Whether you’re in Sri Lanka for a few days or a few weeks, adding the UNESCO World Heritage City of Galle to your itinerary is a must. Full of European flavors, such as Portuguese and Dutch architecture, Italian Gelaterias, French Creperies, British schools, and cute boutiques, the Old City feels like stepping foot in an old European coastal town weirdly located on the southern tip of Sri Lanka! While small and entirely walkable, there are lots of great places to eat, shop and discover. Following three short, but sweet, trips to Galle, here’s my pick of the top 17 things to do in Galle Old Town, and nearby…
Galle Old Town Video Guide
17 Things To Do in Galle Old Town
1. Eat Lunch at Crepe-ology
Located next to the Mansion Museum, Crepe-ology is home to some of the tastiest crepes in Sri Lanka. While we all love a good Sri Lankan curry, it’s nice to mix things up when possible and treating yourself to lunch here would be top of my list of things to do in Galle!
Expect small, thin crepes layered with fresh fruit, powdered sugar, different flavours of ice-cream and chocolate sauce enjoyed in a very relaxed setting with colourful couches and bright decor.
2. Ice-cream at the Isle of Gelato
The weather is always hot and humid in Galle. While bearable, there’s no denying that any excuse to escape the unrelenting heat is a welcome one. Which is why when I heard about this amazing Gelato place in Galle, I made a beeline to find it within minutes of sliding out of my tuk-tuk, covered in sweat!
It felt like a cafe that had been taken right out of the digital nomad and Instaworthy paradise that is Canggu in Bali, with a fun sign, brightly coloured seats and walls and even an indoor swing! Along with your usual gelato flavours, there were a few interesting new ones I had never heard of (zesty orange with cardamon was my personal favorite), and which I highly recommend you trying out.
3. Walk around the old fort walls
Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1588 and later fortified by the Dutch in the 17th Century, is one of the main reasons Galle received its UNESCO world heritage status and is a top site for visitors to Galle. The towering fort walls surround the entire old town, protecting it from outside interests but also helping to preserve the old Dutch and Portuguese architecture which are what makes the town so interesting.
You can’t visit Galle without taking a walk on or under the old fort walls – mainly due to tot he fact that the only way to reach the old city is to walk or drive under or over these towering constructions. While much of Southern Sri Lanka was totally destroyed during the 2004 Tsunami, killing up to 40,000 people in Sri Lanka, it was these fort walls that protected Galle and the old city, saving it from devastation.
4. Check out Galle Lighthouse
The oldest light station in Sri Lanka, Galle lighthouse has long been one of the most important and most visited sites in Galle, if not Sri Lanka. The current lighthouse dates back to 1939, but there was another lighthouse in its place dating back in 1848, but the original was destroyed in a great fire in 1934. The lighthouse is still in use and has a prime location in the city, with a full view of the harbour and any ships that might be entering.
5. Happy Hour G&T at Galle Fort Hotel
You will still find, and feel, a certain British influence in Galle, with many of the schools named after famous towns and cities in the UK and with a distinctly British curriculum. The same goes for the hotels, with many having a British feel for them and a very large portion of the clients hail from the British Isles. It’s a weird feeling sitting outside a beautiful Colonial hotel, sipping in a pretty decent Gin and Tonic, as the waft of incense fills the air and a tuk-tuk winds its way down the narrow street in front of you. Could this really be Sri Lanka?!
6. Find the famous Dalawella Beach swing
Just 1 short 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from Galle lies some of the most beautiful stretched of coastline in Sri Lanka. While not as wild as the east coast, it’s here that you’ll find cute beach bars, palm tree lined beaches, perfect sets of waves and dreamy beach swings for that perfect Insta-shot!
7. Do a walking tour of Galle’s Monuments
For a place so small, there are a lot of important historical sites and monuments to visit. You can either do a self-guided walking tour with the help of Google, or you can hire a local guide to explain the importance of all the monuments and historical buildings as you walk around the city.
Some must-visit sites include; Galle Fort, the lighthouse, the clocktower, the Maritime Museum, Groote Kerk (an old Dutch church) and the Old Dutch Hospital.
8. Eat dinner in a spice warehouse at Fortazela
Our tour guide said this was by far his favourite restaurant in Galle Old Town and told us if any os were to return to Galle, we simply had to book into dinner in this beautiful restaurant. Serving up Sri Lankan cuisine with a Singaporean twist, it’s also known for its delicious cocktails and unique decor. Set in what was once an old spice warehouse, half the restaurant is outside in a roofless courtyard, where you can dine under the stars and the rest of the tables are wrapped around the coral walls under a sloping wooden roof.
I read one review about this restaurant from some local Sri Lankan’s that said their only complaint was that it was located in Galle instead of Colombo! If that’s the only issue…
9. Walk up to the old Clock Tower
Located high up on the fort walls close to one of main Galle Fort entrances, walking up to the famous clock tower should be one of the first things to do in Galle for any visitor.
Its a great place to find your bearings, and it has spectacular views of the newer part of the city, the cricket stadium mentioned below as well as views of the some of the most famous buildings within the old fort. The Clock Tower dates back to 1883, and is said to have been financed in full by the people of Galle living there at the time.
