Jaffna: a travellers guide to Sri Lanka’s northern capital
A cultural melting pot more than worthy of your time: Jaffna is a must-see on any Sri Lankan itinerary.
Here are the best things to do in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, plus our short guide to the city including where to stay, eat, and how to get around!
“It’s.. different up there,” our tuk tuk driver, Dilshan warned us as we puttered through the tea plantations just outside Ella.
“The north, it doesn’t even feel like the same country,” he continued. “Actually, you might not even like it”
We’d been chatting about our plans to head north to Jaffna - an area of Sri Lanka often skipped over by travellers to this little island paradise - and while thankfully Dilshan’s warnings about not liking it ended up to be incorrect, he was definitely right about one thing:
Jaffna. is. different.
These northern realms of Sri Lanka drum to a beat of their own, lead by the Tamils and a strong Hindu culture so entirely separate from the Sinhalese and buddhist culture of the south.
Colourful Hindu temples dot the region, frequented by sari-clad women and shirtless men praying to the gods. The language is distinct, the people more reserved, and the cuisine influenced strongly by southern India.
The region, finally rebuilding and healing after a bloody 26 year civil war that only ended in 2009, still bears the scars from this tumultuous period. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict, while today a few burnt out homes and bullet-filled walls remain. For many, a deep pain and resentment towards the south and the outcome of the war is still felt.
Yet despite it all, Jaffna is a seriously raw and authentic place to visit. We were blown away by the warmth of the locals, which although different to the south, is no less genuine. We also realised that, despite the lack of rope swings and insta-famous locations, Jaffna has an incredible amount of unique things to see and do, including ancient forts and temples, isolated islands, and truly amazing food.
Dilshan was right, the north is very different, but we absolutely enjoyed it.
The region’s still a while away from truly exploding as a tourism destination, but for those like us who were searching for an authentic travel experience, Jaffna is definitely a place we recommend you visit in Sri Lanka.
11 awesome things to see and do in Jaffna, Sri Lanka
#1 - explore the ancient Jaffna Fort
If we’re being honest, we’ll admit that we didn’t find Jaffna Fort as beautiful as its insta-famous southern counterpart, Galle Fort. However, we did really enjoy walking its tourist-free walls and ramparts at our own pace and enjoying the great views over the moat, Jaffna Lagoon and the city.
Similar to Galle, Jaffna Fort was originally built by the Portuguese before the Dutch (and later, English) expanded it into one of the greatest forts in Asia in the late 1600's. This fort is much smaller in size than it’s counterpart so you can explore it easily in half a day. We’d recommend heading over in the afternoon to watch the sunset over the city.
It's free to explore, although many historical buildings and structures remain in ruins due to the recent civil war.
Where | Jaffna Fort
Cost | Free
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#2 - Admire the colourful and ancient Nallur Kandiswamy Hindu temple
Absolutely stunning; that's the only way we can describe the incredible Nallur Kandiswamy, a Hindu temple dedicated to Skanda/Murugan – the god of love, war and beauty.
Just ten minutes from the centre of Jaffna town, Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil was first built as a fort in 948 when Nallur (“good city”) was an important ancient kingdom. Reconstructed twice (1450s and 1734), the towering golden-ochred temple has been calling faithful devotees to its grounds for centuries, becoming a significant landmark in Jaffna.
From the minute we entered the grounds, this temple was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. From the men prostrating while praying to gods, to women in brightly coloured saris cracking coconuts as offerings to the gods, to the sounds of chanting and incense - it’s a truly fascinating, slightly chaotic cultural experience.
Non-hindus are able to enter the temple, however do make sure you’re dressed appropriately. This means covered shoulders and legs for women, and shirts removed for men. Do not wear animal skin (e.g. leather) when entering the temple.
If you’re travelling to Jaffna during August, be sure to visit Nallur Kandiswamy temple for the Nallur festival; a colourful month-long display of the vibrant Northern culture.
Where | Nallur Kandiswamy Hindu temple
Cost | Free
Tips | Dress appropriately. Women must cover their shoulders and legs, while men must remove their shirts.
