17 essential things to know before visiting Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Culturally diverse, a little offbeat, and full of intrigue, Jaffna is a must-see on any Sri Lankan itinerary. From its troubled history to current safety advice, how to visit respectfully and where to eat, these are the things to know before you visit Jaffna.
If you’re planning on making the journey north to Jaffna on your Sri Lankan adventure (which we certainly hope you do!), get ready for a fascinating insight to a beautiful, culturally diverse part of the country.
Only just opening up to visitors again and once the epicentre of Sri Lanka’s fiercely-waged and bloody civil war battle, these northern reaches are still considered pretty ‘off the beaten track’ compared to the Instagram-popular rope swing beaches and safari plains found in the country’s south.
In fact, we’ve encountered a few travellers who seem reluctant to head north and explore this unique, culturally diverse part of the country. We’re here to tell you that while Jaffna is very different to its southern counterparts — led by its Tamil population and a strong Hindu culture world’s apart from the Buddhist Sinhalese down south — it’s absolutely no less worthy of your visit.
We’ve already put together a Jaffna travel guide with all our favourite things to do there (along with some suggestions on where to stay and eat!), but to really get the most out of your Jaffna trip, there are a few things to know about Jaffna that we feel are essential for every traveller making the journey north.
From the region’s recent troubled history to today’s safety advice, navigating cultural differences to all your transport needs, plus how to make the most of your time there, these are the things to know before you visit Jaffna.
17 essential things to know before visiting Jaffna
Jaffna & The North Fact File
Size | 20.2 km2 (7.8 sq mi)
Population | 88,000 (2012)
Languages | Tamil, Sinhala, English
Currency | Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR)
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
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.
D’VILA GARDEN HOUSE | Comfortable, quiet, and with lovely hosts.
BOOK | Prices and availability here
JETWING JAFFNA | Upmarket and sustainably-minded hotel in the heart of Jaffna with incredible rooftop views.
BOOK | Prices and availability here
THE THINNAI | a casual, modern hotel with incredible pool and garden area.
BOOK | Prices and availability here.
THE BEST OF SRI LANKA: 31 INCREDIBLE THINGS TO SEE AND DO
#1 Jaffna is very different to the rest of Sri Lanka
“Jaffna is different”, we were told, by just about every Sri Lankan we came across. “It’s so different from the south. It’s very quiet and a little bit like India”.
Unsurprisingly, they were right. Jaffna IS different. Hugely, so.
Lead by the predominantly Tamil population with their strong Hindu culture, Jaffna and the north is full of colourful Hindu temples, frequented by brightly sari-clad women and shirtless men praying to the gods.
The cuisine is influenced strongly by southern India, less than 100km from its coastline. Local delicacies in Jaffna include Dosas, fish curries and thali. It’s bloody delicious though, something Jaffna does have in common with the rest of Sri Lanka.
The common language in Jaffna is Tamil, and the distinctive curved alphabet of Sinhalese replaced with the more angular Tamil on street signs, menus and store fronts.
Despite the differences, Jaffna is a seriously raw and authentic place to visit, and we were blown away by the warmth of the locals.
It might be world’s away from the south, but it’s no less worthy of your visit.
READ | Our full guide to Jaffna and the north here
#2 Jaffna History - The historical context
Jaffna has a complicated past, most obviously as the forefront of a decades-long bloody civil war that claimed the lives of more than 80,000 civilians. To understand Jaffna now, it’s really important to understand its historical context too.
It all started back in the 40’s, when Independence from colonial rule was obtained. At the time, a controversial law was passed by the Ceylon Parliament called the Ceylon citizenship act, which discriminated against the Indian Tamil ethnic minority. Essential, the minority Tamils were not granted citizenship to the country and over 700,000 Indian Tamils were made stateless.
There were deportations of Indian Tamils, whilst Sri Lankan Tamils were discriminated against at a cultural, religious, linguistic and economic level while the Ceylon Government actively promoted a ’Sinhala only’ mandate.
The Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were eventually formed, fighting for a separate Hindu/Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka called Tamil Eelam. In July 1983, the LTTE ambushed a Sri Lankan army patrol outside the town of Thirunelveli, killing an officer and 12 soldiers.
The Government retaliated, massacring between 400–3,000 Tamils. This is considered the beginning of the civil war, and for more than 25 long, bloody years between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka tore itself apart from the inside out. The majority of the battle raged in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north, and more than 80,000 (mostly civilian) lives were lost during the conflict.
