Compact, largely traffic free and a wonderful place for an idle wander amongst old villas, churches and colonial mansions, Galle Fort on the Bay of Galle is still encircled by its original Dutch-era walls and bastions, with paths along the top of many of the ramparts offering a great introductory overview of the old town.
Start at the Main Gate, created by the British in 1873 to allow vehicles to pass in and out of the fort more easily (previously, the only access to the fort was via the cramped Old Gate). The walls either side of Main Gate are the only section of the old town defences facing the land rather than overlooking the sea and consequently the most heavily fortified, with the imposing Sun and Moon bastions flanking the Main Gate and looming high above the Galle international cricket ground below.
Go through the gate and turn left at the roundabout along Church Street, home to most of the town’s major landmarks. Huge tropical trees shade the northern section of the street, where you’ll find the lovely colonial building now housing the small and unexciting National Museum, Galle and (next door) the sublime (and sublimely expensive) Amangalla hotel, occupying the grandiose mansion originally built for the Dutch governor in 1684. A few steps beyond, the small Dutch Reformed Church is one of the loveliest colonial buildings on the island, pretty as a doll’s house on the outside and with a marvellously well-preserved interior full of period character.
Turn left a few steps past the church down Queen Street. The large building on the corner is the so-called Queen’s House of 1683, former seat of the local government. Flanking the left side of the street is the Great Warehouse, a long ochre-coloured barn of a building complete with black shutters and gabled roof. Originally used to warehouse ships’ provisions, it now provides a home for the town’s deathly dull Maritime Archaeology Museum.
Built right through the middle of the Great Warehouse is the small and rather murky Old Gate, the only entrance into fort until Main Gate was completed in 1873. The fort-facing side of the gateway sports the date 1669 and the logo of the VOC (the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or Dutch East India Company). The photogenically mossy town-facing side bears the date 1668 and a British coat of arms (“Dieu et mon droit”) dated 1796, the year the British acquired Sri Lanka from its former Dutch masters.
Follow Queen’s Street as it curves rightwards around Court Square, shaded with magnificent trees and surrounded by a couple of local courthouses and (around the top of Leyn Baan Street) the offices of assorted lawyers, their services advertised on old-fashioned hand-painted black-and-white signs affixed to the walls outside.
Continue on down Hospital Street, hemmed in behind another stretch of well-preserved ramparts and home to the old Galle Dutch Hospital, now restored and reopened as an upmarket shopping and restaurant complex, with sweeping views from the top floor.
Hospital Street ends at Point Utrecht Bastion, topped by a tall white lighthouse and with the large, florid and equally white Meeran Jumma Mosque standing opposite, looking much more like a European Baroque church than a South Asian mosque.
From here you can walk along the top of the ramparts all the way back to Main Gate. A short distance further along, the southwestern corner of the fort is marked by the imposing Flag Bastion, famous for the local lunatics – or “fort jumpers” as they’re known – who dive off it into the tiny sliver of water below in the hope of a tip.
From here the bastions turn north, offering sweeping views over the old buildings of the fort, with the stumpy spire of All Saints’ Church rising out an endless jumble of irregular red-tiled roofs. It’s also a fine spot to watch the sun go down into the waters of the Indian Ocean, and usually busy with promenading locals towards dusk.
Continuing north although the ramparts, passing in turn the Triton, Neptune, Clippenberg, and Aeolus bastions before reaching Star Bastion, at the northwest corner of the ramparts, from where it just a few minutes more back along the top of the bastions to Main Gate, with bird’s-eye views over the cricket ground and new town below.
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