July 14, 2017
Jaffna in far north Sri Lanka is an intriguing place, isolated from the rest of the country for several decades.
Though only about 400 kilometres from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, the two places are worlds apart.
During the country’s decades long civil war, Jaffna and the north were cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka. Indeed, when we first travelled to Jaffna in 2014 we discovered a place where it seemed time had stood still.
Now, Jaffna is becoming more accessible to and visited by travellers.
There’s a new express train to Jaffna from Colombo – the Queen of the North – which you can also board at Anuradhapura, and the arrival of Jetwings Hotels to Jaffna.
Though still not a destination visited by many travellers on a tour of Sri Lanka, we can already see signs of that changing.
Here are seven things we recommend seeing and doing in Jaffna, based on our first-hand experience after visiting the region again recently.
#1 Visit Nallur Kandaswamy Temple:
One of Jaffna’s key attractions is the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple – the largest Hindu temple in the country. Leave your shoes at the gate as you take in the soaring two spires of the temple complex, and inside discover the temple paintings of the various Hindu deities and legends, including the 108 dancing Shivas. Visit during one of three morning or evening prayers and be mesmerized as local devotees pay homage to their gods. The temple holds a festival in August each year and the city and temple see increasing numbers of visitors at this time.
# 2 Explore Jaffna by bike
To really discover this city, leave your vehicle at your hotel and jump on a bicycle – preferably one of Sri Lanka’s old style Lumala rides. Our gentle, guided Jaffna bicycle tour will take you through the back roads and lanes of the city, past the fishing village, to the largest church in the north, through quiet streets and areas, past the library and buildings destroyed by war. A wonderful way to get a sense of the city and the everyday lives of the people in it.
# 3 Visit Rio’s for Ice Cream
Everyone in Jaffna knows Rio’s. This local institution is a must visit during your tour of Jaffna. Rio’s is the city’s famous ice cream parlour – where you will find locals devouring sundaes and ice cream at all times of the day. The ice cream is made fresh on site each day. There’s the Rio special – a sundae of 3 scopes of ice cream, 2 flavours of jelly, fruit salad, cashews and a wafer. We went for the simpler options of vanilla with chocolate and nuts and mango, but did eye off the chocolate sundaes being had at the table next to us. ( And we also went back the following day for a second tasting!)
#4 Head out to Point Pedro for a swim
If the hot weather is getting to you and you want to cool off in the sea then head to Point Pedro for what could possibly be one of Sri Lanka’s best beaches. Point Pedro is about an hour north of Jaffna and is the most northerly part of the country. Here you will find beautiful soft white sand and cool blue sea. The facilities are really limited there, but the day we went we had the beach to ourselves! No doubt a resort or two or a major hotel will pop up at this beautiful beach soon enough.
#5 Visit Delft Island
For the more adventurous or those wanting to get a greater sense of the history of this region and the country, head to Delft Island – the remotest part of Sri Lanka. A journey of about an hour’s drive from Jaffna, followed by a local ferry ride of another hour will take you to Delft. The island is best known for the wild horses that inhabit Delft – a legacy of the Dutch rule more than 300 years ago. Today the island’s attractions may seem non-descript, though for curious minded travellers, Delft’s strategic importance historically and its shear remoteness should appeal. A journey to Delft will really stoke your inner adventurer.
#6 Dine in a local family home
Jaffna cuisine is unique and differs greatly from the Sri Lankan you will eat in other parts of the country. With dishes based on the fresh seafood so readily available (especially crab and prawns), and featuring exotic and unusual flavours. The best way to get a true sense of local food is to dine with a local family and experience Jaffna home cooking. Be prepared to have your plate refilled many times!
#7 Stroll the local market
Jaffna’s main street and market, or `downtown Jaffna’, as we refer to it, is an easy place to take a stroll. Small in size, take a walk through the fruit and vegetable stalls, past the fabric shops and small stores and get a glimpse of locals going about their everyday business.
Jaffna and northern Sri Lanka can be included in any custom made tour of Sri Lanka designed by us. It also features in our suggested itinerary Backroads of Sri Lanka. You may also like to read our other Sri Lanka travel blogs.