In May 2009, the Sri Lankan Army declared victory and the bloody war ended.
In the aftermath, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the government is committed to a political solution and the Pro-LTTE political party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest political group representing Sri Lankan Tamil community, dropped its demand for a separate state, in favour of a federal solution.
While the fighting may be over and both sides live in relative peace, the pain of that time still runs deep - particularly in Jaffna, where bullet-ridden, bombed out buildings and fields full of landmines still scar the landscape.
For many people in Jaffna, the war is not over, and there’s still some lingering resentment towards the south.
TRIP PLANNING ESSENTIALS: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELLING TO SRI LANKA
#3 There’s still resentment towards the south
While the civil war ended 10 years ago, resentment towards the Sinhalese Government and the south remains.
Everyone you see has probably had at least one family member in LTTE, and almost everyone knows someone who perished in the war.
There’s still a strong military and police presence throughout the region (although this doesn’t affect tourists in any way). To many Tamils, the military presence reminds them of the past, and what the state was/is capable of.
Indeed, when we mentioned catching the train back to Colombo to one shopkeeper, his face turned unexpectedly dark and he made 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.
For the Sinhalese, the military presence is to control any future uprisings, but the continued presence does little build trust amongst the locals looking towards the future.
#4 But now is the time to visit Jaffna...
We kinda feel like now is the best time to visit Jaffna.
The war is over and investment is flooding in; there are new hotels and restaurants opening all the time, and a shiny new train is bringing visitors further north than they have ventured in decades.
Tourism provides a huge opportunity to Jaffna to start to rebuild and improve the economic prosperity in the region.Fortunately, progress is marching forward and one day this part of the country may look much like the rest of it; well-trodden tourist trails lined with backpacker hostels and smoothie shops.
But for now, the north is as wild and unexplored as it gets on this tropical paradise and perfect for intrepid travellers to find off the beaten track sites and hidden treasures.
So, VISIT NOW!
#5 There are a lot of interesting things to see in Jaffna, you just need to look a little harder
While the south of Sri Lanka might be filled with amazing things to do and places to visit, you’ll have to look a little harder for Jaffna’s top attractions. And they’re not exactly iconic or noteworthy, but that makes this part of Sri Lanka unique.
While we’ve written a whole post about the best things to do in Jaffna (which you can read here), below are the absolute must-sees in this part of Sri Lanka:
Jaffna Fort | Jaffna Fort isn’t 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.
Nallur Kandiswamy | The beautiful 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
Delft Island | 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.
Read our Delft Island guide here
Mangos Restaurant | Hands down the best restaurant we ate at in Jaffna! The masala dosa is incredible, and we had some of our best meals in Sri Lanka here
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GALLE FORT, SRI LANKA’S HISTORIC SEASIDE FORTRESS
#6 The weather is different, but the best time to visit Jaffna is from January to March
The climate in the north of Sri Lanka is drier than the south, with average temperatures of around 28 °C
We visited Jaffna in November and the weather was absolutely perfect, despite being known to be a wet month.
The best time to visit, however 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!
#7 The food in Jaffna is delicious
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!
Mangos is, in our opinion, Jaffna's best (and most famous) restaurant and there the masala dosa is the best we’v ever had. 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!
If you’re a vegetarian in Jaffna, you’re well catered for. Sri Lanka is one of the most vegetarian and vegan-friendly countries in the whole world, thanks in large part to its predominantly Buddhist and Hindu population.
While in Jaffna, we recommend trying the masala dosa, onion bhaji, as well as any of the traditional south Indian curries, including crab curry (Mim’s fave!).
Plan your ultimate getaway: the best 3-week Sri Lanka itinerary
#8 It’s easy to get around Jaffna
One of the joys of visiting countries like Sri Lanka, India or any in south east Asia is that it’s super easy to get around.
Simply walking out of your accommodation will be greeted with a beep and a call of “tuk tuk”. It’s bloody wonderful and Jaffna is no different.
There are a plethora of tuk tuks servicing the town, and a simple wave will grab their attention. Tuk Tuks are also quite cheap in Jaffna - we found them much cheaper than many places in the south.
If you’re looking to go further, such as Delft Island or the main Jaffna tourist attractions to the north, buses, much like the south, service almost all corners of the city and surrounds. Jaffna’s main bus stand is located right in the centre of the town and is the hub for all things buses. Just be warned - like all Sri Lanka buses, they’re a little crazy.
