I live in Chennai. Well, have not lived here all my life but for the last nine years and probably for the rest of my life, the city will remain home.
Chennai pushed in a spot along the eastern coastline of the country is essentially a hot, non-breezy, jasmine fragranced city that is elongating in its growth and outward expansions. The Bay of Bengal is of course, its most ever lasting bestie that it lunges to with open arms. Chennai’s most wonderful beaches are scattered along this edge, which are fraught with social, cultural and economic representations. The Cooum and Adyar River cut across the city and though as much as I would like to say otherwise, these waterways are not exactly sights to behold in most of its course. Perhaps a problem that runs through the entire country but surprisingly Chennai is in most of its parts well-maintained, clean and green.
Being the capital of Tamil Nadu and an important administrative and political center, Chennai is definitely the perfect launch pad destination if one wishes to explore the other attractions of Southern India. It is a metropolitan city and hence offers a wide range of accommodation, transportation, restaurants and shopping outlets which is just perfect for tourists travelling from other countries.
Chennai also is a dominant manifestation of Tamil culture. Its people take pride in keeping themselves grounded to their tradition, language and culture. Pongol is celebrated with not so much of grandeur but with simple traditional methods. I often see people with sandalwood paste on their foreheads, women with jasmine garlands in their hair, fishermen in their trademark lungis or the strong idolization of movie stars and politicians as very common sights here. And this perhaps sums up Chennai in many ways. A huge city buzzing with activities of all kinds, Chennai is deeply rooted in its history and culture.
So what is about Chennai that attracts people towards it? What are its major landmarks, what are the various activities that one can do here, what can you eat and where, how do Chennaites dress or which festivals do they celebrate? Let’s dig in!
Beaches and Resorts
If you are in Chennai then visiting the beaches is inevitable. Even if you do not wish to take a stroll, the sight of the huge container ships silhouetted against the sky or the blue grey waters pasted against the horizon are hard to miss. But then of course, why take a chance. Just dig your feet into the sands and enjoy the beach carnival. The Marina Beach stretches out inviting not only beach lovers but also health enthusiasts for a walk. The Elliot’s Beach or Beasant Nagar Beach is another popular hangout zone packed with various restaurants and street joints. (You can read more about them here- link)
If you are looking for beaches that are less crowded then you can try the Thiruvanmiyur Beach, Covelong Beach, Neelamkari Beach or check out the various beach resorts and hotels along the ECR. The ECR is a long stretch of road that runs parallel to the waters and is a good drive once you near the ends of the city’s limit. There are many resorts that line up offering various activities and services to its guest. Some of the popular resorts include the MGM, VGP, Blue Lagoon, Estelle and more. A drive along the ECR will take you to Mahabalipuram which is a wonderful town to explore and can be covered in a single day. Mahabalipuram is known for its beaches, temples, stone carvings and many monuments and sculptures. It is one of the oldest cities of India and is thronged especially on weekends as it acts as a perfect getaway from the city.
Chennai, earlier called Madras, was an important port city during the British era and thus is home to several colonial monuments. But much before the colonial rule the region was home to various Dravidian and historical kingdoms whose architectural authority finds stamp on the various temples and mosques of the city. Today, of course, the city has expanded and the architecture has the essence of a modern metropolitan in its newer constructions.
Some of the most prominent buildings and monuments of Chennai are not exactly tourist destinations, where one pays for a ticket and enters to explore the craft. In fact, many of the architectural gems of the city are converted to offices and government centers. Yet, you can always drive past them or stop over to take a look if history and architecture interests and fascinates you.
The most significant landmarks of the city include:
- Ripon Building on Sydenhams Road, Periamet
- Madras High Court in Parry’s
- Anna Memorial on Marina Beach
- Doveton House in Nungambakkam
- Thousand Lights Mosque in Nungambakkam
- HigginsBotham on Mount Road
- Karl Schmidt Memorial on Elliot’s Beach
- George’s Fort on Rajaji Salai
- Kapaleeshwar Temple in Mylapore
- Valluvar Kottam Monument in Nungambakkam
- The Madras War Cemetery in Nandambakkam
- Armenian Church on Armenian Street
- Annai Velankanni Church near Elliot’s Beach
- Santhome Cathedral in Santhome
- Puratchi Thalaivar MG Ramachandran Central Railway Station
Museums in Chennai are quite unconventional. There are of course, the museums that are home to collectibles of traditions and history, yet there are also museums that are not exactly mainstream. Take a look below to find out:
- The Government State Museum near the Egmore Railway station is a repository of Tamil Nadu heritage and history. It is the quintessential museum which displays almost all facets of the region.
- Fort St. George Museum offers a collection of weaponry that includes armours, swords, canons and more. The Portrait Gallery has fine paintings of British officials and the other sections to check out are the Indo-French Gallery and Prints and Documents Gallery, Miscellany Gallery and more.
