A complete Jaffna Travel Guide | Best places to visit in Jaffna

First Published on January 12, 2022

If you had blindfolded me and led me here, then I definitely would have thought I was still in Tamil Nadu, India. The colorful Kovils, the lip-smacking Chettinad like flavors and smiling saree-clad women - the Jaffna culture and landscape was different from the rest of Sri Lanka and closer to India.  And yet when I explored the various places to visit in Jaffna, it struck me different. 

It is time you discover these similarities and differences through this ultimate Jaffna Travel Guide 

It is true!

The northern province of Sri Lanka – Jaffna is very different from the rest of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese vibes of the carefree southern beaches and the cosmopolitan towns like Colombo and Galle are replaced by a distinct Tamil Hindu culture in Jaffna. As I discovered through my own Jaffna itinerary, there are multiple facets to this vibrant city in Sri Lanka that make it similar and yet different from its Indian counterpart. Your tour of the different Jaffna attractions through this guide will be a perfect attestation to this electrifyingly unusual culture.

Jaffna Town - distinct from the rest of Sri Lanka
Jaffna Town – distinct from the rest of Sri Lanka

Shrouded by the gloom of its troublesome past, the distinctly different culture of Jaffna remained obscure to most travelers to Sri Lanka. However, over the last few years, it has slowly crept back to becoming an offbeat and important tourist destination. It was finally on my third visit to Sri Lanka, that I managed to spend 2 days in Jaffna.

Through this travel guide to Jaffna, you will be able to plan your own trip here. Not only will you get tips on where to stay, what to eat but will get a comprehensive list of the best places to visit in Jaffna. In addition, I will also, share a sample Jaffna itinerary to make things simpler for your trip. So let’s get going.

Jaffna history

Mythologically, there are several Jaffna attractions that are associated with Ramayana. Be it places that were visited by Hanuman or ponds where Lord Rama washed away his sin of killing Ravana. However, the archaeological remains in Jaffna can only be traced back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. There are numerous Tamil scripts that have been found that suggest that this city was then known as Yalapanam or Yalpanapattinam and at some point was a part of the Chola kingdom. In addition to the same, excavated artifacts point to the fact that there was a lot of sea trade that went on between the East and the West through Jaffna. Later centuries saw the rules of Pandyan kings, the Arya Chakravarti dynasty, the Vijaynagara kingdom from India, and finally the Kotte Kingdom of Ceylon.

Jaffna history, captured as a street art
Jaffna history, captured as a street art

The close association of the Jaffna kingdom with the Indian subcontinent – either by way of rule or trade is the reason why there are so many Hindu temples in this region. The cultural similarity to India too comes from this part of Jaffna history. However, that influence stayed on to become a distinct part of the Jaffna identity – one that weathered the changes that came in later after the Portuguese invasion in the 1600s.

The Portuguese marked the start of the colonial history of Jaffna. The new rulers destroyed several of the Hindu temples and established their own faith in Jaffna. Finally in 1659, after 3 months of battle, the Portuguese finally handed over the rule to the Dutch. The Dutch added and expanded the Portuguese military fort. They were far more tolerant of the Hindu faith and helped rebuild several of those destroyed temples. Their spell lasted till 1796 when the British took over from them.

The Moat and drawbridge from the outer ramparts of Jaffna Fort
Jaffna fort – a relic of the colonial past of Sri Lanka

Under the British, Jaffna prospered. New railway lines were laid to connect Jaffna to Kandy and Colombo. Educational institutions were established and in general, the trading brought in lots of wealth. Jaffna returned to the isle nation in 1948 when Sri Lanka got its independence from its colonial rulers. However, the new reign ushered in dark times for Jaffna. A new law called the Ceylon citizenship Act led to major friction between the resident Sinhalese and Tamil communities – heralding a period of unrest and destruction.

The Civil war of Sri Lanka heated up for almost 26 years around the 1980s. This war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army was the reason why this region was considered unsafe. The entire saga led to the displacement of several families while many others lost their lives. It was in 2009 that this war saw an end and a political resolution settled the major point of discontent – a separate state for the Tamilians.

Given this dreary past, it is not surprising that one will find Jaffna a little less developed from the rest of Sri Lanka. The place has now been receiving a lot of focus and there has been steady and rapid growth. Personally, I think some of its rawness is what makes Jaffna absolutely charming.

A little about the Jaffna culture

A slice of life in Jaffna
A slice of life in Jaffna

Given the heavy influence of Tamil dynasties, it is not surprising to see that Hinduism is the predominant religion in Jaffna. Not only will you find numerous Dravidian-styled Hindu temples but even their dressing and food is heavily influenced by the Tamil culture. You will find that Tamil is the dominant language here and even the signboards are in Tamil as against the Sinhalese and English that you find in the rest of Sri Lanka.

