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Jaffna, Sri Lanka - Full guide with map and places to visit

Jaffna Sri Lanka [boutique tourism with beach and much more]


Last updated on February 22nd, 2018 at 01:56 pm

Planning a new trip is always so exciting. I visited this country only few months ago but I left behind a must visit place, Jaffna, the new destination in Sri Lanka tourism which was well marked in my map, a city to explore and a region to experience.

I checked the Jaffna weather forecast, sunny and warm, but not hot, perfect for my new trip. If you are reading this post most probably you already know about this area of Sri Lanka, closed to any sort of tourism only till few years ago due to a long internal Tamil dispute. The train network was again active only in 2014.

Today Jaffna, and the north side of the country, is as peaceful as the remaining part of Sri Lanka, which means smiles at every corner.  Interesting enough the locals use the Tamil language and not the official Sinhalese language. I was travelling with a friend from Colombo, the capital, and he could communicate only in English with the locals, as Tamil and Sinhalese languages are very different.

So, I guess the question is why did I want to travel to Jaffna?

My best answer is because I wanted to experience a place in its tourism infancy, a place where there are almost no traces of tourist restaurants or, even better, tourism itself. It’s Sri Lanka as it used to be 50 years ago. Just to give an example, the most popular Jaffna beach, Casuarina, had only locals swimming and zero, yes none, tourists.

This is not to say that Kandy or Colombo are cities that shouldn’t be visited. In true honesty I believe that globalization has still not a big imprint in Sri Lanka and this is why I usually suggest this country to my friends.

Before visiting any new destination I like to check the local news and happenings. I found in Today Jaffna a great source of information (I used Google to translate it). Have a look, you may come across a street party or a celebration planned during your stay

Fast facts of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

If you have just 2 minutes spare for this post than you should know that:

  • a trip from Colombo to Jaffna takes around 8-9 hours however you may be able to fly there as well
  • a quick Jaffna map of places to visit is available here, move around with a guided tour or just rent a car or a taxi
  • the beaches in Jaffna are nice however they are not the major reason to visit the area
  • the Tamil food recipes of Jaffna are unique and different from the remaining part of Sri Lanka, unmissable
  • English is widely spoken
  • the major attractions are the local fish market, the fort, Keerimalai, Nainativu (Nagadeepa), Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Deft Island, the country side and read on for more 
  • the final Battle of the Sri Lankan Civil War in the Jaffna peninsula was in 2009. It is now a peaceful part of the country to visit
  • the best time to visit the north is between January and June. Dry, sunny and lower humidity. I may add, based on my experience, cool and pleasant nights too

If you can add another 4 minutes you may go deeper and keep reading about means of transportation, full list of attractions, hotels in Jaffna and more

Colombo to Jaffna by private transportation

A trip to Jaffna is not a quick thing to do, and that’s probably another reason why this area is so unspoilt.

My trip was made with a private van and it took me around 9 hours with a break in the middle. The hard part is getting out of Colombo, so, if you can, try to have a very early start, it will probably save you one hour. 

The drive itself is quite easy. The roads are almost straight but it’s a busy route used also by local businesses, which means it’s easy to get stuck in traffic, especially when driving through the towns. 

Right in the middle of this 400km trip you will cross the town of Anuradhapura, my favorite temple site of Sri Lanka. Imagine a wide area made of different temples, ancient buildings, even men built pools. It reminded me of Ayutthaya in Thailand. This is a great place to stop for a couple of days (I did it on the way back from Jaffna) and explore by bicycle.

Colombo to Jaffna by train

There is a direct train line from Colombo to Jaffna, I have not experienced it myself however I was said it’s a good option. Travelling time varies based on the train you select (there are a few throughout the day). The Jaffna station was connected only in 2014 to the country network.

You can use one of the below options to check the time table and tickets:

The ticket costs between $3 and $10 based on the class and if overnight. 

I personally suggest to not fully trust any website timetable. Just use it as a reference and try to book your ticket as soon as you are in Colombo. The station itself is one of my favorite attractions of the city, a place to visit in the capital.

Colombo to Jaffna by Bus

A website I was suggested to use for transportation by bus is BusSeat. This is great source as the train may be not available for some routes.

As an example, you may book the direct train from Colombo to Jaffna, on the way back stop to Anuradhapura for few days and from there take a bus to Kandy (there is no train line between these two towns).

