Visiting Galle Fort – Sri Lanka’s historical hipster

Galle Fort. This charming, historic and beautifully preserved colonial-era fortress is one of Sri Lanka’s prime attractions, and it’s just a 40-minute drive away from Eraeliya Villas & Gardens. No where else in Sri Lanka is there a fortress that showcases such a rich hybrid of colonial styles and where residents of multiple faiths, countries and backgrounds live peacefully as neighbours. Its cosmopolitan vibe feels distinctly European yet this living museum is infused with local life – listen for the tinkle of bells from the street hawkers, the laughter of schoolchildren from classrooms and the melodious call to prayer from the buzzing mosque. A wander along Galle Fort’s quiet streets, edged by cafes, restaurants and boutiques, reveals a host of architectural gems; magnificent villas hidden behind modest pillared façades, peeling ochre-coloured warehouses, charming churches and a clutch of historic hotels.

A little history

Dating back to the sixteenth century, it was the Portuguese that first discovered south coast Galle and built a small ‘Black Fort’ on the promontory upon which Galle Fort stands. The Dutch came next and significantly extended Galle Fort, adding many striking buildings, including the beautiful Groote Kerke (Dutch Reformed Church), and painstakingly constructing the thick ramparts and series of 14 granite and coral bastions you see today. They also provided a network of paved roads, some of which still cherish their Dutch trade names – Leyn Baan (Rope Walk Street), is one example, though many, such as Pedlar’s Street, were later Anglicised. The British were the last Europeans to arrive on Lankan soil, and remained until 1948. A few of their contributions include the clock tower, the slender lighthouse and an Anglican Church.

The fort on foot

The best way to experience Galle Fort is to explore it on foot. A good place to start is at the Amangalla, a 400-year- old hotel that started off life as the New Oriental Hotel – a favourite with P&O ferry passengers at a time when Galle’s harbour was the island’s premier port. Wander south from here along Church Street, dropping into Groote Kerk – a starkly adorned cruciform-shaped church dating to 1755 – peeking at Galle Fort’s Dickensian library and visiting the Anglican Church. Turn left onto Queen Street and wander the length of the Old Dutch Warehouses (they used to house spices though today they are home to a National Maritime Museum) to Law Court Square, shaded by ancient banyan trees. Just to the south of this bustling square, along Hospital Street, is a magnificently converted Dutch building, The Galle Dutch Hospital, which is a complex of restaurants, cafes and shops (mostly jewellers). The Aurora Bastion, just south of The Galle Dutch Hospital is where you can ascend the ramparts and wander clockwise around the fort, passing the lighthouse, a pretty stretch of beach, Flag Rock (famous for its kamikaze jumpers), and up onto the Star and Moon bastions. These town-facing bastions are the tallest in Galle Fort, and also offer good views into Galle’s international test cricket ground – commonly believed to be one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world. At sunset, locals head to the wider, grassy western bastions for a game of cricket or they simply hunker down under an umbrella to watch the sun descend into the ocean. Incidentally, late afternoon is the ideal time to start any walk around the fort.

Souvenir shopping

If you’re interested in shopping in Galle Fort, this old town’s narrow streets offer many surprises. Church Street and Pedlar’s Street have some interesting boutiques, including Stick No Bills for kitsch vintage posters, Barefoot for vibrant handloom products, Mimimango for gorgeous cotton and silk ladies wear and KK The Collection for crafts. Orchid House, on Hospital Street, is a good place to buy local teas and organic Lankan spices and Exotic Roots, on Lighthouse Street, for colourful arts and crafts. Also seek out Sithulvili on Leyn Baan Street for traditional handpainted art. The fort is home to many jewellers. Our favourites include Laksala on Hospital Street, near the lighthouse, and Crysolite on Church Street – both craft bespoke pieces using silver, gold and a genuine collection of precious stones, within days.

Drink and dine

There are some great places to eat in Galle Fort, including some healthy daytime cafes. Of these, Poonie’s Kitchen is our favourite. Located behind Mimimango, on Pedlar’s Street, this courtyard café serves up highly nutritious dishes including a colourful salad thali, a Thai curry soup and a superb carrot cake, along with refreshing juice concoctions (try their hibiscus juice). Pedlars Inn Café is another reliable lunch spot, and its sister outlet, Pedlar’s Inn Gelato serves up the best Italian ice creams in Sri Lanka. Other favourites include Crepe- ology, Fortaleza (also has a little bar), The Fort Printers (good for a gourmet dinner) and The Church Street Social at The Fort Bazaar. The lofty veranda of Amangalla is a prime spot for high tea.