11 Top Things to Do in Madurai

Madurai banana market

TripSavvy / Sharell Cook

Madurai is the third-largest city in Tamil Nadu and one of the state's top tourist destinations. Its history can be traced as far back as the fourth century BC when Greek ethnographer Megasthenes visited and wrote about it. The city's role in the spice trade with the Mediterranean led it to have cosmopolitan connections and a cultured lifestyle. Madurai also hosted gatherings of Tamil writers and poets during the ancient Sangam era and has remained a major center for Tamil culture and learning.

Many of the city's magnificent temples and buildings were constructed during the prosperous rule of the Nayak dynasty in the 17th century. Over time, Madurai came to be called the "Athens of the East" because of its similar architectural style, particularly the pedestrian walkways and the lofty towers of its Meenakshi Temple that could be seen from anywhere in the city (similar to the Greek Parthenon). These days, Madurai attracts pilgrims and tourists in equal numbers.

01 of 11

Explore Madurai on a Walking Tour

Tour group in Madurai

Storytrails

Madurai is a city with centuries of history and countless parts to discover. It's exciting to explore on your own, but starting your trip with a professional guide is the best way to get your bearings and learn all about Madurai. Two companies that employ local guides for a truly immersive experience include Madurai Inhabitants and Storytrails. You can choose a tour of a specific attraction like the main temple or something more general, such as a food tour, markets tour, or cultural tour. The knowledgeable guides come from Madurai and love to share about their city.

02 of 11

Kutladampatti Falls

Kutladampatti Falls

PRABUSGnaz / Wikimedia Commons

Address
Madurai Kutralam, Water Falls Rd, Sirumalai R.F., Tamil Nadu 625501, India
Phone +91 452 253 6279

An easy day trip from Madurai is the spectacular Kutladampatti Falls, which are about an hour outside of the city center. They are especially impressive during the monsoon season, which lasts from June to September and is the best time to visit. You can drive, catch a bus, or take a taxi to Kutladampatti, and it's just a 20-minute hike from the parking area to the waterfall. Visitors aren't supposed to bring food to the falls, which helps to keep the area clean of litter. Definitely bring a swimsuit along so you can swim in the natural pool underneath the falls.

03 of 11

Explore Meenakshi Temple

Sri Meenakshi temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Tuul / robertharding / Getty Images

Address
Madurai Main, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625001, India
Phone +91 452 234 4360

The 17th-century Meenakshi Temple is a must-see South Indian temple and the focal point of Madurai. Apparently, the city was built around the Shiva lingam that's inside the temple's inner sanctum. The temple complex covers an extensive 15 acres, including the Hall of a Thousand Pillars and 14 towers that can be seen from across the city. You could easily spend days in there as it's a "living temple" with a lot going on (including a constant stream of couples waiting to be married in its corridors). It's worth going to the temple once in the morning and again in the evening for the night ceremony.

04 of 11

Go Shopping at Puthu Mandapam

Tailor at work at market in Puthu Mandapam.

Richard I'Anson / Getty Images

Address
W4CC+2CV, Madurai Main, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625001, India

Opposite Meenakshi Temple's east tower is the cavernous 17th-century pillared entrance hall, Puthu Mandapam. Venture inside to find rows of tailors and stalls selling fabric, scarves, jewelry, fashion accessories, handicrafts, and artwork. You can get good-quality clothes made there including decent replicas of temple garb.

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05 of 11

Admire Thirumalai Nayak Palace

Tirumalai Nayak Palace

TripSavvy / Sharell Cook

Address
Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace, Panthadi 1st St, Mahal Area, Madurai Main, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625001, India

Southeast of Meenakshi Temple, Thirumalai Nayak Palace is Madurai's second-biggest attraction. King Thirumalai Nayak built it as his residential palace in 1636 with the input of an Italian architect and it's a classic fusion of Dravidian and Islamic styles. The palace's distinguishing feature is its pillars and there are more than 240 of them. Sadly, only a quarter of the original structure is intact. This consists of the entrance hall, courtyard, dance hall, and audience hall. The palace was even used as a district court during the rule of the British and continued as such until 1970. There's a sound and light show every evening that tells the ancient Tamil love story Silappathikaram, which can be seen in Tamil or in English.