It is not unusual to find the men dressed in lungis and women sporting sarees. The tangy and spicy flavors of Jaffna curries can only be compared to the Chettinad food in South India. While Dosas and idlis are common as morning breakfast items, the little Sinhalese touch comes in with their traditional string hoppers and appams.

Besides the dominant Hindu community, you will find a fair number of Buddhists, Muslims  and Christians
Besides the dominant Hindu community, you will find a fair number of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians

Besides Hindus, the other communities in Jaffna include Buddhists, Muslims and Christians – all coexisting peacefully. In general, you will find them all pretty warm and helpful. However, given their torrid past, you will find them a little reserved. There is a certain hesitancy Nothing that will make you uncomfortable! Just that it will feel a little different from the experience that you might get in Mirissa, Galle, Colombo or the rest of Sri Lanka.

Like I said at the start – Jaffna is distinct from the rest of Sri Lanka and that is why it is worth visiting it!

What are the best places to visit in Jaffna?

A map of Jaffna town and its surrounding islands
A map of Jaffna town and its surrounding islands

If you are a history buff, an architecture connoisseur, or a legend chaser – then you are in for a complete treat with this list of Jaffna tourist places. If you are a traveling foodie – then the flavors of Jaffna will totally engulf you. A nature or beach lover? – Then you too, are covered by some of these Jaffna attractions. In short, – no matter what kind of traveler you are – Jaffna Sri Lanka has something for you. Check out this list and add the ones that you want to visit to your Jaffna itinerary.

P.S: Watch out for the various links in each of the attractions. Clicking those will take you to detailed posts and a virtual tour of those Jaffna attractions.

Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya

Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya - a Buddhist temple in Jaffna
Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya – a Buddhist temple in Jaffna

Did you know that Lord Buddha himself had come to Sri Lanka?

If the ancient scripts are to be believed, then Lord Buddha visited Sri Lanka not once but three times since his enlightenment. Just a little off the coast of Jaffna, lies Nagadeepa island (Nainativu island) – the very place where the revered one visited the 2nd time. Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya – the Buddhist temple marks the very place where he intervened between two quarreling Naga Kings and promoted peace between the various communities. The sacred Buddhist temple includes a stupa containing historic Buddhist relics, a sacred Bodhi tree linked to the historic event itself, numerous image houses and a monastery. A bonus that you get on your visit to Nagadeepa Temple is the museum located within the premises. It is here that you will get to see unusual historical artifacts preserved over generations.

Take a virtual tour of Nagadeepa Temple through this link. The same post will give you all details on how to plan your trip to this island.

Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman Temple

The Nandi faces the garba griha of Nagapooshani Jaffna temple
The Nandi faces the garba griha of Nagapooshani Jaffna temple

Nagadeepa island is not just revered by the Buddhists but also, by Hindus from far and near. The reason is that it is one of the 51 Shakthi Peethas. The Nagapooshani Amman temple is where Sati’s anklet fell down and made it an important pilgrimage destination. There are plenty of other lores attached to this place but more importantly, it is a must-visit for architecture lovers. The typical Dravidian architecture is enough to get you to explore every nook and corner and uncover the tiny stories embedded within them.

Check out some of these corners through this post on the Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman Temple. I am pretty sure that you will be adding Nagadeepa island with this and the Buddhist temple to your list of places to visit in Jaffna.

Jaffna Fort

Sunset over the Jaffna Fort
Sunset over the Jaffna Fort

Immerse yourself in the colonial history of Jaffna at this ingenious Dutch fort. The pentagon-shaped Jaffna fort was originally built by the Portuguese but it was the Dutch who gave it its current shape and structure. The fort is smaller than its Galle cousin but is pretty impressive in its manner of construction. The fort was a focal point through medieval and modern Jaffna history with the British taking control of it from the Dutch and later the LTTE using it as their base. Though it has suffered severe damage, there is enough for you to admire and understand why it was so important for all of Jaffna.

My virtual tour of Jaffna Dutch fort can be accessed through this link.

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil – one of the many Jaffna attractions

The famous Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil - one of the many places to visit in Jaffna
The famous Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil – one of the many places to visit in Jaffna

It is hard to miss this stunning golden temple when you are in Jaffna. In fact, it is the place that draws thousands of Hindus from all across Sri Lanka and parts of the World for its 25-day Nallur festival. Nallur was the old capital of the Jaffna kingdom and the first temple is said to have been built in 948 AD. It was subsequently rebuilt in a grand manner by the Kotte Kings in the 13th century. There were in fact, four of them but sadly, the temple was destroyed by the Portuguese. It was the Dutch that initiated the present-day temple.