SriLankan Airlines to Jaffna

SriLankan Airlines does not currently fly to Jaffna. However you can try with Cinnamon, a small airline company in Sri Lanka that flies to minor destinations.

They fly only small charters to Jaffna, which means that if you are in a small group it may actually be quite convenient, beside saving a lot of time.

Hotels in Jaffna town

Jaffna is a developing travel destination in Sri Lanka. This means that there is not a huge number of available hotels around and it may be a good idea to book your place well in advance.

I personally spent two nights at Jetwing and I had a great experience. It’s a brand new place, with a local interior design, located right in the centre of town, perfect for any kind of exploration. I had an amazing photography walk at sunrise to the Jaffna Fort, the local fisherman area, the town centre and the famous clock in just 2 hours. Really close to everything.

The hotel also organizes visits to the major attractions as Keerimalai, Nainativu (Nagadeepa), Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Deft Island (there is more on the places to visit later in the post). This may be an option as well as just renting a car, a taxi or a tuk tuk for 2 days and visit all on your own and with your time schedule.

Check Jetwing availability and price now

Jetwing Jaffna - Great hotel in town

What to see in Jaffna and around

Few of the attractions are around town and they can be easily reached by foot. I however suggest to spare a day roaming the peninsula with either a rented a car or simply with a tuk tuk. There are so many nice places you would miss otherwise.

Kaakkai Thevu Fish Market 

If you are fascinated by the local culture and the local way of living than I definitely suggest a visit to the Kaakkai Thevu Fish Market. This is where the local fishermen come back from the sea and sell the fish. There are two areas, one dedicated to the retail and one for the locals where people can buy the fish for the own meal. 

Walk few meters and you find the cleaning section, where the fish is made ready for cooking.

This is not an industrial area by any mean. It’s instead based on few square meters, two sheds and a small pier. It’s more down to the basics. You will be very unlikely to meet any tourist.

Check the map below for the location as there are many fish markets around the city (I got confused myself when I wanted to revisit the place for more videos)

If you are into photography than this is a must place to visit in Jaffna.

Jaffna Dutch Fort

The fort is probably the biggest legacy left by the Europeans, and more precisely by the Portuguese, and the Dutch later. It is quite a big structure almost in the centre of town, really easy to visit on foot.

I visited the exterior on a sunrise photography walk however it was still close in the early part of the morning.

I would personally suggest a visit in the late part of the day (around 4:30-5pm), when it cools down. Unfortunately it opens too late (8am) for an early access in the morning.

For some photography I suggest to stay on the coast side of the fort. You can find some nice spots with the walls and sky reflection. Fishermen are also in the area, another great subject for few photos

Clock Tower

The clock tower is an historical site and landmark of Jaffna. It was built almost 150 years ago in occasion of the Prince of Wales visit to Ceylon. 

It’s a busy site and sunrise is the only time when you will find the square almost empty. In my early bird photography walk I was almost on my own.

I would not wake up just for this tower though, add some more juicy stuff as a walk around the fort and in the city center.

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is probably the most beautiful Hindu temple I have ever seen. And it will stay always in my eyes.

Why? 

Simply, because photography is not allowed inside the structure and my eyes “stored” all the possible images. And it’s a pity however I do fully understand the reasons. This temple is so beautiful that the energy you can feel around would be disturbed by the many people making photos and videos.

It was quite unassuming from outside however once I entered and I started the walk I definitely felt a connection with someone, I am not sure how to describe it. The silence was so “loud” inside the temple.

Be aware that men need to take off the shirt. I tried to understand the reason of it but I am still uncertain on the real explanation, if there is a certain one (add a comment if you have more info).

One explanation mentions the fact that clothes wearing the upper part of the body may describe the social status of the men. Once removed, everyone looks similar, there are no more social classes. All the same in front of God.

Another reason is about the clothes blocking, or slowing down, the positive chakra energy entering in the body. It is actually believed that the temples are built around energy points.

Obviously you may ask why this works only for the men. I guess it is more because having topless women around is probably not a great idea. 

I made few photos around the temple. My suggestion is to try to include the local ladies in your composition, they are usually dressed with very bright colours which makes a great contrast with the goldish background.

