Located in Sri Lanka’s far north, Jaffna is a little off the beaten path. Emerging from decades of civil war, the relatively laid back city is full of old world charm. Its resilient people are unbelievably friendly and welcoming, and as it continues to rebuild it is fast becoming a part of Sri Lanka that you can’t miss!
Jaffna is the cultural capital of the Sri Lankan Tamil population and in many ways is very different to rest of the island. After almost five months in the south we were captivated by the city and fell in love with the affable locals, mellow atmosphere and phenomenal food. We’ve put together a 48-hour sample itinerary that highlights some of our favourite parts, but you could easily spend a lot longer in this beautiful town.
Start your morning by getting acquainted with Jaffna town. If you like to get to know a city by wandering around and getting a bit lost, Jaffna is perfect – the town centre is very walkable and there are lots of shops and stalls to peruse. The central markets in particular are fantastic; just make sure you visit the fruit and vegetable section for one of Jaffna’s famous mangoes! If you prefer a bit more structure, a tuk-tuk driver can take you on a tour of the sights.
Eat lunch at the Malayan Café, an institution in Jaffna. It has been serving cheap, tasty vegetarian food for more than 40 years and it doesn’t look like it has changed much since it first opened. The interior is full of old-school wood paneling, the delicious curries are served on banana leaves rather than plates, and there is no cutlery so do as the locals and eat with your right hand! A delicious meal will set you back around 120 – 250 LKR per person.
After lunch, grab a short tuk-tuk over to the Jaffna Archaeological Museum in nearby Nallur (3km, 200 LKR). It’s a great little museum with a range of interesting artifacts accompanied by diagrams explaining how they were used. The attendant enjoyed watching our horrified faces as he showed us photos and explained how Hindu devotees suspend their bodies from meat hooks during the Vel Hinduism festival in Jaffna.
It’s best to avoid the mid-afternoon heat so walk around the corner to another of Jaffna’s institutions, Rio’s Ice-cream Shop. The massive building was heaving with happy Sri Lankans when we visited, and we understood why when we tucked into our enormous blueberry sundae (250 LKR). The Jaffna Heritage Hotel just up the road is an oasis in the afternoon sun, you can cool off here with a swim in their shady swimming pool (300 LKR per person) or simply hang out on the lawn.
When you’re feeling up to it, you can visit the Nallur Kandaswamy temple, which is a two-minute walk from the Heritage. This is one of the largest and most significant Hindu temples in Sri Lanka. You need to remove your shoes at the gate and men need to remove their shirt before entering the temple itself. It’s a stunning, ornate temple and the 4:30 prayers are simply mesmerising.
Across the road from the temple and down a little laneway is Mangos restaurant, our favourite spot to eat in Jaffna. They do spectacular Southern Indian style meals and dinner is usually quite busy with a mix of travellers and locals. We loved the mango lassis, dosas and curries – all mopped up with mouth-watering parotta (Indian flat bread). A large dinner for two will cost around 1500 to 2000 LKR.
For a busy second day of exploring the North, make sure you are fuelled up with a big breakfast (Our favourite was coconut roti, dhal curry, pol sambol and eggs – tasty, spicy and filling!)
There are a number of small islands north of Jaffna that extend almost to the tip of India. They are mostly connected by bridges and causeways, and are definitely worth a look. You can hire scooters and drive yourself, or like us find a tuk-tuk driver for the day (3750 LKR + tip). Make sure you take plenty of water and sunscreen – the islands are dry and fairly barren, with little opportunity to take shade.
You can cover most of the islands in a day and it makes sense to do a loop (Mandaitivu – Pungudutivu – Nainativu – Karainagar – Jaffna). Delft (Neduntheevu) is only accessible by an hour-long early morning ferry ride and therefore needs a whole day itself to visit.
The landscape is beautiful and although there are some interesting sights to visit, the journey itself is the real show here. There are a huge number of shelled-out houses destroyed in the war; the fighting was ferocious here and there is still plenty of rebuilding to be done. The surrounding water is fairly shallow and glows a brilliant shade of shimmering blue.
Highlights include the Hindu temple at Nainativu (to access you need to catch a short ferry operated by the navy and packed with pilgrims), Kayts town (great spot for lunch) and Casuarina Beach (unwind with an afternoon swim here on the way back).
After returning to Jaffna and cooling off, head to the waterfront precinct to catch the last of the afternoon sun. The Jaffna library (containing ancient, irreplaceable tamil manuscripts) was burnt down in the early 1980’s in what was the catalysts for the brutal civil war. It is open to visitors after 4:30pm, though only the common areas are accessible so there isn’t much to see.
On the other hand, the nearby Jaffna fort is enormous. You access it from the southern end near the stadium; there are a number of ice-cream vans at the front gate, which is handy! The fort was built by the Portuguese, extended by the Dutch and was the site of a number of bloody sieges during the recent civil war. You can explore the site freely and the walk around the ramparts is magnificent in the twilight.
The rooftop bar at Jetwing hotel is a spectacular place to watch the sunset and have a refreshing drink. At eight stories it is the tallest building in the city and it offers sensational panoramic views of Jaffna. Happy hour runs from 4pm to 8pm (very happy) and draught beers are only 200 LKR. There is also a wide selection of mock tails, cocktails, wines and snacks.
You might settle in for a few well earned beverages and decide to eat dinner on the delightful rooftop, or return to Mangos (we won’t judge), but if you’re still looking for a bit of adventure, wander down the main street and there are fantastic local options for dinner. Hotel Rolex (just past the bus stand) is a popular option for cheap eats.
Where to stay
We stayed at D’Villa Garden House on a nice quiet lane a couple of kilometres (200 LKR) from the centre of Jaffna. We had a large room on the second floor with A/C, hot water and wifi. The breakfasts were fantastic – a different mix of traditional Sri Lankan meals with tea / coffee and fresh fruit. Our host Raj was a great guy with plenty of suggestions about making the most of your time in Jaffna.
If you’re looking to splash out a bit more, check out Jetwing Jaffna, which is centrally located and very well appointed. We also liked the Jaffna Heritage Hotel in Nallur.
How to get there
There are a handful of trains that leave from Colombo Fort each morning and arrive in Jaffna in the afternoon. It takes around 6 hours and the scenery is fantastic for most of the trip. Tickets range from 500 to 1000 LKR, and unlike many trains in Sri Lanka, you need to make sure to reserve a seat in advance (even in second class).