Madras is a feeling, Chennai is the name of the city! I grew up in Madras, while people call it Chennai these days, to me it will always be Madras. I spent a good part of my years here, going to school, hanging out with friends and cousins … I know my way around the city regardless of the many layers of flyovers the city has now. Most days are spent in the cocoon of my childhood or visiting cousins and extended family. We only get to visit Chennai once in two to three years, but always make it a point to visit all the favorite jaunts and love reliving those memories of yesteryears. From farm walks to strong south Indian filter coffees, here are a few of my favorite and memorable things to do in Chennai.
Best things to do in Madras aka Chennai, India
Formerly known as Madras, Chennai – the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, is India’s fourth largest city located on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. Also known as the gateway to South India, its rich heritage of art, music and literature blend in seamlessly with the city’s cosmopolitan present. The city has an estimated population of nine million and it about 400-years old. The smallest among the four major Indian metros, from temples to beaches Chennai has much to offer its visitors.
Temples and other Religious sites in Chennai
Kapaleeshwarar Temple is one of the oldest temples in Chennai. Dedicated to Lord Shiva and built in the Dravidian style, the architecture is beautiful and the temple colorful. The temple complex consists of several mandapas or halls, a waterbody, and intricately sculptured deities. It is one of the most visited temples in the city. The temple was built in the 7th century and Hindu God Shiva is worshiped in the temple. While non-Hindus are not allowed inside the main shrine while visiting we saw a number of foreign tourists in the temple premises admiring the beauty of the temple from outside and taking photos outside.
Another famous temple is the 8th-century Parthasarathy temple where Lord Krishna is worshiped. Partha means Lord Krishna and Sarathy means charioteer since Krishna was the charioteer for Arjuna during the Mahabharata. The temple is one of the oldest temples in the city and worthy of a visit.
Another religious site is the Thousand Lights Mosque located in the Anna Salai area of Chennai. Thousand Lights Mosque is one of the biggest mosques in the country. It is beautiful to see the 1000 oil lamps light up the hall of the mosque. With separate prayer halls for men and women, it is a place of worship and photography is not allowed inside.
Built in the 16th century by Portuguese explorers, over the tomb of Saint Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, Santhome Church is a popular shrine in Tamil Nadu. Built in the neo-gothic style, this architecture and the interiors of this church is beautiful and worth a visit when you are in Chennai. The exterior of the building is pure white with many stained glass windows inside. I went to school near here and visiting the church on Fridays with friends for prayer was a favorite activity.
Located on top a small hill, St Thomas Church in the Guindy is believed to be the place where St Thomas, who was a disciple of Lord Jesus lived and preached 2,000 years ago. The cave at this little mount is said to be his favorite preaching spot. A 2000-year-old never drying, a miraculous stream of water on a rock face is said to be examples of the apostle’s divine exploits. A church atop St. Thomas mount was built by Portuguese in 1547 to mark the spot.
What to eat in Chennai
Did you know that Chennai is ranked amongst the world’s best food cities, in fact, it is considered World’s second best food city by the National Geographic. If you are in Chennai you have to try some pillow soft idlis and chutneys. Made out of rice and lentils, fermented and then steamed, these idlis are breakfast staples in South Indian households. Then there are dosas, Pongal (a rice dish made with lentils and garnished with cashews and peppers) among other dishes. Try them with some south Indian coffee and you will want to have some every morning. Saravana Bhavan, Sangeeta and Murugan Idli shop are the best places to try Idli and dosas.
If you want to try some street food head to OMR Food Street, there are a couple of different locations around the city. You can find different stalls that serve unique foods. My favorite is Ajnabi, a Chaat place that serves Indian fast foods like Bhel Puri, Phani puri and Pav Bhaaji. If you can’t handle spicy food, ask for it to be made mild and always drink bottled water. Finish with some sweets or a kulfi, a rich ice cream like dessert made with cream and nuts. Inside OMR Food Street you can find other stalls that sell dosas, coffee, popped corn, Frankies and other delicacies from various parts of India.
If you are not too adventurous, the five-star hotels have Continental breakfasts and you can always find pasta and pizzas on the menu. Chinese cuisine is also popular although Indo-Chinese a spicy variation is more favored by locals. With so many different delicacies to savor no wonder, Chennai is the only Indian city to feature in the list of best food cities.
Unique experiences in Chennai
Visit a Farm, eat, shop and feed the chicken while you are there
Set amongst thickly planted trees and winding garden pathways is The Farm Chennai is a quiet and serene retreat. Right in the middle of the city, reminiscent of a bygone era – a working farm with buffaloes, chicken, goats, organic vegetable gardens, rice fields, coconut groves, and plantations. Artisan bread and cheeses are made in house and eating a meal here is a true farm to table experience. The Farm is located about 30 minutes drive from the city center (depending on traffic) at 1/277, OMR, Semmancheri Village, Semmancheri, Chennai.