10. Watch a game of cricket
From any of the three main fort entrances, you have a bird’s eye view looking down at the impressive Galle Cricket Stadium. If there happens to be a game on while you’re in town, I highly encourage you to check it out. Even if there’s just some local kids or a team having a practice session, maybe they’ll let you join in for a round or two.
The stadium is fringed on both sides by the Indian Ocean and by Galle Fort on the third side, making it one of the most picturesque stadiums in the world! Built in 1876, the grounds were used as a race track before being converted into a cricket stadium in the early 1900’s.
11. Boutique shopping heaven
Galle is, surprisingly, shopping heaven. Unlike most other towns and cities in Sri Lanka where you seem to find the same selection of clothes and souvenirs, again and again, Galle is home to some higher end boutiques with beautiful silk scarves, chic shoe collections, and more pretty dresses than will ever fit in my small wardrobe!
There are lots of beautiful souvenir shops too, with handcrafted bags, household items and carved beach treasures – a heaven if you’re looking for small pieces to decorate a house by the sea. I especially loved the following stores within the city walls: Barefoot (there’s also one in Colombo which I wrote about here), Spa Ceylon (I loved their Sleep Intense Dream mist which I now spray on my pillow every night), KK Collection (for decorating your house with beaches items) and Mimimango – beautiful but expensive dresses. We all can dream!
12. Take a surf lesson in Unawatuna
Just a short bike ride or tuktuk from the old town lies one of Sri Lanka’s most loved backpacker hot spots. Home to funky beach bars, pizza huts in the sand, an endless loop of Reggae Music, a sprinkling of backpacker hostels and more surf schools than you can shake a stick at – welcome to Unawatuna.
A fun place to come for a morning or afternoon surf lesson, followed by lunch on the beach and maybe a few sneaky Lion beers. A world apart from Galle, but super fun none-the-less.
13. Watch the brave cliff divers at Flag Rock
Besides a rooftop bar with a cold cocktail or two, Flag Rock is the best place to watch the sunset in Galle Old Town. It also affords amazing views looking back at the old town and the lighthouse, as you watch the sun set into the ocean.
This is also where many talented locals come to show off their diving talents, although it’s dependent on both the tide and weather conditions. The first two times I visited Galle in 2016 and 2017, I saw the divers but this year (October 2018) they were nowhere to be seen. I’m not sure how dangerous it is, but when the tide is out the water level is extremely low so I would not recommend swimming here unless you’re with locals and really know what you’re doing!
14. Take a train ride along the coast
One of my favourite things about Galle was actually the train journey there. The train follows the coastline all the way from Colombo to Galle (about 3 hours) or if you just want a small taster, you can take the train from Galle to Dalawella Beach or onwards to Mirissa.
The train whizzes by beaches, beautiful stretches of coastline, small fishing villages, epic surf breaks, those famous men fishing on stilts in the water and if you’re feeling brave you can stand in the doorway admiring the view and doing as the locals do. Just be careful – as trains go in both directions and nobody wants you to lose an important limb!
15. Sunset drinks from Fort Dew Rooftop Restaurant
One of the best spots in town to enjoy one of Sri Lanka’s colourful sunsets, Fort Dew Restaurant rooftop bar serves local beers, wine, and cocktails and is also a great place to have some Sri Lankan rice and curry once the sun has fully set. Cheap and cheerful, and a lot less expensive than some of the other more classier (ahem snobbier) establishments to be found inside the Galle Old Town. Be sure to get there early to get seats with a view.
16. Admire the brightly painted fishing vessels
As previously mentioned, Galle and the Southern and Eastern shorelines of Sri Lanka were devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. You can even find Tsunami memorials on the main road from Galle to Colombo, where 1,000’s died in one spot when the second wave hit a moving train. Most fishing vessels were destroyed and all new ones had to be bought using donations from around the world.
You can see that almost all the names of the new boats are far from Sri Lankan, named after schools, GAA clubs and individuals in Ireland, the UK and around the world. it’s fun to take notice of these colorful vessels – you might even find one sponsored by a person you know!
17. Stay at Skinny Beach House
While there’s no shortage of fancy hotels and boutique hideaways in Galle itself, I recommend spending the day exploring the town before checking into somewhere a tiny bit further along the coast with direct beach access. As beautiful as Galle is, most of the hotels there are located right inside the town with little or no view to wake up to.
Nothing beats waking up to the sounds of the ocean, waves crashing against your outdoor deck rolling out of bed and into the enticing Indian Ocean. We booked into Skinny Beach House, a small but perfectly formed 2-bedroom beach house on Dalawella Beach, with its own plunge pool, chill out area and direct beach access. I’ve travelled far and wide and stayed in some pretty dreamy Airbnb’s, but this one is right up there with the best.
Being able to enjoy those epic Sri Lankan sunsets from the comfort of our outdoor deck and pool, or chilling on our upstairs balcony with a chilled glass of wine was unbeatable. We were able to pop into Galle for lunch in less than 15 minutes, and could be back again in seventh heaven just in time for sunset.
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