If there is one word that best describes Madurai, it is ‘contrast’. It is an ancient temple town on its way to becoming a modern smart city; its rich Tamil legacy coexists with a booming IT and automobile industry. This dichotomy, after all, is what makes the town the heart and soul of Tamil Nadu.
Best time to visit: Madurai is a year-round destination. However, December to February are the best time to visit the city.
How to reach
By air: Madurai International Airport is the nearest airport, located 13 km away from the city. IndiGo operates more than 30 weekly, non-stop flights between Madurai and Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kozhikode.
By train: Madurai Railway Station connects the city to all major parts of the country through several prime trains like Chennai Express, Bangalore Express and Punalur Express among others.
By bus: The city is well-connected with all other towns and cities in the country through buses run by the government as well as private agencies.
Getting around: Madurai has a vast network of local buses mostly run by government agencies and few private buses as well. Auto-rickshaws are another popular means to travel across the city along with private taxis.
Be prepared to brave the crowds at this vegetarian eatery, located close to the temple, that dishes out piping hot dosas, idlis and pongal. You can also dig into equally favourite North Indian snacks which include samosas, kachoris, chole pooris, and more.
Chennai’s favourite idli centre, Murugan Idli Shop, has an outpost in Madurai. Locals swear by their fluffy idlis and podi idlis, served with five different varieties of chutney and gunpowder.
Madurai’s famous drink, jigarthanda, comes handy when the sun offers no sign of mercy. Drop by at this small institution whose reputation relies on two beverages—the original jigarthanda prepared with milk, almond pisin, basundi and sherbet, and the special jigarthanda with the extra goodness of khoya. Slurp!
Among the rare escapes for a meat lover in Madurai are these two restaurants, located on Alagar Kovil Main Road. Between a helping of viraal fish roast and mutton curry dosa, crab cutlets and chicken chettinad, no surprise that you won’t stop asking for me.
If you’re missing the good ol’ continental fare (without any frills), head to Phil’s Bistro which opens doors for lunch and dinner. Here, take a break from the spice with a selection of pizzas, pasta and salads.
For stunning views of the temple town’s landscape, in the lap of Kodai hills, head to GAD (Gateway All Day), Taj Gateway’s multi-cuisine, all-day restaurant. Savour regional delicacies as well as international flavours, best enjoyed in the company of peacocks in the outdoor seating area.
On your trip to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, make sure to halt at Prithu Mandapam, an old pillared hall near the eastern entrance. It is known to be the best place for your cotton fabric loot in Madurai. For hand-woven silk and batik textiles, head to East Masi street, South Avani Moola Street and Town Hall Road. And since you’re in Madurai, don’t forget to pick a gorgeous silk saree from any of these shopping hubs. From bell-metal lamps to bronze idols, bookmark the government-run Poompuhar handicraft store, and the Cottage Arts Emporium if you’re looking for traditional handicrafts
Heritage As the name suggests, this 17-acre resort has a historic charm of its own, which echoes in its spacious marble and wood-floored rooms, an Olympic-size temple tank pool, and a 200-year-old banyan tree under which you can enjoy your Sunday brunch. Head to the Heritage Spa to luxuriate in a Swedish or Ayurvedic massage, much needed after a long day of temple hopping.
The Gateway Pick from three categories of well-appointed rooms—Standard, Superior and Executive. The two suites, Sir William Harvey Suite and Sir James Doak Suite, feature a charming touch of colonial décor. Both come with a large, private sit-out that serves as an ideal setting for your morning breakfast.
Fortune Pandiyan Hotel From former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam to Mother Teresa, Fortune Pandiyan has hosted a range of distinguished guests. Its 57 rooms boast of modern amenities—free wi-fi, coffee maker, complimentary breakfast, and more. The hotel also offers two-day Madurai-Rameswaram tour packages which include transfers and local sightseeing.
Gandhi Memorial Museum: History enthusiasts must bookmark the Gandhi Memorial Museum, among the five Gandhi Museums in the country, built in 1959. The museum acts as a repository of Gandhi’s personal life, with articles ranging from a blood-stained cloth worn by him on the day of his assassination to a long series of illustrations depicting the freedom struggle.
The Elephant Hill: Madurai has a lot to offer beyond temples, too. The city’s scenic outskirts are home to beautiful hills, so a drive to the vantage points is never a bad idea. Head out to Yanai Malai, a protected monument and tourist attraction that’s often called ‘The Elephant Hill’, or make your way to Samanar Malai, home to 2000-year-old Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and sculptures.
Rameswaram: Options are plenty, that too only a few hours away if you wish to escape the city of Madurai. A three-hour drive away lies the holy town of Rameswaram; its Ramanathaswamy Temple considered to be among the most sacred places for Hindus and part of the Chaar Dhaam pilgrimage. It is believed that Rameswaram is the place where god Rama built a bridge across the sea to reach Lanka, to rescue his wife Sita from her abductor Ravana.
Kodaikanal: The ‘Princess of Hill Stations’, Kodaikanal, also lies just over 100km from Madurai. It’s hard not to miss its lush green valleys and pleasant weather once you’re back from your trip.
Kanyakumari: A four-hour drive south of Madurai leads you to the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula, Kanyakumari. Its beaches attract tourists from across the country, who also make sure to catch the famed ferry ride to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, built in honour of the Indian guru.
If you are in Madurai, just for a day, then it’s better to start early. Start your journey with the iconic Meenakshi Amman Temple, the most popular tourist spot among all. The intricate architecture and lovely fragrance of Jasmine flower at the temple are surely going to fill your day with freshness. Just outside the temple visit Puthu Mandapam, a 500-year-old-market selling everything from wooden toys to fabrics. Then head towards Tamil Nadu’s most beautiful palace, Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, the exquisite designs of the palace will remind you of the grandeur of ancient times. Then you can dig into some favourite dishes starting from yummy idlis to dosas, to Kothu Parotta that are readily available in any restaurants if Madurai. After having lunch move towards Alagar Kovil, the ancient Vishnu temple. Your next stop should be Gandhi Memorial Museum and browse through the extensive collection of artefacts, pictures and letters of his lifetime.
The village of Vilacheri, an hour-long drive away from Madurai, is a unique world in itself. The entire town is dedicated to the craft of making papier mache dolls, used in traditional Hindu households during the festive season of Navratri. Several guided tours in and around the city offer a day trip to the village, where you can peek into the lives of generations of potters and in the process, step in their shoes and get your hands soiled, too.