Check out the Crocodile Bank
Located about 40 km South of the Chennai is Crocodile Bank where you can see them sunning on the waters’ bank! Started as a research station and conservation center, the bank was the first in Asia that started crocodile breeding. The Crocodile Bank houses alligators, gharials, snakes, sea turtles, and other water birds. The ‘bank’ is located right next to the Grand Sheraton on East Coast Road, in fact, you can see them from some of the rooms at Sheraton.
Visit the Guindy Snake Park
For an utterly unique experience visit the Snake Park located in Guindy, you can see cobras and pythons among other reptiles and birds here. Right next to it is the Children’s Park where you can see other animals, free-roaming deer and also a fossilized tree specimen which is estimated to be about 20 million years old. There is a statue of a Tyrannosaurus at the entrance and the Children’s Park and the Snake Park have separate entrances and independent entry fees.
Beaches of Chennai
Marina beach is one of the best places to visit in Chennai. The Marina beach is the second largest beach in the world making it a top tourist destination in Chennai. It is full of tourists and locals alike. With a coastline of around 13km, Marina Beach is the second largest beach in the world. It is popular with the locals and tourists alike. If you would like the beach to yourself, visit in the mornings’ joggers and walkers take to the beach. The red and white striped lighthouse is landmark here and the Gandhi statue at the entry of the beach is another prime attraction. You can go up the lighthouse for a view of the beach. While there is an elevator, space is pretty tight. The evenings bring the locals who hang out on the sandy shores enjoying corn, mangoes or other treats from the vendors.
Also known as Besant Nagar beach or Bessie beach, Elliot’s beach located in Besant Nagar is calmer and less crowded compared to Marina beach. Besant Nagar is a nice neighborhood in Chennai and this beach favored by the locals, especially the younger crowd. The entrance of the beach has some nice cafes and restaurants. Elliots Beach has a landmark Karl Schmidt memorial in the memory of a European sailor who is said to have been swallowed by the sea in the 1930s when he tried to save a girl.
The beaches in Chennai are usually empty during the day since lounging in the sun is not a thing here. If you would like to indulge in beach activities, the best bet would be to book stay at one of the resorts that are located by the Bay Bengal and have access to a private beach and pool. You find these at the Sheraton Chennai, Radisson Blu Temple Bay or Intercontinental Chennai to name a few. We try to spend at least a night in one of the resorts with the extended family and also visit Mahabalipuram while we are there.
Where to shop in Chennai
Depending on what you are looking for, from roadside makeshift shops to luxury boutiques there are plenty of shopping experiences in Chennai.
Ranganathan Street is a major commercial street located in TNagar. Located right in the middle of the city it is shopping heaven for bargain shoppers and also one of the most crowded streets in the world. You can find street vendors of all kinds here. From flowers to plastic ware to clothes, shoes, bags and costume jewelry – you can find anything here.
If you are looking for designer wear and high-end boutique stores, you will find them on Khader Nawaz Khan Road in Nungambakkam. From art galleries to coffee shops to fashion houses, you will find them here. Stop at Kalanikethan or Manmandir for some designer sarees. If draping a saree is not your thing, you can find pretty indigo and other ethnic prints and weaves at FabIndia or House of Masaba.
If you are looking for a fusion of contemporary and ethnic wear, Chamiers and Amethyst are a couple of boutiques in Chennai where you will find them. They have a vast collection of indo-western chic clothes and are quite affordable. Amethyst is set in an exquisitely converted warehouse with a nice wraparound verandah from which tables spill out into lush gardens. It is a posh haven that’s popular with well-off Chennaiites. It has a cute flower shop and a boutique that boasts some nice Indian fashion labels. Chamiers is old bungalows converted into a serene space with a nice coffee shop, gardens, and shopping rooms. The Wild Garden cafe at Amethyst was one of my favorite spots to grab a coffee if I want to get away from the noises of the city.
One of the best designer boutiques in Chennai is Evoluzione, it is the biggest multi-designer store in the city. Displaying labels like Tarun Tahiliani, Varun Bahl, Sabyasachi, and Manish Malhotra, this is the place to be if you love high-end Indian labels.
Tamil Nadu is known for its silk sarees and handwoven fabrics. While you can go to Kancheevaram (a day trip from Chennai) to buy these from the weavers, you can buy them from the oldest silk store like Nalli, in TNagar. The store has been around since 1928 and has an enchanting collection of silk materials and sarees. Kumaran Silks, RMKV Silks, Palam Silks, and Pothys are a few other favorites stores that I like to visit that boasts a great collection of Kanjeevarams – from traditional as well as contemporary silks in rich hues and great designs.
Transportation in Chennai
The traffic is crazy and I can never drive myself and rely on an auto (which looks like an Asian tuk-tuk) or a chauffeur driven car to get around. Ubers, prearranged taxis, and private metered call taxis can be arranged easily. Chennai is the birthplace of the railway system in India and the city is well connected to the other parts of the country through trains that you can catch from the Chennai Central Railway Station. Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses service all parts of the city, operating about 4,000 buses on over 600 routes, moving about five million passengers each day – but taking one of these is not for the faint-hearted.