Photography is not allowed inside
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#3 - Embrace local life at the Jaffna markets
Visiting the local market of Thirunelveli was hands down our favourite thing to do in Jaffna.
We arrived at 7am to find the markets already thriving; a swirling cacophony of smells, colours and shouting that can only be found in a truly authentic local market. The presence of two foreigners definitely wasn’t unnoticed, and with many a curious stare pointed in our direction we initially felt like terribly intrusive outsiders.
Gradually, a few friendly stall-owners began to open up and embrace our presence and before long we were moving from stall to stall, chatting with sellers and learning about Jaffna, the markets, and their recent history. We took their portraits, tried local fruits, and were gifted many a coconut and generous smile.
It was such a positive experience.
After visiting Jaffna markets, we walked away feeling like we understood the people, culture and city so much more, and the whole experience made us really appreciate the north of Sri Lanka. If you do visit, please respect that Thirunelveli is a working market, so keep out of the way, try to buy some produce, and engage in friendly conversation.
Where | Thirunelveli Markets
How to get there | It's easiest to catch a tuk-tuk, however if you're staying centrally, you can walk north along Palali Rd
Cost | Free
Tip | Visit early, at around 7am, when the markets are bustling and the golden light mesmerising
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#4 - Explore Jaffna's outer islands, including Delft Island
Long, arduous, yet definitely satisfying - our day-trip to Delft Island (Neduntheevu in Tamil, or Neduntivu in Sinhala) was certainly unique, and one of our favourite things to do in Jaffna.
Located about 30kms from Jaffna city, Delft is an outlying coral and limestone island with a long history dating from the Chola Dynasty, Portuguese, Dutch and the British Colonial Period. It's absolutely not your stereotypical postcard-worthy island, but that's all part of its charm.
Visiting the island was like stepping wayyyyy back in time, with tiny villages, windy dirt roads, rock walls, and swaying palms making up the island. Remnants of the Islands' past are dotted throughout, and we recommend visiting the following sites:
Portuguese/Dutch Fort | Ruined ancient Fort, originally built by the Portuguese, and turned into a Fort by the Dutch
Delft Island baobab tree | Huge baobab native to tropical Africa, left by Arab merchants
Old Dutch Hospital | Built by the Dutch and converted into an administrative centre in the early 1900's. In 'The Courts', there's a British Emblem inscribed on the wall
Pigeon Nest | A unique structure used to house messenger pigeons to other areas during the Dutch reign
Dutch Horse Stables | Crumbling horse stables built during the Dutch occupation, housing horses from all over the world
Food can be hard to come by on the Islands; there's one restaurant at the Jetty which serves vegetable roti and fried wade, otherwise a few small markets sell the odd snack. We definitely recommend you bring at least 2L of water, and enough food for the day.
Delft Island was also the first time we've really noticed the effects of climate change - the whole Island was covered in water with the water table very high due to rising sea levels and recent unusual flooding. Scary.
How to get there | From Jaffna you need to get to Kurikadduwan harbour, about an hour away. Take the 776 from Jaffna bus station (90r per person), departing at 6:30, or a tuk tuk (2000r).
The ferry for Delft leaves at 8am or 9am (100r per person), with a maximum number of 100 passengers, so it's important to get there 30mins before departure.
Returning home, we recommend catching the 14:30 ferry back to Kurikadduwan harbour.
How to get around Delft Island | Upon arrival, you can organise a tuk-tuk to take you to all the major sights. Expect to pay between 1500 - 2500r.
Tip | Bring food and water just in case
Read more | Our comprehensive Delft Island day trip guide
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#5 - Road trip to Keerimalai and Kankesanthurai beach (KKS), north of Jaffna
We really wanted to get out of Jaffna city itself and explore the northern part of the city. Locals recommended a visit to Keerimalai and Kankesanthurai beaches (KKS), so we booked a tuk tuk and set off.
The north is dotted with colourful Hindi Kovils, spiritual abodes for local devotees and one which you must visit is Keerimalai Naguleswaram Kovil. Dating back 1000 years, the temple is dedicated to Shiva and is also located next to the Keerimalai pond which is said to have healing powers. We’re not sure about that latter part, but it is definitely worth visiting to watch the local boys playing around.
