Sri Lanka is expected to re-open to international tourism in August 2020. For more information about the COVID-19 protocols, click here.
Galle is about 130 kms south of Colombo on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast and we travelled here by train for the last 4 days of our trip to relax and explore this coastal area. In this post, we’ll tell you where we stayed, where we ate, how we spent our days, and how we got around.
Where We Stayed – Fort Bazaar:
We stayed in an Upper Suite corner room. We loved the simple design that was accentuated in a minimalist way. The bed and linens were extremely comfortable and I was told they’re Four Seasons brand. The bathroom was well designed and very spacious; the skylight in the shower was a nice surprise as it let in a lot of natural light. We also appreciated the quality of the toiletries and how the bottles were refilled to minimize waste. We enjoyed our outdoor terrace and seating area even during rainy periods when we were still able to move the chairs and sit outside under the ledge. The one thing we didn’t like about the terrace is that it lacked privacy due to the low divider that separated each upper suite.
If you stay in a room that doesn’t have its own outdoor terrace, the hotel has a lot of open air lounging options; there is a courtyard by the lobby, an open air library on the 2nd floor, and the restaurant on premise has outdoor seating.
Breakfast was also included in the rate and served at Church Street Social, the hotel’s in-house restaurant. The restaurant does a good job in offering local and western options and each breakfast starts with a fruit juice/smoothie, tea or coffee, a fruit plate, a bread basket followed by an entrée. We did find the breakfast service offered too much food and so we tried to only order what we would to minimize wasting food (we passed on the bread basket and no milk with coffee).
Our favorite breakfast entree were the Sri Lankan hoppers with chicken curry and we always requested a side of pol sambol (spicy coconut condiment) which adds texture and spice. Sri Lankan egg hoppers are a type of coconut pancake usually served with eggs, curry (vegan or meat-based), and various sambols. They are so tasty and pretty healthy that we’re not sure why they haven’t become a worldwide breakfast/brunch sensation but it’s probably because they’re not that easy to make. The one thing I will say, is that hoppers with spicy curries go better with papaya juice than coffee as coffee increases the burn from the spice.
You can also have lunch and dinner at Church Street Social but we chose to eat elsewhere since the menu didn’t have anything we were interested in at that time. The restaurant is BYOB until their alcohol permit is approved for the sale of alcohol on premise. The staff will store your bottles in their fridge and serve it to you there or you can take it back to your room (our room had a mini fridge). You can walk to town and buy beer, wine and other alcohol very easily but the hotel does offer tuk tuk service to assist.
The hotel offers a cooking demonstration which we enjoyed a lot. It starts off with a tour to the market via tuk tuk where the chef will show you produce and spices commonly used in Sri Lankan cooking. Since we booked the activity on a Poya Day, the market was closing up so we didn’t get to see things in full swing. Back at the hotel, we started the cooking demonstration and made 6 curries for dinner. The chef was very engaging in how he asked us to help with the preparation, explained the ingredients, adapted popular recipes based on his family’s traditions.
There is no pool at Fort Bazaar because they are still waiting for the permit to be granted. Until the permit is granted and the pool completed, Fort Bazaar offers guests access to a pool at another hotel via tuk tuk. We took advantage of this service and got to enjoy a tuk tuk ride to the Jetwing Lighthouse where we enjoyed the pool and watched the sunset at their beach.
It is very easy and pleasant to walk around the Fort and beyond to visit the sites and markets. For farther excursions, you can hire a tuk tuk or car.
We found a tuk tuk driver in front of the hotel for our excursions beyond the fort and hired him every day. To give you an idea, it’s 500 rupees to get to Unawatuna and close to 3,000 rupees for most of the day. While these fares are slightly higher than quoted elsewhere, we’re not going to haggle over an extra $1CAD-$2CAD, especially when tips are not expected and we’re tourists there for a short time. You can also rent your own tuk tuk if you’re brave and we’re considering it for our next trip.
Where We Ate:
Perhaps it was a combination of the breakfasts at the Fort Bazaar each morning and the heat, but we didn’t have much of an appetite in Galle despite how much we were enjoying the local food. If we weren’t snacking on murukku and fruit for dinner, we were eating at these restaurants.
Poonie’s Kitchen: Poonie’s Kitchen is a café restaurant that offers western style food with fresh Sri Lankan ingredients. It’s not a cheap place to eat but the quality is amazing and they employ local people. After not eating a fresh salad for over a week, the salad thali was just what I was craving and it ended up being one of the most delicious salads I have ever eaten abroad. The one downside to Poonie’s is you never know when they’ll be open; we went back 2 days after Poya on a day they were supposed to be opened and they were closed.
Coconuts Sambol: Coconuts Sambol is a vegetarian buffet of local curries and rice. It’s a small place with no air conditioning so try to snag a table by the front. Everything was made fresh and replenished frequently and the quality was very high. From what we saw, they have 4 curries, rice, and roti as part of the daily buffet spread and we enjoyed everything very much, especially the dhal and the brinjal (eggplant curry).
What to Do:
Galle Fort is a good home base to experience Sri Lanka’s south coast; from beaches to tea plantations to wildlife/nature and temples, there is plenty for you to experience. Some popular excursions from Galle are a visit to Koggala Lake and whale watching in Mirissa but while we were there, we just focused on walking around the Fort and town, and visiting beaches along the coast
It is really easy to walk around in Galle Fort and beyond to enjoy the sites and catch a glimpse of daily life here. During our walking excursions, we visited religious sites, witnessed a Poya Day celebration, watched the fisherman and visited markets to enjoy local produce.