Jaffna Beach (Casuarina Beach)

Casuarina is reckoned by the locals as the most beautiful beach in the Jaffna peninsula. There is even a small fee to access it.

Was I impressed?

Let’s say it was not my highlight of the day. The beach is nice but it does not stand out. When we arrived I could see only locals using it, which is another great signal of how this region is still a “secret” of Sri Lanka.

Do not plan your trip to Jaffna for just beach time (better options in the south or east of Sri Lanka) otherwise you will end up disappointed.

Jaffna is more about a local experience, culture and cuisine.

Keerimalai Pond

Keerimalai Pond is one of the attractions of Jaffna that I liked the most. This unique place has also quite an interesting story.

This pond became famous in the 7th century when a Chola princess (one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the history of southern India) visited the place and after a bath her face was transformed from a horse-like head to a beautiful women. The story is well pictured at the pond entrance.

During my visit few boys were using the pond for a swim (females have a separate one behind walls). It’s a pity I did not have a swimming trunk with me otherwise I would have checked if I could improve my face look LOL

This place is described also as Keerimalai Spring. I am personally not sure if the water nowadays is sourced by a natural spring or it comes through the small channel directly from the sea. Either way, it is really a unique site to experience in Jaffna.

Naguleswaram Temple 

It’s a famous Hindu temple next to the Keerimalai Pond. It went through a history of destruction and repair started with the Portuguese and ending with the Civil War few years ago.

But it’s still up and accessible.

Now for more than 2500 years.

Definitely popular with the locals however not as impressive as the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil.

Sri Sangamitta Viharaya (Buddhist temple)

This is the site where the Sacred Bo Tree of Buddhists (Sri Maha Bodhi) was planted in Sri Lanka.

The interesting fact here is that Hindu, Buddhist and Christians churches and temples are next to each other.

 The Sri Sangamitta Viharaya is located just next to a beautiful beach. Be aware that you are required to go barefoot inside the sacred area. However sand can be quite hot, I personally suggest to wear a pair of socks (I didn’t of course and I suffered LOL).

Old buildings, churches and cathedrals

There are plenty of them around, especially churches. They are quite intriguing, especially for some photography. 

Usually there is always someone looking after these buildings and with a small tip you may have access.

The picture below shows the inside of the Archbishop Cathedral.  

King Sangiliyan’s Minister’s House – Manthri Manai

King Sangiliyan’s Minister’s House is another interesting site to walk around. Nowadays it is just a collection of ruins however the architecture, old 2,000 years, is actually very interesting and in my mind re-called the Roman Empire.

Cows are freely roaming in the yard, in the typical Indian style. I must have spent 20 minutes finding the best one (cow and composition) to put in my photo below LOL

When I run my photography workshops I always suggest to add something to the photo that can make it unique. Just think the same photo without the cow, it would be completely boring I believe.

I missed on this trip the Public Library of Jaffna, once the largest in Asia (unfortunately it was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1981) and Deft Island. Something I regret and they are definitely both in my next visit bucket list. The library is just in front of the tower clock, I walk through after sunrise but it was still closed.

Tamil Food in Jaffna

The great thing of the Jetwing Hotel, where I spent two nights, was that they cooked local Tamil street food and it was absolutely great to have a taste through the huge selection.

However, honestly, you can find amazing food on any corner of every street. I spent my lunch at the Ammachi Unavakam food court, basically few tables shared by few ladies cooking on the side of the street. That was an amazing experience! And so cheap too.

Sri Lanka can be visited really on the cheap if you eat street food. And beside the price, the quality is really amazing.

I like to close this post with two words used in a bizarre way in Sri Lanka:

  • washroom, this is actually the toilette
  • hotel, it’s used to describe restaurants that do not provide any room. If someone takes you to an hotel for lunch it may be just a restaurant (confusing hey LOL)

Map of the places to visit in Jaffna

For the interactive Google Map you can click on this link.


In this trip I have been supported by the Tourism Board of Sri Lanka. As usual all opinions are mine. I was not requested to write about it. Yes, it’s all genuine. Actually I gave the tourism board some hard time because my days start at sunrise and finish at sunset LOL. Sorry guys 🙂


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Stefano Ferro
Photographer
Stefano is a travel and landscape photographer with a background in cycling, movie and lifestyle photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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