Galle: Attractions – Things to Do – Hotels
Standing majestically against an azure sea the old Dutch Fort is showpiece of Galle today.
Built by the Dutch in 1666 to protect their lucrative spice trade its glory days are long gone but it still enchants the visitor with a mellow, elegant charm. Its quaint cobblestone streets, lined with numerous old building now house swank boutiques, restaurants, and hotels gently reminding us of a glorious by-gone era.
Soak in the Sun
There are many excellent beaches close to Galle. The closest and most famous of these are Unawatuna Beach and Jungle Beach which are about 6 km south of Galle Fort. Once pristine coconut palm lined beaches fronting a turquoise ocean they are now somewhat commercialized.
Hotels in Galle range from basic home-stays, to converted historic Dutch villas, to some of the most exclusive hotels in Asia.
Amangalla Hotel - (5 star) Once the residence of Dutch governor and later used by the British Raj, it was in its heyday one of the finest hotels in the British Empire. Recently renovated the hotel is exclusive and expensive. Located inside the Galle Fort it is an experience.
Lighthouse Hotel - (4.5 star) Built on a bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean this distinctive beach-front hotel is a short distance from Galle town. It offers two swimming pools, a lovely terrace overlooking the sea, excellent food, service and prices.
Cantaloupe Levels - (4.5 star) Located near Unawatuna beach, a short distance from Galle, this luxury boutique hotel offers fantastic vistas of the sea and surrounding country. The staff are friendly and the food excellent. An excellent beach is a short walk away.
Fortress Hotel - (4.5 star) Located on the beach about 17 km from Galle, this boutique hotel with Dutch style colonnaded architecture blends colonial and local motifs to create an interesting ambiance. Most rooms have private balconies or courtyards. The food, service and staff are excellent.
The Dutch House - (4.5 star) Tastefully decorated with antic furniture and modern art this converted old Dutch house is located on a small hill about 15 minutes from the Galle. Breakfast is served on the veranda adding to the charm of the place. (The Sri Lankan breakfast is delicious).
Niyagama House - (5 star) Located on a tea plantation about 20 minutes away from Galle, this small 7 room accommodation has fantastic views from every room. This "Yoga Hideaway" with yoga, meditation classes and traditional ayurvedic massages is a tranquil place to pamper yourself.
Deco On 44 - (4 star) Located in the heart of the fort this small boutique hotel is housed in a 1930s, art deco building once the home of a prosperous gem merchant. Its seven rooms and furnished in period furniture. The food, service and its central location are prefect.
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A leisurely walk through the quaint colonial Galle Fort is the highlight of any visit to the area. Journey along its narrow cobbled-stone streets. Admire its recently restored colonial architecture dating back as far as the 15th century. See old cars and other knick-knacks. Visit the numerous cafés, restaurants, museums and shops. The best times are early morning and late afternoon.
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Admire the View
With the ocean on three sides a walk along the ramparts of the Fort is exhilarating. Explore the numerous bastions once blistering with 109 cannons, sentry posts, Lighthouse, Clock Tower and "Dungeon". In the evenings is when the locals come out to walk and play on the ramparts. The best time to walk on the ramparts is early morning or late afternoon. The sunset is
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The Galle Fort is sprinkled with a few small quaint museums housed in historic building from Galle's colonial past. The exhibited are rather basic but quirky and worth a browse to get a way from the hot sun.
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The entrance to this sea turtle farm and hatchery is unassuming and very basic by western standards but once inside you can see the effort of these volunteers to save and protect these vulnerable sea creatures. The guide is knowledgeable and friendly.
Ride a Wave
The waves around the beaches in Galle are most suitable for beginners to intermediate level surfers. Closenburg also know an Dewata beach is the the nearest. Other beaches close-by are Hikkaduwa , Unawatuna, Merissa and Weligama. The best seasons for surfing are between November and March.
Observe & Taste Real Tea
While the area around Galle is not suitable for growing tea; there is a tea and rubber plantation, called Handunugoda Tea Estate, about 20kms away (40 min) which offers an interesting "tea experience". Walk through the tea plantation and watch tea-pluckers picking the finest tea leaves, and then visit the factory where it is produced and even taste the various types of teas available. The plantation also has rubber and cinnamon. You can observe these trees being harvested too. Remember, it was because of the lucrative cinnamon trade that the Dutch built Galle Fort.
