Last Updated on February 15, 2023 by Soumya
Planning a trip to Jaffna, Sri Lanka? Looking for the best places to visit and the most epic things to do in Jaffna? Wondering how to fit Jaffna into your Sri Lankan itinerary?
Well, we have you covered. Here is just the perfect Jaffna travel guide for you.
I recently did a road trip through Sri Lanka, visited Jaffna from Colombo, and learned more about this hidden gem. Apart from checking out some of the best tourist attractions in Jaffna, I visited neighborhood markets, marveled at the city’s love for art, and tried delicious local food.
Honestly, there are so many wonderful things to do in Jaffna that I could go back there for a month and barely scratch the surface.
I am sure you are already excited to know what Jaffna has to offer.
In this post, you will find everything you need to plan a memorable trip to this historic town including a list of the best places to visit in Jaffna, immersive things to do and see, best places to stay and eat.
- Visiting Jaffna: A city of temples, history, and food
- 18 Best things to do in Jaffna Sri Lanka
- Pay your respects at Nallur Kandaswamy Temple
- Take a dip in the holy waters of Keerimalai
- Dig into the interesting history of Naguleswaram Temple
- Visit the Maruthanamadam Anjaneya Kovil
- Plan a day trip to the holy Nainativu Island
- Explore the medieval fort of Jaffna
- Step into the Public Library
- Head to the ruins of Mantri Manai
- Visit Point Pedro
- Experience local life at Yalpanam Market
- Spot colorful street art
- Try authentic Jaffna food
- Try an authentic Tamil thali at Mangos, Jaffna’s best restaurant
- Eat at Ammachchi Traditional Food Centre
- Eat at Malayan cafe
- Try some ice cream at Rio
- Shop for Palmyra handicrafts
- Join a guided tour of Jaffna
- Interactive map for best places in Jaffna
- Best time to visit Jaffna
- Where to stay in Jaffna?
- How to get to Jaffna?
- Practical information for planning your Jaffna trip
- Jaffna Sri Lanka FAQ
- Loved our Jaffna travel guide? Pin it for later!
Visiting Jaffna: A city of temples, history, and food
Jaffna, a city located in Sri Lanka’s northern peninsula, has a long (sometimes troubled) history. Archaeological evidence suggest that this region was inhabited since the 1000 BC.
In ancient times, the Naga tribe lived in Jaffna Peninsula. Then came the Aryachakravarti Kingdom which had strong ties with the Pandyas of Madurai in India. Remains of their kingdom are mostly around the Nallur neighborhood. After this, came the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British and left their footprints at the fort, the public library, and the clock tower. Between 1983 – 2009, Jaffna plunged into the horrific Sri Lankan Civil War that took the city back more than a hundred years.
Today, Jaffna is working hard to make a comeback in all sectors, especially tourism. Places are opening up and locals are getting used to having foreigners around. This presents us with a host of wonderful things to do in Jaffna, most of them without the usual tourist crowds that you will find in South Sri Lanka.
Whether it is visiting the numerous Hindu temples in the city, climbing the ramparts of a ruined Dutch Fort, tasting local delicacies, or simply walking through quaint streets adorned with art, Jaffna has lots of fun things to do and see.
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18 Best things to do in Jaffna Sri Lanka
Pay your respects at Nallur Kandaswamy Temple
Jaffna is a city of temples and one of the most sacred ones is the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. (Note: Kovil is the Tamil word for Hindu temple). The temple is dedicated to Murugan, the Hindu God of Love, War, and Beauty.
It is believed that the first version of the temple was built way back in the 10th century. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times until the final version (that you see today) came to be, in the 18th century.
As soon as you enter the temple complex, you will notice a tall, golden gopuram and an ornately-carved central hall with a colorful ceiling. You will find the statue of Lord Murugan inside the central shrine.
Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil or Nallur Murugan Kovil is Sri Lanka’s most revered Hindu temple and holds great importance in the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils. Do not forget to remove your footwear before entering the temple. Also, be sure to cover your shoulders and legs. Men should not wear anything above their waists.
Please note that photography is not allowed inside the temple.
Every year, in August, the temple hosts a 25-day festival during which several rituals are performed including the popular Chariot Festival. The whole town turns festive mood and colorful. If you are a culture-seeker, you would not want to miss the Nallur Annual Festival.
Take a dip in the holy waters of Keerimalai
Keerimalai pond is located right next to the sea but has fresh, non-saline water. It is, in fact, a fresh water spring and said to possess medicinal properties.
It is believed that taking a dip in the holy waters of Keerimalai cures infertility and skin infections. There are several stories that narrate the experiences of men and women being cured of deformities, including those of a priest and a Chola King.