- Regional Railway Museum in Perambur demonstrates the heritage of the Indian railways. With various train models, signals, bogies and track crossings it also displays images of high speed trains from across the world.
- Periyar Science and Technology Center is for those with a scientific bend of mind, or rather those who are fascinated by how science is a part of our everyday existence. The Birla Planetarium is a part of the center.
- Live Art Museum in ECR also called the Click Art Museum is an interactive museum which houses 3D models of people and animals.
- Vivekananda House is opposite the Marina Beach and is where Swami Vivekananda stayed for a few days. The house is now a museum that exhibits the life and teachings of Vivekananda.
- Dakshina Chitra again on ECR is a museum on the culture of South India. With displays of traditional homes to handicrafts this is a wonderful and must visit for tourists.
- Cholamandal Artists’ Village is an artistic hub with galleries and an open air theatre.
Chennai also has quite a bit of green spaces to enjoy and relax in. Some of these are:
- Guindy National Park is shelter to various animals and birds right in the heart of the city. Within the same complex lies the Snake Park.
- Crocodile Bank is a fantastic conservation hub for the species and also recently has introduced night safaris.
- Semmozhi Poonga is a botanical garden including exotic and rare plant varieties.
- Arignar Anna Zoological Park is fun for kids and adults. The zoo provides cars that take one around to meet its animal inhabitants.
Some of the other points of interests that you should try and visit:
- The Chennai Lighthouse is one of the few functioning lighthouses that are located within the city limits found in the country. The lighthouse is open for visits and one can take the flight of stairs or the elevator to reach the top and watch the city landscape from a bird’s eye view.
- Thomas Mount is the site where St. Thomas is believed to be martyred. The hills and many shrines make it a good spot to explore.
- Chetpet Ecopark is known for its boating, walking paths and children related activities.
- The Anna Centenary Library is one of the largest in Asia and a great place to be in for book lovers.
- Amusement parks are great way to spend a day enjoying the rides with family and friends. Some of the popular amusement parks in Chennai are the MGM Dizzee World, VGP Universal Kingdom, Snow Kingdom, Queens Land, Kishkinta, Wild Tribe Ranch and more.
Things to do
Chennai cannot bore you. Apart from the places that one can visit, Chennai in the recent years has opened up many activity adventure centers and outlets that are great ways to pass the time for adults and children alike. Various trampoline parks, sporting avenues, such as bowling or swimming as well as, gaming centers have emerged that offer a lot of fun and adventure activities. Laser tag, paintball, go karting, treasure hunts etc. are some of the activities that one can definitely try out in Chennai. An online search for the activity that interests you the most will help you locate the centers and malls where these are available.
Shopping and localities
Chennai’s core business district is the area around Parry’s which also happens to be the older city area. The High Court looms over the many narrow lanes and the commercial and residential buildings are mostly old school architectural designs. Shopping in this part of the city is best suited for the locals. Sowcarpet, Mint Bazaar and Burma Bazaar are some of the oldest shopping areas around here throbbing with shops that sell almost everything you can need or want. The only glitch is that you should be alright with traversing through crowded narrow lanes as hand carts, people and vehicles push their way around. The prices here are reasonably low and these shopping areas are popular amongst the local population.
T Nagar, Pondy Bazaar, Anna Nagar, Mylapore and Nungambakkam are localities which are also popular spots for shopping outlets.
For those looking to shop in more comfortable environs, Chennai has plenty of malls to check out. City Center, Express Avenue, Phoenix Mall, Skywalk are some of the popular shopping outlets that are also multiplexes. So you can shop, catch a movie and enjoy your dinner all under a single roof.
Commuting and Travel
Commuting within the city has become very easy with the advent with online auto and cab booking apps. All you need to do is download the Ola or Uber app and book a vehicle for wherever you wish to travel. The other public modes of transport are the buses, Chennai metro rail and Chennai suburban railway. These ply within certain routes only. The auto rickshaws however are plenty and can be hailed to take you to your desired destination.
Food in Chennai is extremely diverse and all kinds of cuisine are easily and readily available. In fact, with many online applications ordering food from the comfort of your homes or hotels is a relief. There are plenty of restaurants and food joints and most of these are found in the major shopping and commercial areas of the city, such as in Nungamabakkam, T Nagar and Anna Nagar. In fact, no matter which area you are staying in, finding a restaurant nearby is a surety.
Yet, South Indian food stands out as the dominating culinary expertise of the city. Authentic south Indian joints, such as Saravana Bhavan, Sangeetha and Anada Bhavan have numerous branches spread across the city. The most wonderful south Indian foods, include dosa, idli, vadas, pongol and during lunch time make sure to try out the ‘meals’ that are served on banana leaves with unlimited rice and a variety of vegetables and curries. The paniyaram, kothu parotta, puttu, appam, idiyappam and payassam are some other south Indian delicacies that are worth a try.