#9 It’s safe in Jaffna, but be aware of your surroundings
Although we can only comment on our own personal experiences, we believe Jaffna is safe for tourists.
Despite having been through a tumultuous few decades during the bitter civil war that raged between the Tamils and Sinhalese, Sri Lanka, and Jaffna, felt incredibly safe.
We walked around at night, jumped aboard random tuk tuks for sunrise photo missions, strolled through the markets, caught local buses and ate in very local establishments. At NO time did we feel unsafe.
There’s also a large military and police presence in the city and surrounds at all times. While this may be a little uncomfortable and makes things a little tense, the government of Sri Lanka is insistent on this presence to keep the peace (whether or not it’s needed or wanted is another story)
Keep your wits about you, as you would anywhere in the world, and always travel with insurance just in case.
#10 The local people are more reserved, but still very friendly
The word 'friendly’ doesn’t even begin to describe how warm, genuinely kind, and generous Sri Lankan people are. And in Jaffna and the north it's no different, despite its recent history.
The one major difference we found between the people of the north and south is that they’re a little more reserved in Jaffna.
We’d often find ourselves feeling a little uneasy during initial encounters, not sure if we’d done something to offend, or if we were just not welcome. We totally understand why, and it can take a little more than smiles to get beyond the tough exterior.
But once rapport is built, the local people are absolutely lovely.
We were freely told all the best things to see in Jaffna, including where to eat (Mangos was suggested to us by a local, and that turned out very well!). We were offered free coconuts and other fruits without any qualms; and even the tuk tuk drivers are friendly.
People seemed genuinely interested in why we were visited, and offered there advice wherever possible.
As tourists, you have to work a little harder for someone’s trust and respect in Jaffna, and we love that.
Epic ADVENTURES IN THE HILL COUNTRY: OUR GUIDE TO ELLA, SRI LANKA
#11 Tourism infrastructure isn’t great, but it’s improving
Now that you know about the civil war, you can probably understand why Jaffna lacks in tourism infrastructure.
That said, it is rapidly improving.
During our visit to Jaffna, the signs and sounds of new construction were everywhere, including new hotels, and the renovation of a number of buildings and monuments. Many major hotel chains are now opening up, while local homes are being converted into traditional homestays (our favourite type of accommodation), which offer visitors a more authentic, local experience in the north.
Many of Jaffna’s top tourist attractions are have been or are being renovated, including Jaffna Fort, many outlying temples and churches.
The direct train from Colombo to Jaffna reopened in 2014 after decades closed, while buses frequent the city, connecting Jaffna to many popular southern tourist destinations.
While there’s a long way to go to match the glorious restoration of Galle Fort, or the rapidly expanding tourism infrastructure in Ella, Jaffna is certainly easy enough to visit and get around as a tourist.
#12 Accommodation is fairly expensive in comparison to the south
When searching for accommodation in Jaffna, we were surprised by the prices.
Even the cheapest hotels and guesthouses started at around USD $20 (LKR 3,500) per night, which is far more expensive than the prices we’d paid in the rest of Sri Lanka. The higher end hotels, such as Jetwing Jaffna, started at around USD $60 per night.
After searching high and low, we settled for a clean, comfortable hotel just outside of Jaffna town called D’Vila Garden House, which cost around USD $19 and came with breakfast.
While the accommodation rates aren’t expensive when compared to the rest of the world (looking at you, Europe!), just be aware that you’ll need to pay a little more in Jaffna than you would in the south of Sri Lanka
#13 Head out to an island for a true cultural experience
We’re not lying when we say our trip out to the island of Delft was one of the more surreal and unique travel days we’ve ever experienced.
Delft is an isolated, outlying coral and limestone island just off the coast of Jaffna with a long history dating from the ancient Chola Dynasty and Portuguese, Dutch and the British Colonial periods. Here, history tugs at your sleeve with every step you take on Delft.
Amongst the swaying palms and gentle sea breeze, remnants of the island’s past are dotted throughout; quaint tiny villages, colonial ruins, winding dirt roads and coral walls hint at bygone eras and simpler times.
Delft Island has not yet fully embraced modernity, or indeed tourism (or maybe it's vice versa and tourists haven't yet embraced Delft), yet there’s plenty to see and do, the locals are wonderfully friendly, and it’s entirely possible to fill a day of sightseeing without any hassles.
Delft island may not be your stereotypical postcard-worthy island, but the rustic charm of the island and the isolated nature but that's part of its charm, and makes it one of our favourite things to see in Jaffna.
