Best preserved example of Portuguese fortified city in Asia
Our next move in Sri Lanka after visiting its fascinating capital city, Colombo, (and still our base for the next days); we take the advantage of the small distances in the country for a day trip to one of the most historical cities, Galle. First taken by the Portuguese as their colony in 1502, they built its fort which until today it remains as the most complete, largest and best preserved example in the whole of Asia, although greatly revamped and enlarged when the Dutch took over.
It was until 1640 that the Portuguese surrendered to the Dutch East India Company who then built pretty much the proper city and not just a military post as was before. From 1796 the city and the country itself would pass onto the hands of the last colony, the British. Over the centuries of 3 different colonial periods, the city grew in prosperity, being the largest port city in Sri Lanka, something that never changed since at least 1400 BC with the trade route, with Sri Lanka the largest export of cinnamon.
Being in Galle is transporting yourself to the past. While we are much more used to visiting former Spanish colonial cities in Central/South America and already experienced few times that feeling, in Asia is somewhat different. More exotic if I have to find a word for it. And it does still feel the same even though we’ve been to many beautiful colonial cities in this part of the world. The more similar to Galle could be Goa, Macau, Batavia (the old town of Jakarta), Jogjakarta, Surabaya or Malacca to name some former Portuguese and Dutch. British are many more, but Galle has its uniqueness in having retained majority of the Portuguese and Dutch constructions, urban plan and flair.
Even though on 26th of December 2004, date we do still have the images of the terrible tsunami that devastated this area of Asia/Southeast Asia with Galle great hit, today the destruction is hardly visible with majority of the buildings reconstructed and restored; and strengthened for future generations.
The city is small and very compact, with the entire historic area within the walls. Visiting is easy and simple, and with half a day you are guaranteed to see and enjoy everything. First a walk on top of the walls from the main gate at the northern end towards the Meera Mosque at the very south, and then off the walls through the streets. Do not overestimate more time than what you really need in here, this tends to be a mistake many tourists do. Instead, if your base is Colombo, remain there as you will get the chance to enjoy more of that great city. After all, it is a quick train journey from Colombo to Galle with good timings in each direction.
For more information about Galle check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Sri Lanka’s currency is the Rupee. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Galle
- Galle Fort/Old Town An UNESCO World Heritage Site, was first built by the Portuguese in 1588 then fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century completely surrounded by walls and bastions with the old city inside it. This is the historic core of the colonial city of Galle where beautiful buildings from the Portuguese, Dutch and British combine in perfect harmony making it the solely city in the country from colonial times preserved in that great level.
-Fortifications Encircling the more or less rectangular peninsula of the old town itself, consisting of walls, bastions and ramparts.
-Cannon Rock At the southwestern tip is the perfect sport to see the ocean and great sunsets.
-Meera Mosque At the southern side of the fort along Rampart Street, built in 1904.
-Lighthouse Built in 1939 in replacement of the older one from 1848 that burnt down in 1934, it is still the place of Sri Lanka’s oldest light station. Located at the southeastern tip of the peninsula.
-Old Dutch Hospital By the eastern side of the fort overlooking the sea, one of the oldest original Dutch buildings, recently converted into a shopping and dining place.
-National Maritime Museum North from the Old Hospital has to be rebuilt in great scale after the 26th of December 2004 tsunami that devastated the city.
-All Saints Church Anglican church consecrated in 1871, built in the grounds of the former Court House from 1780 in Victorian Gothic revival style. Across the road from the west side of the Maritime Museum.
-Groote Kerk Built in 1755 in Doric style by the Dutch it is the oldest Protestant church still in use in the country. Built at the highest point of Galle Fort area, a street ahead north of the All Saints Church.
-Amangalla Hotel A beautiful Dutch colonial hotel across the road from the Groote Kerk. It was known as the New Oriental Hotel until 2005.
-National Museum Housed in the oldest building from the Dutch era remaining, from 1656, what was back then the commissariat store for the Dutch garrison at the fort. Located in the same complex and grounds of the Amangalla Hotel.
-The Moon Bastion At the very north of the Galle Fort is one of the largest and best preserved
-Clock Tower Overlooking the central Moon Bastion on the site of the former guard room, was built in 1883.
-North Gate There are 2 gates in the Galle Fort, this being the main and most important, opening to the main street that runs through to the south end by the sea.
- North of Galle Fort This area is outside of the fortified old town, and although it’s the newest part of the city, there are few colonial sights in place nearby.
-Train and bus stations Perfectly located in the middle between Galle Fort and the new town outside of the walls.
-Dharmapala Park By the head end of the train station. Nice small park with the City Hall at one of the sides.
-Sri Meenadchi Sundareswarar Indian Temple Just behind the City Hall and Dharmapala Park.
-St Mary’s Church West of the train station.
-Sacred Heart Convent From 1896, meters west from St Mary’s Church.
The chances that you are getting to Galle from Colombo are almost 100% guaranteed. It is little over 100 kilometres distance between each other making it one of the easiest tourists spots in the country with very easy and quick access from the Capital. Frequent trains and buses from Colombo head south along the coast to Galle, where both the railway and bus stations are right by the north of the Galle Fort, few meters away from the main entrance gate.
From our experience to/from, check this comment. We took the early morning train to get to Galle, the is only LKR 180 for 3rd class and you get your tickets at counter number 4 of Colombo Fort Railway station before the train departure. It is not possible to pre-book your tickets, so this is first come first serve, but the chances for getting a seat from Colombo are very limited, with seats becoming available towards half of the journey in. The train journey is little over hour and a half. For the train times, check the official website here.
As for the return journey, we decided to take the bus instead. These depart frequently from the bus station next door to the train station. You have 2 options, the slower one stopping everywhere along the conventional road, or the nice and comfy air-con buses that take the highway, for a cost of LKR 390, and head towards Colombo Kaduwela Bus Terminal, at the east of the city. From the bus terminal you can take one of the many local buses to your final destination for LKR 28. Ask the local people and bus drivers, they will be ready to help you find the right bus.
Within Galle there is absolutely no need for taking any public transportation. There are only rickshaws within the Galle Fort and everything is very near each other with almost no distances in between. Walking is also the nicest way discover the city and enjoy its many colonial treasures.
Galle has a very decent selection of hotels of any kind, from top luxurious to more modest and everything in between. Not as large as Colombo of course, but great enough to anyone’s need. However, I cannot recommend any place here in this city since our base was Colombo from where we came as a day trip and therefore, I will be commenting on our experience in that city instead. For a full guide of Colombo and the 3 hotels we stayed there, check the travel guide here.
Colombo, not only is the largest city in the country, it is also a very important tourist place, entry door to almost 100% of the visitors to Sri Lanka. The amount of hotels is endless! Of every kind, every level of luxury and comfort, and range from low budget to some of the top hotels in the world. Getting a great deal is not too hard, but prices can vary greatly depending what you choose.
Historic and famous hotels such as the unique Galle Face can easily be out of anyone’s hands unless you are looking for a top luxury experience. Ever since its construction has been the number 1 hotel for the worldwide Royalties, presidents, politicians, artists and general high classes of the society. But this is not the only one. There are dozens that fall into this class, not only in the city but across the country.
For a great location, try to stay near the Fort Area which is the historical old town, or immediately out in the Pettah Area. Both are great as you will be walking distance to almost every sight of the city, and also near the bus and train stations from where to get your transport to Galle.