Galle Fort Meeran Jumma Masjid stands in the fort by the sea and acts as an important landmark. This mosque was built in 1904 to replace the other one that was here 300 years ago. The architecture is influenced by the Dutch, who had a governorate in Sri Lanka from 1640 – 1796. If you would like to visit the mosque inside, make sure to be dressed appropriately and ask first.
Sri Meenadchi Sundareswarar Temple is a Hindu temple located near Galle Station. It was destroyed during the civil war and has recently been restored. Tourists can visit but make sure to be dressed appropriately and respect the rules.
We were in Sri Lanka on The III Full Moon Poya on November 3 to commemorate Buddha’s ordination of sixty disciples as the first missionaries. “Poya” days are part of the full moon holiday “Uposatha” and are celebrated when the moon is at its fullest during the month. When traveling to Sri Lanka, have a look at the Poya day schedule as lots of places are closed, the sale of meat, fish, and alcohol are also banned. This photo was taken at the Sri Sudharmalaya in Galle Fort.
Fishing is an integral part of life in Galle and you will see how busy and lively the fish market is. Just outside the fort gate, we were able to observe fisherman around 0900 when they work together to pull the nets that were dropped in the bay hours earlier to sell “මාළු” (the fish) at the local fish markets. This is a more modern way of fishing as people move away from the traditional stilt fishing.
Markets – The Hunt for Thembili and Amba:
There are a number of indoor and outdoor markets around Galle where you can find fresh local produce, dairy products, spices, souvenirs and household goods. For us, finding and sampling some “thembili” AKA “king coconut” and “amba” AKA mango were high on our priority list.
My step dad spent two months in Sri Lanka before the war and has fond memories of the country, its people, scenery and the coconuts. As we prepared for our trip, he echoed the recommendation of others: “The first thing you need to do in Sri Lanka is to have a king coconut and have one everyday”. Known as “thembili” for their orange color, king coconuts are sweeter and the perfect refreshment to keep you hydrated during those warm days in Sri Lanka. We ended up walking 2.5 kms from Jungle Beach to Unawatuna in the midday heat and along the way, we purchased thembili from a family’s road-side stand. The family seemed surprised and concerned that we were walking in the heat and offered us a ride to Unawatuna despite our sweaty and disheveled appearance. While we declined, it was a lovely gesture and it also reminded us to treat others with kindness and compassion at home and abroad. You can easily find thembili in Galle’s markets, on the beach, and along various roads.
Mango is not only a delicious fruit locally grown and eaten by many but it is also an important part of Sri Lanka’s culture and history. It is said the name Colombo is derived from a Sinhalese phrase “Kola amba thota” which translates to “harbor with leafy mango trees” and planting a mango tree in front of your house was believed to bless the home and keep diseases out. If you are interested in reading more about this topic, read “The Mango in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” written by K.H.S Peiris.
In more recent times, mangoes are a part of reconciliation, peace, and friendship. During the civil war, the Karuthakolamban mangoes grown up north in Jaffna were not available to those living in the south. Adele Barker who wrote “Not Quite Paradise” recalls someone telling her “You’ll know when the war is over when the Jaffna mangoes appear again.” It was also in Adele’s book that we were introduced to the concept of “amba yaluwa” which translates to “mango friend” and means “very close friend”. All of this to say that one must seek out mango in Sri Lanka to enjoy the namesake fruit and cultural icon in the hopes of finding or making an “amba yaluwa”. Sadly, we did not get to eat as much mango as we would have liked but we did enjoy the ones we ate very much and consider our tuk tuk driver Sarath our “amba yaluwa”!
We visited 4 beaches in the area during our stay: Galle Fort Lighthouse Beach, Jungle Beach, Mirissa Beach, and Unawatuna Beach. We chose these beaches out of convenience and reviews we had read on other blogs and TripAdvisor. In addition, we also scoped out Mihiripenna Beach and Weligama Beach briefly. If you would like information about the beaches, please see our separate post.
Tips and Considerations:
- Alcohol: Beer and other alcoholic beverages are not cheap in Galle. You also can’t buy alcohol at stores in the fort and not all restaurants offer it. You can buy alcohol in town at select stores but we were surprised at how difficult it was to find it in some cases. By this point of the trip, I was getting tired of lager beer and wanted some wine and was able to find a French rose and Argentinian Torrontes for about $20CAD per bottle which wasn’t cheap considering those bottle retail for half that back home. The Samagi Wine Store has a good selection and they store the product appropriately but their credit card machine never works. We also purchased wine and beer from the Keells Super.
- Poya Days: Poya Days occur on every full moon and commemorate key events in Buddhism. Poya days can affect the operating hours of shops and attractions and there are strict rules for the consumption of alcohol and meat/fish products, even in tourist areas. You can consume alcohol and meat but you may not be able to buy them and restaurants may refuse to serve them. We purchased our beer and wine the day before and booked the cooking demonstration at our hotel for our dinner that day. Most places were open in Fort Galle though since it’s touristy. We tried to have a beer at Unawatuna Beach on the Poya Day and we were served our beer very discreetly in a tea pot with tea cups to avoid trouble for the staff. Depending where you are and which Poya it is, you’ll get to experience the festivities such as parades. The May Poya, Vesak is the most important and celebrated.
- Safety: Overall, we felt very safe in Galle and the surrounding areas. We did take care to not walk in deserted dark areas much like we do here back home. If anything, the people who approach you to start small talk and try to sell you a tour are a little annoying. We found the beaches very clean with no broken glass and felt comfortable leaving our belongings unattended but within view while we went swimming together for short periods of time. A lot of things only accept cash as payment so we did wear a money belt when we were out with a lot of cash and our passports.
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- Galle Sri Lanka in 4 Days – Where to Stay, Where to Eat, and Things to do
- Sri Lanka Travel Guide – Colombo, Galle, and the South Coast