One could be easily awed by the Galle Fort for its European-like streetscape, colonial period architecture, the breathtaking view of the sea from the ramparts, UNESCO world heritage monumental value coming from the 16th century with technologies such as drainage and sewer systems still working with the high tides, townscape that is home to more 1500 residents where the heritage is a daily phenomenon (Bohingamuwa, 2019). This walled city is a living heritage that denotes hybrid architectural styles from the Portuguese, Dutch, and British periods appropriated to the cultural and climatic context of Sri Lanka as a living heritage on the south coast of the island.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet1
Aerial View of the Galle Fort_Rovin Shanila, By Rovin Shanila, Galle Fort, CC BY-SA 4.0
Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet2
Plan van de Vesting Gale (Paln of Galle) By Carl Friedrich Reimer (land surveyor/mapmaker), G.E. Schenk (land surveyor/mapmaker)

History of the Fort

Sri Lanka has gone through three foreign nationalities trying to conquer the island where the Portuguese were the first to make their mark after unintentionally coming to the port of Galle in 1505 due to harsh weather at sea on their way to the Maldives. Portuguese built a temporary fort after capturing the city and it was the Dutch who made the Galle Fort fortification on a strong foundation with moats in the 16th century. The main gate is constructed with semi-circular stones which hold the marking of the famous Dutch East India Company (VOC). Galle Fort was a valuable point in Dutch rule until they captured the commercial hub, Colombo. Having Bastions in strategic locations with views of the sea from three sides the Dutch expanded this original layout from Portuguese with reinforcing and enlarging (Sachintha Dilhani, 2015). In 1796 after the Dutch handed over the Galle Fort to British rule fort remained as the administrative and an important port in the south. British used most of the Dutch-period buildings and some dilapidated buildings were replaced and the lighthouse and the new gate were added to the fort (Wijeratne, 2005). During these periods of foreign rulers, a vivid cultural and religious landscape emerged in the fort which is preserved even today. After the British developed the Colombo harbor as the main hub Galle lost its significance in maritime trade but functioned as an administrative point.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet3
Old Gate Constructed by the Dutch_Michael Gunther, Old Gate (inside), Galle Fort 0707, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Walled City 

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet4
Cliff Jumpers at Flag Rock Bastion _By Dan Lundberg, 20160129 Sri Lanka 4218 Galle sRGB (25468814050), CC BY-SA 2.0

Recovery of the fort was started in 1940 on a national level and until today there have been multiple waves of restoration efforts funded both locally and by the Dutch government as it’s a shared heritage. Galle Fort has an area of 100 acres where the ramparts cover around 2.4km with 10 bastions, most built by the Dutch (Wijeratne, 2005). The street network is well connected providing a grid system with discoveries at every turn using the fort’s structures. Rampart Street and Hospital Street run along with the ramparts connecting the outer ring of streets and many intersecting roads which are now paved with cobblestones and fewer vehicles. One could either walk on the ramparts and have vistas of the sea and city on either side or take the one path in the grid street system and be close to the distinctive streetscape and outstanding collection of buildings. A few experiences in the fort not to be missed are the Portuguese-built Zwart Bastion or Black Fort, scenic sunset from the Star Bastion and nearby Old Slave Quarters, Dutch Bell Tower or Dutch Belfry, and the nearby maritime museum, All Saint’s Church, the court complex and square, The Groote Kerk or Dutch Reformed Church, The Clock Tower, Cliff Jumpers at Flag Rock Bastion, a sea bath near the lighthouse and exploring shops on Pedlar Street.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet5
Dutch Reformed Church in Galle Fort_ © A.Savin, WikiCommons

Soulful Architecture

Inside the townscape, the Dutch built a hospital (now reused as a shopping complex), churches, the Governor’s house, and military and administrative buildings to create a community well-contented (Wijeratne, 2005). The streets are narrow and house stoeps or verandahs and gabled roofs with half-round clay tiles complement the streetscape. Stoeps are sometimes decorated with wooden trellis work which gives some privacy for the owners as well. Round massive pillars and exposed rafter roofing create varying volumes inside the house as one progresses from the stoep to the rear courtyard or garden. Courtyards are one of the main characteristics of most buildings built in this period which serves as a crucial ventilation strategy against the climate of the country. The doors are of carved wood and the windows are either glass pane or timber louvered. One surprising service of the fort that still works to date is the sewerage system running deep (2-4m) underground that uses the high tide to flush out its system (Wijeratne, 2005). It is remarkable to see how the European way of building has been adapted to local culture, climate, and geological context through the local artisans and builders (D. Silva and Rajapakse, 2020).

