For those who follow me over on Instagram, there’s no denying I have a soft spot for Jaffna. The truth is I love the North of Sri Lanka so much, I recently returned from a 2 week solo trip with the sole intention of completing a guide to help and inspire others on their travels too.
With the cover photo of this article featured in National Geographic Traveller UK in 2016 following my very first trip, I’ve been inspired ever since to further explore this part of the country with my camera to hand.
During these weeks I visited as many places as possible (the furthest being about 45 minutes from the centre) to make sure no experience was left out. When I write blog articles like these I want them to be as comprehensive as possible- one of the reasons (the other being procrastination!) why I don’t write quite as often as I should.
If you’ve been to Jaffna you may notice I haven’t included everything (e.g the Architectural Museum and Nilavarai Bottomless Well), I visited both but to be honest, they were a bit of an anticlimax compared to the other sites. It’s an honour that people place value in my recommendations so I hope my decision to leave these out so is understood.
From fascinating historic sights sprinkled across the town, humbling locals, majestic Hindu Kovils and Catholic Churches to mouthwatering Tamil cuisine; the North is a safe, culturally rich destination for the discerning traveler. I’m separating this feature into two sections- what to do in town and what to do out of town as whilst some are in the city itself, others are a half or full day trip away. To really explore and enjoy Jaffna, 3 days is ideal.
Travelling to Jaffna from Colombo is also incredibly easy- and I’m speaking from a perspective as a solo female traveller. I tend to favour the night train from Colombo Fort, leaving around 8:30pm and arriving about 6am but understand that may be a little too adventurous for some. I always book a seat on 1st class with AC which needs to be booked in advance. As much as I love a local train experience on 2nd or 3rd class, I tend to keep those to shorter distances e.g from Colombo to Galle, a little less cross country.
A huge thank you to Jetwing (who I represent as their brand ambassador) for sponsoring this guide. They have a beautiful hotel in the heart of Jaffna which is modern, comfortable and convinient, with a second property opening up towards the end of the year a minute or two from the railway station.
The rooms are vibrant and spacious, with an authentic Jaffna/Indian vibe. One of the rooms at Jetwing Jaffna is pictured below with a balcony view of the city.
If travelling solo, do take a little time to read my Ultimate Solo Female Travellers Guide to Sri Lanka. In fact, if it’s your first visit to the country, you will likely find some useful tips in there as a family, couple or group too.
What to do in Jaffna Town
Set out bright and early, bring a large umbrella or plenty of sun protection and bottles of cold water. I tend to travel by tuk tuk around town but a bike or scooter can be rented should you wish. In comparison to the South Coast of Sri Lanka, the roads are generally calmer and safer- with bikes/motorbikes outnumbering cars.
1. Jaffna Library 10-15 minutes
Rebuilt after a fire in 1981 during the civil war, Jaffna Library is a bold tribute to it’s former 1933 glory. Visiting hours for non members is between 4:30-6pm (in restricted zones) although to be honest, peeking through reception and admiring the exterior is the main attraction.
2. Jaffna Fort 30-40 minutes
Towards the entrance of the Pannai causeway (in the direction of Nagadeepa and Delft island) is Jaffna Fort. It’s free to visit (as are many sites in Jaffna) with a small archaeological museum should you wish to learn more about the local history.
It’s just as popular with locals as it is with foreign visitors, with ice cream vans parked up at the entrance tempting eager-eyed children.
3. Jaffna Market 30 minutes
Jaffna’s central market is a haven for curious foodies. There are three sections- a row of impeccably displayed fresh fruit & veg , a narrow alleyway specializing in homemade palmyrah products (a species of palm) and a cluster of larger independent stalls with snacks, sweets, drinks, jars/pickles and more.
It’s not unknown for people to venture from all parts of Sri Lanka to stock up on local eats from this market alone!
4. Sinnakadai Market 30 minutes
Approximately 10 minutes out of town is Sinnakadai market, a rustic boxed building splashed with vibrant panels of colour. Here you will mainly find fish, fruit & vegetable, meat and spice vendors. I bought a couple of packets of Jaffna curry powder and turmeric. It can be a little chaotic but with an open mind and sense of adventure you will no doubt be mesmerized by the local buzz.
I enjoyed it as much as the central market because the crowd (both sellers and the general public) are so charismatic- just be sure to watch your step, especially in the fish section!
5. Nallur Kovil 30 minutes
No doubt the most iconic sight in Jaffna, Nallur Kovil is a short tuk tuk ride (or a scenic 30 minute walk if you can take the heat!) from the town centre. The surrounding shops are also very interesting- fresh local eats, fabrics/saris and religious offerings. Don’t forget to respect the dress code– women are expected to cover knees & shoulders whilst men must cover knees and (upon entering the building) remove shirts.
As Jaffna is a very modest part of Sri Lanka, I tend to dress suitably for Kovils at all times as a personal preference.
6. Mantri Manai (ruins of King Sangiliyan’s Minister’s Residence) 20 minutes
A rustic old building, also known as the ruins of Jaffna Kingdom. There used to be goats bleating about in the garden but I couldn’t spot any on my second visit.
Imagining what it looked like in it’s glory days as you amble from room to room is all part of it’s charm despite being a little unkempt today. It’s not managed per se so you can wander around at your own leisure.
7. St Mary’s Cathedral & St John Baptist’s Church 20 minutes
There are a cluster of Catholic Churches in and around Jaffna which I love to visit as much as exploring Hindu Kovils.