The springs are open for dips between 6am – 6pm every day. There are separate bathing areas for men and women.
No tickets to take a dip. However, you need to pay LKR 30 if you wish to take a fresh water bath later.
Dig into the interesting history of Naguleswaram Temple
Located right next to the Keerimalai freshwater springs is the highly venerated Naguleswaram Kovil.
It is one of the oldest shrines in the region. You will see the remains of a ruined devotee house beside but the main temple is adequately restored.
The temple of Naguleswaram is dedicated to the Hindu God, Shiva, and is one of the revered Five Abodes of Shiva. These are abodes are called Pancha Ishwarams and are located all around the Sri Lankan coast. Naguleswaram is the northernmost.
The temple, along with the healing waters of Keerimalai, is a huge draw for Shiva devotees from all over the world.
Visit the Maruthanamadam Anjaneya Kovil
Like I said, Jaffna is a city of temples. You will find Hindu temples dotting every street and corner of the city.
On my way to Keerimalai, I noticed a huge statue of Hanuman, a Hindu God and the monkey companion of Lord Rama. This was at the Maruthanamadam Anjaneya Temple with a small shrine but a 72 feet-tall statue. The temple has colorful interiors.
Plan a day trip to the holy Nainativu Island
Not very far from the city of Jaffna, only a day trip away, is the holy island of Nainativu.
Nainativu, or Nagadeepa as it is often referred to in Sinhala, is a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists. Here, you will find Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya, a Buddhist temple built in the exact spot where Buddha set his foot to make peace between two fighting Naga clans. You will also visit the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, one of Hinduism’s 64 Shakthipeethams.
Even if you are not the religious kind, you will love the architecture at both temples. And more than that, you will love the journey from Jaffna to Nainativu Island which includes a road trip through paddy fields, sleepy little hamlets, and the iconic Navathkuli Bridge which has stunning views of the ocean on both sides. If you are birder, do not forget to get your long lens or you’ll regret it.
The last part of the journey involves a 20-minute ferry ride on the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean. More details coming up soon on my Nainativu Island Travel Guide.
You can club Nagadeepa and Delft Islands together on a day trip from Jaffna. Delft Island is further off the Jaffna coast and is home to a Dutch fort, stables, and an old Dutch hospital.
Explore the medieval fort of Jaffna
Constructed in 1619, Jaffna Fort is more than 400 years old. First, the Portuguese built it as a 4-sided garrison. When the Dutch captured it in 1658, they expanded it to make it pentagon-shaped with 5 ramparts, a prison, administrative garrisons, a Queen’s palace, as well as a protestant church. In 1795, the British captured it.
You will have seen the Dutch forts of Galle and Colombo which were huge fortified towns but Jaffna fort is different because this was purely used for military and administrative purposes.
Today, the fort, with its crumbling walls and vanishing ramparts, stands as a strong reminder of Jaffna’s colonial history. You can climb the walls, walk over the limestone and coral reinforced fortifications, and get stunning views of fishermen and the Jaffna Lagoon. There’s a small museum in the premises which gives you insights into the Jaffna’s history.
Step into the Public Library
If you are a fan of colonial architecture, you will love the Public Library, another great place to visit in Jaffna.
The library was built in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style by S. Narasimhan from Madras (now Chennai), India. It first opened its doors in 1959. The pristine white building has the statue of Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of Learning, on its front porch.
However, like many other monuments in Jaffna, the Public Library also has a tumultuous past. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, in June 1981, the entire library with thousands of culturally-relevant books and manuscripts was burnt and destroyed. At the time, the library was home to nearly 100,000 books.
Eventually, the library was repaired and opened to the public in 2003. If you love guided tours, join this Jaffna City Tour and see the public library along with other iconic attractions.
Head to the ruins of Mantri Manai
Even though I did not get a chance to check this out, I feel the ruins of Mantri Manai (Jaffna’s old palace) are a great addition to your Jaffna bucket list.
Mantri Manai, which means “home of the minister”, is believed to have been the abode of kings of the Arya Chakravarti Dynasty in North Sri Lanka. It is hard to say when the palace was constructed. However, there is evidence that suggests that Mantri Manai was significantly damaged during the Portuguese conquest of Sri Lanka’s north.
The monument was added to the list of Protected Monuments in Jaffna in 2007.
Visit Point Pedro
Image credits: Canva Pro
Point Pedro is the northernmost point of Sri Lanka and just an hour away from Jaffna. Given its strategic location, Point Pedro has been an important port and passage point since ancient times.
Here, you will find churches, temples, as well as a lighthouse. St. Antony Church and Vallipuram Temple are especially beautiful.
