From imposing historic forts and colourful Hindu temples, to sacred Bhuddist sites and bustling markets, these are some of the best places to visit and things to do in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
Located in the northern tip of the country, Jaffna is the capital of the Northern Province. As it is a bit off the beaten path, it is often overlooked by travellers in Sri Lanka, and having only opened its doors to tourists in 2009, after the end of the Civil War, it remains as authentic as it ever was.
The Northern Province in Sri Lanka is led by the Tamil minority and it’s mostly Hindu. If you have been to India, particularly the South, you will notice the influences from the subcontinent – from the food to the architecture, and even what people wear.
Table of Contents
- 1 Is Jaffna worth visiting?
- 2 How to get to Jaffna
- 3 Places to visit in Jaffna
- 4 Other ideas for things to do in Jaffna
- 5 Where to stay in Jaffna
- 6 Planning your trip to Jaffna
- 7 Travelling to Sri Lanka? Check out my other Sri Lanka articles
- 9 Like this post? Pin and save for later
Is Jaffna worth visiting?
If you are looking for a raw and authentic travel experience, Jaffna is a real as it gets and it’s a must in everyone’s Sri Lanka itinerary, especially those with an adventurous spirit.
I hope you find this Jaffna travel guide useful, and it helps you plan your time in this charming city as well as give you some ideas on what to see in Jaffna.
How to get to Jaffna
Getting to Jaffna is a bit of an effort, but it’s undoubtedly worthwhile. You can travel by either bus or train depending on where you’re travelling from. Or if you like to travel in style, you can hire a driver as an alternative to travel around.
From Colombo to Jaffna
Getting to Jaffna from Colombo is a very long drive – over 8 hours easily. You may want to think about breaking up the journey and stop in Anuradhapura for a day to make it more manageable. Besides, Anuradhapura is a great place to explore if you are interested in Sri Lankan history.
From Anuradhapura to Jaffna
The train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna takes around 3 hours. It’s a very comfortable train with allocated seating, air con and a buffet car.
Places to visit in Jaffna
Wondering what to do in Jaffna as soon as you arrive? I’d recommend heading to the local market, located in the centre of town. This colourful and chaotic market is a treasure trove of products that you will not be able to find in a regular shop or supermarket – ideal if you are looking to try truly local products and food.
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Jaffna, and enjoy some people watching while you’re at it, then the market is the place to go.
Nallur Kandiswamy Kovil
Built in the 15th century in what used to be the ancient capital for the Jaffna Kingdom, Nallur Kandiswamy Kovil is one of the most venerated places of worship in Sri Lanka and a sacred temple for Hindu worshippers. This striking golden temple is located around a 10-minute drive outside the city centre.
If you happen to be in Jaffna in August, make sure you visit the temple in the evening, to witness the famous annual Nallur Festival. Chariot processions, drummers and dancers as well as devotees parade in and around the temple in honour of the war god Skanda. This spiritually charged festival is a sight to behold. The festival lasts 25 days and it’s the longest in the country.
Nainativu (Nagadeepa) Island
Nainativu (also known as Nagadeepa) is a small island off the coast of the Jaffna peninsula that is said to have been the home of the Naga people, an ancient tribe that once inhabited Sri Lanka. Today it is a spiritually important place for both Hindus and Buddhists.
On the island you will find Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya, one of the country’s holiest Buddhist shrines. According to recent history, Gautama Buddha visited the site five years after attaining enlightenment in order to settle a dispute between two Naga kings.
The other important religious site in the island is Nagapooshani Amman Temple, a Hindu temple and a very significant symbol for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. The temple has four gateway towers called gopurams, with Raja Raja Gopuram, being the tallest and most elaborate. When I visited the temple there were a lot of young women inside sitting against the wall with red and yellow ribbons wrapped around their arms. I was explained by my guide that they were performing a ceremony where they wished for marriage for the following year.
To get to Nainativu you will need to get a 20-minute ferry from Kurikadduwan Jetty, which can be reached by bus from Jaffna Bus Station (Bus 776). Alternatively, you can get a taxi or rent a scooter for the day.
You can also visit Nainativu (Nagadeepa) on a private tour and combine it with Delft Island which you can book here.
Built by the Portuguese when they invaded Jaffna in the 17th century, it was later taken over and expanded by the Dutch. This star-shaped fort is one of Sri Lanka’s best-preserved colonial ramparts and one of the most popular attractions in Jaffna.
You can visit the open grounds, walk around the moat and gateways, and climb the ancient walls for great views of Jaffna and the lagoon. A visit to the fort at sunset is a must for every visitor to the city.
Jaffna Library and Clock Tower
Built in 1933, Jaffna Library is a very important building in the Northern Province. It was once one of the largest libraries in Asia, with almost 100,000 books and manuscripts. Sadly, a lot of these works were lost in 1981, in a fire that was caused in an attempt to erase Tamil heritage during a time of political tension before the Civil War started. The Library has now restored and it has become a symbol of Northern Sri Lanka culture.
Not far from the Library you will find another important landmark in the city, the Jaffna Clock Tower. It was built to commemorate the visit of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and future king Edward VII, to Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s name during British rule) in 1875.
If you are tight for time or if you prefer walking around with a guide, you can take a city tour of Jaffna that will take you to all these sites.
Other ideas for things to do in Jaffna
Where to stay in Jaffna
North Gate by Jetwing
I stayed at North Gate by Jetwing, right opposite Jaffa Railway Station. Centrally located, it’s the ideal base for the main attractions in the city. The hotel has everything you need at the end of a day exploring – a fitness centre, a small but sweet outdoor pool and 24h room service.
Other highly rated places to stay in Jaffna:
Planning your trip to Jaffna
Do you have any questions about these or other things to do in Jaffna?
Let me know in the comments!
Travelling to Sri Lanka? Check out my other Sri Lanka articles
- The Perfect Sri Lanka 10 Day Itinerary – A Comprehensive Guide
- Climbing Pidurangula Rock for the Best View of Sigiriya
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Disclosure: A big thank you to Sri Lanka Tourism, who hosted me on this trip. As always, all views are my own.
Teresa is an award-winning travel blogger based in London. She’s on a mission to explore the world through responsible cultural and adventure travel, and through deeper, more meaningful local experiences. She’s a lover of adventure, the outdoors and everything food related, and she’s always looking for ways to make a positive impact through sustainable travel.