St Mary’s Cathedral is in a small, residential part of town (pictured) whilst St John Baptist’s Church is also close- opposite the US hotel (where I had a tasty biriyani one day). Take a seat in the pews, absorb the peace & calm and admire the architecture.
8. Maruthanamadam Anjaneyar Kovil 15 mins
10 minutes out of town, this slightly trippy new age Hindu Kovil with flashing green Tamil letters at the entrance has a 72 foot statue of Lord Hanuman. Be prepared to be wowed as it towers above you in a remarkable neon shade of jade green.
There are a handful of stalls lining the entrance selling buffalo curd, peanuts/nuts, fruit and coconuts amongst other local eats.
What to do out of town
Keerimalai- Springs, Naguleswaram Kovil and Dambakola Patuna Temple- 1/2 Day
A beautiful scenic drive North and slightly East of Jaffna, Keerimali is a calm, spiritual haven and still incredibly untouristy- in fact, the only people I met the two hours I was exploring were locals.
With a natural water spring, historic Hindu Kovil and Buddhist Temple alongside the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, it’s without a doubt one of the most underated gems of Sri Lanka.
9. Keerimali Springs 10-15 minutes (or longer to swim).
I would never have considered bathing in the water at Keerimalai (especially travelling solo) however had I brought a change of clothes, definitely would have. There were a few kids splashing around but it was incredibly relaxed and unintrusive.
If you look closely in the water there are tiny schools of fish swimming around- hence the strict no soap policy. The entrance fee is about 20 rupees which I’m sure you will agree won’t break the bank!
10. Naguleswaram Kovil 20 minutes
Very close to Keerimali Springs (walking distance) is Naguleswaram Kovil. There are two sections, the older part dating back to pre 6th century BCE (pictured above) and the newer section currently under renovation.
From what I was told, there’s an enormous bull in the garden but it was tucked around the side (I should have guessed there was something there as it attracted quite a crowd) and missed it.
A significant site for Buddhists, believed to be home to the first sacred boa tree brought from India when it was a port during ancient times. The story is beautifully illustrated on the walls inside so it’s worth visiting with someone who understands Sinhala and can translate, otherwise I recommend reading up on it’s history beforehand.
There are no historic monuments still standing from this era but it very tranquil -in fact one of the most tranquil places I have ever been in Sri Lanka- with a mesmerising view of the ocean.
12. Kadurugoda Raja Maha Viharaya 10 minutes
On route to Keerimalai, this ancient site is concealed in the depths of a local village- only easily accessible via private transport as there are no buses (to my knowledge) which go directly there. Visit Kadurugoda Raja Maha Viharaya on route to Keerimalai as it’s about half way.
13. Nagadeepa Island 3/4 Day
Just 35 miles from India, Nagadeepa is a popular pilgrimage site for Hindus and Buddhists across Sri Lanka. From the journey along the panoramic causeways, the boat trip to the island (not for the claustrophobic!) to exploring the sites, a trip to Nagadeepa is a real adventure. I’m not including boat departure times here in case they change- the best way to find out is by asking your hotel or guesthouse directly the day before.
There’s one section of the Buddhist Temple ‘Nagadeepa Viharaya’ which requests foreigners to pay Rs.500. I wouldn’t recommend doing this as there’s nothing additional to see beyond. I will always give a donation when visiting temples but I believe the amount should be up to the individual. You can either take a tuk tuk or walk from the Buddhist Temple to the Hindu Kovil.
14. Delft (Neduntheevu) Island 3/4 Day
Accessible from the same harbour as Nagadeepa, Delft (locally known as Neduntheevu) is a fascinating island, with a real neighbourly community atmosphere as you venture along the coral-lined tracks. I recommend hiring a tuk on the island (the going rate is Rs.1,500) for a couple of hours to see the main sites as it’s far (and hot!) to cover by foot. There’s a very specific time when the boat heads back to the harbour so make sure not to miss it- the journey takes about 40 minutes each way.
If you wish to dine in the main restaurant on Delft, place your order when you arrive before heading off to explore- it to be ready when you return. I had some short eats and tea with the locals at the small tea shop which is on the left as you walk up from the harbour before the archway.
15. KKS Beach
At the very end of the railway line from Colombo Fort, Kankesanthurai (or KKS) is one of the most underrated beach havens in Sri Lanka. With clean golden sands and azure blue waters, it’s almost tempting to leave this out of the blog post to keep it a secret! Sandwiched between the beach and the railway station, there’s a hotel owned by the army called Thalsevana should you wish to stay a couple of nights.
There’s also another beach called Casuarina which is very popular with locals but I personally prefer KKS as it’s cleaner, a little more spacious and I didn’t feel so self-conscious. If you do choose to go to Casuarina there’s a Hindu Kovil close by which has a very spiritual, if somewhat eerie atmosphere which I felt made it worth the trip.
16. Point Pedro
The northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, Point Pedro is a charismatic local town, beaming with rustic authenticity. The ‘Point’ itself is understated, with a cluster of local fishing boats often surrounding the harbour. Driving through Point Pedro is a nice experience and although I didn’t have a lot of time, there are some quaint Churches and Kovils in the area to explore too.
So there you have it- my ultimate guide of what to see and do in Jaffna. Do share your experiences, thoughts etc in the comments below and most importantly, I hope you have a wonderful time- it’s a beautiful, charming place which is very close to my heart.
Thanks again to Jetwing Hotels for making this article possible. Jetwing also has a travel agency called Jetwing Travels should you wish to arrange a safe, professional driver for a tour of the island.
Who’s ready for a Jaffna foodie guide? #comingsoon