19 Top Tourist Destinations in Tamil Nadu

The Big Temple, Tanjore
Sharell Cook

Tamil Nadu, with its distinctive ancient Dravidian culture, is a fascinating part of South India. The state draws both tourists and pilgrims alike to its towering, intricately built temples. Beaches and hill stations are popular destinations as well. Due to its culture, Tamil Nadu is a particularly hassle-free destination to visit, especially for women. Enjoy these top tourist places in Tamil Nadu.

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Chennai cityscape.

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Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, is known as the Gateway to South India. It's a sprawling and busy, yet conservative, city with deep traditions that are yet to give way to the growing foreign influence there. Unlike some other Indian cities, Chennai doesn't have world famous monuments or tourist attractions. Yet, if you take your time to explore below its surface and delve into its distinctive culture, you'll grow to appreciate it. These places to visit in Chennai will give you a feel for the city and what makes it special.

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Mahabalipuram Beach

Mahabalipuram Beach
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Around an hour south of Chennai, you'll find one of the top beaches on India's east coast—Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram). The beach has a thriving backpacker and surfing scene but is also popular with tourists who come to relax at the resorts there. It's known for its stone sculpture industry, and is a great place to shop for these items and see artisans at work. Other attractions are the Shore Temple, Five Rathas (sculptured temples in the shape of chariots), and Arjuna's Penance (a huge carving on the face of a rock depicting scenes from The Mahabharata).

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Temples at Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
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Popularly known as a "City of a Thousand Temples", Kanchipuram is not just famous for its distinctive silk saris. Located about two hours from Chennai, on the main road to Bangalore, it was once the capital of the Pallava dynasty. Today, only 100 or so temples remain, many of them with unique architectural beauty. The diversity of temples is particularly noteworthy. There are both Shiva and Vishnu temples, built by various rulers (the Cholas, Vijayanagar kings, Muslims and British also ruled this part of Tamil Nadu) who each refined the design.

Kanchipuram, Mamallapuram, and Chennai are often referred to as Tamil Nadu's Golden Triangle for tourists. It's one of the best places to visit near Chennai.

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Pondicherry street scene.
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Pondicherry, a separate union territory on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, is not really a place you'd expect to find in India. It was a former 18th century French colony and still retains a distinctly French flavor. Those who feel in need of a break from India will enjoy the taste of French culture there and the relaxed atmosphere. Sri Aurobindo Ashram attracts plenty of spiritual seekers. The French Quarter and the Promenade, bordered by the Bay of Bengal, are the most happening parts of the city. Auroville is a popular day trip.

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Sri Meenakshi temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

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Ancient Madurai in Tamil Nadu is home to the most impressive and important temple in south India --the Meenakshi Temple. If you only see one south Indian temple, the Meenakshi Temple should be it. The city of Madurai is more than 4,000 years old and has remained a major center of Tamil culture and learning. During the heyday of its history, when the Nayak dynasty ruled, many magnificent temples and buildings with superb architecture were constructed. The 12-day Chithirai Festival, featuring a re-enacted celestial wedding of God and Goddess, is held in Madurai during April each year.

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Thanjavur (Tanjore)

Big Temple, Tanjore.
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Thanjavur is best known for its astonishing Brihadeshwara Temple (known as the Big Temple), a UNESCO World Heritage Site made out of granite by Chola king Raja Raja I in the 11th century. It's an engineering marvel. However, the town is also a distinguished hub of arts and crafts in South India. Its various rulers -- from the Cholas in the 9th century to the Bhonsles in the 19th century -- all shared a common interest in patronage of the arts and crafts. Thanjavur continues to nourish artisans and performers.

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Kumbakonam and Gangaikonda Cholapuram

Huge Nandi bull at the entrance, Brihadisvara Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, Tamil Nadu

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Interested in seeing more superb temples from the Chola era? Kumbakonam and Gangaikonda Cholapuram, northeast of Thanjavur, have two Great Living Chola Temples that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage listing too. The royal temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram was built not long after
Thanjavur's Big Temple in the 11th century, when Rajendra Chola I relocated the Chola capital there in celebration of victory. Its design is similar to the Big Temple in Thanjavur but on a lesser scale, and it features an enormous stone Nandi (bull). The captivating 12th century Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram, near Kumbakonam, is covered in magnificent detailed sculptures. Kumbakonam abounds with temples too. Stop by the temple town of Swamimalai on the way to Kumbakonam to meet artisans who make bronze idols of gods and goddesses.

