Unlike some other cities in India, Chennai (previously known as Madras) doesn't have any world famous monuments or tourist attractions. It was a cluster of small villages until the British developed it as a trading port, naval base, and administration hub. 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. Chennai is a city that requires you to explore below its surface and delve into its distinctive culture. These places to visit and things to do in Chennai will help you uncover what makes the city special. Try and be there in mid January for the annual Pongal festival as well.
Have time for a side trip? Here are 11 Places to Visit Near Chennai.
Explore Historic Mylapore
Chennai's historic Mylapore neighborhood 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 neo-Gothic style San Thome Cathedral, originally built by the Portuguese, and serene Ramakrishna Mutt Temple. Storytrails conducts an insightful walking tour of Mylapore. The annual Mylapore Festival is held in early January, just before Pongal.
A legacy of the British East India Company, which completed construction in 1653, Fort Saint George was the nucleus of what became the city of Madras. The monument is one of Britain's first lasting footprints on India. It's now home to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and Secretariat. It also contains the grand St Mary's Church—one of the oldest surviving churches built by the British—and the Fort Museum. The museum has exhibits about the fort and Chennai's origin. There are displays of military memorabilia, relics, paintings, and artifacts from the colonial period as well. It's open daily, except Fridays, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The entrance fee is 5 rupees for Indians and 100 rupees for foreigners. Children under 15 years of age can enter for free.
Admire Madras High Court
Located just outside Fort Saint George, in George Town, 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.
Chennai's impressive Government Museum is the best in the city. Its expansive galleries are spread across three buildings, with the highlight being the Bronze Gallery. It has an outstanding collection of bronze statues from the 7th century onward. Most belong to the significant Chola period from the 9th to 11th centuries. There are also extensive archeological and anthropology galleries. The museum is situated in the British-built Pantheon Complex on Pantheon Road. It's open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The complex includes the National Art Gallery, Contemporary Art Gallery and Children’s Museum. All can be accessed on the same entry ticket. The cost is 15 rupees for Indians and 250 rupees for foreigners. There's an additional camera fee of 500 rupees.
Meander Through the Markets and Bazaars
The congested lanes of George Town are occupied by some absorbing street stalls and 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 British 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.
Get a Bird's Eye View from Chennai Lighthouse
Chennai's landmark lighthouse stands alongside Marina Beach, overlooking the Bay of Bengal. It was built in 1976 and is the city's fourth lighthouse tower. The first lighthouse was established at Fort Saint George in 1796. It was superseded by two subsequent lighthouses set within the Madras High Court complex. Notably, the lighthouse is the only one in an Indian city, and one of the few in the world with an elevator. It's powered by a solar panel and houses the local meteorological department. Take the elevator up to the lookout point on the ninth floor for panoramic views across the beach and city. The lighthouse is located on Beach Road, and is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Mondays.
Spend Sunset at Marina Beach
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 every day. This number really swells on weekends. Do note that bathing and swimming aren't permitted as there are strong currents.
Discover Chennai's Multi-Cultural Communities
Triplicane borders Marina Beach and is one of Chennai's oldest neighborhoods. It's an ideal place to discover more of the city's multi-cultural heritage. The neighborhood is centered around the 8th century Hindu Parthasarathy temple but has been influenced by the British and the Nawab of Arcot, who settled there. Nowadays, it's home to a menagerie of monastic orders, Brahmin agraharams, Hindu and Jain temples, mosques, traditional music venues, and small local cafes. Chennai Magic's heritage walk through Triplicane provides insight into the religious beliefs, food taboos, and cultural preferences of its various communities.
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.
Grab a Bargain at Chennai's Main Shopping District
Join the hordes of bargain hunters looking for discounts on everything from saris to gold at Chennai's main shopping district, Thyagaraya Nagar (T. Nagar). It's one of the most crowded places in India! On weekends during the festival season (from November until the end of January) the crowds can swell to an astonishing two 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.
Marvel Over Kasimedu Fishing Harbour and Market
Early risers will find the fishy frenzy at Kasimedu Fishing Harbor to be a fascinating sight. The harbor comes alive as early as 2 a.m., when the first catch is brought in. However, the activity continues throughout the day, with more than 1,500 fishing boats operating there. As well as supplying local markets, the fish is exported to neighboring states such as Kerala and Karnataka. The fishing harbor complex also incorporates an auction hall for the fish and a ship building yard. It's located in Royapuram, one of the oldest parts of Chennai, north of the city center.
Wander Through One of Asia's Largest Vegetable Markets
Koyambedu Wholesale Market Complex is another fascinating local attraction for early risers. The massive market complex was inaugurated in 1996 and is spread over 295 acres west of the city center near Anna Nagar. It houses about 1,000 wholesale shops and 2,000 retail shops. Although the market operates around the clock, the best time to visit the wholesale vegetable section is from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., when most of the produce sales take place. The wholesale flower section is most vibrant after noon, when the fresh supply of flowers has arrived.
