out of your budget.
Feeling hungry or thirsty? There are plenty of places ready to swap your rupees for a tasty snack or a cool beverage. One place to recommend is Lucky Fort Cafe – they have plenty of great Sri Lankan and foreign dishes but the standout has to be the 10 curry feast. It might seem a bit pricey at 1500 rupees but it’s big enough for two and they don’t mind you sharing. If you’re new to Sri Lanka, it’s a great introduction to their amazing cuisine.
Remember Ramparts Green from the section above? While you’re there, check out the Mayura Cafe juice bar at the end nearest the gate – super tasty juices that cost as little as 60 rupees (and if you’ve ever wanted to try a chili donut, here’s your chance!)
If it’s a late afternoon beer you want, close to the Old Dutch Hospital you’ll find the Taphouse. It’s the perfect post to unwind and reflect on what an amazing place Galle Fort is over a frosty Lion Lager.
Galle Fort Guided Walking Tour
So you’ve read what we’ve had to say about sights and activities and you’re ready to hit Galle? We want you to make the most of your day so why not use our walking tour? Just 350 LKR and enjoy the history, culture, and landscapes with explanations by our team. It’s run occasionally by The Rockstel Unawatuna but if it doesn’t coincide with your schedule, the DIY version is here for your sightseeing pleasure. Also, the Lonely Planet Guide will help you to schedule your own walking tour.
Do you already know Galle Fort? We hope you´ve found this article interesting and definitely could help you to organise your day in Galle. And if you still feel like getting to know this amazing UNESCO site with your hostel buddies, look no further and ask the team about the next tour. You´ll find it as well in our weekly agenda at The Rockstel Unawatuna.
And as always, if you liked the post and you find it useful, share it with your people!
Aaron Davies is currently traveling for more than one year and you can find his adventures on his blog www.runningawayfromresponsibilities.com. He loves traveling, culture, history, sharing his experiences with other travelers and of course blogging and copywriting. He was one of our long stay guests and fell in love with Galle so he helped us out to organise the Galle Walking Tour and has just written for us this great and highly didactic post.
Many thanks Aaron!
Remember that if you feel like sharing your travel experiences you can be your own blogger and get some visibility for your travel blog or social media profiles 🙂 Just drop a message to email@example.com. We have a place for you so you can rock it online 😉
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