Chennai Guide: Planning Your Trip

What to Know Before You Go

Chennai cityscape

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Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, is known as the gateway to South India. This city has a population of about 10 million people, making it India's fifth largest city after Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangalore. Chennai has managed to retain a spaciousness that's lacking in other major Indian cities despite being an important city for manufacturing, healthcare, and IT. It's a sprawling and busy, yet conservative, city with deep traditions and culture that are yet to give way to the growing foreign influence there. Find out what to know before you go in this Chennai travel guide.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Chennai has a hot and humid climate. Summer temperatures in late May and early June often reach an extreme 38–42 degrees Celsius (100–107 degrees Fahrenheit). The city receives most of its rainfall during the northeast monsoon, from mid-September to mid-December. Heavy rains can be a problem then. The temperature decreases to an average of 24 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit) during winter, from November to February, but doesn't drop below 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit).
  • Language: Tamil and English.
  • Currency: Indian rupee.
  • Time Zone: UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) +5.5 hours, also known as Indian Standard Time. Chennai does not have daylight saving time.
  • Getting Around: App-based cabs such as Uber and Ola are the most convenient way of getting around. Auto rickshaws are plentiful but fares are relatively expensive and rarely charged as per the meter. Foreigners are usually quoted excessively high rates (often more than double) and should be prepared to negotiate hard before the journey. Buses are cheap, albeit chaotic, and cover most of the city. There's the newly-operational Metro rail network as well.
  • Travel Tip: Chennai experiences high humidity throughout the year, so pack breathable cotton clothes.
Chennai Central railway station.
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Getting There

Chennai is situated on the east coast of India. Chennai International Airport is conveniently only 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of the city center. It's well connected in terms of transport. Chennai Central railway station and Egmore railway station receive long distance trains from all over India.

Things to Do

Unlike some other cities in India, Chennai doesn't have any world-famous monuments or tourist attractions. It's a city that requires time and effort to really get to know and appreciate it. These top places to Visit in Chennai will give you a feel for the city's distinctive culture and what makes it special. Storytrails conducts very interesting immersive tours. The five-week Madras Music Season in December and January is a big cultural draw. The annual Mylapore Festival is held in early January, just before the Pongal festival in mid-January. However, Chennai lacks the cosmopolitan nightlife of other Indian cities.

There are plenty of places to visit near Chennai. The tourist circuit of Chennai, Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram is often referred to as Tamil Nadu's Golden Triangle.

In addition, there are two amusement parks a short distance from the city -- the amusement park at VGP Universal Kingdom, and MGM Dizzy World.

What to Eat and Drink

The South Indian cuisine in Chennai features staples such as idli and sambar, vada and sambar, masala dosa, and filter coffee. Being a coastal city, fish curry is ubiquitous. Head to the snack stalls on Marina beach for sundal (chickpeas). Most importantly, try a South Indian thali (platter), which comes with an assortment of dishes and is a meal in itself. Ponnusamy Hotel on Jaganathan Road in Nungambakkam is famous for its humongous Baahubali Thali with 50 items! It's too big for one person to eat alone. The Marina, on College Road in Nungambakkam, is renowned for its fresh seafood and is environmentally-conscious. Thaligai Restaurant in Mylapore serves authentic vegetarian fare, featuring specialty heirloom dishes that aren't available elsewhere. Try the inexpensive messes (informal restaurants) in Mylapore for great south Indian food as well -- Karpagambal Mess, Rayar Mess, and Mami Mess are recommended. Hotel Saravana Bhavan is a popular vegetarian restaurant chain, with a branch near Egmore Station. Murugan Idli Shop is also legendary. Go to Paati Veedu in T. Nagar for traditional South Indian cuisine with a twist.

To learn more about the local cuisine in Chennai, take this food walk through Adyar.

Where to Stay

Luxury hotels in Chennai are generally less expensive than in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. Mid-range hotels also provide great value for money. In terms of location, Mylapore is one of the best neighborhoods for tourists, as it's full of history and culture. Savera Hotel is a popular choice there.

Chennai cityscape.
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Culture and Customs

Chennai was originally a cluster of small villages until English merchants of the British East India Company selected it as the site for a factory and trading port in 1639. The British developed it as a major urban center and naval base, and by the 20th Century, the city had become an administration hub. In recent years, Chennai has achieved booming industrial growth across a range of sectors, encouraged by the city's favorable infrastructure and availability of space.

As Chennai is one of the most conservative major cities in India, it's important to dress in a manner that respects this. Revealing or tight-fitting clothes, both on men and women, should be avoided even at the beach. Lightweight clothes that cover the arms and legs are best.

Chennai is a relatively safe destination that experiences less crime than most other major Indian cities. The main problems are pick-pocketing and begging. Beggars specifically target foreigners and can be quite aggressive. Avoid giving any money because it will only attract them in swarms. The unruly traffic in Chennai is another problem to be aware of. Drivers often drive in an undisciplined manner, so extra care should be taken when crossing the road.