In this Article:
Heritage And Culture
Churches And Temples
Fort St George
Chennai Music Season
Ulur Olcott Kuppam Festival
Day Trips Of Chennai
Shopping In Chennai
Food And Eateries
When To Visit Chennai
How To Get There
How To Get Around Chennai
Where To Stay In Chennai
Some Images From Our Trip To Chennai
The locals steadfastly refer to the metropolis as Madras instead of Chennai. One might ask what difference does it make; a name is just a name. Actually, a name carries with it much more weight than you think. The name Madras evokes nostalgia, as well as a deep sense of kinship and belonging. It arouses sweet memories of beaches fringed with palm trees, avenues lined with tall leafy trees, and peaceful, slow-paced existence. Chennai, on the other hand, represents the modern chaotic, crowded city life. Surprisingly, the two complement each other beautifully and so the city continues to blossom.
A thin strip of sand that lines the Bay of Bengal caught the eye of the British and in 1639 the East India Company obtained a grand for some land in the fishing village of Madrasapattinam from the Vijayanagara ruler. Here they built warehouses and factories and soon a settlement sprung up. It was called Madras and is considered the origin of modern day Chennai. However, parts of the city date back much further; long before any Dutch, Portuguese or British occupation. In 1996 Chennaipattinam, settled around a British fort, became Chennai. The influences of colonialism have left their traces but Chennai is drenched in a deep-seated pride of everything home-grown. This is evident in the food and music, the residents’ love for cricket, the cinema, and politics. Personalities tend to become larger than life, like J Jayalalithaa, Kamal Haasan, and Rajinikanth, famous film stars and politicians, and AR Rahman, the singer and composer of music scores for numerous films. For foreigners, it may be hard to understand this craziness, but for the locals, it is all just part and parcel of the very fabric of their beloved city.
The Indian Ocean has bestowed both blessings and curses on Chennai. It has given and nourished, only to grab it all back again. Only in the past decades alone, the city suffered woes aplenty. In 2004 a tsunami ravaged the city, 2015 saw floods and the 2016 cyclone battered and tore away at it. But after every disaster, and against all odds, Chennai resolutely gathered itself together, collected its broken pieces, and rebuilt itself. On August 22 this year, Chennai will celebrate its 381st year and continues to show the world why it is one of the top tourist destinations in the country.
Heritage and Culture
Chennai city is a happy, boisterous potpourri of cultures. Portuguese, French, Dutch, British influences all merge with remnants of its ancient Dravidian heritage. The distinctive architecture is the perfect manifestation of all these traces; the old part of the city is dominated by Indo Saracen-style buildings, like the Ripon Building, cricket stadium, and Chepauk Palace, Egmore and Chennai Central Railway Stations, and the Victoria Public Hall. Visit the Government Museum to gain insight into and explore the city’s rich, colorful past. At the Museum Theater plays and concerts are performed regularly.
Churches and Temples
Chennai is littered with churches and you will find some of the most exquisite, and oldest churches in India, like Our Lady of the Light (Luz Church) constructed by Portuguese master builders in 1516, and an Armenian Church with its belfry of six which dates back to 1712. Two more examples are St Andrew’s Church which was built to serve the Scottish community, and Santhome Cathedral Basilica, the handiwork of Portuguese settlers, opened in 1523.
According to legend, the apostle St Thomas brought Christianity to the Indian shores in 72AD. Later he was martyred in Kerala and his mortal remains interred near Marina Beach in Santhome. Today a soaring neo-Gothic cathedral stands on his grave. Portuguese explorers were responsible for its construction during the sixteenth century, and the British rebuilt it during the last part of the nineteenth century. Today, it forms a key landmark of the city; its white spires that pierce the blue skies are set strikingly against the ocean backdrop. In 1956 Pope Pius XII bestowed on it the status of minor basilica. It is also a popular pilgrim destination since it is one of only three cathedrals built on an apostle’s tomb. The others are St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City, and Santiago de Compostela Basilica in Spain.
This majestic Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, was erected by the ruling Pallavas during the seventh century. It sits near the seaside in the old neighborhood of Mylapore and is drenched in legend. Several hymns and works of literature from as far back as the first century, during the Sangam Age, immortalized it. The western gopuram or entrance tower faces an immense sacred tank. During March through April, the nine-day Spring Festival or Panguni Peruvizha is celebrated here, which attracts many pilgrims from all over the state.
