The Best Things to See and Do in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Walk the walls and ramparts of the restored Jaffna Fort, built in 1618 by the Portuguese and occupied by the Dutch in 1658 untill the end of the 18th century
Walk the walls and ramparts of the restored Jaffna Fort, built in 1618 by the Portuguese and occupied by the Dutch in 1658 untill the end of the 18th century | © Hemis / Alamy
Photo of Claire Dodd
14 July 2021

Home to the majority of the Tamil population, Jaffna, the northernmost city in Sri Lanka, is still largely unmodernised and recuperating after the civil war that raged for almost 30 years until 2009. This is a place full of beautifully ornamented Kovils (Hindu temples), ancient Buddhist temples and a community bouncing back and rebuilding. Here are the best things to see and do in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

Pay homage to Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

Hindu Temple
Map View
Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil Hindu temple in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
© agefotostock / Alamy
Expanses of gleaming gold greet visitors to one of Sri Lanka’s most significant Hindu temples and complexes, constructed in the 15th century. Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil’s current incarnation dates from 1734, its buildings embellished with murals, decorative brass work and ornate carvings. Visit in midsummer for the holy Nallur Festival – Sri Lanka’s longest, at 25 days – where thousands take part in celebrations including processions, drumming and chanting.

Kadurugoda Temple in Kandarodai

Buddhist Temple
Map View
Kadurugoda Vihara (Kandarodai temple)
© Imagebook / Theekshana Kumara / Getty
Neat conical domes dot the landscape at this ancient Buddhist temple, said to be established between 307 and 267BCE. The grey coral stone domes, each decorated with unique patterns, are unique to this area and they’re thought to hold the remains of between 60-80 enlightened monks. If you want to explore more, you’ll find artefacts including coloured tiles, Buddha statues, a guard stone and ancient coins in the Jaffna museum.

Dine at Mangos Indian Veg Restaurant

Restaurant, Indian, Vegetarian, $$$
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A local institution, Mangos specialises in beautiful curried vegetable dishes, served on traditional thali plates and covered with freshly plucked banana leaves. The decor is simple, wooden tables, high ceilings and whirring fans, contrasting with the food, which is loaded with flavour. Order the biriyani, served with delicious side dishes such as spicy vegetable pickle and onions in curd. It’s close to the Nallur temple, so after visiting make a day of it with a meal here

Visit Jaffna Market for special mangoes

Market, Asian
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Sri Lanka, Northern province, Jaffna, Jaffna central market
© Hemis / Alamy
Wherever you are in the world, a market trawl reveals the colour and whirr of local life. Jaffna market is in the centre of town, lining two streets and bubbling with covered stands. You’ll find everything from regional fruits and delicacies to clothing, jewellery and ornaments. But if you only track down one treat, seek out the mangoes. People in Sri Lanka will tell you that the Jaffna mango (or Karutha Colomban) is the best on the island. Between May and August, varieties – some found only here – are in season. Look out for street snacks of mango sprinkled with chilli, sugar and salt.

Grab a sweet treat at Rio Ice Cream

Ice Cream Parlour, Ice Cream, $$$
Map View

Step out of the Nallur temple, and look down the street, beyond the surge of motorbikes and buzzing tuk tuks carrying passengers. You can’t miss Rio Ice Cream Parlor; the giant red and blue sign is a landmark in itself. Don’t be fooled by the name – there are cakes on offer too. But most people roll up for the cold stuff, served in old fashioned sundae glasses, and sprouting wafers. Pick from flavours including blueberry, mango and pineapple. And get licking.

See remaining ruins of the war at Old Park

Park, Ruins
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Old park, ruins of Old Kachchery - T8M05C
© Hemis / Alamy Stock

As Jaffna recuperates from a 26-year civil war, renovation works are breathing new life into the city, and traces of the overwhelming conflict are disappearing little by little. But if you want to pay your respects, you can find remnants of life before: destroyed buildings, forts and train stations. Don’t leave without heading to Old Park to see the palatial but eerie ruins of British colonial buildings.

Visit Delft (Nedunvitu) Island

Natural Feature
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Jaffna, Delft Island- M5DN85
© Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy
A three-hour boat ride from Jaffna lies a semi-arid tropical island where giant baobab trees rise among colonial ruins at varying levels of decay. Surrounded by warm shallow waters, coral and white-sand beaches, this place invites you to laze. But do explore a little: you’ll find the remains of a 1,000-year-old temple and a Dutch fort. If you’re lucky you’ll spot wild horses prancing in parched meadows – friendly creatures brought here in the 16th century and long since left to roam free.

Jaffna Fort

Historical Landmark
Map View

Walk the pentagonal walls and ramparts of Jaffna’s storied fort, which has seen it all. Built by the Portuguese in 1618, it was captured by the Dutch after almost 40 years, later taken over by the British and then endured the crossfire of civil war, including a 107-day siege in 1990. The violence left the stone, coral and brick walls in a pitiful state but extensive restoration work – begun when hostilities ceased in 2009 – has restored it. Allocate plenty of time here to take in the moats, intricate towers and barracks.

Visit Nainativu Island

Natural Feature
Map View
Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, Nainativu, Sri Lanka
© Steve Lennie / Alamy
Catch the ferry and follow the route of pilgrims to Nainativu Island, 27km (17mi) west of Jaffna, which has fewer than 3,000 residents. Here you’ll find the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, a historic Hindu temple dedicated to the principal goddess of Tamil Hindus: Amman. Take time to explore the island’s shores and you’re bound to come across wonderful eye-openers: there are around six puja rituals a day, featuring offerings such as light, flowers, water and food to the deity.

Sip sundowners at Jaffna Sky Lounge

Bar, Cocktails
Map View

After exploring, head to the rooftop of the Jetwing Jaffna for the best views of the city and the peninsula beyond. Order a cocktail, or two, as you sit back and enjoy the moment: the setting sun projecting sharp silhouettes of palmyrah trees, as the headlights of tuk-tuks and mopeds on the streets below blink in the grey dusk.

This is an updated version of an article by Orana Velarde.

These recommendations were updated on July 14, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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