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet6
Old Dutch Hospital Now a Shopping Complex_By Nilantha Sanjeewa on Unsplash
Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet7
Streetscape of the Galle Fort_ Saqib Qayyum, Fort Street, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Heartfelt

Due to the fort’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious roots in the community that have resided from those times to this date, Galle Fort holds a vibrant and extraordinary culture. However, looking at the current state and use of the built fabric and embedded values and emotions suggests change is inevitable. Once a port or a military base signifying the foreign rule in the country, or now a place of Instagram-able pictures, literary and movie festivals, a plethora of shops consisting of Jem and Jewelry, local art products such as masks, ornaments, wearables and of course ever-increasing restaurants, coffee shops, and villas. one downside of this change is the suffering of the local community by losing their longtime residents, memories of the place, sense of community and competitive external forces ultimately leading gentrification as well. D. Silva and Rajapakse (2020) discuss having a collective vision incorporating the local community in safeguarding and managing this living urban heritage as a conservation and development is a crucial step. 

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet8
A Courtyard in a House in Galle Fort_ By Николай Максимович, Galle Fort, Sri Lanka – panoramio (13), CC BY 3.0

Walls Within – conclusion

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet9
Spectators on the Ramparts of Galle Fort for an International Cricket Match in Galle International Cricket Stadium_ Nilan.iro, Gallefort, CC BY-SA 4.0

Be it the international cricket matches in neighboring Galle Cricket stadium or the devastating Tsunami in 2004, the life inside the townscape has seen a centuries-old way of things and life. Sri Lankan veteran film director Prasanna Vithanage made Galle Fort his primary location to shoot his artful and award-winning movie ‘Walls Within’ (Pawuru Walalu – පවුරු වළලු) set in 1950-60s and released in 1999. Tale of Violet, a mother residing inside Galle Fort who has raised her two daughters alone after her husband abandoned them, receives a note from a past lover who has returned after 20 years of sailing. One daughter is gifted with a child while the other one is on the verge of marriage when Violet and Victor’s love is rekindled but succeeded by a tragic turn of events. Violet’s struggle with the religious and cultural background of the Catholics and the rigid social norms of that time resulted in devastation to her and ultimately led to losing her present mind (Wijegunasingha, 1999). The film takes a lot of support from the bleak but comfortable old house they live in to set moods, the stoeps being a semi-public space connecting to the street, and views of the tile roofscapes from glass pane windows. Characters acting out with elements of architecture and spaces of the house in the narrative are sometimes with identical shots but with a clever play of mood, lighting, and characters, and most importantly to signify a time and place stuck in values, social norms, and attitudes of a past time that is restraining. 

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet10
Violet in Her House in the Movie ‘Walls Within’ (Pawuru Walalu- පවුරු වළලු))_at IMDB

Galle Fort is a remarkable piece of passage in time and a living urban heritage with deep social, communal, and cultural importance. Bringing up the community as its core value could set up a contemporary example of the preservation and development of such heritage. Nevertheless, it is a place where one could easily be awed and create lasting memories with Sri Lanka’s colonial period architecture, vistas of sea, and ramparts with the rich culture of heartful people that just seeps into you.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka-Sheet11
View from Flag Rock Bastion towards Lighthouse_By Nilanka Kariyawasam on Unsplash


Bohingamuwa, W. (2019). The Galle Fort World Heritage Site: A Nature-Culture Approach to the Conservation of Cultural Heritage along the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka. JOURNAL OF WORLD HERITAGE STUDIES, SPECIAL ISSUE 2019, pp.29–37.

Silva, K. and Rajapakse, A. (2020). The Routledge Handbook on Historic Urban Landscapes in the Asia-Pacific. Routledge.

Pali, Wijeratne. (2005). Management of the cultural heritage in Galle Fort – before and after the 26/12 tsunami devastation. In: 15th ICOMOS General Assembly and International Symposium: ‘Monuments and sites in their setting – conserving cultural heritage in changing townscapes and landscapes’, 17 – 21 oct 2005, Xi’an, China. [Conference or Workshop Item].

Sachintha Dilhani (2015). Historical Significance of Galle fort during the Dutch period in Sri Lanka. doi:

Wijegunasingha, P. (1999). Life is not the problem, but the conditions under which it is offered. [online] World Socialist Web Site. Available at: [Accessed 31 Dec. 2023].


Chamindu Piyathilake is an architect from Sri Lanka who is passionate about creating meaningful spaces and experiences through architecture. With a focus on practical expertise in BIM and digitalization strategies, he strives to bring innovation to creative design and the industry.