KKS beach is said to be the best in Jaffna, although in our honest opinion we beg to differ. Although visually pretty enough, it was rather polluted when we were there, so it might be worth giving a miss if you're stretched for time. We did meet a number of local families, which made the experience enjoyable.
If you're planning on heading north, ask your tuk tuk driver to take you to the most important Kovil's in the area.
How to get there | Tuk tuk from Jaffna centre costs around 2000r - 2500r, including visiting major Kovils in the area. Alternatively, you can catch a local bus from Jaffna bus station to KKS, or the Yal Devi train service, leaving from Jaffna station
#6 - Stroll through Jaffna's lively city centre
If you've got a spare afternoon, we definitely recommend strolling the streets of Jaffna and, dare we recommend it, getting a bit lost.
Jaffna’s city centre is surprisingly beautiful - towering palmyra palms, colourful Hindu temples, vibrant local markets, cute laneways, and of course, friendly smiles from surprised locals. The perfect way to see it all is on foot, through the centre of town.
Starting at Jaffna bus station, head west and follow your nose. And when you're done grab a tuk-tuk to Mangos - the best restaurant in town!
#7 - Eat at Mangos, Jaffna’s best restaurant
At this very moment of writing, we're still dreaming about the masala dosa at Mangos, Jaffna's best (and most famous) restaurant. We were worried that this tourist-popular spot might not live up to the hype, but we can absolutely say that we had some of our best meals in Sri Lanka here. It was so good in fact, that we went back twice!
The cuisine in Jaffna is very different to the southern reaches of Sri Lanka - think more South Indian in flavour, with heavier curries, biryani, dosas, and parathas. And Lassis... so many lassis!
We recommend trying the signature masala dosa, the delicious onion bhaji, as well as any of the traditional south Indian curries, and washing it down with fresh pineapple juice (just remember to ask for no straw!).
Cost | Masala Dosa - 200r, Pineapple juice - 250r
#8 - Go ice cream crazy at Rio’s
After finishing your masala dosa from Mangos, you probably won't be hungry. But if you have any space left and a craving for ice cream we’d suggest Rio’s a short walk away.
Rio's is absolutely not your usual Italian gelato style ice cream (so don’t go there expecting it!); it’s ice cream with a sweet south Indian twist, full of condiments and flavours to blow your mind.
Where | Rio’s Ice Cream cafe
Cost | Start from 70r per sundae
#9 - Admire the colonial Jaffna Public Library and jaffna Clock Tower
Unfortunately, Jaffna only has a small amount of colonial buildings still intact after the war. The two which we recommend you visit are Jaffna Public Library and Jaffna Clock Tower.
Jaffna Public Library was actually one of the largest in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts, before it was burnt down in 1981 during the bloody civil war.
In 2002 it was restored, although sadly the library collection is not what it once was. Visitors are only allowed into a few rooms, but it's still worth the seeing.
Opening hours | Jaffna Public Library - 4:30pm - 6:30pm for tourists
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#10 - Sunset drinks at Jetwing
As the sun sets over the Jaffna, the hazy skies turn bright orange before the speckled lights of the city illuminate. It's all very pretty, and perfect to be enjoyed with a cocktail or two. At least that's what we did!
Jetwing Jaffna have the best views in town, overlooking the city and lagoon from their panoramic rooftop bar. Not only that, there's a happy hour during golden hour, allowing for (slightly) cheaper cocktails.
We enjoyed a mojito and an ice-cold beer each, and we suggest you do, too.
Where | Jetwing Jaffna
Opening hours | 11am - 10pm
Cost | Cocktails start from 300r
#11 - Speak with the Jaffna locals
We recommended speaking to locals in our Galle Fort guide, and we recommend the same in Jaffna.
Because almost everyone you see has lived through the bloody civil war that raged in this part of Sri Lanka for the better part of 25 years. These people have lived through a lot, and they all have stories to tell.
