India’s southern gateway might have been under the travel radar for the longest time but that’s changing quickly. This decade, Chennai has been on numerous global travel hot-lists and not without reason. A gorgeous coastline, well-preserved colonial heritage, and a vibrant music and cultural scene blend seamlessly with the 21st century avatar of the city as one of India’s leading auto and IT hubs. But to truly discover Chennai, you need to veer away from the obvious path, you’ll be surprised at what the city has in store.
Historic temples and churches, countless beaches, a culinary landscape that reflects the city’s past and future and heaps of shopping options; you’re never out of things to do in Chennai. The Fort Museum is probably the best place to begin. Tucked away in the sprawling Fort St George complex, where the East India Company took root, this museum presents a fascinating account of an era gone by. Alternatively, Mylapore, the city’s cultural heart is a great place to start too; stop by at the legendary Kapaleeshwarar Temple or get lost (in more ways than one) among its bustling alleys.
Chennai’s standout church is the neo-gothic style Santhome Basilica, which is said to be built over the tomb of St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus. The St Thomas trail also leads to the quaint St Thomas Church on a hillock that has taken its name from where he is believed to have been martyred. To make most of Chennai’s long coastline, head south along the East Coast Road (ECR) that leads to Pondicherry. Drive through Marina beach that is flanked by colonial era landmarks, then head to Besant Nagar before you start ticking off multiple boxes along the ECR. There’s DakshinaChitra, a collection of recreated homes from across South India and the Madras Crocodile Bank that boasts of at least 14 species of crocodiles in an engaging space that the kids usually love.
Don’t let appearances fool you—Chennai’s nightlife might appear dull on the surface but that’s far from the truth. The Flying Elephant at The Park Hyatt is one of the city’s most versatile evening destinations swinging from bar to fine dining restaurant to party spot with minimum effort.
The Hilton’s rooftop Q Bar, almost open round the clock on weekends, is a big draw for the city’s growing band of weekend revellers. Pasha at the Park and Gatsby 2000 continue to be the city’s preferred nightclubs and it’s impossible to find space on the dance floor on most weekends. Chennai’s nightlife is no longer the preserve of luxury hotels, a whole wave of hip standalone bars have made their debut. Radio Room, a retro-themed bar is among the city’s current favourites and so is the cleverly named Velveteen Rabbit, an intimate bar with an impressive wine and spirits list.
Sarees and jewellery might be the first thing that spring to mind when you think of Chennai’s shopping credentials. T Nagar has long been the city’s traditional hub with iconic saree stores like Nalli’s and Kumaran Silks and jewellery stores like GRT and Prince Jewellery. T Nagar and Mylapore are also great for street shopping especially if you have a flair for bargaining. Khader Nawaz Khan road is truly the city’s luxe shopping destination with stores like Evoluzione that round up apparel and accessories from some of India’s best known designers rubbing shoulders with home-grown fashion designers like Chaitanya Rao.
Some of the world’s best known brands (from Burberry to H&M and Zara) find pride of place in the city’s two swankiest malls–Express Avenue in the heart of the city and Phoenix Marketcity in Velachery. The city has long been a hub for leather products; some of the city’s internationally renowned exporters have set up retail stores in the city. Language in Wallace Garden is a case in point.
Mahabalipuram (aka Mamallapuram) is a short yet scenic 55km drive along the casuarina fringed coastline. Here, one can spend hours marvelling at imposing architecture from the Pallava era. The highlight is the 8th century shore temple just off the beach. Make time to dine at one of the town’s many unassuming yet terrific seafood shacks like Moonrakers. If you’re interested in more temples and Pallava era architecture, Kancheepuram beckons. This temple town near Chennai is not just home to numerous temples but is also a magnet for its famous brand of silk sarees aka Kanjivarams.
The 1,000-year old Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur (a five-hour drive) is one of India’s true architectural masterpieces. The all-new Svatma, a boutique luxury hotel is the perfect abode to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site and the town of Thanjavur, or Tanjore, as some call it.
The French love to romanticise Pondicherry as the Riviera of the East and the city’s White Town is truly a throwback to the French colonial era, with its grid-like streets and well-preserved heritage buildings. Most of these buildings have morphed into cosy boutique hotels while some are now home to laidback cafes and restaurants where you can sample the Pondicherry spin on European cuisine. If diving is your scene, take the plunge at one of the few diving academies (Temple Adventures) along India’s Eastern coastline.
Scratch the surface and you see another side of Chennai that is rarely captured in popular culture or in the minds of travellers who go back with half-baked impressions of the city. The East Coast Road is always a good starting point, one of the many detours along this road lead to Surfing Covelong Point one of India’s few surfing academies where locals and expats embrace the waves. If surfing is too much work, jump on to one of the catamarans in the area and take to the high seas.
If that’s too much of an adrenaline rush watch the waves from a safe distance at romantic dining venues like Bay View at the Vivanta by Taj Fisherman’s Cove or Wharf, the grills and seafood restaurant at the Radisson Temple Bay. You can also do a custom dining experience along the beach at the Intercontinental, the newest luxury beach resort along the coast.
Land lovers can head north along the coast towards Andhra Pradesh and drive through the Pulicat Bird Sanctuary near India’s second largest saltwater lake.
Chennai’s Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam traditions come alive during the month-long music season that runs through December and January; you could drop in to Kalakshetra (near Besant Nagar beach) one of India’s best known dance and arts institutions for a performance. If you want some peace and quiet, head down the tree-lined Besant Avenue and find your oasis of calm within the sprawling gardens of the Theosophical Society. The gardens are close to the ‘Broken Bridge’, one of Chennai’s worst kept secrets where the Adyar river meets the Bay of Bengal and a magnet for photo enthusiasts especially at sunrise. If you don’t mind the hustle of old Madras, sign up for one of the walking tours that takes you through fascinating bylanes of the erstwhile Georgetown and explore some of the architectural landmarks of the city along the way.
|GST Rd, Meenambakkam, Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600027||MAA|