This is the gateway to Sri Lanka; the entrypoint for vibrant culture, golden beaches, charming fishing villages and the famous 17th-century Galle Fort, a Unesco heritage site. Once a second city to the capital, Galle has undergone a real renaissance to become the hip hub of the country, bursting with cool cafes, tiny bohemian boutiques and a buzzy vibe. The annual Galle Literary Festival in January brings a plethora of international authors and intellectuals, and the town is increasingly arty too, with foreign photographers and painters setting up home and galleries here.
Hotel-wise, southern Sri Lanka is the hotspot of the moment, with gorgeous new boutique openings sprinkling the coastlines. This is the place for stylish hotel honeymoons, chilled family villa holidays, or to hire a beach house with friends to surf the local breaks, visit yoga centres of excellence, and go diving amid wrecks and reefs.
Between Unawatuna and Weligama, you can still see the famous stilt fishermen at work, perched on stakes in the water fishing with a rod and line - the best place to see them is Ahangama. And don't miss the charming fishing towns of Tangalle and Habaraduwa and their surrounding beaches - much quieter than busy Mirissa.
Skip Colombo's gridlock and a long drive south, and soar here by seaplane instead. A thrilling, easy - and inexpensive - hop from the international airport, it takes just 25 minutes to get here by air taxi, and en route you'll get glorious ariel views of Adam's Peak, Galle Fort and the white sand, palm-fringed beaches of Unawatuna and Talpe. You land at Koggala Lake, and from here you can tuk-tuk to wherever you want to go.
The Galle Fort Flea Market, with its pop-up cafes, live music and festival atmosphere takes place on the first Sunday of every month, under the shade of giant banyan trees. Their slogan - 'anyone is welcome to come and sell anything' - reveals its love of fair trade, local heritage and community spirit. We recommend Kikili stall's bright, festive bunting - an easy thing to take home, and perfect for any celebratory occasion.
The Galle Good Market ('good for you, good for the planet') is an organic market that has long been established in Colombo, and recently started to do a Galle Fort rendition every Saturday in Law Court Square. Don't miss the Life Food stall for their Vitalizer smoothie - king coconut, pineapple, coriander, ginger, salt and kithul treacle. All sorts of delicious (and good for you, too).
1. Fresh tuna wraps and Soul Reviver pineapple and coriander shakes at Ben & Annie's Shack Café in Devata. You can hire boards and surf the gentle beach break right in front of the Shack Café, which is so laid back its almost horizontal.
2. The mango prawn curry at Wijaya Beach near Unawatuna. Preceded by freezing cold beers, strawberry daiquiris and tuna sashimi and followed by chocolate brownies. An old-time favourite of ours: despite much new competition there's still no better place to watch the sunset.
3. The Chef’s Seafood Salad at Talpe Beach (pictured). Greens are surprisingly hard to come by in Sri Lanka, so we love the simplicity of this fresh seafood salad. Talpe Beach is a lovely, Dutch/German run restaurant with a great pool and views overlooking a lagoon that's safe for swimming and the reef.
4. Four cheese gnocchi with truffle oil and garlic jumbo prawns at Why Beach, Talpe, washed down with prosecco. Our favourite spot for intimate, celebratory lunches.
5. The Salad Thali at Poonies Kitchen in Galle Fort. How they make something so super-food-nutritious so delicious, we do not know. Offset the health with their devilishly good carrot cake.
If you're a beginner, hire a board and take lessons at Weligama; its horseshoe bay and gentle swells are perfect to find your confidence. More experienced borders can head to Gurubebila beach, where the local surf breaks hold up to 5ft on a good day between October and April. Midigama, Kabalana and Madiha, with their more challenging swells, will suit the most daring of surfers.
Hidden amongst 89 jewellery shops, this fabulous retro poster gallery is a must-visit when you're in town. Its British owners bucked the local gemology trend (and astounded locals) when they turned a tiny 2-up 2-down colonial townhouse into a fabulous art space, and the whole thing feels more Brick-Lane boutique than heritage city shop. Come for affordable prints and postcards of vintage tea, travel, surf and film scenes, all celebrating Sri Lanka’s incredible heritage.
A few days in Galle is enough of a turnaround time to have jewellery handmade for you. Try Chrysolite on Church Street or Laksana on Rampart Street (both in Galle Fort) where you can choose sparkling gemstones and collaborate on a personal design/get something copied.
Spy blue whales, spinner dolphins and killer whales on a tour with Mirissa Watersports, our recommended whale-watching operator in Mirissa. They can also take you snorkelling and sports fishing, and all activities are carefully designed to promote responsible ecotourism.
We'd say Idle Tours is the best, most organised and kitted-out bicycle tour company in Sri Lanka. Everyone comes back from their tour exhilarated, whether they opt for the long or short, easy or challenging routes. British owner Alex has invested in all manner of bikes for all ages. Those who want to experience the journey without having to pedal can tag along in a tuk tuk.
Unlike many tragically abused ‘tame’ elephants, friendly Lily has been domesticated since birth, and is incredibly gentle and used to human contact. You and your children can ride her to the river through the jungle, and help feed her the daily quota of 100kg of bananas and sugar cane before she rolls into the river for a wash; her favourite moment of the day when she always smiles from large ear to large ear. Best done at around 3.30pm after the midday heat.