Sample Chennai's Cuisine
Foodies shouldn't miss exploring south Chennai's cultural Adyar neighborhood, named after the Adyar River that flows through it. Although it's one of the costliest areas of the city, it also has some iconic eateries that have withstood the test of time. One of them is Adyar Ananda Bhavan, which was established more than three decades ago and serves up authentic South Indian vegetarian cuisine and sweets. Chennai Magic conducts this food walk through Adyar, stopping at local provision and specialty shops to learn about the ingredients and spices that go into southern Indian foods. You'll get to try some yummy delicacies too! Alternatively, Storytrails offers this Food Trail through Sowcarpet, which is conveniently close to George Town in central Chennai.
Ponnusamy Hotel on Jaganathan Road in Nungambakkam is famous for its humongous Bahubali Thali (platter) with 50 items! It's way too big for one person to eat alone, so make sure you bring your friends or family along. The thali costs 1,499 rupees, and has a mix of meat and vegetarian dishes. The restaurant is open daily from noon to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. It's a good idea to get there early or make a reservation.
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 30 rupees per adult and 20 rupees per child, open from 9.30 a.m. until 6.30 p.m.
Kalakshetra Foundation sprawls over 100 acres of verdant land on Kalakshetra Road in Thiruvanmiyur, near the sea in southern Chennai. This esteemed cultural academy is dedicated to the preservation and teaching of Indian art forms, and is a wonderful place to visit if you want to experience the arts of South India. It focuses on Bharatanatyam classical dance, Carnatic classical music, the visual arts, traditional crafts and textile design, history and philosophy. There's a craft center and museum on the premises. Kalakshetra is open for visitors from 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. Self-guided tours (using a free map) cost 100 rupees for Indians and 200 rupees for foreigners. Guided tours, conducted by an eminent person well-versed in the field of Art and Culture, are also offered for groups of 1-10 people for a cost of 4000 rupees. Free evening performances are often held at the auditorium.
If you like Carnatic dance and music, the Madras Music Academy is one of the earliest established music academies in South India and is at the heart of the scene in Chennai. A year-round program of events, recitals, and concerts is held in its grand auditorium on TT Krishnamachari Road in Gopalapuram near Mylapore. Don't miss the annual Chennai Music Season from mid December to mid January, with a multitude of productions (free and ticketed) happening at various venues across the city.
Take a Cooking Lesson
Impress guests at your next dinner party by learning how to made delicious south Indian food in a local home where the magic happens. The lady of the house will lead you through an interactive cooking session, explaining the use of spices and cooking techniques. Afterwards, you'll be able to enjoy the meal while chatting to the family about life in Chennai. The cooking classes offered by Chennai Magic and Storytrails are both great options.
Higginbothams has been in business on Mount Road (Anna Salai) since 1844, when it was started by a British librarian stowaway. It quickly become the preferred bookstore of the Madras Presidency and grew to be the largest bookstore chain in India. All kinds of books and publications were sold there. The store continues to stock the latest releases and rare editions. It has a large section devoted to Indian and Tamil writes of all genres, an excellent English language section (including travel books), and a children's section with captivating books for all ages. The bookstore is open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Higginbothams also has a Writer's Cafe and bookstore on Peters Road in Gopalapuram, where you can sit and read. More recently, a branch of the cafe opened on 3rd Main Road in Adyar. The cafes employ acid-burn survivors and people from the Spastic Society of Tamil Nadu. Profits are used to help victims of domestic violence.
Have a "Kollywood" Moment at Broken Bridge
Chennai's isolated bridge to nowhere juts out from the mouth of the Adyar River at the rear of the Theosophical Society forest in Adyar. It's opposite the Leela Palace hotel, and not far from trendy Besant Nagar and the Kalakshetra Foundation. This offbeat attraction is commonly known as the Broken Bridge, as it collapsed in 1977 and has continued to deteriorate. Prior to that, fishermen used it to cross the river. The bridge has featured in a number of Tamil "Kollywood" movies (so called because the Tamil movie industry is based in Kodambakkam in Chennai) including Vaali and Aayudha Ezhuthu. Sunrise over the bridge is particular striking. However, it's said to be haunted and unsafe there at night.
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.
What began, in 2004, as a one-day commemoration of the founding of the city of Madras has evolved into a week of fun festivities. Activities include food walks, heritage walks, nature walks, photo walks and exhibitions, book readings, film screenings, and public talks. Madras Day is on August 22 every year, and Madras Week takes place around this date.