Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka: Daytrip to Colonial Galle and the Galle Fort

Galle Lighthouse

In doing my pre-trip research about Colombo, Sri Lanka, I found little specifics on the port itself and not too much about the city of Colombo that inclined me to want to spend much time there. The one universal bit of info I came across was that traffic in and around Colombo (and much of Sri Lanka) was usually awful. Once again, cruise excursions did nothing to tempt me, but as always, I scanned them to see what the cruise line thought was worth a visit. I decided on the town of Galle as our destination and concluded that a local driver/guide was the way to go. Reviews lead me to choose Sanki Leisure and I found them easy and prompt to deal with by email. I paid 50% down via PayPal (a compromise I proposed when they first suggested an online payment company I wasn’t familiar with and read mixed reviews of).

We were to meet our guide at Gate 02 of the Port of Colombo. I knew it was a big industrial port with no walk-out allowed or doable, but I had no idea what would be offered in the way of transport upon our arrival. It turns out that the Port provided free motor coach shuttles to Gate 01, but the driver was happy to let us off a gate earlier at Gate 02 after instructing us to be sure to go to Gate 01 for our return shuttle back to the ship.

View from the Port of Colombo shuttle; not a walkable port

Sure enough, our Sanki guide was waiting as promised with an air-conditioned car. He did not, however, speak more than a few words of English. So much for a driver/guide; we had a driver. Oh well, it would have to do.

We did a quick stop off at Independence Memorial Hall on our way out of Colombo, then quickly found ourselves caught in a traffic and pedestrian snarl among shops thronged with people celebrating the Hindu New Year.

Independence Memorial Hall in Colombo
Colombo taxis
Colombo taxi driver and passengers

While the scene was fascinating to watch, that famous Colombo traffic was now all that much worse. The plan was to make Galle our primary destination–I really hoped to see those iconic fishermen perched on stilts above the water and the Galle Fort and colonial Old Galle looked intriguing. If we got back to Colombo with enough time, we’d take in the sights there, but if not, Galle was our priority.

Colombo traffic

Once we finally got out of Colombo, we opted for the wide inland highway rather than the probably more-scenic coastal road since that would shave an hour off our travel time. The highway was in great shape and offered a smooth journey through lush hills dotted with rubber trees and tea plantations. We made pretty good time once David convinced our driver to at least drive the speed limit of 100km/h rather than the 80km/h he seemed inclined to do.

Boats on a Galle beach. Hard to believe that it would be pouring rain in a few hours!
Fishmonger and his wares

When we arrived in Galle, our driver informed me that the stilt fishermen would not be out at this time of day and it was for tourists anyway. To alleviate my disappointment, I guess, we made a couple of stops along the roadside beach to watch groups of fishermen hauling in big nets from far out in the harbor and then to explore the adjacent fish markets.

Fishermen pulling in big nets
Fish market

From the largest of the fish markets, it was a short drive to the entrance to the ruins of Galle Fort where our driver dropped us off. Surprised to find no entry fee, we wandered into the fort then along the seaside fortifications mingling with tourists and locals strolling and picnicking in the sweltering heat. Hearing English, we joined a group that had spotted a sea turtle in the surf below then checked out a large iguana-like lizard that appeared over the wall nearby.

Clock tower and entry to Galle Fort

Inside Galle Fort

Lizard on a fort wall

Rather than a separate structure, it turns out that Galle Fort actually encompasses Old Town Galle that lies within the protective walls. The original Portuguese fort was apparently more of a separate structure. The Dutch captured Galle in 1640, though, and later they expanded its walls to encompass the town and the entire peninsula creating a major stronghold. The fort and Old Town Galle are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Old Town Galle viewed from a fort seawall

Rejoining our driver, he drove us a block or two within Old Town to Elita Restaurant, a café clearly geared to tourists, but offering really delicious seafood (at tourist prices). The chef is a local guy who trained in Belgium. We’d hoped for Sri Lankan food, but couldn’t find it in ourselves to be the least disappointed in fresh tuna steak and shrimp … and cold Lion beer!

