Galle, Sri Lanka, foodie guide: where to eat, drink, and shop
For a week of thalis, coconut curries and lychee gelato, head to Galle and explore this scenic city on the Sri Lankan southwest coast
Looking for Galle restaurants? Here are our favourite restaurants in the Sri Lankan coastal town, plus where to get the best ice cream, spices and street food.
Protected from the shimmering Indian Ocean by grassy ramparts, Galle Fort’s colonial 17th century buildings (a legacy of the city’s Dutch occupation) shelter cafés, art galleries, craft and textile shops and breezy open-sided restaurants. This scenic spot attracts swarms of tourists but don’t be put off by the crowds. It also contains some of southern Sri Lanka’s best food, from buffalo lemon curd gelato to black tea kombucha, chilli crab, streetside kottu, coconut curries and thali-style salads.
Isle of Gelato – best ice cream in Galle
This chilled little spot in Galle Fort is just the place to escape the heat. Sri Lankan owners, Shalini and Suranjan, wanted to blend local ingredients with Italian techniques and Shalini spent three months in Bologna learning how to make gelato the traditional way.
Made-from-scratch gelato flavours include plenty of locally influenced options, including refreshing buffalo lemon curd, while the lychee dream (a delicate blush-coloured mix of lychee, raspberry and rosewater) went down equally well among our intrepid taste testers.
Poonie’s Kitchen – best Thai restaurant in Galle
A sunny little courtyard café squeezed between a pool of Orangina-coloured carp, a pile of waxy king coconuts and a boho lifestyle store, this stalwart of the Galle Fort expat scene is the place to go if you’ve had your fill of coconut curries and hoppers and are craving fruit and salads.
Its fresh, light menu nods more towards South East Asia than Sri Lanka (think homemade granola with mango, banana, coconut and yoghurt, butternut squash and coriander fritters, Thai-style stir-fried noodles and Vietnamese pho) but its signature dish, the salad thali, blends European and Asian flavours brilliantly.
The thali’s components change each day according to what’s been delivered to the kitchen but our collection of salads, served on a shiny tin tray, encompassed pomegranate seed-sprinkled beetroot coleslaw, black sesame seed-scattered roast carrots, caramelised aubergine, lettuce chopped with cucumber and avocado, soft little cubes of roast butternut squash, lightly spiced and squishy okra, tiny baked potatoes, cubes of colourful orange and red tomatoes and two sliver-thin discs of homemade rye cracker. Order a passionfruit soda (fresh passionfruit stirred into fizzy water) to go with it and you have the recipe for the perfect tropical lunch.
The Tuna And The Crab – best seafood restaurant in Galle
Owned by Dharshan Munidasa (the Japanese-Sri Lankan chef behind Colombo’s cult Ministry of Crab and Nihonbashi restaurants), The Tuna and the Crab is set within the atmospheric old Dutch Hospital in Galle Fort and features menu favourites from its Colombo siblings – not least export-quality lagoon crabs (in dishes such as garlic-chilli crab, pepper crab and crab croquettes) and stellar tempura and sashimi. Steaks are also available for seasoned carnivores.
Crab is the star player here but the exquisitely presented bento boxes and sashimi platters are also worth trying, as is the olive oil and soy sauce sashimi made with red mullet.
Best street food in Galle
There are plenty of local places to try a more sit-down take on kottu, that classic Sri Lankan dish of shredded roti stir-fried with vegetables, spices, egg and sometimes chicken (among them The Blockhouse and Sugar, both in Galle Fort).
Kottu has traditionally always been a street food, however, served by roadside vendors in the evening. The best we found was made by cook Kadesh at his stall at the front of the Vinu Hotel, at the Galle Fort end of Mahamodara Beach. For around 60p our “medium spicy” (think temperature-soaring amounts of chilli) veggie version was the real deal, the vegetables crunchy but the cooked roti soft and noodle-like so that the end result was something like a plate of pad thai.
Withered Leaves – best tea shop in Galle
A tea boutique, upstairs in the same complex as The Tuna and the Crab, this beautifully designed store is one for true tea nerds. Beautiful golden tea urns store loose-leaf teas from estates across Sri Lanka and the tea is handled with meticulous care. Green teas, white teas, single-estate teas, blends and fruit teas are all available, as are pre-packaged gift sets.
Church Street Social – best tea house in Galle
It’s not hard to find a good cuppa in Sri Lanka (the same can’t be said for coffee) but the elegant front terrace of Fort Bazaar Hotel is a perfect spot for a pick-me-up pot of tea in the afternoon. With fans whirring overhead, a roadside screen of leafy plants and a neat black, white and sage colour scheme the surroundings are as refreshing as the tea. There’s quite an extensive tea menu but we recommend a cup of mellow Golden Pekoe from Tea Eli.
BedSpace – best bar in Galle
Not in Galle itself but a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away, in the beachside enclave of Unawatuna, what started out as a backpacker’s guesthouse (it’s still pretty boho around the edges) has morphed into an outdoor bar and restaurant with a policy of training up young chefs. Tucked down a little alleyway off the main Galle to Talpe road, it’s not the easiest place to find but once you’re there it’s a mellow spot to while away an evening.
Start with a craft soda (cinnamon and hibiscus, or coconut vinegar with ginger and coriander perhaps) then move on to a Ceylon Sour (arrak, lime, kitul and orange bitters) and surprisingly sophisticated dishes made with as much island-sourced produce as possible.
The prawn salad with mango arrives with crunchy noodles, a lemon vinaigrette and the biggest prawn you will ever have seen (Sri Lanka is home to an almost lobster-sized lagoon species) but the buttered cuttlefish is the dish everyone comes for. Made with spring onions, honey, chilli and lots of garlic it’s like a posh take on a sweet and sour, the cuttlefish all chewy crunch from its deep-fried cornflour coating, the sauce a smoky-sweet, chilli-soy delight.