Do note that it is best to visit Point Pedro after the rainy season ends because during rains, the road leading to it often gets clogged by water. This makes it impossible for vehicles to pass.
Experience local life at Yalpanam Market
One of the best places to visit in Jaffna is the local market. Known as the Yalpanam Market, it is the perfect place to pick Sri Lankan food souvenirs such as poppadum, chilies dunked in yoghurt, and local spices.
Yalpanam Market is also the best place to experience local life. Be it at the vegetable and fruits enclosure or at one of the many tiny shops selling knick-knacks, you will get rich insights into the lives of Jaffna people, their attires, their food, and their culture. If you love people-watching and getting lovely portraits, then Yalpanam Market is the place to be.
Trivia: Did you know that Jaffna is known as Yalpanam in Tamil? Yalpanam or Yalpanapattinam finds a mention in the inscriptions of the Vijayanagara Empire from Hampi.
Spot colorful street art
When planning for my trip to Sri Lanka, I had no clue that Jaffna was such a great place for art lovers. The street art collection here is absolutely enviable.
My friends and I spotted an entire area of wall art right as we were entering Jaffna. And then, we kept seeing more during our stay, literally in every nook and cranny of the city. Perhaps the most iconic ones are around the Yalpanam Market where every wall is painted with something unique about Jaffna and Tamil culture.
I have so many street art pictures from here that I could do an exclusive Jaffna street art photo tour for you. Maybe I will do one soon.
Try authentic Jaffna food
My Jaffna travel guide would never be complete without foodie stories, right? Especially after I have so fallen in love with the Sri Lankan cuisine. Hoppers, string hoppers, and parippu curry are some of my favorite dishes in the world.
But Jaffna cuisine is a little different. It is closer to Tamil food from South India with a has a strong influence of Sri Lankan cuisine from down south. Jaffna food has its own unique tastes and flavors that results from a conspicuous use of coconut and the fiery hot Jaffna spice mix (I bought a packet of this and can’t tell you how much I love it).
So, if you are a foodie and you are in Jaffna, you cannot leave without trying the local food. Be sure to try their mutton curry, pittu, kool (a seafood curry thickened with palmyra), and yoghurt with treacle.
If you are feeling more enthusiastic, learn to cook Jaffna Mutton Curry and the pittu in this 2-hour local cooking class.
Try an authentic Tamil thali at Mangos, Jaffna’s best restaurant
Dig into an authentic Tamil platter at Mangos. Located on Nallur Temple Road, Mangos is a pure-veg restaurant serving delicious food.
You can order dosai, chapati and curry, or try the thali pictured above. The thali usually consists of rice, sambar, rasam, 3 curries, one dessert, and poppadum. I have heard their dosas are good too.
Service maybe a little underwhelming but the food makes up for it.
Eat at Ammachchi Traditional Food Centre
Remember I spoke about Hela Bojun Halas in my Sri Lankan foodie guide?
Hela Bojun Halas are small, cooperative establishments that serve snacks and Sri Lankan short eats for very reasonable prices. Local village women run these restaurants, usually located on highways. They make for great pit stops while road-tripping through Sri Lanka.
In North Sri Lanka, you won’t find Hela Bojun Halas. Instead, you will find Ammachchi Traditional Food Centers. Very similar concept, only different locations and slightly different short eats. These small restaurants are also run by local women who dish out local snacks such as vadais and cutlets. I had my first bite at the Ammachchi Center in Keerimalai and totally loved it.
Curious about Hela Bojun Halas? Read more on my Sri Lankan food guide.
Eat at Malayan cafe
Another great place to eat in Jaffna is the Malayan Cafe which serves dosai, idli, vada, and rotis. They also serve Sri Lankan rice and curry and other short eats – all on banana leaves. The food is vegetarian and they have lots of vegan options too.
I wasn’t a big fan of their milk tea. It was too sweet for my taste. But if you like sweet teas, then go ahead.
Try some ice cream at Rio
Craving some ice cream in Jaffna? Try Rio Ice Cream.
Located very close to Nallur Kovil, Rio has a large swathe of ice cream varieties to choose from. Their milk shakes, sundaes, and lava ice creams are especially popular.
Over the last few years, Rio has assumed a cult status in the city. It is a favorite place to hang out for tourists and locals alike. So, you know where to head to if you wish to feel the pulse of Jaffna.
Shop for Palmyra handicrafts
If you are looking to buy the perfect souvenir from Jaffna, pick a palmyra handicraft. The wide fan leaves of the palmyra palm tree are as representative of the Jaffna peninsula as its local Tamil culture.