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is one of the most important Jaffna attractions
Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is one of the most important Jaffna attractions

Nallur Kandasawamy Kovil reflects Dravidian architecture and is as rich and vibrant inside as you see from the outside. It is dedicated to Lord Skanda and there is a myth that the spear in the central shrine was left behind by the Lord himself. There are several minor shrines on the premises and a bathing pool too. The temple also, has a dance hall. The Nallur Kandaswamy temple in Jaffna finds a mention in many of the ancient scripts and that is one big reason, why you need to get to the place yourself.

Do note that there is no photography allowed within the temple. Men will have to enter the temple bare-chested while women have to ensure that their shoulders and knees are covered.

The Jaffna Nallur Festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated in the city of Jaffna. Every year, thousands of devotees visit the city to be a part of this 25-day fest. There are several interesting rituals that take place over this period. These include a water ceremony called Theertham and a special burden dance called Kavadi. The revered idol of Lord Murugan (Lord Skanda) is taken around the city in decorated chariots shaped to emulate his legendary peacock vehicle.

Jaffna Library – an important historical Jaffna tourist place

Jaffna Public Library - an important Jaffna landmark
Jaffna Public Library – an important Jaffna landmark

With over 97,000 books and manuscripts, the Jaffna library was one of the largest in Asia. The historical book collection spanned centuries and included palm leaf scriptures from the long-lost ages. Scholars and researchers used the collection for their projects. However, in 1981, the library was caught in the crosshairs of the Civil war. The place was torched and all that literary treasure was lost forever. What stands today is a renovated building that was finally reopened in 2003. An effort was made to collect some of those old treasures and around 25,000 books were added to the Jaffna library.

The historic Jaffna clock tower
The historic Jaffna clock tower

A visit here lets you get a glimpse of the old library through the various photographs and news articles. Close to the Jaffna public library is the Jaffna clocktower – built 150 years ago, in honor of the Prince of Wales – Albert Edward. Both the library and clock tower are important landmarks of Jaffna.

Keerimalai Naguleswaram temple and Keerimalai pond

The sacred Keerimalai pond in Jaffna, Sri Lanka
The sacred Keerimalai pond in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

There is no missing this Jaffna tourist place – especially for its evergreen pond renowned for its miracles that range from curing a horse-faced Pandyan princess to helping the infertile conceive. The Keerimalai pond is said to have been the very place where Lord Rama had a dip to wash away his sin of killing Ravana. However, that is not all to it. The attached Keerimalai temple is another storehouse of stories that begin from the Chola dynasty and continue right up to the Civil war.

The newly constructed Naguleswaram temple as seen from the ruins
The newly constructed Naguleswaram temple as seen from the ruins

You can wander around the reclaimed ruins of the erstwhile Keerimalai temple and finally visit the current powerhouse. The beautiful Dravidian architecture will enthrall you with its vibrant corners.

Take your virtual tour of the interiors and the place through this post on the Keerimalai Naguleswaram temple.

Point Pedro

Though Point Pedro was a part of my Jaffna itinerary, the rains prevented me from getting there. It is the northernmost part of Sri Lanka. The cotton-growing town was an important trading port for Jaffna’s colonial rulers. In fact, if you visit the Sakkotai Cape, you will see a signboard that tells you the distance to various countries like Singapore from that point. The town offers several memoirs of its colonial occupants including a church and a lighthouse. One can also visit the fishing village and beach at Manatkadu.

Interesting trivia – The original name of the place was Ponta des Pedras which in Portuguese means a rocky cape. The name referred to the corals around the place. Eventually, the name got distorted to Point Pedro.

Jaffna market

The Palmyra handicrafts - something to watch out for when shopping in Jaffna
The Palmyra handicrafts – something to watch out for when shopping in Jaffna

No better way to interact and get to know the locals than a visit to the Jaffna market. From a separate vegetable section to textiles and handcrafts shops, there is plenty to watch out for in the local Yalapallam market. A few specialized items that you should consider if you are shopping in Jaffna include –

  • Jaffna curry powder – the secret ingredient in all their spicy and tangy food fare
  • Jaffna jaggery – This is sold entwined in palmyra jackets. The jaggery itself is made from palmyra -the local palms
  • Palmyra souvenirs – Coasters, baskets and more – plenty to take back home as a memory.