Sure, people may not be immediately open about their experiences (and we don’t recommend you go in hard with questions about a painful war!), but if they do share, it can lead to many an intriguing, insightful, and at times, confronting conversation. When we mentioned Colombo to one shopkeeper, his face turned unexpectedly dark and he did a ‘slit the neck’ motion - clearly angry at a political coup that was currently playing out in the Sri Lankan government, where the president had been replaced by leader with previously strong anti-Tamil sentiments.
Others in the market were keen to share insights about the Tamil way of life, their culture and their experiences of life up north. They're also generally more than happy to tell you about all the amazing things to do in Jaffna, including where to eat (Mangos was suggested to us by a local, and that turned out very well!), so chat away and enjoy this unique culture.
A map of the best the best things to do in Jaffna
If you visit Jaffna, download our ‘best things to do in Jaffna’ map to your phone so you never get lost.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Where is jaffna?
Jaffna is the capital of the Jaffna district, and is located on the northernmost peninsula of Sri Lanka. Distance wise, it’s about 400km north of Colombo, and 315km north-west of Kandy.
WHERE TO STAY IN Jaffna
There are plenty of accommodation options available in Jaffna, although it’s worth noting that as the region is still opening up to tourism, accommodation up north tends to be a little more expensive than what you’ll find in the south of the country. The difference isn’t huge, but it’s definitely worth factoring into your budgeting/planning if you intend to make the trip up.
A little note on accommodation in Sri Lanka: If you land expecting to see your traditional lively, dorm-room, rooftop-bar, communal-breakfast-area type hostels common to most of Southeast Asia on every corner, you may be left a little disappointed. We found there was actually a surprising lack of ‘hostel culture’ throughout the country, mostly because the accommodation centres around the family-run guesthouses or airbnb rentals listed below.
We found the best budget accommodation by either searching Airbnb or simply turning up and asking a local where to go!
Honestly, in our view Airbnb is your best option when looking for cheap accommodation in Sri Lanka. We used it almost exclusively throughout our trip!
If you’re a fan of Airbnb, there are a tonne of options available in Jaffna, with a decent air-conditioned double room in locally-run guesthouse averaging £20-30 per night.
Tip: Book using our code and receive up to £30 off your first booking!
As Jaffna slowly opens up, more and more hotels are becoming available (we spotted a number under construction on our travels there). There are some top-range hotels available, but most are mid-range yet comfortable.
Planning your dream Sri Lanka trip? USE OUR COMPREHENSIVE AIRBNB GUIDE TO FIND your PERFECT ACCOMMODATION!
HOW TO GET TO Jaffna
Definitely the quickest and most scenic way to get from Colombo to Jaffna is via train, which runs through the heart of Sri Lanka via Anuradhapura.
The Colombo Fort to Jaffna train departs 5 times a day, with the earliest departure at 05:45am and the final departure at 20:30. It takes around 7- 8 hours, and the busiest section is between Anuradhapura and Colombo (so be sure to have your seats sorted by then!).
The journey also takes you past the infamous Elephant Pass, a slip of land connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka, which played a critical role in many battles throughout the the civil war.
Cost | 600r per person for 2nd class, 350r per person for 3rd class
Departure Times | From Colombo Fort only: 0545, 0635, 0940, 1150, 2030
It is possible to get from Colombo to Jaffna via an overnight bus, however we recommend breaking up the journey up by stopping in Kandy or Dambulla overnight.
We took a local bus from Dambulla to Jaffna which took around 7 hours, and while its an easy trip to make, be warned that the the hard wooden seats can get uncomfortable after a while! This cost us 170r each.
Cost | 400r - 500r per person
WHEN TO VISIT Jaffna
We visited Jaffna in November and the weather was absolutely perfect, despite being known to be a wet month.
The best time to visit is anytime between January - March, when the when little rain occurs and the temperatures are manageable (learn more on our Sri Lanka travel tips post).
Do avoid April if possible, when the average temperature is 34 degrees - and having travelled to Sri Lanka in this month before, we can attest that it’s also a bajillion degrees of humidity!
Have you been to Jaffna yourself? Help your fellow travellers our by sharing your favourite things to do in Jaffna in the comments below!
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