Best food shops in Galle…
Chilli Spice Dragon
This tiny, family-run spice stall has recently moved right to the Galle end of Galle Fort. It’s easy to miss and only has a small selection but it’s worth seeking out if you’re in Galle Fort and want to pick up some local cinnamon, tea or curry spice blends in a hurry (get the dark curry spice blend if you want to cook up some Sri Lankan devilled cashews back home).
For a much wider range of spices, away from the tourist scene, head to the little spice stall just outside the city’s main vegetable market. Its shelves are crammed with ochre-hued jars of every shape, size and scent and the more you buy the better the prices get (be prepared to haggle).
Or, time your visit for a Saturday and visit the Good Market on Law Court Square, an eco-aware farmers’ market where artisan spices, tea, rice and tropical fruit jams jostle for space among local arts and crafts.
Food For Thought
A bright, modern deli cum grocers in the heart of Galle Fort, Food For Thought stocks mainly imported items but there are some interesting local buys perched on its shelves. Among them, look out for local honey and various flavours of Laa Dhalu kombucha made with Sri Lankan black tea (try the ginger one).
Not so much a food shop as a lifestyle store, this is arguably the town’s best quality craft shop. If you’re in search of a souvenir this should be your first port of call, whether you’re seeking fabric toys, brightly woven cushions, natural toiletries, cinnamon incense or coffee table books about Sri Lanka. It also stocks tea.
Best day trips from Galle…
For a different, more agricultural take on the area cycle out into the lush countryside beyond Galle on a 90-minute bike tour with Idle Bikes. Winding peacefully through a district called Hiratigala the tour passes paddy fields, canals, tea plantations and rural villages along the way and offers a chance to spot kingfishers, iguanas, egrets and, if you’re lucky, maybe even cobras. Go early and stop half way for a fresh coconut juice then ride back as the sun starts to intensify.
Handunugoda Tea Estate
One of the few tea plantations in southern Sri Lanka, Handunugoda is well on the tourist track but no less fascinating for it. Join one of its free daily tours and, after a short walk through tea bushes, learning about the estate’s prestigious white tea, enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake in an old planters’ bungalow overlooking the tea terraces before heading down to the tea factory to watch tea being dried, sorted and processed the traditional way. There’s also a shop on site, though there’s no pressure to buy.
Best places to stay in Galle…
Owl and the Pussycat Hotel
A cool hotel with a warm soul, this rainbow-hued, Instagram-ready, 17-room hotel also has one of the best restaurants in the area. Even if you’re staying elsewhere it’s worth making the 15-minute tuk-tuk ride south of Galle for an evening at its bar and restaurant. Get there in time for superlative sundowners (among them king coconut mojitos with chunks of fresh young coconut floating refreshingly amid the muddled mint leaves). Then stay on for excellent made-from-scratch dishes.
Western beach classics are available, from mango and avocado salads to falafel wraps and burgers, but the Sri Lankan dishes are the standouts. Go easy on a starter of samosas with tamarind and date chutney; fill up too soon on these pillows of crunchy pastry and their softly spiced vegetable or chicken insides and you won’t have room for the hotel’s signature dish, the railway thali.
Named after your typical rail traveller’s assemblage of curry, rice and sides, the make-up varies each day according to what’s fresh but typical components include creamy, coconut fish curries made with flaky white para fish and turmeric, puffs of homemade poppadum, richly fragrant dals dotted with mustard seeds and sides such as chilli-flecked okra, baby jackfruit (pleasantly stringy, in a chicken-like way), warm beetroot-matchstick salads, crunchy green winged beans, thinly sliced and rolled in coconut, plus mango chutney, moju (caramelised aubergine pickle) and coconut sambol. If you’ve got space for it, end the meal with the kitchen’s homemade coconut ice cream. You won’t find a more delicious dessert in Galle.
Small, family-run guesthouses aren’t often as stylish as this one but owner Indika learnt his trade at legendary Sri Lankan boutique hotel, Kahanda Kanda, and has put that knowledge to good use in his own business. Polished concrete guest suites are large and peaceful with gauzy white netting cascading from tropical four-poster beds (the latter plump with immaculately starched linen), soft lighting sets a romantic tone and planter-style armchairs are positioned perfectly for relaxing over a pot of mid-afternoon tea while soaking up the sound of chirping crickets and the sight of bright tropical flowers (each room comes with a fresh arrangement). All the tech you need is on tap, including fast wifi, but only the most ardent workaholics will reach for it.
Instead chase the shadows cast by giant banana leaves around the shady swimming pool, wander through the jungle-like gardens for a massage in a riverside pavilion, watch a tortoise step languorously across your path or just make the most of your suite’s outdoor shower, wallowing in the cinnamon- and verbena-scented organic toiletries provided.
The home-cooked food is excellent, too. Breakfasts can be as Western (eggs, bacon, sausage and toast…) or as Sri Lankan (tropical fruit platters, hoppers, spicy omelettes…) as you like and come with just-squeezed orange juice, coffee and excellent Sri Lankan tea (the family also own various tea shops in Galle). In the evenings, don’t miss the homemade rotis, vegetable curries, gorgeously fragrant sambol and various fried or grilled fish dishes.
Only 10 minutes’ by tuk-tuk from the centre of Galle, Ginganga is a genuine haven, not only because of its tranquil, leafy setting but also because of the innate knack for hospitality that Indika and his family have. Whether you want to arrange an impromptu cooking class, track down Galle’s best spice shops, arrange a tea plantation tour or just be left in peace, it’s easily taken care of here.
Words and images by Rhiannon Batten