Jaffna Street Art

One of the street art scenes from the Jaffna market
One of the street art scenes from the Jaffna market

Personally, I was enamored by the street art of Jaffna that I got to see at the entrance. The vibrant cultural scenes against the real slice of life definitely left a mark on me. However, this isn’t the only place where you can spot these wall arts. All across Jaffna, you will find some interesting scenes. Besides the Yalapallam Jaffna market, the two other places that I highly recommend visiting for these street arts include the Jaffna bus stand and the area around Maruthanarmadam Aanjaneyar Kovil. Watch out for paintings depicting scenes from mythology and the Chola-Naga history of Sri Lanka.

Street art captured near the Hanuman temple in Jaffna
Street art captured near the Hanuman temple in Jaffna

Jaffna grape farm – one of the unusual things to do in Jaffna

Visit a grape farm i - one of the many things to do in Jaffna
Visit a grape farm i – one of the many things to do in Jaffna

One of the unusual stops that we made on my Jaffna trip was to a grape farm in Jaffna. Until then, I did not know that this fruit was one of the key income generators in this region. The blue-black grapes are not the sweet variety and are primarily used to make local wines. It was unfortunate that with the rains, we could not take time and converse with the local farmers. That honestly, would have thrown so much more light to the local culture and tradition.

Mangos Restaurant – A dip into the authentic Jaffna food

Mangos restaurant - the taste of authentic Jaffna food
Mangos restaurant – the taste of authentic Jaffna food

You have not really experienced Jaffna if you have not had the authentic Jaffna food. The spicy, tangy curries offset by piping hot rice got me back to my own Chettinad food experience. And the best place to find this is the Mango restaurant near the Nallur Kandaswamy temple. I highly recommend the lunch thaalis – complete with the Jaffna curries, a bowl of rice and local sweets to go with it. I believe, their dosas too, are quite unmissable.

The Malayan Cafe - a good place to stop for some Jaffna snacks and tea
The Malayan Cafe – a good place to stop for some Jaffna snacks and tea

The other place that you could possibly stop by is in the Yallappan market. Called the Malayan cafe, you can grab a cup of Sri Lankan tea with some of the freshly made snacks.

Other interesting Jaffna Tourist places

Jaffna is filled with temples that you can just stop and visit
Jaffna is filled with temples that you can just stop and visit

My 2 days in Jaffna itinerary could not fit in these few places but if you so desire, you could include these sightseeing destinations.

Delft island

This Dutch-influenced isle can be accessed from the same Kurrikaduwan jetty that you would need to go to for Nagadeepa island. Called Neduntivu locally, this place is renowned for its Baobab trees and wild horses. In addition to the same, you can pay a visit to some of the old colonial buildings like an old Dutch fort, horse stables, a pigeon home for messenger pigeons and an old Dutch hospital.

Dambakola Patuna

It is believed that the daughter of the famous King Ashoka of India – Sangamitta first landed here and planted a sacred Bodhi tree. The sapling of this tree was later planted in Anuradhapura and this is highly revered to day. A temple in honor of the lady called  Sangamitta Viharaya symbolizes this. If you do add this to your list of Jaffna sightseeing places, make sure you don’t miss a trip to the beach right next to it. I believe its clear waters are an experience in itself.

Mantri Manai, the minister’s residence in Jaffna Sri Lanka

If there is one big miss among the places to visit in Jaffna, then it is Mantri Manai. The elaborate ruins are one of the few surviving ruins of the Jaffna kingdom. It is believed that this archaeological site served as the residence of one of the ministers under King Sangiliyan. The lone structure used to be surrounded by temples and other palatial homes in its hey-days – i.e when Nallur was the capital of Jaffna kingdom. Following the Portuguese destruction, most of the locality changed, except for this place. Probably because the colonial rulers found it suitable for their purposes.

A visit here will demonstrate an amalgamation of European and Dravidian architecture. And they say, there is an inscription near the doorway written in Tamil.

Casuarina beach – a Jaffna beach

Talking to the lady at my hotel in Jaffna, I discovered that while Jaffna does not have those paradise beaches like Mirissa and Hikkaduwa but it does have one place that the locals love visiting. Called the Casuarina beach on account of the Casuarina trees around the shore, this place is a perfect place to relax after a complete day of Jaffna sightseeing. Given the constant rains when I visited, I did not insist on getting here. But maybe, you might want to consider adding this to your list of attractions in Jaffna.

A typical 2 days in Jaffna itinerary

Enroute to the Kurrikaduwan jetty - the place where you can take a boat to Nagadeepa and Delft island
Enroute to the Kurrikaduwan jetty – the place where you can take a boat to Nagadeepa and Delft island

There are many of you who have reached out to me on social media requesting an itinerary for 2 days in Jaffna. Assuming you keep a day for your arrival and departure, you can follow this sample plan for the 2 complete days.