Fort St George
The White City, as it is also called, developed around the fort built by the East India Company in 1644, after they obtained a strip of coastal land from the ruling king of the time. The citadel formed the hub of their trading activities and in time grew to become first Madras and later Chennai. Standing three stories tall, the fort overlooks a few fishing villages and faces Bengal Bay. Today the building houses the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly, as well as other administrative offices. The Fort Museum forms part of the complex and on display are a wealth of relics from colonial times, including British officers’ personal possessions, weapons, coins, and other artifacts. Not to be missed is the Church of St Mary, India’s oldest Anglican church. The cemetery has some of the oldest English tombstones in the country. Various high-profile wedding ceremonies were conducted in this ancient church, for instance, that between Governor Elihu Yale and Robert Clive.
This academy, Kalakshetra Foundation dedicated to preserving the traditional classical arts and crafts of India, is much more than a mere cultural center; it is an artistic, throbbing heart, a nurturing space for top talent, and a hotbed for all kinds of artistic endeavors, especially in the fields of Bharatanatyam classical dance and Gandharvaveda music. The institution was established in 1936 by Rukmini Devi Arundale and is today recognized by the Indian Parliament as a Nationally Important Institute. Visitors may stroll through the 100-acre environment-friendly campus on their own or take a guided tour, partake in morning prayers under ancient banyan trees, watch Carnatic recitals near a lotus pond, or watch an art class in progress. The beautiful Koothambalam or Kalashetra Auditorium and Theater hosts traditional Bharatanatyam dance performances.
This heritage village is a living cultural and history museum. Dakshinachitra is situated 25 km south of Chennai and portrays the architecture, lifestyle, and culture of Southern India’s people. The name of this village literally means ‘a picture of the south’. Eighteen original dwellings from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, and the Andhra Pradesh States were meticulously relocated to this site. They are filled with authentic antiques and everyday household items characteristic of those cultures. The visitor can view arts, including the performing arts, and crafts, as well as a stone workshop, amongst others. There are a variety of souvenir shops, a crafts bazaar, a playground, and an area for religious functions.
A number of festivals take place right through the year. Events like the Pongal Harvest Fest, Thiruvaiyaru, the biggest music festival in the country, the Natyanjali Dance Festival, folk carnivals, and temple fairs fill the city’s calendar and draw thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Chennai Music Season
In 2017 UNESCO included Chennai in its Creative Cities Network because of its rich musical tradition. This comes as no surprise; music is part and parcel of the very essence of the city. This grand extravaganza is the most important showcase of Carnatic music, classical dance, and theater, and amongst the largest of this kind on the globe. It takes place over a two-month period, from December to January, and consists of more than 1500 performances, featuring 700 artists, both renowned and promising young talent. Hundreds of Sabhas, or venues, across the city house these concerts and performances. Since the creation of Chennai Music Season in 1927 by members of Madras’s Music Academy, it has been snowballing and today attracts music lovers and culture enthusiasts from all corners of the earth. Individual tickets are sold for evening concerts, while season tickets can be purchased at most Sabhas. Lectures and concerts during the daytime are mostly free of charge. Top chefs provide tasty local dishes at most venues, so the best way to spend your evening is to go sabha hoping to savor as many great culinary and musical flavors as possible.
Ulur Olcott Kuppam Festival
In 2015 TM Krishna, winner of the Magsaysay Award and renowned Carnatic singer, and the environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman realized their vision of a Vizha that would include music lovers from all the different walks of life. They meant to bridge the gap that often divide societies, and make music accessible to people from all walks of life. They chose the fishing villages of Besant Nagar to be the equalizing venue where folk and classical music, theater, dance, and other arts can be performed. The result was that the festival attracts wider, new audiences. The festival takes place in January and events are staged on beaches, in busses and trains, in parks and other open spaces, proving beyond any doubt that art and music know no boundaries and are all-inclusive.
It is widely believed that Madras was founded in 1639, on August 22 to be exact, so for its 365th year of existence, a group of historians, writers, entrepreneurs, and journalists decided it was high time to celebrate such an important milestone. That was how 2004 saw the very first Madras Week Festival. Today this annual commemoration includes a myriad of events like an array of cultural tours, nature and food walks, concerts, book launches, film screenings, fun games and quizzes, contests, discussions, exhibitions, and many more. For one whole week, the entire city is brought together in a carnival of joyous celebration. This is definitely the ideal time for the visitor to get to know this remarkable city.
