The sea breeze can calm and refresh you, like none other. A feeling that strongly schlepped, as our car approached, Galle, the Southern Province of Sri Lanka with a spectacular coastline on one side, and a Dutch city, on the other. Despite the sun shining, it was pleasantly comfortable to travel along with the fragrant sea breeze. However, the magic unfolded, as soon as, the driver stopped near the charming Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century. It was the first time I had set foot on Galle, a citified ensemble illustrating the multi-ethnic culture. With European architecture strung out on one side of the street and South Asian traditions lounging on the other, Galle’s reformed heritage was waiting to be explored. From the moment I entered this historical city, I knew it’s a must-see in Sri Lanka. Here, have a look at my comprehensive list of best things to do in Galle, the Dutch Ceylon.
Photo Raid the Galle Fort
The entire Galle Fort area is a loop of fantastic activities. But when I first set my foot on the Galle soil, I was welcomed by the sighting of locals indulging in Cricket, the national sport (rather religion) of Sri Lanka. They say that the Galle International Cricket Ground is one of the most quaint cricket grounds in the world. So while you are in Galle, do take a look at the Cricket pitch from the Fort rampart or the clock tower. Which, brings me to the main attraction of this area, the Galle Fort itself. The Galle Fort is a lively and exciting UNESCO World Heritage site worth visiting. It was built by the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century and strengthened by the Dutch in the mid-sixteenth century. However, even today, it retains its archaeological lustre.
This iconic landmark is also known as the Dutch Fort as many Nederlanders still own properties inside the fort. Together with the Sri Lankan government, the Dutch plan on converting the Galle Fort into one of the present-day wonders of the world. When you first begin to explore this fort of pristine beauty, you will cross a trail of life-size statues of uniformed soldiers that bring history to life. Follow the ramparts and you will hear many untold stories about the Fort’s survival history. My favourite thing to do in this Fort was to walk along the primaeval walls and to watch the panorama sky illustrating a bright orange sunset, submerging in the sea in the evening. Be on the lookout for the cliff jumpers who defy danger each evening by tombstoning to the ocean extending underneath.
Applaud All Saints Anglican Church
The All Saints’ Anglican Church, on the Church Road in Galle, is hard to overlook, given its Gothic style magnanimity. As you get closer, you will notice that this Church of Ceylon is braced by stone columns and intricately carved, masonry arches, in timber. Walk past the walls drenching in lime mortar, and you will see a radiant Victorian architecture, following a basilican plan, with its enclosure, stained-glass windows, and carvings, all framed in Burmese teak. The Anglican Church was entrenched, in the late 17th-century after James Chapman was appointed, as its 1st Bishop. With subtle white-washed interiors, this Church takes you back to one of those European peace churches where pacifism is the only ideology practised.
Unveil the Medicinal History of the Clock Tower
The Galle Clock Tower is perhaps the first thing you notice when you enter the Fort. Although do not rely on the time, it displays, as the clock is no more functional. Nonetheless, this 18th-century historic landmark, looking across the Moon Bastion, is also known as the Anthonisz Memorial Clock Tower. For it’s dedicated to Dr Anthonisz, who was a notable doctor, a colonial surgeon and a spokesperson of the Legislative Council. The inscription plate, of the clock tower, reads, “This tower was erected by public subscription to the perpetual-memory of Peter Daniel Anthonisz (born in Galle) in the testimony of his skill and benevolence in relieving human suffering. MDCCCLXXXIII.” One amazing fact about this tall, four-story monument is that it was publicly financed, yet the clock it features was a presented by Mudaliyar Rajapakse, a thankful patient, who was indebted by Dr Anthonisz’ nursing.
Climb the Flag Rock
Yet another fascinating place to observe in the Galle Fort area is the Flag Rock. You may wonder, what’s so special about a rock? So let me tell you that the giant Flag Rock, was once a Portuguese fortification at the southernmost end of the Fort. Back in those days, the incoming ships were signalled, from upon this rock. However, the Flag Rock got its name, only after, the Dutch hoisted their flag here in the early seventeenth century. In recent times, Flag Rock is a picturesque sunset site, a point of interest for cliff jumpers and also, a selling point for local street vendors. Climb the rock to get spectacular views of the close by bastions, Laccadive sea, and the Lighthouse.
Visit Galle Fort Lighthouse
Shortly after exploring the Galle Fort, I walked straight on the Rampart Street until I reached Galle Lighthouse, Sri Lanka’s oldest, 18th-century, aid for the maritime pilots. This 80ft UNESCO World Heritage Site was built, after, the original 330ft British Lighthouse was destroyed in a fire. The original Lighthouse was fitted with a weight-driven machine and a mercury glass prism lens to reduce friction. This current site, Pointe de Galle Light, is auto operated and is within the premises of the Galle Fort. It is, however, maintained by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Located strategically, this white Lighthouse is from where you can get a full view of any ship crossing the threshold of Galle Harbour. Geoffrey Bawa, Asia’s most influential architect who is known to have transformed the semblance of South-East Asia, has designed this Lighthouse. While I was here, I could see that locals and tourists turn up to this prime spot to soak in the spectacular views of the Indian Ocean, fly kites or simply enjoy a picnic.