Amangalla Hotel Sip Some Tea Like the Raj
Just recently renovated after years of neglect this imposing three-story building was originally built for the Dutch governor in 1684. In 1865 the British converted it into a barracks and later into the famous New Oriental Hotel. In its heyday this hotel was one of the finest in Asia and a favourite stopover amongst the British Raj on their way to and from countries of the Orient.
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Groote Kerk Examine Old Gravestones
The Groote Kerk or Great Church was built in 1755. It is of a cross-shaped cruciform design with Doric (Greek) pillars. The church has a beautiful wooden hexagonal pulpit and baptismal stand. The floor and walls contain the tombstones of many European colonist who died so far away from their native lands. The garden outside the church also has numerous Dutch and British tombstones.
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Anglican Church A Touch of Home
The church was built in 1871 in a Victorian Gothic revival style with modifications to cater for the local climate. The pews are of teak and embossed with the Star of David. Other woodwork uses teak and other fine woods. Stout walls support the structure and interesting stained glass windows grace its white-washed walls. The building is in need of restoration.
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Spice Warehouse For the Riches of the Orient
Built in 1671 this large two-story building was used to store spices and other commodities for shipment back to Holland. The building extends a substantial distance alone the inside of the eastern rampart of the fort and is part of the rampart itself. The main entrance to the fort during the Dutch period was through the Main Gate in the middle of this building.
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Meeran Jumma Mosque Is It a Mosque?
The mosque has an almost Portuguese baroque style and was built in 1904. The reason for this definitely "un-Muslim" design is uncertain. The only obvious exterior indications that it is a mosque are the miniature minarets and Arabic writing on the top facade on either side of the clock.
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Galle Fort Old Gate (Inside)
The Main Gate, the only exit out of old the Fort, bisecting the lower level of Old Dutch Spice Warehouse into two sections. Installed above the entrance on the inside wall is the coat of arms of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) with a cock mounted on the top. It is dated 1669.
Galle Fort Old Gate (Outside)
The main entry to the fort was originally via a single entrance protected by huge solid timber doors, a causeway and drawbridge. Above this entrance, today, is the Coat of Arms of Great Britain, mounted sometime after 1796 when the British evicted the Dutch from the fort. The original Dutch keystone dated 1668 can still be seen below the British coat of arms.
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Peace Pagoda Meditate & Contemplate
Built on a hill a short distance from Galle, it is a beautifully serene place with a breathtaking view of the sea and the Galle Fort in the distance. It has a lovely golden Buddha statue and a tsunami memorial. This is a religious site so you need to dress appropriately — cover your legs and shoulders. The sunset from this location is breathtaking.
Go on a Safari
The Sinharaja Forest is tropical rainforest has trails that take you deep into the forest past rivers, waterfalls and a diversity of wildlife. If you are lucky you may see a leopard. The best time to visit the forest is between December and April or August and September. Be on the lookout for leeches that will love to attach themselves to you so dress in long trousers and covered shoes. A guide is mandatory so make sure he can speak your language.
Shop Till You Drop
Galle Fort, because of its compact size, is an ideal place to hunt for local curios. A wide variety of Jewellery, woodwork, lace-work, textiles, antics and quirky knick-knacks are available. The Galle Fort is rapidly becoming a tourist haven. This means that prices are slowly but surely going up. The quality of the merchandise is usually good.
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Take a Guided Tour
Galle is compact and easy to explore on your own. If however you would like in-depth insights about the city a number of reputable local operators offer tours of Galle. Viator a TripAdvisor company also offers tours to Galle.
Galle Restaurants Enjoy Local Delicacies
There are many excellent restaurants and cafés in the fort; some set in beautiful old colonial building..
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Try Whale Watching
Get on board a small boat and head off to sea. The sight of these awesome beasts gliding gracefully past and playfully breaching the surface of the water close to you is exhilarating. Whales can be seen at Mirissa near Galle. The best time for whale watching is December - April.
Trekking Explore a Wilderness
There are a number of interesting trekking opportunities close to Galle. For example you could hike to the Watering Point at Unawatuna where Dutch ships obtain their water before their long journeys to the orient or homeward. Or visit a tea plantation and and take a refreshing dip by a waterfall.