Other Interesting Experiences
Once you have ticked off the main tourist attractions, it is time to discover the hidden treasures that lie underneath the surface. Feed crocodiles at Madras’s Crocodile Bank, stroll through the leafy grounds of the Theosophical Society, watch the dazzling sunset from the beach, or take to the ocean in a catamaran. The following suggestions will whet your appetite.
Each year from January to April 1000’s of turtles return to their place of birth on Chennai’s beaches. During their nesting season, a number of volunteers arrange hatcheries all along the beaches, and as soon as the next generation of little Olive Ridley hatchlings emerges, the volunteers release them safely into the sea. Visitors may take a guided walk conducted by members of the SSTCN (Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network) who have been arranging these walking tours for about thirty years. This is a unique, enlightening experience where you can learn more about the conservation of marine life and the famous Olive Ridley sea turtles.
While visiting Chennai, you are never far from the beach. If bustling, lively beaches are your thing, head for Thiruvanmiryur, Elliot’s, or Marina. However, if your preference lies with something more relaxed and laid back, make your way along the ECR or Eastern Coast Road. On the one side, you have a limitless view of the ocean, and on the opposite side, farmlands line the way. No need to plan your trip, just stop when the fancy takes you; at any of the many restaurants, beaches, resorts, or cafes along the road.
On his same road, fifty km from Chennai, you will find Mamallapuram. This World Heritage Site is famous for its 7th century Pallavan Dynasty monuments and seafront temples. Three beautifully ornate stone temples, impressive royal monuments, and various caves can be visited.
One hundred km further on lies Puducherry, a little glimpse of France. Enjoy the laid-back, colonial vibe at one of the bakeries, restaurants, or cafes, or spend time in the peaceful atmosphere of an ashram. In the experimental township of Auroville people from all over the globe live together in harmony and peace.
At Kanchipuram, a 75km drive from Chennai you can buy authentic, exquisitely made Kanjeevaram silk saris. No need to go to any store; pick them up right from the weavers’ workshops.
Adventure seekers should plan their visit to Chennai during August to coincide with the Covelong Point Surf, Yoga, and Music Festival. Here you will find the buzz and excitement of surfboards, rolling waves, and sandy beaches, mixed with a carnival of music and relaxing yoga.
If you love jewelry and always dreamt of owning a beautiful, elegant sari, look no further. Make your way to T Nagar, the bustling shopping district where the streets are lined with big-brand showrooms like Pothy’s, Sundari Silks, Nalli, and Silks and RmKV. For even more exclusive saris, visit Kanakavalli Boutique in Adyar or Mylapore’s Tulsi Silks.
Hunt for bargains of accessories, electronics, and clothing by side-stepping the brand stores and go straight to the noisy, hectic city center. The maze of streets in Sowcarpet, an old neighborhood with vintage buildings, and Parry’s Corner in George Town is packed with hawkers and vendors who sell anything from bed linen and fabrics to cosmetics and stationery. In Mint Street, which seems to go on forever, you will find treasures like designer wear at wholesale prices, even kitchen utensils. The heart of electronics lies in Ritchie Street, where hundreds of stores sell electronics spare parts, chips, motherboards, as well as home theater systems, games, laptops, speakers, and other up to date gadgets.
Food and Eateries
Traditionally the Chennai breakfast is a lavish affair of savory warm ghee Pongal, crunchy Vada, Dosa, and fluffy idlis. Although every shop worth its name has this dish on the menu, make your way to Sangeetha, located in RA Puram, the top destination for ghee Podi Dosa, to experience the very best. Besant Nagar’s Murugan Idli Shop takes the meek, humble idli to the next level. Then finish your culinary breakfast feast with the interesting cold milky drink called Jigarthanda, laced with ice cream, almond resin, sarsaparilla syrup, and sugar. For a hearty, leisurely Sunday breakfast, head to Lloyds Tea House.
Then there are the ever-popular Adyar Bhavan eateries scattered across the entire city, or the favorite hangout for early beach walkers and joggers, Saravana Bhavan, to break your daily fast. Nowhere else in the country is it possible to enjoy a terrific breakfast and your early caffeine fix with Chennai’s special filter coffee, freshly brewed, at 5:30 in the morning.