06 of 11

Pray at Saint Mary's Cathedral

St Mary's Cathedral

TripSavvy / Sharell Cook

Address
E Veli St, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625001, India

Saint Mary's Cathedral is only five minutes walk from Thirumalai Nayak Palace, on East Veli Street in Madurai. Officially called the Church of Our Lady of Dolours, it was constructed in 1841 by the New Madurai Mission (a Jesuit mission originating from Portuguese colonization of Goa) and modeled on Saint Mary's Cathedral of Trichy in Tamil Nadu. The church was later expanded, in its present Gothic style, and completed in 1916. Its elegant architecture features two tall bell towers and beautiful stained-glass work.

07 of 11

Marvel Over the Banana Market

Madurai banana market.

Bennett Dean / Eye Ubiquitous / Getty Images

Address
PeriyaKulam, Tirupathur, Tamil Nadu 635601, India

Madurai's wholesale banana market is a fascinating place to visit. Apparently, 16 varieties of bananas are sold there! They arrive, clustered together on branches, by the cart load. Watch as wiry workers unload them and carry them inside, up to half a dozen branches at a time. There's a vegetable market next to the banana market, which is also a hive of activity and great for people watching.

08 of 11

Feast on South Indian Food

Murugan Idli Shop

TripSavvy / Sharell Cook

Address
MBT Rd, Kaveripakkam, Tamil Nadu 632508, India
Phone +91 4177 290 500

If you want to taste the best South Indian food in town, renowned Murugan Idli Shop on West Masi Street is the place! This restaurant is simple and unpretentious. with a focus on food rather than decor. Apart from idli and dosa, the highlight is their special blend of spicy chutney powder. It's ordered separately, along with oil to mix it with.

If you're keen to explore local cuisine, Foodies Day Out in Madurai does the best food tours in the city!

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09 of 11

Learn About the Life of Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi museum Madurai

Rakesh Soni / Getty Images

Address
Collector Office Rd, Tamukkam, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625020, India
Phone +91 452 253 1060

Across the dry Vaigai River, housed in the Tamukkam Summer Palace of Nayak queen Rani Mangammal, is one of many museums in India dedicated to Gandhi. It contains various items used by him including a shawl, spectacles, yarn, and the bloodstained dhoti (loincloth) that he was wearing when he was assassinated in Delhi in 1948. Gandhi took up wearing the dhoti in Madurai in 1921, as a sign of national pride. Admission to the Gandhi Memorial Museum is free, and it's open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5.45 p.m. The Madurai Government Museum is also located in the same grounds.

10 of 11

Visit One of the Abodes of Lord Murugan

Thiruparankundram temple of kartikeya or murugan, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Dinodia Photo / Getty Images

Address
Thiruparankundram, Tamil Nadu, India

If you have time, head out to Thiruparankundram, about 20 minutes southwest of Madurai. There you'll find one of the city's other impressive ancient temples, the Arulmigu Subramaniya Swamy temple, dedicated to Hindu god Murugan (handsome son of Lord Shiva). He's revered as a favorite god of Tamils. At the top of Thiruparankundram hill is a 14th century grave shrine of the Islamic saint Hazrat Sultan Sikandhar Badhusha. Time seems to have stood still there, and a single family has taken care of the shrine generation after generation.

11 of 11

See Artisans at Work at Vilachery Pottery Village

Kolu doll.

Paddy Photography / Getty Images

Address
Vilacheri, Tamil Nadu, India

On the outskirts of Madurai near Thiruparankundram, about 200 families in the interesting village of Vilachery craft small idols of Lord Ganesh for Ganesh Chaturthi and Bommai Kolu dolls for Navaratri out of clay. They also make nativity sets for Christmas. It's possible to take a walk through the village and see the artisans at work in their homes. Storytrails runs an insightful Potter's Trail tour to the village, where you'll get to uncover many stories and legends.

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11 Top Things to Do in Madurai