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Touch a Slithery
For more adventurous there is usually a snake charmer near the clock town. See a cobra dance or wrap yourself in python.
Packaged Tours A Touch of Paradise
A number of reputable local operators offer all-inclusive tours of Sri Lanka including a visit to Sigiriya.
Viator, a TripAdvisor company, offers 100s of packaged tours in Sri Lanka. They also offer very reasonable airport pick-up and drop-off services.
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Visas are best obtained online and cost between $15-30 depending on your country of citizenship. The online process is very simple.
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While the chance of catching a disease is not high, you should still exercise caution and make sure you are up-to-date with your basic routine vaccinations before your trip. These include measles-mumps-rubella, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, varicella (chickenpox) and polio. It may also be a good idea to get Hepatitis A and Typhoid shots.
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It is best to obtain your Sri Lankan currency once you arrive in the country. The airport money changers are open 24/7 and offer bank rates.
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Many international airlines fly to Sri Lanka. The airport is approximately 160km (2.5 hours) from Galle by expressway.
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Train: Trains depart from the Colombo Fort Station and follow a scenic route along the western coastline and arrive at the Galle station which is about two kilometers from the Galle Fort. Trains depart during daylight hours and the travel time is approximately 3 hours. Most trains have two carriage classes These are rather "rough" and may not be up to some tourists expectations; but they are very cheap. Second Class tickets costs Rs 180 ($2). Third class (definitely not recommended) cost Rs100 ($0.75). There is also a privately run once daily service called the Rajadhani Express which has air-conditioned carriages and leather seats. Tickets for this train cost Rs 990 ($9).
Bus: Oh dear. Do you really want to? Buses depart from the central bus terminal near the Colombo Fort railroad station. The drop off point its at the bus terminus in Galle which is about a kilometer from the Galle Fort. Normal fare is Rs135 ($1). and Air-conditioned buses are Rs270 ($2).
Car Hire/Taxi: The fare is roughly Rs7500-8500 ($50-60) from Colombo. Depending on the route; it will take between 2-3 hours. The scenic beach route (3 hours) along the coast is recommended as you can probably make some wayside stops on the way. The faster route uses the freeway and takes about two hours.
Transfers from the airport to Galle by hire car will probably be about $100-130,
Viator, a TripAdvisor company, offers an airport transfer service from the airport directly to Galle for about $150.
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Getting Around Galle
The best way for a tourist to appreciate the Galle Fort is by walking. The cobbled streets have hardly any traffic and it's safe. If you prefer you can ride a bicycle. You can also use a three-wheeler (tuk-tuk) or car but in doing so you will miss the essence of the city and its architecture. The attractions outside the Galle Fort can be reached via tuk-tuk, car, bus or hire car.
Galle, like the rest of Sri Lanka, has a hot and humid tropical climate. The maximum temperatures are in the high twenties to low thirties. But the humidity is very high, so you will feel hot.
The average temperature is 29°C. The temperature at night is about 22°C.
The best months to visit are between December through January and July through September.
What to Wear
Being in the tropics, the weather in Galle is usually hot and humid. Dressing smart will make your experience far more enjoyable.
• Clothing - Loose cotton, linen or breathable fabric clothes.
• "Proper" Clothing - Also remember you need to wear "proper" clothing when visiting Buddhist and Hindu temples. This means your clothes must cover your shoulders and be below your knees.
• Sunglasses - Always a good idea to protect your eyes.
• Shoes - Any footwear suitable for the tropics is fine.
• Hat - Broad brimmed hat to keep the sun away.
• Sunscreen - Definitely a good idea in the tropics.
Galle is a very safe city. You would have to be extremely unlucky, reckless or foolish to experience any harm. Always exercise due care and caution with your belonging. A female traveling alone will draw attention from young men. Never talk to them as this will only encourage them. Don't accept any offers from strangers.
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Mobile & Internet
Mobile phone services are good in the cities and patchy in regional areas but there is coverage island-wide. Internet/WI-FI are available at most accommodations. The speeds, however, aren't as fast as you may be used to.