READ | Our guide to Delft island
ISland paradise: 71 photos that will have you jumping on the next flight to Sri Lanka
#14 Jaffna can be hard to get to...
Being in the far north of Sri Lanka, and off the beaten track, Jaffna can be a little hard and long to get to. In fact, on our first trip to Sri Lanka we decided not to visit due to its location, far from Sri Lanka’s main attractions. But don’t let its remoteness dissuade you from visiting.
From Colombo, its possible to take a direct train to Jaffna, which is super scenic, fairly comfortable, and takes around 7-8 hours.
Alternatively, you can catch a direct bus from Colombo (not recommended), or jump aboard the same bus in Kandy, or Dambulla as it makes its way north.
We’ve taken both, and while we’d take the train everyday of the week, the bus ride was surprisingly comfortable, and we met a lot of wonderful locals. It also gave us a change to observe the differences as we drove north through towns and villages towards Jaffna.
For more information, see below:
| TRAIN TO JAFFNA |
It might be a long, dusty journey but it’s also the most scenic. We’ve written everything you need to know about the train ride to and from Jaffna in the section below.
| BUS TO JAFFNA |
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 LKR 170 each.
Cost | LKR 400 - 500 per person
#15 ...But the best way to get to Jaffna is by train
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.
For more information, check out the following websites:
the Seat 61 website , the best resource for travelling by train
#16 The culture is conservative, so dress and act appropriately
In Jaffna, much like the rest of Sri Lanka, the culture is built upon modesty, politeness, and conservative behaviour and dress, which means excessive drinking, PDAs, loud or brash behaviour, and skimpy clothing really is frowned upon. It is a majority Hindu state, after all.
So what does that mean for travellers like you? A little respect, mostly.
Cover up if exploring the town and its main attractions. Nothing drastic, but as a general rule we follow, it’s shorts/dresses below knees and covered shoulders.
If you’re exploring the coastal areas to the north, you can probably get away with bikinis and shorts on the beach, but just be aware that you may get a few looks here and there .
#17 Always carry cash (but ATM’s are available)
From tuk tuk drivers to restaurants, grocery stores to tour operators, Sri Lanka is a country that runs on cash, and Jaffna is no different.
While ATM and card facilities are pretty accessible in the main tourist areas, they can’t always be relied upon.
We’d recommend withdrawing as many Sri Lankan rupees as you need in batches (from the ATM rather than a currency exchange so you don’t get ripped off), and using that to pay your way instead
The world’s best train ride? Read this before taking the famous blue Kandy to Ella train
SRI LANKA BACKPACKING ESSENTIALS | EVERYTHING YOU NEED FOR YOUR SRI LANKA ITINERARY
Travelling through Sri Lanka comes with a unique set of needs. To help you have a comfortable, happy journey, we recommend bringing the following items with you:
Reusable water bottle | THE BEST INVESTMENT WE’VE EVER MADE! We use the Grayl water purification bottles, which allows us to fill up from any water source, anywhere in the world (including train taps!).
Biodegradable Wet Wipes | Keep clean without destroying the planet!
Hand sanitiser | not something we’d actually recommend normally, but in Sri Lanka it can be a bloody great investment.
A spork | to cut down on unnecessary plastic usage at meal times
Power bank | don’t get caught out without power for your devices
READ | check out our eco-friendly packing guide to travel through Sri Lanka consciously and comfortably
EXPERIENCE MORE OF SRI LANKA WITH THESE ESSENTIAL POSTS
THINGS TO DO IN SRI LANKA | 31 incredible things to do in Sri Lanka (this is THE definitive guide on the internet!)
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | Everything you need to know before you visit Sri Lanka (39 essential tips!)
KANDY TO ELLA TRAIN | Our definitive guide to the Kandy to Ella train
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love our photography? Wondering what gear we use to get all of our photos around the world?
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL | Responsible travel is important. REALLY IMPORTANT.
Learn our top responsible travel tips to help you, your family and friends travel more consciously around the globe
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
PLAN YOUR ULTIMATE TRIP TO SRI LANKA WITH OUR TRAVEL GUIDES
Some of the links on this post are affiliate links. If you choose to purchase using these links, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please know that by using these affiliate links, you're directly supporting The Common Wanderer to stay wandering, the running costs of the site, and our ability to provide you with free content to help you on your travels.
That, and you're officially a legend.