Galle and Matara – the colonial heritage of Sri Lanka

Galle is an old coastal town and a UNESCO heritage site. Here you can see the Dutch and British architectural influences and meet a thriving Sri Lankan Moor community. Galle is probably the most beautiful and the most polished Sri Lankan towns. Nicely renovated colonial buildings house hotels, restaurants, etc. but Galle is spared the crowds that you’d expect in such an attractive location. Last but not least, Galle is just a short distance from Unawatuna, a popular beach resort.

Matara, located further east the coast, is a smaller and far more modest version of Galle. Although it is a Dutch fortress as well, it hasn’t become a major tourist destination.  In Matara, dilapidated, historical buildings mix with modern, local architecture. Perhaps precisely for this air of authenticity, it is worth a visit, especially if you stay in nearby Mirissa or Weligama.

A tuk tuk standing in front of baroque, white-washed Dutch Reformed Church in Galle
A Reformed Dutch Church

A walk through the Galle Old Town

Galle’s historical town centre is small and compact enough to see it in one day. Whether you arrive by bus or train, you’d probably start the visit with the Dutch Fort, dominating the townscape. Local boys often play cricket at the feet of its formidable walls.

A view at the clocktower and ramparts of Galle with the Sri Lankan flag at one of the  bastions
Clock tower and the fortress walls

Just after walking through the new gate to the Dutch fort, you can climb onto the ramparts. The entrance is right next to the 19th- century clock tower. It’s possible to have a walk along the walls until you reach the Flag Rock bastion at the tip of the peninsula. From the top of the walls, you can see red- tiled roofs of the old houses, church towers and the sea.

A view from Galle ramparts at the red tiled roofs and white or creme coloured walls of historical buildings inside Galle fort
A view at Galle from the city walls

You will first pass by the Moon Bastion with a Sri Lankan flag . If you carry on further, you will see a small, walled tomb of a Muslim saint Bathri Waliyullah placed on the cliff just outside the fortress walls.

A small, white, walled Muslim tomb set on a cliff just outside the walls of Galle Fort, above the sea
A tomb of a Muslim saint just outside the Galle ramparts

If you have little time, first head to the Church Street where- as the name suggests- a few old churches stand. The most impressive of them is the Reformed Dutch Church from 1640 with the floor covered with stone tombs, stain-glassed windows and a small graveyard around it. The British, who came after the Dutch, also left their mark here in the form of a grey- coloured All Saints Anglican Church from the end of 19th century.

A row of 17th century tomb stones line the fence around the Reformed Dutch Church in Galle
The greveyard of the Dutch Reform Church

Among many beautiful buldings within the fort, don’t miss the 17th century Old Dutch Hospital (Hospital St). This beautiful white building with an arcade is now a shopping and dining centre for tourists. Much smaller, but no less impressive is a tiled-roof, white-washed 17th century building housing Galle National Museum (Church St).

A newly renovated Dutch Hospital featuring inner courtyard and a collonade
Old Dutch Hospital – now housing boutiques and restaurants

The Historical Mansion Museum – a restored Dutch house on Leyn Baan Street – is a less a private museum and more an antique shop. Room after room, the shelves heave with old lamps, china and other everyday objects – all for sale. The building has a lovely courtyard with an original, 18th century well and is free to visit.

A verandah of the old Dutch residence in Galle fort, full of colonial-time furniture  and lamps
Private museum in a restored old Dutch merchant house

A large, white Meeran mosque from 1904 standing near the city beach serves the large Sri Lankan Moor (Muslim minority of Arab origin) community. Near a mosque stands a 20th -century lighthouse and just below it, spreads a small beach used by the locals.

A small sandy beach with full-dressed Sri Lankans bathing and strolling
A small beach under the Galle lighthouse

You could finish the tour using the second, old gate to the city. The moss-covered, crumbling coat of arms above it shows the date of 1668.

A coat of arms with a lion and a horse cut in the stone above the gate to Galle Fort
The main gate to the Galle fort

Galle Fort is a typical tourist bubble with lots of fancy cafes and restaurants, not very useful for the backpackers. Every Saturday is a day of Good Market on the Court Square. This small handicraft and food market targets a higher- budget tourists and locals. It takes a bit of time and effort to find an affordable place to eat within the old town. It’s definitely going to be easier beyond the strict town centre, around the bus station. Similarly, accommodation within the old town tends to be more upscale.

Matara

Staying in Weligama or Mirissa, you should devote half a day for a visit to Matara, a historical, Dutch colonial city. It really won’t take much time to see it and if you expect something of a scale of Galle, you’d be disappointed.

A tuk tuk stands in front of a dilapidated one storied building with a colonnade and a red-tiled roof in Matara
Dilapidated historical buildings in Matara

The bus stand is almost on the beach. A pedestrian bridge connects the beach with the Pigeon/ Parevi Duva Island with a new Buddhist temple on it. The entrance fee to the island is 100 rupees, so I didn’t bother checking it out.

A pendestrian bridge joins a sandy beach with a tiny Pigeon Island where a Buddhist temple hides among greenery
A pedestrian bridge to an island with a Buddhist temple

Passing by a white clocktower (set up by the British in the 19th century), the ramparts and a cricket ground below you will eventually find the gate to the fort. Inside, there are quite a few atmospheric, dilapidated colonial buildings and two old churches.

A lady in a Sari and a yellow-robed monk walk pass a sand-stone coloured Dutch church with a colonnade verandah.
Esplanade Avenue with the Dutch Reformed Church

The most important monument is the Dutch Reformed Church from 1706 which was sadly closed when I visited. The majority of British-time mansions of the aristocratic Sri Lankan families fell into various stages of ruin.

Wide, green watered Nilvala Ganga river in Matara, lined on both sides with thick greenery
Nilvala Ganga seen from the bridge

The fort is divided from the rest of the city by Nilvala Ganga river. If you cross the Mahanaagama Bridge, you’ll get to the Star Fort (aka Redoute Van Eck). This 18th century, tiny Dutch fortress has the shape of a star. I didn’t have a chance to see the small museum inside since it was already closed.

The entrance to a small Star Fort in Matara with a Dutch East India Company coats of arms above the gate.
The entrance to the Star Fort

Matara, as a non-touristic town, abounds in budget eateries. There is also a large market near the bus stand where you are far less likely to get cheated.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Galle?
Galle has a large bus station and a train station located just next to each other, a walking distance from the Galle Fort. Train from Colombo takes 2-2.5h, from Weligama 30-45min, from Matara 40min-1h. The bus timings aren’t much different.

How to get to Matara?
Matara has a large bus station with connections to the towns and villages along the coast. The train station is the last stop on the coastal railline. Both the train and bus stations are located within walking distance from the fort. It’d take you 25 mins by bus from Weligama, 15 mins from Dondra, 1h from Tangalle and Galle. Express train would get you to Galle in just 40 mins. Colombo to Matara is a 2.5h journey on an express train or 3h 40m by a regular commuter train.

Galle and Matara prices [in Sri Lankan rupees as of January 2018]
130 buffet lunch at a budget eatery in Matara
50 bus from Weligama to Matara
45 3rd class train Ambalangoda-Galle
25 bus from Galle to Unawatuna
25 veg roti at a small kiosk within the Galle fort
20 bus from Matara to Dondra



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