Sri Lankan people are naturally happy, friendly and courteous. It is in their culture. They are always willing to help. Unfortunately modern commercialism and tourism has corrupted this lovely natural characteristic of the people and some may take advantage of you. Good manners are always appreciated. Never be rude. They may not be as well-off as you but they are cheerful, helpful and courteous people.
Tipping is appreciated but is not compulsory. In Sri Lanka tipping serves two purposes. Firstly is a token of your appreciation of the service someone has provided you. Not tipping can be hurtful to them because it will be interpreted that you were not happy with their service. Secondly, a more obvious reason is that, it is a financial reward. Remember that a couple of Dollars or Euros on a tip is less than the cost of a candy bar in your home country. Be nice. Make someone happy.
A tip of 10% or more is the accepted standard, rounded up in to rupees. For example don't give a tip of 50 cents.
Sri Lankans are pretty relaxed about what you wear. Shorts, tee-shirts etc. are fine. Nudity is frowned upon. Also note that women wearing revealing clothing are more likely to be accosted by local males. You need to wear "proper" clothing when visiting religious sites such as temples and Anuradhapura. This means your clothes must cover your shoulders and be below your knees. Wrapping a sarong around you is an easy solution. You also need to remove your footwear and hats when entering these places.
There are no restrictions in taking photographs, except of military installations. Most people don't mind you photographing them. If you are visiting any temples, remember it is very rude to take photographs posing next to religious statues and objects. It is especially rude to do so with your back towards them or leaning on them. This is the only time you are likely to get a comment from a local.
Some museums charge extra fees to take photographs of their exhibits.
Smoking & Alcohol
Smoking and the consumption of alcohol in public places is not permitted. Alcohol is also not served during Poya Days which are holy days for the nation's Buddhists.
History of the Galle Fort – Sri Lanka
The history of Galle extends thousands of years to biblical times when ships from East and West arrived at its well-protected harbor for trade. In more recent times it was a prize to be possessed for western traders and empire builders in search of wealth and glory.
Early Foreign References to Galle
Cladius Ptolomy's 1st century map of the world clearly shows Traprobana (Sri Lanka) off the coast of India. Because of
the island's importance as a center for ancient trade between East and West it was thought to be much larger than we know it to be today. Galle is not named but its harbor is depicted on the map. The
map reference of Hodora may refer to the modern place name of Dondra which is just south of Galle.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Egyptian monk, in his 545 AD work Christian
Topography writes "This same Sielediba [Sri Lanka] then, placed as one may say, in the center of the Indies and possessing the hyacinth receives imports from all the seats of commerce
and in turn exports to them, and is thus itself a great seat of commerce." The place 'Hyacinth' referred to is believed to be Galle. Ibn Battuta a Moroccan explorer visited Galle which he called Quli in 1344 he found it to be a bustling port.
The grand treasury fleet of the Chinese admiral Zheng He made four visits to the port of Galle between 1406
and 1433 (The Galle National Museum as has a scale model of these gigantic ships and a
comparable European ship of the time which is dwarfed by these ancient Chinese juggernauts). A copy of the Trilingual Inscription, left by him at Galle in 1411 can also be seen at the museum.
Pre-European History of Galle
Galle with its well-protected natural harbor was a trading city since ancient time. Persians, Greeks, Romans Arabs Indians, Malays and Chinese traded their goods at Galle. It was, however, a minor
port until it gained pre-eminence in the 13th century. A number of factors contributed to this development.
Until the collapse of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom in 1255 and the occupation of northern parts of the island by South
Indian invaders the seaports in the north were the primary ports of the island.
With the loss of their rich agricultural land in the north; the Sinhalese populace slowly drifted southwards establishing a number of fragmented kingdoms there. The most powerful of these usually
had sway over the southeast, where the harbors of Colombo and Galle were located.
The land in the south was less productive than those of the north and agricultural productivity and consequently the population plummeted. The land in the south, however, had an abundant supply of
spices such as cinnamon, pepper, cardamoms and cloves. These now became a vital export commodities and a major source of government revenue. It was through the port of Galle that most of these
commodities were exported.
While the local spice trade was the sole monopoly of the state, almost all the traders were foreigners, predominantly Moors (people of Arab or Muslim decent). At Galle these foreign traders
occupied the peninsula which protected the northern flank of the harbor. They built a barricade and palisade using the trunks of coconut trees at the entrance to the peninsula to cordon off their
enclave from the local population.
