Chennai’s incredibly humid climate and lack of clearly-defined tourist activities is enough to deter many travellers from exploring India’s sixth-largest city. Those patient enough to peel the layers are rewarded with an intimate experience of Tamil Nadu’s rich heritage, delectable cuisine, and locals that are warmer than the weather.
Need To Know
Although the average temperature hovers between 30 – 40º C most of the year, it’s best to visit Chennai between December and February, when the cool sea breeze provides welcome relief.
Chennai has four train routes and state-run buses that connect most parts of the city, but these can get crowded during peak hours. The metro is well-maintained and especially useful for commuting to the airport. It is compulsory for auto-rickshaw drivers to charge according to the meter, but most usually quote exorbitant fixed rates, so if you’re not confident with your bargaining skills, we suggest using ride hailing apps to get aound.
Tamil cuisine is flavourful, wholesome, and mostly vegetarian. Staples such as idli, dosa, sambhar, pongal and filter coffee are available at every corner.
Things To Do
For History Buffs
More mansion than fortress, Fort St. George was the East India Company’s base in southern India. Currently home to Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, the 17th century colonial structure also houses the Fort Museum (Tel: 044 2567 1127), the former residence of Robert Clive and St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in the country. The Government Museum (Tel: 044 2819 3778) has a rich repository of paintings, artefacts, manuscripts, weapons, and sculptures spread over 46 galleries. The brick-red structure is a striking example of Indo-Saracenic architecture and the second-oldest museum in the country, after the Indian Museum in Kolkata.
The Theosophical Society (Tel: 044 2491 2815) is a massive patch of green on the banks of Adyar River sheltering a plethora of flora and fauna. The Adyar Library and Research Centre (Tel: 044 2491 3528) has a valuable collection of books on philosophy and religion.
For Religious Travellers
One of Chennai’s most famous temples, Kapaleeshwar Temple (Tel: 044 2464 1670) is dedicated to Shiva and his consort Parvati. The ornate gopurams (towers) covered in elaborate sculptures can charm even staunch non-believers! Built by the Pallavas in the 8th century, the Parthasarathy Temple (Tel: 044 2844 2449) is also known for its magnificent gopurams and mandapas (pillars). San Thome Basilica or St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica (Tel: 044 2498 5455) is a towering neo-Gothic structure built on top of its eponymous apostle’s tomb.
For Culture Vultures
Travellers keen on immersing themselves in classical music and dance will always find something of interest at Kalakshetra Foundation (Tel: 044 2452 0836). Their cultural calendar is filled with recitals, performances, lectures, and seminars throughout the year. Visitors can also spend time at the craft centre observing the process of handloom weaving and block printing.
For Leisure Seekers
The beaches of Chennai are a massive draw for tourists looking for some downtime after a whirlwind day. Whether it’s the vibrant 12 km stretch of Marina Beach or the comparatively quiet Edward Elliot’s Beach, Chennai’s sandy shores are perfect for an evening stroll or a game of Frisbee.
What To Eat & Where
The most delicious meals in Chennai are the ones enjoyed at street stalls, hole-in-the-wall eateries, and fast food centres where sharing tables with strangers is part of the experience. All 25 Saravana Bhavan outlets across the city sport massive queues on weekends as patrons wait patiently for the legendary idlis and filter coffee. The pongal at Ratna Café (Tel: 044 2848 7181) and vegetarian thali at Junior Kuppanna (Tel: 044 2834 0072) also have their fair share of loyalists. Meat eaters love the Andhra meals and mutton biryani at Amravathi (Tel: 044 2450 0711). The ghee-laden Mysore pak from Shree Krishna Sweets is a treat for those with a sweet tooth.
What To Buy
An institution in the world of Kanchipuram silk, the 90-year-old Nalli Silks has multiple outlets across the city. Those with a tighter budget can find vibrant silk saris in the labyrinth lanes of Pondy Bazaar and air-conditioned stores of Thyagaraya Nagar (T Nagar). Poompuhar (Tel: 044 2852 1271) stocks traditional brass lamps, bronze statues, and wooden handicrafts. Bibliophiles will be thrilled to explore the well stocked Higginbothams (Tel: 044 2851 3519), India’s oldest bookstore.