Street food in Chennai is not very ubiquitous as one may find in other parts of the country. Some of the street food that is usually concentrated in the old city areas includes atto (variety of noodle), sundal (white grams), murukku sandwiches and more. The beaches are also great places to find a variety of foods to try. (Beach foods in Chennai – link) However, street food may not always be prepared under hygienic surroundings and if you are travelling it is best to try small helpings first.
Below is a list of some of the famous restaurants for specific cuisines. Of course the list is far from exhaustive since there are plenty of eating joints scattered all throughout the city.
South Indian – Sarvana Bhavan, Ananda Bhavan, Sangeetha, Murugan’s Idli Shop
Chinese – Mainland China, Stix, Cascade, China Xo
Continental – Barbeque Nation, The Black Pearl, Gossip Fusion Bistro, Blind Chemistry
Indian/Mughlai- Dakshin, Copper Chimney, Madras Pavilion, Palmshore, Dawat, Buhari
Chaats – The spicy and tangy chaat items include Indian street foods, such as pani puris, pav bhaji, dahi puri and many more. To try these out visit Gangotree, Kakada or Shree Mithai.
Sweets – Shree Mithai and Shri Krishna Sweets have multiple branches and are good places to pack the delicious Mysore Pak or pendas.
- Pongal is the most important festival of the state. The harvest festival falls in mid-January and lasts for 4 days. The city is usually in its best holiday mood during Pongal, with most business shut. The festival is divided according to its days into Bhogi Pongal, Surya Pongal, Mattu Pongal and Kannum Pongol. The last day also called Kannum Pongol is when people visit relatives or head out to enjoy the day off.
- The Tamil New Year falls in April and is known as Puthandu. People wear new clothes and decorate their homes with the beautiful kolam designs near entrances.
Besides, other common festivals celebrated here include Diwali, Eid and Christmas.
The Tamil language is a Dravadian language and is one of the longest survived classical languages in the world. The people of Chennai and Tamil Nadu are extremely proud of their language and it is very common to find most people conversing in Tamil. In fact, most shopkeepers, auto drivers, cab drivers as well as the local population is comfortable speaking in their own language and thus it might be a matter of slight concern for those travelling from other parts of the country and world. Yet, because Chennai is the capital and a metropolitan there are also a large number of locals who can communicate in English. Also, a significant population has migrated over the years and is familiar with other languages too. For example, if you shopping in Sowcarpet you will be surprised to find people talking in Hindi, Tamil and English. Major sign boards and street names are written both in English and Tamil.
Though people in Chennai do not distinctly dress up differently, there are certainly cultural nuances that influence their sense of style. Men in white dhotis and women in traditional sarees or Kanchipuram sarees are seen during festivals or any family or religious functions. Gold jewelry is an essential accessory for women during celebrations which complement the saree beautifully. But even on a daily basis, women often adore jasmine flowers in their hair, whereas, men, women and children mark their foreheads in a touch of sandalwood and vibhuti. Though the city dwellers wear modern outfits they value their traditional looks. Thankfully in Chennai it is easy to spot the traditional attires.
There are various destinations to visit or things to do if you are looking to get away from the city for a day or two. You can visit the Covelong Beach which is about 2 hours’ drive away to try paragliding, parasailing, boating, surfing or scuba diving. Or drive to the Tada Falls 90km away for trekking and camping out. The Pulicat Lake is 53km from the main city, Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary 75km away and the beach towns of Mahabalipuram (55km) and Pondicherry (151km) are easily accessible.
Other destinations that you might want to visit from Chennai that are ideal for 2/3 days visit include, the Nandi hills, Yercaud, Yellagiri, Madurai, Kanchipuram, Tirupati, Vellore, Nellore, Tranquebar, Nagalpuram Falls and more.
Chennai is also easily accessible to and from Mysore, Bangalore, Coorg, Munnar, Rameswaram, Nagarhole and Kabini National Parks, Valparai and more.
Climate and best time to visit
Chennai is hot almost all throughout the year. Yet during the winters the temperatures hover around 25-28 degrees which is comparatively reasonably pleasant. The southeast monsoons also arrive in the same months and hence travelling to Chennai anytime from October to January is recommended. The summers can get very hot and sultry with temperatures easily crossing 40 degrees Celsius. The humidity is also high and so travelling to Chennai from April to July can get quite a handful.
Chennai is not the quintessential tourist destination. But, it has its own advantages which compel visitors to travel here. It is well connected to nearby tourist destinations, such as Pondicherry, Ooty, Kodaikanal, Munnar and so on. Its metropolitan status makes it easier for international tourist to adjust, travel, stay and eat here. Besides, Chennai also greatly reflects the cultural inclinations of its people. Its history, architecture and city attractions also are reason enough to make it your next holiday destination!