Over the years much resentment had developed between the locals and these traders who in effect had a stranglehold on all foreign trade.
By the 14th century it was a bustling entrepot and the most important harbor in Sri Lanka.
"Discovery" of Galle by Europeans
At the dawn of the sixteenth century, to the western mind the Orient was still the great unknown. It was imaged to be a place with palaces of marble with golden roofs and luscious pleasure
gardens. Precious stones were said to flow down its rivers. Rare and exotic spices were so abundant that they simply fell off the trees. It was a place populated by people with dog's heads, Cyclops
eyes, heads in their chests and even those with a single giant foot which they used as a sunshade.
The trickle of eastern goods; mainly exotic spices, rare gems, silk, and translucent porcelain, only
heightened interest in this faraway place. No westerner since Marco Polo had visited it.
In the west Portugal, a poor backwater on the periphery of Europe, was becoming one of the most advanced maritime
nations of Europe. By 1497,Vasco da Gama's little fleet of four ships ventured into the Indian Ocean and limped on
to Calicut on the east coast of India, its crew near death by starvation. Europeans, for the first time, had gained
direct access to spices and exotic products of the Orient finally breaking the Arab stranglehold to Asia.
The Portuguese were quick to exploit their new discovery. They set up trading post along the coast of India and set about establishing naval superiority in the Indian Ocean. At every opportunity
they thwarted their Arab rivals, stealing their cargoes and destroying their ships.
In August 1506 news reached the Portuguese viceroy residing in Cochin India, Francesco de Almeida, that the Moors they were now evading the Portuguese coastal patrols and taking a more
arduous route from the East-Indies (Sri Lanka, Indonesia, etc.) to Arabia via the Maldives. Determined to prevent this Francesco de
Almeida instructed his son to lead an expedition to intercept and plunder these booty laden flotillas and to also attempt to discover Sri Lanka.
In early September 1506 Lourenço de Almeida set sail from Cochin for the Maldives with a fleet of 9
small carracks and caravels. (Amongst this fleet was the caravel Sao Jorge, with the 25 year old Ferdinand Magellan serving on board). Unfortunately Lourenço was ill-advised of the capricious monsoonal weather and sea currents prevalent at this time and was quickly blown off
course. Much to his surprise he was serendipitously deposited, many days later, off the west coast of Sri Lanka. Some writers state that he was driven first to Galle where he heard that the king
resided near Colombo. He journeyed to Colombo blackmailed the king and extorted a tribute of 1500 kilos of cinnamon an year in return for 'Portuguese protection" (Protection Money) and then
returned to his home base in India. There was no further recorded contact with the Portuguese for 12 years.
How Galle got its Name
The most likely derivation of the present name of this city is from the Sinhalese word gala meaning rock. This is supported by the fact that a number of place names in the vicinity have
the root-word 'gala' in their names; for example Magalle contracted from Maha-Gala (huge rock) and Pettigallawatte meaning garden with basket-shaped rocks.
Early Portuguese writers describe their fort as being built on top of a rock at the entrance to this natural harbor. Unfortunately there is no trace of this rock today. It is likely that is was
demolished during the construction of the present fort on the same site. The Portuguese noticed the similarity of gala with their word gallo (Latin: gallus, a cock). The Dutch who
captured the city in 1640 retained the name and adopted the cock standing on top of a rock as their court of arms for the city.
The Ceylon (Sri Lankan) Jungle Fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, has the scientific name Gallus lafayettii
The History of the Portuguese in Galle
The Portuguese returned to Sri Lanka in in 1518 and commenced the wholesale annexation of land along the coastline. In 1587 they sacked the port of Galle and vested control from their arch enemies
the Moors. Initially they retained the earthen barrier and palisade built by the Moors. In 1597 they built the first Galle Fort, a small fort on the hillock there. These were flimsy barricades at
best and in 1620 they replaced these with a small fort on the tip of the promontory and constructed a fortified wall on the landward side, across the narrow peninsula, with three bastions and a moat
with a drawbridge for added protection from the hostile Sinhalese who attacked them from time to time.
Secure in their protected enclave, they named Santa Cruz, they exploited the local population and resources and prospered. For example, pepper bought in in Sri Lanka would increase in
value fifty fold when sold in in Lisbon – a hefty 5,000% profit.
