10 Top Places to Experience Chennai and its Culture

Flower sellers outside temple in Chennai.
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Unlike some other cities in India, Chennai (previously known as Madras), doesn't have any world famous monuments or tourist attractions. Instead of quickly leaving a memorable first impression, Chennai is a city that requires time and effort to really get to know and appreciate it. It's a city that requires you to explore below its surface and delve into its distinctive culture. These places to visit in Chennai will give you a feel for the city and what makes it special. Try and be there in mid January to experience the Pongal festival as well.

Have time for a side trip? Here are 9 Popular Places to Visit Near Chennai.

  • 01 of 10

    Mylapore

    Mylapore temple.
    Entrance to a temple at Chennai. Exotica.im/Getty Images

    Chennai's historic neighborhood of Mylapore is often referred to as the soul of the city. One of the oldest residential parts of the city, predominantly inhabited by Brahmins, it's full of culture. There you'll find Chennai's most impressive temple, the 17th-century Kapaleeshwarar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Other top attractions include the neo-Gothic style San Thome Cathedral, originally built by the Portuguese, and the serene Ramakrishna Mutt Temple. Tamil poet and saint Thiruvalluvar, one of the icons of Tamil literature, is believed to have been born in Mylapore way back in the 1st century BC. Storytrails conducts an insightful walking tour of Mylapore. The annual Mylapore Festival is held in early January, just before Pongal.

  • 02 of 10

    Fort Saint George

    Fort Saint George Secretariat, Chennai.
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    A legacy of the British East India Company, which completed constructing it in 1653,  Fort Saint George is now home to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and Secretariat. It also contains the grand Saint Mary's Church, which is one of the oldest surviving churches built by the British, and the Fort Museum. The museum displays a range of military memorabilia, relics, paintings, and artifacts from the colonial period. It's open daily, except Fridays, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. The entrance fee is 15 rupees for Indians and 200 rupees for foreigners. Children under 15 years of age are free.

  • 03 of 10

    Madras High Court

    Madras High Court, Chennai.
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    Located just outside Fort Saint George, in George Town, the massive Madras High Court is one of the largest judicial buildings in the world. Built in 1892, it has distinctive red Indo-Saracenic architecture, with magnificent painted ceilings and stained-glass doors. It's possible to wander through the court and even sit in on a session.

  • 04 of 10

    George Town Markets and Bazaars

    Chennai market, flower seller.
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    The congested lanes of George Town are occupied by some fascinating street stalls and markets, including vibrant vegetable, flower, and spice markets.  This area, which used to be known as Black Town during the colonial period, was settled by locals who came to serve and trade with the Britishers in Fort Saint George. It was the first settlement of the city of Madras, which began its expansion from there in the 1640s. It's noisy, chaotic, and a photographer's delight! Explore the area on this Georgetown Bazaar Walk offered by Chennai Magic or Bazaar Trail Walk offered by StoryTrails.

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  • 05 of 10

    Marina Beach

    Chennai beach.
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    For a real Indian beach experience, head to Marina beach at sunset and soak up the carnival-like atmosphere, with amusement rides and snack stalls. The beach, which is the longest urban beach in India, starts from near Fort Saint George and runs south for 13 kilometers (8.1 miles). It's dotted with numerous statues and monuments and is a popular hangout place for locals. Tens of thousands of people visit it daily. The lighthouse, at the southern end of the beach, was opened for tourists in late 2013. Do note that bathing and swimming aren't permitted as there are strong currents.

  • 06 of 10

    T. Nagar

    T Nagar, Chennai.
    McKay Savage/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Chennai's main market place, chaotic T. Nagar attracts hordes of shoppers hunting for discounts on everything from to saris to gold. On weekends during the festival season (from November until the end of January) the crowds can swell to an astonishing 2 million people! Ranganathan Street is where most of the action happens. Performance venues in the neighborhood (such as Krishna Gana Sabha, Vani Mahal and Bharath Kalachar) also host many famous classical musicians during the month-long Madras Music Season, from mid December to mid January each year.

  • 07 of 10
    Cholamandal, Chennai.
    John Elk III/Getty Images.

    India's largest artists' commune, Cholamandal Artists’ Village, was set up in 1966 in Injambakkam village on the southern outskirts of Chennai. What's really remarkable about it is that the artists are self-sustaining and have not received any financial assistance -- they purchased their own land and built everything themselves including their houses, studios, gallery, theater, and workshops. The village is renowned for having pioneered the Madras Movement of Art, which brought modern art to south India. You'll get to see an extraordinary collection of paintings and sculptures there, along with the artists at work. The entry fee is 20 rupees per person, open from 9.30 a.m. until 6.30 p.m.

  • 08 of 10
    Dancers at Kalakshetra
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    Kalakshetra is a cultural academy dedicated to the preservation and teaching of Indian art forms, with a focus on bharatanatyam, carnatic vocal and instrumental music, the visual arts, traditional crafts and textile design, history and philosophy. Built on 100 acres of land near the sea in southern Chennai, it's a wonderful place to visit if you're interested in the arts and culture of south India. There's a craft center and museum on the premises, and a heritage walk is also offered to groups (1,500 rupees per person). The entrance fee is 100 rupees for Indian residents and 500 rupees for foreigners. It's worth catching one of the free evening performances held at the auditorium on show days.

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  • 09 of 10
    Vivekananda House
    Kevin Clogstoun/Getty Images

    Dedicated to revered spiritual teacher Swami Vivekananda, Vivekananda House is maintained by Sri Ramakrishna Math and houses a permanent exhibition on his life and Indian culture. There's a meditation room on the second floor where the Swami stayed after his return from the west in February 1897. The distinctive Victorian-style building is more than 150 years old and was originally built to store ice. It was subsequently purchased by Biligiri Iyengar, an advocate of the Madras High Court, who named it Castle Kernan. Vivekananda House is located opposite Marina Beach in Triplicane. It's open from 10.00 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. and 3.00 p.m. until 7.15 p.m, daily except Mondays. Tickets cost 20 rupees for adults and 10 rupees for children.

  • 10 of 10
    Olive Ridley turtle.
    Marco Simoni/Robert Harding /Getty Images

    Did you know that the coast of Chennai is a breeding ground for the endangered Olive Ridley turtle? During nesting season, from December to April each year, large numbers of turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. The hatchlings are left to make their own way into the sea and many of them die. In order to increase their chances of survival, volunteers of the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) conduct walks to collect their eggs and take them to a hatchery. The walks happen on Friday and Saturday nights, starting at 11 p.m, from Neelangarai beach to Besant Nagar beach. Members of the public who are interested in conservation are welcome to join in. It's also possible to see hatchlings being released in the evenings during March and April.