Groote Kerk or Dutch Reformed Church
While walking around the Galle Fort area, I also, stopped by the Groote Kerk, the Dutch Reformed Church near the Fort entrance. It was amazing to pay a visit to this oldest protestant church of Sri Lanka, built in the seventeenth century. Not because of its captivating Doric style architecture, but because, its built 39ft above sea level, that being the highest point of the Galle Fort. This site was, in fact, a Portuguese Capuchin Convent earlier. In 1755, Lord of Spanbroek, Commandeur of Galle, donated money to build the church to get his daughter baptised. She was baptised on August 24th of 1755. Later on, Brits made a few changes to the church like installing a stained glass window and adding a communion rail. Although what makes this church truly awesome to gaze at, is its unique double scroll moulding. The central part of the church is separated, by two arches, and the interiors stand out with its hexagonal podium and star-studded ceiling. The triangular upper part of a wall, at the end of the ridged roofs, is finished off with three finials. All in all, quite a beauty!
Tour The Meeran Mosque
While I was at the Lighthouse, I noticed an unusual whitewashed building with a dash of Islamic detailing. This all-embracing architectural surprise was none other than the century-old Meeran Mosque. Even though I didn’t get a chance, to explore the Mosque from within, I was told, its facade bears the same design as that of a Portuguese/Dutch cathedral. With Galle Fort in the foreground, and a stunning landscape stretching in the backdrop, this elevated 19th-century Mosque stands out like a beacon facing Mecca. Built by Ahamed Haji Ismail, a devoted wealthy Muslim, Meeran Mosque does not abstain a woman’s visit to a confined prayer room. At Meeran, female visitors are allowed to explore the main areas as a touring display. Their prayer area, however, is in a separate building.
From within, the Mosque features a niche in the wall, an exquisitely sculpted Mihrab, decorated with domes and captivating Italian flooring. The elegantly luxurious high ceiling opens up the passageways and throws a spotlight on the chandeliers, and the embedded motifs of doors and windows. Wherein, the sculpted arch marks the direction to pray. Meeran Mosque also has a well-manicured lawn for the worshippers to relax and converse. Just make sure to wear appropriate clothing while visiting this beautiful Mosque.
Old Dutch Hospital
While touring the Galle Fort Area, you will also come across one of the oldest Sri Lankan heritage buildings, the Old Galle Dutch Hospital. This 17th-century building dates back to the Dutch colonial era and is now a shopping and a dining neighbourhood. Although back in the time, it was established as a hospital to cater to the health of the Dutch East India Company officers and staff. Retaining its original Dutch colonial architecture, this striking white-washed building portrays granite paved floors, thick walls, massive teak beams, wooden staircase and extended verandas on the upper floors. The Old Dutch Hospital also served as Galle Town Hall for a short period, post, Sri Lanka’s independence stint.
Saunter Around Galle Fort Bastions
The Galle Fort area has many Bastions including the Sun, the Moon, the Star, the Zwart, the Akersloot, the Aurora, the Neptune, the Triton, the Point Utrecht, the Clippenberg, the Flagrock, the Aeolus, the Fishmark and the Commandment Bastion. Each of these Bastions is marked on Galle Fort’s map and has a unique history to tell.
Last but not least, a 5-minute walk from Galle Fort will take you to one of the most quirky Buddhist building, the Sri Sudharmalaya Buddhist Temple. Built-in the shape of a gigantic belfry, this temple houses a large 18th-century reclining Buddha, along with, a mini stupa. When I questioned my guide about the architectural uniqueness, he said that perhaps, this place was once a church. Irrespective of the architectural controversy, this whitewashed complex makes a perfect place to gain peace or to do Yoga.
If you love shopping, then there are numerous gem stores, boutiques, and art galleries flecked throughout Galle Fort. Dropping by these shops also gives you a chance to interact and engage with the locals who have many fascinating stories to tell. Other times, walking along the cobblestone streets will give you ample of opportunities, to photograph beautiful, colonial houses that have stood here for generations. When tired, take a break and savour the Lankan fruits from the local market situated right outside the Galle Fort. Make sure to taste the delicious Pineapple and Mangosteen.
Where to stay in Galle? Even though there are a lot of lovely hotels in the vicinity, I chose to stay at Fairway Sunset which offers phenomenal sea views from the room. Click the link to read my entire review.
P.S. I visited Galle as a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism Board, however, the views are my own.