The Chennai International Airport serves as the city’s airport for both domestic and international flights. The airport consists of the Anna International terminal and the Kamaraj Domestic terminal and handles domestic as well as international flights. It is the third busiest airport in India. The Chennai Metro is a rapid transit system that connects the airport to Koyambedu with plans for expansion in the future. Traffic is chaotic and crazy, people don’t stick to their lanes when driving, always allow ample time when planning your visits and avoid rush hour when the road get pretty congested.
Language spoken in Chennai
Tamil is the mother tongue of most Chennaites and the language of Chennai. However, being the cosmopolitan city many other languages are spoken here including English and a little Hindi. Apart from Tamil language, English also falls in the category of the official language. It is widely spoken by the people and is mainly used in business, education and other white-collar professions. You will be ok in most tourist areas even if you don’t speak any Tamil, just smile, people are pretty friendly here. Start conversations with a Vanakkam for hello and end with a Nandri if you want to impress your host or friend 🙂
Get a little culture and listen to classical Carnatic music
December is a great time to visit Chennai when there is music in the air. The Chennai Margazhi Music season was started way back in 1927, to commemorate the founding of Madras Music Academy. This culture was adopted by various other sabhas (halls) and they hold art festivals in different parts of the city. While the six-week festival earlier was purely classical consisting of Carnatic music concerts, it has now expanded to hosting dance, drama and several non-Carnatic art forms as well. The best time to get a sneak peek into the culture of South India and also sample the concert hall’s special canteen menu that is just as popular as the art programs.
Day Trips outside Chennai
Visiting the UNESCO Heritage site of Mahabalipurum makes for an excellent day trip. It is known for its Temples and Chariots (Rathas) carved out of rocks and cave sanctuaries (mandapams). Don’t miss the huge open-air reliefs such as the famous Descent of the Ganges, Arjuna Penance, and the Shore temple which was part of a huge complex now submerged under water. Walking around the are you will find many stores that have different idols and artworks for sale and sculpture studios.
Muttukadu, located at a distance of 36 km from Chennai, is a small town that serves as a preferred picnic spot along with backwaters of Bay of Bengal. Locals come here for water activities like peddle-boating and bird-watching. Operated by the Tamilnadu Tourism board, the boats are not fancy but they are pretty nice and away from the city that can be noisy.
On the way plan for a stop at Dakshinchitra, a small handicraft village, structured in the traditional architectural style of the 19th century and prominent for its ceramics, artworks, and sculptures. It is spread over an area of 10 acres, looking across the Bay of Bengal. It is a center for the living culture of arts and crafts, performing arts and architecture of South India and makes for a culturally enriching experience. Dakshinchitra has 18 historical houses with contextual exhibitions inside each house that gives you an understanding of life in this part of the world. You can see folk dances and village festival at this heritage museum and is very atmospheric.
TIP: For a longer and relaxing trip, plan a trip for a weekend in Pondicherry
Where to stay in Chennai
When visiting Chennai we split our time between either at my mom’s, sister’s or in-laws house located in the city or in the suburbs but we always spend a few days at a resort. It helps bring everyone together in one place and we have access to the beach, pools, gyms and of course delicious South Indian food. Here are a few favorites that we have stayed at in the past.
Taj Coromandel is one of Chennai’s best-known landmark hotels and is elegantly designed with a South Indian touch. Situated 16 km from Chennai Airport, in the midst of the city’s business district and extremely close to the arterial Anna Salai (also called Mound Road), this 5-star luxury hotel has a presence for more than four decades now. The famous Thousand Lights mosque, Marina Beach and some great shopping and culinary experiences at Khader Nawaz Khan Road are within a 5-kilometer radius of the hotel. If I had to pick a favorite city hotel, it will have to be the Taj.
The Leela Palace is a landmark 5-star luxury hotel with the distinction of being the only sea-facing modern palace in Chennai. Chennai Central Railway Station is less than 10 km while Chennai International Airport is 15 km away. Their weekend buffets are legendary says my sister who lives in Chennai.
Inspired by the Chola dynasty, ITC Grand Chola is a luxurious property in the business hub of Guindy. Just a 10-minute drive from Guindy National Park, the hotel is approx. 7 km from Chennai International Airport and 850 m from Guindy Railway Station. Chennai Trade Center and the popular Marina Beach are 4 km and 12 km from the hotel, respectively.
Park Hyatt Chennai is located in the city center and is more of a business hotel. Hyatt Regency is another good choice along with Raintree. While these are the best choices if you want to stay within the city, if you want to get away for a couple of days – plan for a stay at Fisherman’s Cove, Sheraton Chennai, Radisson Blu Temple Bay or Intercontinental Chennai. These resorts are located on the East Coast Road road and have beach access.
Incredible India is truly more than just the Taj Mahal or Kerala! Have you been to Tamil Nadu? If so, have I missed any of your favorite things to do in Chennai? If not hope I inspired you to add Chennai to your list of places to visit…
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