This decade, Chennai has been on numerous global travel hot-lists and not without reason. A gorgeous coastline, well-preserved colonial heritage, and 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. Historical temples and churches, many 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. 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.
Situated on the Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal in southern India, Chennai (earlier called Madras) is the capital of Tamil Nadu. The ancient city has been an extremely important centre of Tamil history, arts, literature, culture, kingdoms, and dynasties since the 1st century CE. The first European colonists, the Portuguese, arrived here in 1522 and built a port called São Tomé after the Christian apostle, St Thomas, who is believed to have preached here somewhere between 52 and 70 CE. The Dutch arrived in 1612, and established themselves near Pulicat, north of Chennai.
On 22 August 1639, which is referred to as Madras Day, the English East India Company finally and officially established the city of Madras, now known as Chennai. The city was also under French rule briefly, till it was again recaptured by the British. The foundation of modern Chennai lies in Fort St George, the earliest British settlement in India.
Today, Chennai is the gateway to Tamil Nadu’s rich and beautiful heritage, which it continues to preserve and draw from. Here quintessential Tamil culture co-exists with its charming colonial legacy.
Chennai is considered the biggest cultural, economic, and educational centre in South India. Chennai has been variously and deservedly described (and rated) as ‘the safest city in India’; ‘the Detroit of South Asia’ for its automobile industry; one of the ‘hottest’ cities to live in with a mixture of both modern and traditional values; ‘the 9th-best cosmopolitan city in the world’; also National Geographic ranked Chennai as the world's 2nd best food city, and Chennai was the only Indian city to feature in the list.
Best time to visit: November to February is the best time to visit Chennai.
How to reach
By air: Chennai International Airport is the nearest airport, located about 19 km from the city downtown. IndiGo operates more than 90 daily, non-stop flights to Chennai and other key destinations.
By train: Chennai Central the main railway station, connecting the city to all other prominent cities of the country through various trains including Charminar Express, Chennai Express among others.
By bus: There are ample buses operated by the government and private companies that connect Chennai to the rest of the country.
Getting around/Transport in Chennai
Chennai boasts a vast network of local A/c and Non-A/c buses run by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC). Auto-rickshaws, taxis and cabs are other popular modes of transportation in the city.
Contrary to popular perception, Chennai and Tamil Nadu is mostly non-vegetarian. Sample some of the region’s traditional fare at Ponnusamy, which began as a small eatery in the 1950s and has grown to become a local institution. Everything from rabbit to quail to mutton is on the menu.
Another local legend since the 1950s, this was the restaurant where Chicken 65, was invented. Buhari’s has expanded its wings and become a restaurant chain, but the original restaurant continues to be the hub. If chicken is not your thing, try the biryani, it is equally popular.
The city is home to the largest Korean expat community in India and also to a long list of authentic Korean eateries. Aeseo, the newest entrant raises the bar–the interiors are plush, and the bibimbap is probably the best you can sample in India.
It’s easy to imagine you’re in colonial Madras once you are ensconced in the comfort of this charming café. Part of a growing list of eclectic eateries in the city, Chamiers is perfect for breakfast round the clock or a leisurely catch up with long lost friends. So, whether it’s small or large plates, sinful desserts or refreshing beverages, there’s enough to keep you coming back.
It’s not just Korean restaurants that are on the rise in Chennai’s ever-evolving restaurant-scape. The city is also seeing a Japanese culinary boom. Fuji offers an elegant setting and a choice of sushi and sashimi driven lunch menus. The seafood is outstanding; not surprising given that, it is flown in every week from Tokyo.
Fronted by internationally renowned pastry Chef Mikael Besse, Ecstasy is Chennai’s most excellent dessert bar, and Besse’s ‘no compromise’ attitude on ingredients is largely the reason. You should sample the Flak, a signature dessert, which uses only Valrhona chocolate.
Chennai’s reputation as a filter coffee destination is almost unrivalled. Sangeetha’s is one of the many traditional vegetarian restaurants that whip up a refreshing tumbler of freshly brewed filter coffee along with a wide range of afternoon snacks (tiffin in Chennai). The restaurant’s vegetarian ‘full meals’ are a great lunchtime option.
There’s probably no better place to dine at a Sunday afternoon than the all-day restaurant at The Leela Palace. It’s not just one of the most massive Sunday buffets in the city; it is also the incredible mix of Indian and international favourites that give this buffet an edge.
Sarees and jewellery might be the first thing that spring to mind when you think of Chennai’s shopping credentials.
Chennai’s nightlife is no longer the preserve of luxury hotels, a whole wave of hip standalone bars have made their debut. Don’t let appearances fool you—Chennai’s nightlife might appear dull on the surface, but that’s far from the truth.
ITC Grand Chola Among India’s largest urban luxury hotels, the Grand Chola seeks design inspiration from the impressive temple architecture of the Chola era. The hotel has more F&B options than any other in the city that include Cheroot, a distinguished Cigar and Malt bar, Royal Vega, Chennai’s only all-vegetarian restaurant located in a luxury hotel and the old favourite Peshawari that serves North-Western Frontier cuisine. The spacious rooms are well appointed and include intuitive iPad-enabled interactive controls.
The Leela Palace With sweeping views of the Bay of Bengal, this hotel has a lot going for it other than its unique location near Santhome. A luxurious spa is one of the hotel’s talking points as are the hotel’s two opulent fine dining restaurants–China XO that serves Chinese specialities and Jamavar that rounds up India’s finest dishes.
Lotus Apartment Hotel The rapid rise of business and leisure travellers into Chennai has sparked a slew of serviced apartments across the city. Lotus offers three locations (two in the T Nagar area and one in Mount Road) in the heart of the town at a great price. Perfect for a quick pit stop en route to the Tirupati temple or if you want to be close to all the saree and jewellery shopping in T Nagar.
Design Hotel Chennai by jüSTa This 26-room boutique hotel is an oasis of high-energy design nestled in Chennai’s glitziest mall–Phoenix Marketcity. You have instant access to the city’s most exceptional shopping options and a host of eateries within the mall. The hotel’s contemporary design language also draws from traditional South Indian art forms.
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 a 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 indeed 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.
The ancient city of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu was once the city of a 1000 temples but only a tenth or so of them are left now. Kanchipuram is considered one of India’s seven mokshapuris (sacred temples of salvation). The gorgeous temples showcase different styles influenced by the city’s many rulers over the centuries. Kanchipuram is legendary for its handwoven silk sarees – the British first introduced sericulture to the weaver community here. The highlights are the exquisite temples; silk looms; and two heritage museums within old houses – the Kanchi Kudil and the Museum of Folk Art.
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 several surfing academies where locals and ex-pats 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. 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.
If you want some peace, 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 take you through fascinating bylanes of the erstwhile Georgetown and explore some of the architectural landmarks of the city along the way.
It is one of the major festivals of Tamil Nadu which is celebrated annually. During the festivities, dancers from across India come together to offer their dances to Lord Shiva with many varied forms of dance such as Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, Odissi and Pung Cholam being performed here.
Pongal is one of the prime festivals celebrated in Chennai. Pongal is the harvest festival and is celebrated across five days in January. A sweet delicacy made out of rice and jaggery called pongal is prepared during the festival. The festival usually lasts for 4 days and is one of the most popular festivals celebrated by Hindus.