Long ago George Town, the first British settlement, used to be the very nerve of Chennai. Although those days are past now, the network of streets still has tales to tell and every corner sports its specialty shop. Browsing the many wholesale electronic stores on Govindappa Naiken, it is easy to miss National Lodge, the best place for traditional, delicious Andhra Pradesh cuisine. Not far away, in Mint Street, you will find the city’s Marwari neighborhood where their own specific fare reigns proudly. Chennaites will gladly face the hectic traffic of these streets to sit down at the legendary Kakada Ramprasad. It is especially known for its outstanding, ice-cold badam, or almond milk.
Mylapore is the cultural and spiritual center of Chennai. Here and in the surrounding areas are canteens, or messes galore, like Mami Kadai, Rayar Mess, or Mylai Karpagambal Mess, where delicious vegetarian meals are served on banana leaves with the signature filter coffee to accompany it. Try the Keerai or spinach vada, badam or sweet almond pudding and Bonda, fried potato with spices in a batter of wheat flour.
Chennai is any carnivore’s heaven and if you are one of the adventurous ones, the city’s military hotel restaurants will make all your culinary dreams come true. Work your way through some fried rabbit, mutton blood curries, or quail masalas. These hotels sprung up during WW II to cater to army personnel as well as soldiers, thus their typical non-vegetarian fare. Unfortunately, they are slowly disappearing, but a few, for instance, the Velu Military Hotel, persevere. Erstwhile Tamil refugees returning from Burma where they worked in the rice fields and rubber plantations, introduced Burmese flavors into the local cuisine. To sample some of these interesting dishes like altho or Burmese noodles, and Mohinga or fish soup, go to the Burma Bazaar in northern Chennai, there you will find several stalls that specialize in authentic Burmese fare. That the people of Chennai cannot live without their biryani is evident; the vast number of eateries that specialize in this beloved dish is proof enough. Find the most classical, iconic biryani at Buhari Hotel in Mount Road (Anna Salai), dating back to 1951. Here Chicken 65, the now-famous fried chicken dish, was created in 1965 (hence the name) by AM Buhari, owner of the hotel. If you prefer boneless chicken, order the Chicken 90. According to the manager of the restaurant, Nawaz Buhari, the founder experimented with no less than two hundred different biryani recipes before he was satisfied and today his bestselling Buhari biryani is unique and different from those in Tamil towns like Madurai and comes with aromatic basmati rice.
Evening strolls along Marina Beach often escalate into major eating sprees. Numerous food stalls along the way tempt visitors and the sea air is filled with the flavors of Bajjis, a fritter-like spicy snack, fried fish, egg dosas or fermented-battered rice pancakes with lentil and vegetable curry and coconut chutney, Sundal or chickpeas mixed with chilies, curry leaves, and mustard seeds, and many more.
Numerous talented chefs who exchanged southern Udupi for lively Chennai were responsible for making Udupi cuisine famous all over. Dasaprakash, Woodlands, and Mathsya, formerly known as Udupi Home, have been the leading chains on the vegetarian scene for quite a while and monopolized the market, but later Saravana Bhavan and other local brands managed to leave their own footprint. However, they have not been successful in drawing the hungry, eager diners away from Mathsya or Buhari. If you prefer sitting down for your meal, find a spot at one of the many restaurants and diners in Chennai. Choose between delicious international food or amazing local specialties in cafes like the ever-popular Chamiers or Amethyst. Or spoil yourself with some fine dining and sample exquisite South Indian cuisine at Avartana in ITC Grand Chola Hotel or at Bay View Restaurant in Taj Fishermen Cove. The state of Tamil Nadu is a soup of cuisines to satisfy every taste; there are Puducherry with its Creole cuisine, Chettinad fare with its many complex flavors, traditional Madurai food with its affinity for mutton, and the birthplace of biryani, Dindigul. You will find everything from haute cuisine to home-made, earthy dishes. Exclusive Chennai restaurants offer the best, but eventually, there is nothing as satisfying as sinking your teeth into something deliciously fiery at a food stall on the street of a cozy corner of this state.
When to visit
March through November are the hot, dry months and temperatures may vary from 30 to 42 degrees Celsius, therefor rather plan your trip for December through February, when it is cooler. It is advisable to avoid food from food stalls during the monsoon season.
How to get there
Chennai can easily be reached by road, rail or air. The airport has a metro station right outside. Central Station is where trains depart to the other states, while interstate destinations are served from the Egmore Station. Koyambedu is the principal bus terminus and home to maybe the biggest wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Asia.