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Year after year, Dubai residents make a jaunt to Sri Lanka – especially for long weekends – considering that flights to its capital take under five hours. They feast on hoppers and kottu roti in Colombo, pay homage to the religious sites in Kandy, visit the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala, go on safari at Yala National Park, and hike to the summit of Adam’s Peak. And yet they entirely bypass a city that both hosts a world-famous literary festival and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here, Savoir Flair introduces you to Galle, which was built by the Portuguese in the 1500s, fortified by the Dutch in the 1600s, colonized by the British in the 1700s, and restored by the Sri Lankans after (finally) gaining independence in 1947. It is as cosmopolitan as it is historic, and we’re making a case for why no trip to the teardrop-shaped island is complete without a pit stop in this coastal city.
Luxury and colonial-era vibes collide at Amangalla, a retreat ideally located within the storied walls of the 400-year-old Galle Fort. Every inch of this property has a secret to tell; it served as the New Oriental Hotel for over 100 years during the heyday of steamship travel. Guests now enjoy modern creature comforts alongside nostalgic accents, a pool shaded by lush foliage, Ayurvedic spa treatments, and immeasurable charm. The signature culinary offering here is the afternoon tea served on the verandah, and one not to be missed (even if you’re not a hotel guest).
For a stay easier on the wallet, the nearby Fort Bazaar is the one to beat. Housed within a building that was a merchant’s home dating back to the 1800s, this recently opened boutique hotel features 18 stylish rooms and suites, a spa, eclectic restaurant Church Street Social, an inviting library, and a courtyard worth photographing from every angle.
The city is best explored on foot, hands down. For one, most of the sightseeing can be done within the Galle Fort vicinity. Start at Galle Clock Tower which, despite being built in 1883, still accurately tells time. The atmospheric Dutch Reformed Church was constructed in 1752, and its floor (paved with stone-carved gravestones from old Dutch cemeteries) alone makes it worth a visit. Another religious site that frequently draws tourists is Meeran Mosque due to its rather unusual facade; it looks more like a cathedral with Baroque detailing as a result of Dutch influences.
The mosque faces Galle Lighthouse, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Still operational, it towers at 87 feet in height and stands at Point Utrecht Bastion for undisturbed views across the seascape. Flag Rock, located at the southernmost end of the fort, is another point you’ll want to visit – camera in tow, of course. The Dutch used it to warn approaching ships of the dangerous rocks in the water, most of which are not visible, from the bastion atop Flag Rock – hence its name. Today, daredevil locals leap into the water without a care in the world.
There are countless such anecdotes – both historical and hilarious – that surround the city of Galle, and former advertising executive Shanjei of Galle Fort Walks is just the man to reveal them. He has personality to spare and earns rave reviews from his clients, so book well in advance to enjoy a walking tour like no other.
You’ll want to kick off your walk about town with a hearty breakfast and strong coffee – and Pedlar’s Inn Café is the place to do it. Occupying the entire ground floor of the former British post office, this casual eatery offers a great spot in which to people-watch in the heart of the city’s ramparts. It also happens to serve the best brownies in town. Healthy and wholesome fare, meanwhile, awaits at the artsy Poonie’s Kitchen.
Come midday, we recommend dining at a secret that few are privy to: Spoon’s. There’s a grand total of four tables at this truly authentic restaurant, and the (very reasonably priced) curries are cooked to perfection. You may need some ice cream to put the fire on your palate out – Sri Lankan food can feel a bit too spicy for some people – and both Dairy King and Isle of Gelato are great contenders for the job.
Dinner in the dimly lit courtyard of Fortaleza Restaurant & Bar gets our vote for its fresh ingredients, diverse menu, and rustic ambience. Most of the dishes here are Western (think: fajitas, burgers, tuna tartare, and basil-pesto spaghetti) but prepared with hints of Asian flavors, making for an always crowd-pleasing selection. A word to the wise: check the specials board before you place your order.
The best thing about shopping in Galle is just how relaxed the pace is. Or is it how there’s something to suit every budget? Or maybe even the sheer number of trendy boutiques just waiting to be discovered? Sri Lanka is affectionately known as “Ratna Dweepa” (or Gem Island) so start here – Ibrahim Jewellers and Lihiniya Gems to be exact. If you’re a tea-drinker, you’re in luck because the country is renowned for its sweeping tea plantations. Withered Leaves at shopping and dining precinct Dutch Hospital Galle stocks every type of brew imaginable, and the staff will happily help you pick the right one.
Barefoot is a great choice for table linen, tote bags, jewelry, and knick-knacks – all equally colorful and affordable – while the beloved Stick No Bills is the ultimate destination for retro-inspired postcards and travel posters. If you’re willing to splurge a little, there’s also a handful of upscale concept stores selling gorgeous art, home accents, and clothing: Exotic Roots, The Three by TPV, and KK The Collection. Everything is meticulously crafted by local artisans, so take the time to leisurely browse their collections.
The Suite Life
Spa Ceylon products and spa treatments are known and loved the world over – Australia, Singapore, and Turkey included – so a visit to its heritage-themed outpost on Lighthouse Street is practically obligatory.
This luxury, award-winning Ayurvedic spa combines the romance of Ceylon – the British colonial name for Sri Lanka – with all-natural products, ancient healing techniques, and modern dermatological science. Over 25 signature treatments ranging from purifying to calming and de-stressing rituals reside on the spa menu here, but the ‘Royal Body Ritual’ is particularly decadent. An extended full-body massage is accented with a soothing herbal compress, a relaxing foot bath, an exfoliating back scrub, and even a tranquility forehead massage, making it the definitive choice if top-to-toe pampering is what you’re after.
One Fine Day
Whale-watching off the coast in Mirissa, surfing in Weligama, traditional mask-making in Ambalangoda, touring a tea plantation in Tittagalla – it’s all easily accessible from Galle, taking under an hour by car and arranged by most hotels and tour companies. However, the majority of tourists end up lazing around on Unawatuna Beach, which we recommend skipping due to the mass of hotels, cafés, and restaurants scrunched up together on the shore.
Head to Dalawella Beach, which takes only 20 minutes by taxi, instead – it’s cleaner, less crowded, safe for swimming, and the ideal place to sip on coconut water while taking in the sunset. It’s also here that a bucket-list staple awaits: the Insta-famous rope swing on the beachfront at Dream Cabana guesthouse. This one’s a bit of an upper-body workout, but more than worth it for the resulting image!