While hundreds of men in North Sri Lanka are busy toddy tapping from palmyra, the womenfolk engage in creating beautiful palmyra handicrafts. Bags, mats, baskets, and palmyra wall décor abound. At Yalapanam Market and Jaffna New Market, you will find many options to choose from.
Join a guided tour of Jaffna
As Jaffna is slowly opening up to tourists, locals are understanding the importance of offering guided tours with a deep focus on local culture and customs. Here are a few that you might want to consider.
- This tour takes you a guided tour of the most iconic places to visit in Jaffna.
- On this culinary tour, you will learn all about how to make Jaffna Mutton Curry and their aromatic pittu bread.
- You can also join this 4-hour cycling tour and see the best historical and cultural attractions of Jaffna.
Interactive map for best places in Jaffna
Best time to visit Jaffna
The best time to visit Jaffna in Sri Lanka is between January – March when temperatures are low and rainfall is non-existent. Jaffna gets really hot between April – August and really, really wet between October – December.
Also, note that the people here celebrate a 25-day religious festival in August (I have spoken about it under my section on Nallur Kandaswamy Temple). If you are not a fan of crowded places, I would avoid the city in August. However, if you are a culture fan, then this festival will definitely excite you.
Where to stay in Jaffna?
Jaffna is still a sleepy little town trying to let go of the haunting memories of a long civil war and evolve into a modern city. As a result, it is harder (but not impossible) to find star accommodation with superlative facilities.
I stayed at North Gate by Jetwing for 3 nights and totally loved my experience. The hotel is located right next to Jaffna Railway Station and is pretty close to all major Jaffna attractions including the Nallur Temple, the fort, and the public library. Rooms are comfortable and equipped with balconies that overlook different parts of the city. They also have a small, outdoor pool and a gym. Their food is excellent. Every Saturday, they host a Jaffna special dinner that features many local delicacies including the very famous Jaffna Mutton Curry.
How to get to Jaffna?
The best and the easiest way to get to Jaffna from Colombo is by train. The journey takes 6 hours and is pretty scenic. There is also a dining car in the train which offers rolls, tea, and coffee. You can find time and booking details here.
You can also take the bus though I wouldn’t really recommend that. Bus journey can take anywhere between 10 – 12 hours and your back will be sore by the time you arrive. However, it does make sense to ride the bus if you are stopping in places like Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, or Polonnaruwa. That way, you can split the journey into two halves.
Sri Lankan Air Taxi (operated by Cinnamon Air) has also started services between Colombo and Jaffna. However, are no scheduled flights between the two cities as of now. You will need to charter a flight if needed (makes sense for a big group). Some tour operators also do this.
Practical information for planning your Jaffna trip
- January – March is the best time to visit Jaffna. Be prepared for rain if you are visiting in September – December and for sweltering heat in April – August.
- Hiring a tuk-tuk is the best way to explore Jaffna town.
- If you plan to visit the temples of Jaffna, please cover your shoulders and knees. Men cannot wear anything on the upper half of their bodies. Also, remember to remove your shoes before entering the shrine.
- Nallur Annual Festival in August is a cultural extravaganza when the entire town is in a festive mood.
Jaffna Sri Lanka FAQ
Is Jaffna worth visiting?
Yes, Jaffna in Sri Lanka is absolutely worth visiting. It is a true hidden gem that is filled with beautiful Hindu temples, interesting colonial architecture, vibrant street art, and warm, hospitable people. If you are looking for an offbeat and unique Sri Lankan experience, then you have to visit Jaffna.
What can I buy in Jaffna?
You can buy palmyra handicrafts (bags/baskets/hats/wall decor), Jaffna curry powder, fritters, chilies soaked in yoghurt, tropical fruits and vegetables in Jaffna.
Is Jaffna safe for tourists?
Yes, Jaffna is safe for tourists. Of course, I can only speak of my own experience but during my stay in Jaffna, I never felt unsafe. Hospital Road in Jaffna as well as the area around Nallur Kandaswamy Temple are the hubs of all activity. You will never find a dull moment here.
Just, a word of caution – some streets may not be very well lighted. Avoid walking on them at night.
What is Jaffna famous for?
Jaffna is a unique destination in North Sri Lanka that is famous for its Hindu kovils, medieval Dutch fort, and interesting street art that showcase life and culture in Jaffna. And of course, Jaffna Mutton Curry.
What are things to see in Jaffna?
In Jaffna, you can visit Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Jaffna Fort, Public Library, the local market, and spot vibrant street art. You can also do several day trips nearby to the islands of Nainativu and Delft, the holy ponds of Keerimalai, and Point Pedro.
Disclaimer: I was invited by Sri Lanka Tourism to experience Jaffna as part of their 10-day media trip. However, the opinions expressed in this post are solely my own.