Throughout the 16th century the Portuguese enjoyed a total monopoly of the India trade. No other nation in Europe, other than the Spanish who were excluded for this part of the world by the
Treaty of Tordesillas, had the wherewithal to undertake the long and challenging sea journey round Africa to the
lucrative Indies. This status quo changed however in the early 17th century when both the Dutch and British created East India companies to tap into this lucrative trade.
The illustration on the left shows the Galle Fort in 1663, twenty-three years after the Dutch had captured it from the Portuguese. The little fort on the promenade is still standing. The rocks
after which the city is named are also visible. The fortified wall and moat across the peninsula is visible to the right.
The History of the Dutch in Galle
The Dutch Republic were no friends of the Spanish and by extension the Portuguese who had come under their sway under the
Iberian Union. Spain's enemies now became Portugal's enemies. The Dutch East India Company ( VOC; Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie) exploited this animosity by
waging its own war against Portuguese in order to gain possession of their lucrative overseas outposts. The Dutch attacked and plundered Portuguese vessels and territories at every opportunity.
In 1602 The Dutch first appeared off the east coast of Sri Lanka.
They laid siege to the Galle Fort in March 1640 (see etching on right). The ensuing battle was one of the bloodiest
fought by them in the Indies. They lost over 900 men. After fierce combat, on the 13th March 1640, the poorly manned Portuguese garrison surrendered the fort . The devastation amongst the Dutch ranks
was so great that there was little celebration and the phrase "in Malacca there is is much gold, and Galle much lead" came into usage by their troops. Upon capturing Galle the
Dutch made it their headquarters in Sri Lanka. By 1658 the Dutch had successfully evicted the Portuguese from all their possessions in Sri Lanka. At around this time the moved their capital to
Colombo but Galle remained a vital shipping hub for Dutch ships in the Indies.
The present layout of the fort of Galle, which covers an area of 52 hectares and a circumference of 3 km, was established by the Dutch in 1663. Over the ensuing years they built a formidable
fortress with fourteen bastions mounted with 109 advanced canons. While its height made it a more visible target, Dutch engineers compensated for this by building extremely thick walls. The rampart
walls, build of stone with earthen inner embankments, where 30 meters (100ft) thick and up to 120 meters (400ft) thick in the center. There was a single entry gate into the fort from the landward
side. This was accessed via a causeway and a drawbridge. The date above the main gate, still visible today reads 1668. Many nations coveted this harbor but none dared challenge its formidable
defenses. It was never attacked.
Decline of Galle
By the late 1800's Galle harbor had passed its usefulness. It was too small and too treacherous for larger ships now arriving in Sri Lanka. In 1884 the British, moved most of their shipping
operations to the expanded and modernized the harbor at Colombo. Whilst the Galle Fort remained the administrative center of the area the loss of maritime traffic led to the rapid and inexorable
decline of the city. By the 1990's most of the grand Old Dutch and British building had fallen into disrepair and ruin.
Luckily for posterity, the nation at the time, was too poor to demolish and replace these buildings. So they remained derelict but intact.
The tsunami of Dec 26, 2004 devastated large parts of the city of Galle and the surrounding area. The massive walls of the Galle Fort, however, withstood the onslaught of the huge waves and
remained intact. There was, however, substantial damage to the National Maritime Museum. Sea water rushed in through the open Old Gate of the Fort and flooded the building to a depth of nearly 2.5
meters. Over 80% of the museum's collection was lost forever.
Overall the tsunami caused nearly 35,000 deaths in Sri Lanka and made nearly a million people homeless. There is little evidence of this disaster today. The most poignant reminder of this
catastrophe is the Tsunami Memorial near Hikkaduwa where a train was washed away with the loss of 1468 lives.
With the revival of the tourist industry after the civil war ended in 2009, Galle has seen a resurgence as a trendy tourist destination.
Standing majestically against an azure sea the old Dutch Fort is showpiece of Galle today. Its glory days are long gone but it still enchants the visitor with a mellow, quietly elegant charm. Its
cobblestone streets, lined with numerous old building now house swank boutiques, restaurants, and hotels gently reminding us of a glorious by-gone era.