Day One

- Start early for Nagadeepa Island. It takes around 45 minutes to reach Kurrikaduwan jetty and another 15 to ride across to the isle. You can cover both Nagadeepa Buddhist temple and the Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman temple in 3 hours. 

- Head to Mango restuarant for a scrumptious lunch. 

- Catch the sunset at Jaffna fort

- Visit Jaffna library and the clock tower 

- Stop by at the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil 

- Grab dinner and retire for the day

Day Two

- Start early for Keerimalai temple. Keep aside 1 hour at the pond and the temple

- Head to Point Pedro. It takes around 45 minutes from Keerimalai temple. Spend an hour there

- Get back to the town and grab your lunch. 

- Make a stop at the Mantri Manai 

- Spend the evening shopping in the Jaffna market

- End the day with a Jaffna meal and an ice cream at their famous dessert shop called Rio

There are a few alterations that you could make to this itinerary for Jaffna. On Day One, if you can carry some packed lunch, then after Nagadeepa island, you could use the same jetty to visit Delft island and then come back for Jaffna fort. Similarly, one could stretch themselves on Day Two to head out straight to Sangamitta temple instead of lunch on Day Two.

Well, that is it in terms of the attractions section of this Jaffna Travel Guide. Before I move onto the common FAQs for planning a trip to Jaffna, do tell me your favorite things to do in Jaffna. And don’t you agree that it is very different from the rest of Sri Lanka? Do pin this board and share around this travel guide to Jaffna.

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Common FAQs for Jaffna

Is it safe to travel to Jaffna Sri Lanka?

In the present times, with the end to the Civil War, Jaffna makes a safe and amazing tourist destination. It is quite safe to travel to Jaffna. There are numerous checkpoints and military outposts in Jaffna but these are just as a precaution – more as a follow up to the end of the tumultuous past.

The tourist facilities are a little less developed as compared to the rest of Sri Lanka but are getting better by the day. There are plenty of good hotels for a safe and comfortable stay and the locals are extremely warm and helpful.

What is the best way to reach Jaffna?

Jaffna has its own airport. There used to be regular flights to Chennai from here but the same have been suspended owing to the pandemic. The same is the case with the domestic flights from Colombo. However, do keep a watch out for when that changes.

The best way to get to Jaffna from Colombo is by train. There are numerous departures through the day and the journey takes around 6-7 hours.

You can also get to Jaffna by road from Colombo. There are two routes that you can use to drive to Jaffna. Both take around 10 – 12 hours. You can even get onto one of the public buses from Colombo.
Route One – 400 km
Colombo – Negambo – NarammalaBogoda – Wariyapola – Anuradhapura – Vavuniya – Elephant Pass – Jaffna

Route Two – 362 km along a coastal road
Colombo – Negambo – Madampe- Puttalam – Akattikkulam- Periyavilankuli – Vellankulam – Poonakary – Sangupiddi Bridge – Jaffna

Where to stay in Jaffna?

I highly recommend picking one of the two Jetwing hotels for your accommodation in Jaffna. I stayed at the North Gate by Jetwing in Jaffna which is located centrally in a quiet neighbourhood. The other Jetwing is located close to the market area. This is highly convenient if you wish to walk around and explore the city. Besides these, you can also, consider hotels like The Thinnai, The Valumpuri and The Green Grass hotel.

All these hotels in Jaffna can be booked using the Booking resources below.

What is the best time to visit Jaffna?

In terms of season, Jaffna is best visited between January to October when it is not raining. The rest of the year, the city gets regular showers.

The Nallur festival that takes place in the August adds a very festive touch to the city. It might be worthwhile visiting this town during those 25 days.

What is the best way to get around Jaffna?

The best way to get around Jaffna is by a local Tuk-Tuk

The local Tuk Tuks are the best way to move around Jaffna. They are not only easily available but very cost-effective. Alternately, you could use local buses or hire a private cab to move around.

Booking resources

  • Booking.com is a good place to reserve your hotel in Jaffna. This link will help you get to the Jaffna hotel page and book your room.
  • If you are looking for car transfers between Colombo and any other city in Sri Lanka, you could book one through Klook.com. The website also, offers hotel bookings for Jaffna.
  • Another online resource that you can use to book cars and tours in Sri Lanka is GetYourGuide.
  • Amazon is a good resource to pick your travel requirements like bags, rain coats, trekking gear etc. Consider using my affiliate link to get to the site.
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Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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P.S I visited Jaffna on invite by the Sri Lanka Tourism Board

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