A hugely significant place in Hindu-Tamil history, the city of Jaffna is bursting with tradition, culture and colour. The temples are rainbow-coloured, the palms are green, and – as across the rest of the country – the Tamil people are friendly, welcoming travellers and tourists into their lives with positivity and curiosity.
As the capital of the Far North, Jaffna offers a memorable and unique experience – different, in many ways, to the rest of the country. Even as you travel to the north on the train, the landscapes seems to become more populated with palmyra and coconut palms. I knew I had to venture to the north while I was in Sri Lanka and spent two days in Jaffna.
Until recently, Jaffna was off-limits to tourists, only reopening after the conflict finished in 2009. This region was a war zone for over two decades and there is still a military presence in the area – particularly north of the city.
I was told to expect to see many derelict buildings and bullet-holes and shrapnel in the buildings that are still standing; around a fifth of the buildings in Jaffna were damaged in the war. I was a little apprehensive on how this would make me feel, but in actual fact, I didn’t see an overwhelming amount of destruction.
It seems the locals are keen to rebuild and move on. There is hope, stability, happiness… reminding me a little of the attitude in Christchurch, New Zealand after the devastating earthquake in 2011. Despite this, memories of the war are still very fresh in people’s memories. I shuddered to think of the horrors that some of these people – girls younger than me – must have seen.
But fast-forward to 2017 and the city is welcoming visitors once again – and now is the time to go, before tourism becomes too overwhelming. Because it has only become a spot on the tourist-trail recently, you may very well not see another tourist while you’re there.
Day 1: Exploring the city of Jaffna
There are lots of things to see and do in the city; even taking a stroll will open your eyes to a place that’s completely different to the rest of Sri Lanka. There are a number of sights that are a worthwhile visit.
Jaffna Public Library
A beautiful structure located close by the Fort, this is a true example of British Colonial Architecture. The building that stands today was rebuilt in 2002 after the original was burnt down in 1981. The library is used by locals and is an attraction for tourists visiting the city.
Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil
Constructed in 1734AD, this temple is one of the most important in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Its distinctive red and white stripes covering the outer walls are a clear symbol of Hinduism, and the towering golden ‘Gopurams’ that rise nine-stories in height are an undoubtedly impressive sight. Men must remove their shirts to enter and all visitors must remove their shoes.
Top tip! Make sure you see a puja – a traditional religious ceremony. They take place at 5am, 10am, noon, 4.15pm, 4:30pm, 5pm and 6:45pm.
The perfect place to watch the sun set over the sea, Jaffna’s fort is a large ruin of the prestigious structure that it used to be. Built by the Dutch in 1680, the fort is completely free to visit and you’re free to roam around the grounds as you please.
Day 2: Visit the Islands and the Far North of Jaffna
It’s not just the city of Jaffna you need to see during your visit to the north of Sri Lanka. A drive along the northern coast will be a beautiful, peaceful experience where you may not see anyone else at all. Jaffna’s Islands are well worth a visit as they offer a totally different vibe to the city.
Some of the islands are connected by roads, others are less easily accessible – like Nainativu.
Visiting Nainativu Island was a highlight of my time in Sri Lanka – everything from the too-close-for-comfort rickety boat journey there, to craning my neck to marvel at the sight of the detail on the temple façades made the experience unforgettable. The island is sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists and many people make a pilgrimage to the island from across Sri Lanka.
Naga Pooshani Amman Temple
As soon as you step off the boat – which you can take from Kurikadduwan (KKD), connected by road to the main peninsular – you’ll see the opposing Naga Pooshani Amman Temple towering into the sky. Its colourful detail of statues is mesmerising to look at. It’s free to enter.
Worth a visit time permitting is the Nagadipa Temple – the only major Buddhist temple in the north – which is a ten minute walk from the port. Entry costs 500Rs per person for foreigners.
The Far North
Take your moped and explore the far north of Sri Lanka. The area is barely visited by tourists and en route, you can stop off and see many a temple or dagoba.
A drive along the far north coast is worthwhile – you may not see any other people at all and the coastline is beautiful.
Kankesanturai (KKS) is the military base. The main road to KKS used to be blocked off but it was open in April 2017 – though the military presence is strong with uniformed soldiers patrolling the area. Something I found peculiar about this area was just how clean it was in comparison to the rest of the places I had seen; it was almost like it wasn’t Sri Lanka!
Where to eat in Jaffna
As always, we were on the hunt for delicious vegetarian food and Jaffna – like everywhere else in Sri Lanka – did not disappoint!
This restaurant is perfect for lunch and dinner (I should know as I ate there twice!) and there is a pleasant outdoor seating area. I recommend the dosas and the thali. It isn’t particularly expensive but is popular with tourists.
Address: 359 Temple Road
An authentic Sri Lankan lunch, here you’ll have rice and curry served on a banana leaf and eat with your hands (unless you ask the waiter for a fork). This is a great place to people-watch as many locals come to the restaurant with friends. Once your leaf has been loaded up with rice, the waiters will bring you different curries as and when they are ready. Banana chips are a nice bonus here!
Address: 36-38 Grand Bazaar
A simple restaurant serving kotthu and rice dishes, this place serves great food at low prices – and is another favourite with locals.
Address: 250 Kovil Road
How to get to Jaffna
The easiest way to get to Jaffna from the south is by train, which runs from Colombo via Anuradhapura to Jaffna. The journey is a long one, but the scenery en route is gorgeous!
How to get around in Jaffna
Within the city, you can easily rely on tuk tuks for short distances. We mostly just walked.
If you’re exploring further, I recommend renting a moped. You can hire one from your guesthouse (even if they don’t advertise having mopeds available, the owner will have a friend who is able to organise something for you.)
We rented a moped for one day from our guesthouse (detailed below) for 1500Rs for the day (note that you can normally rent them for cheaper in other parts of Sri Lanka, however the North is generally more expensive than further South.) Petrol for the day cost us 350Rs.
Where to stay in Jaffna
During our time in Jaffna, we stayed at D’Villa and loved it – the owner, Dylan, is very hospitable and welcoming. We had a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast every day and rented a moped from him.
Have you visited Jaffna? What did you think of it?
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
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Many of the photos in this post were taken by @jaemswilliam.
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