We sat on a pretty front porch, painted bright yellow, where a wall-mounted oscillating fan offered fleeting, heavenly respite from the heat. While sipping our beers and waiting on lunch, we chatted with a pair of young Belgian women who’d been traveling in Sri Lanka for three weeks. Their glowing reports combined with similar we’d heard from a German man we met in Munduk (who’d spent a month in Sri Lanka and raved about the wildlife) were definite enticements to return for a real stay.

David at our table under cover of the porch with the Belgians braving the darkening skies. (They soon moved up to share the shelter from the rain… and the ceiling fan.)

Post lunch, we were driven another few blocks to the Galle lighthouse. The sunny day had given way to drizzle while we ate and a major storm was gathering in the distance, so we grabbed our umbrellas before walking along a jetty-like wall to the lighthouse then set out to explore the shops and old buildings of Old Galle.

To the Galle Lighthouse
Storm clouds gathering at a beach by the Galle Lighthouse, prelude to a downpour

Spices, tea and jewelry are major commodities in Sri Lanka and on offer in nearly every Galle shop. Needing nothing but a little nutmeg for rum punches aboard the ship, we bought only a pack of 5 fresh nutmeg pods.

Old Galle

Back on the street, we kept exploring the narrow roadways of Old Galle until increasing rain led us to take shelter in a little free museum called the Historical Mansion. The cluttered museum is a lure for jewelry shops, but it’s interesting nonetheless set in an old Portuguese building and displaying artifacts from colonial days, an old kitchen, and a central courtyard complete with well. A jewelry maker demonstrated metal work beside the courtyard where a deluge of rain now created waterfalls from the roof. We briefly browsed the jewelry–some of it of impressive quality–then set out into the downpour and booming thunder to find our driver since it was time to head back to Colombo.

Historical Mansion in Old Galle
Cluttered museum area of the Historic Mansion
A jewelry maker works beside the Historic Mansion courtyard as heavy rain falls.

Heading back to the carHeavy rain continued all the way back into Colombo and we declined the chance to visit a Hindu temple in the deluge, opting to head back to the ship nearly an hour early. Oh well, we got to see Galle in sunny weather and do most of what we wanted, so overall, we counted the day a success. We saw just enough of Sri Lanka to leave us pondering a return visit when we’re back in this part of the world next spring. The Port shuttle was waiting as promised when we arrived at Gate 01 .

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Practical info: We paid Sanki Leisure a total of $195 US for our private driver/”guide” for the day. I paid $98 deposit via PayPal and the balance in cash (US dollars) to the driver upon arrival. For comparison’s sake, Celebrity wanted $179.75 per person for a daytrip to Galle which included lunch at the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel and a folk museum.

Back in Antwerp for 6 weeks and a preview of travels to come

David and I are happily back in Antwerp, Belgium, for 6 weeks once again cat- and house-sitting for some of our favorite people and cats in one of our favorite cities. As always when in Belgium, we’ll be exploring this beautiful country and scouting great beer. We’ll spend a month in Paris when we leave here, just to touch base in my old home and enjoy the holiday season before heading back stateside.

Coming up in the spring [March-June]: Another Korean Air First Class mega-flight from DFW to Seoul to Singapore(!), a few weeks in Indonesia (Bali, Java, etc.), then back to Singapore to catch a month cruise to Europe (via Sri Lanka, India (Cochin, Goa, Mumbai), Oman, UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Suez Canal, Jordan (Petra), Greece, Italy). When we get off the ship in Italy, we’ll spend a couple of weeks in Umbria (in an agrotourism farm) and Tuscany (at a small-town apartment) before flying from Florence back to Antwerp.

If any of these interest you, check back in. I’m also always open to suggestions!