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A Chettinad mansion
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Famous for its old mansions (some of which are open to the public) and fiery meat curries, Tamil Nadu's Chettinad region is located about two hours from Madurai and Thanjavur. It can be explored on a day trip. Or, have a heritage stay at a mansion that's been converted into a hotel! The Bangala is a stately homestead located in Karaikudi, in the heart of Chettinad. The food is a highlight; seven courses are served on a banana leaf. Cooking classes and special packages for the exploration of local cuisine are also offered.

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Tranquebar (Tharangambadi)

Fishing boat in Tranquebar

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Continue about two hours east of Kumbakonam to the Coromandel Coast and you'll come acroos the small town of Tranquebar, which was the first Danish trading post in India established in 1620. There you can see the remains of a 17th century fort, museum, and old church. The Bungalow on the Beach is an 18th century Danish colonial house that once belonged to the Governor of Danish India and has now been turned into a heritage hotel.

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Exploring the Pichavaram mangrove forest by paddle boat.
Sharell Cook.

Pichavaram mangrove forest is one of the world's largest mangrove jungles (along with the Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal and Bhitarkanika in Odisha). Yet, not a lot of tourists know about it. The mangrove forest is spread over 1,100 hectares and joins the Bay of Bengal, where it's separated by a lengthy sand bank. Apparently, there are more than 50 islands of various sizes, and 4,400 big and small canals! A boat will take you to explore them. Pichavaram is located about 30 minutes from the temple town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, which is a bit over an hour north of Tranquebar and worth visiting too. It has a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in his dancing form of Nataraj and special fire ceremonies.

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Many people say that Tiruvannamalai, and in particular Mount Arunachala, has a very special spiritual energy. The holy mountain has been called the most silent place on earth, as it has the ability to quieten the mind. It's considered by Hindus to be the embodiment of Lord Shiva. Tiruvannamalai attracts both pilgrims and spiritual seekers to its Arunachaleswar Temple and Sri Ramana Ashram. The crowd swells on full moon nights and during the Karthigai Deepam festival in November when pilgrims walk around the holy mountain.

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Kanyakumari sits on the furthermost tip of India, where the Bay of Bengal merges with the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It attracts a lot of pilgrims as it's regarded as the abode of virgin Goddess Kanya Kumari, an incarnation of Goddess Parvati (the divine Mother Goddess). Goddess Kanya Kumari is believed to have done penance there to get Lord Shiva to marry her. The distinguishing feature of this spiritual town is the Swami Vivekananda Memorial and towering statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, located on a rocky island off the shore. The Swami meditated there in 1892, before setting out on his religious crusade. In addition, Kanyakumari is one of the best places to see the southwest monsoon arrive in India, in late May each year.

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Sharell Cook

Rameshwaram is a peaceful little pilgrim town, brought to life by the constant stream of people that come to bathe in its holy water, get a puja done to purify their karma ​and visit Ramanathaswamy Temple. The approach to Rameshwaram is dramatic, with two long bridges (one for trains and one for other vehicles) linking it to the mainland. Not far from Rameshwaram, the crumbled, windswept remnants of Dhanuskodi, a town destroyed by a cyclone in 1964, are eerie in their isolation. Adam's Bridge is about as remote as you can get. This chain of reefs and sandbanks almost connects India with Sri Lanka, which is only about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away.

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Boats on Ooty Lake
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Ooty was established in the early 19th century by the British as the summer headquarters of the Chennai government. It's a sought-after place to escape the summer heat. If you travel there during the peak season in April and May, do be prepared for it to be crowded though! Ooty's main attractions include the 22 hectare Government Botanical Gardens (a flower show is held there every May as part of the Summer Festival), boating on Ooty Lake, and climbing Dodabetta Peak for an excellent view of the Nilgiri hills. To get to Ooty, take the scenic Nilgiri mountain railway toy train from Metupalaiyam.

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Vintage steam locomotive at Coonoor station, Tamil Nadu, India

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Downhill from Ooty, Coonoor is where the world-class Nilgiri tea originated. The town is beginning to realize its potential as a tourist destination but remains a refreshingly quieter option than Ooty. Many of the things to do there revolve around tea. Upper Coonoor is an enjoyable neighborhood to stroll around, plus there are viewpoints and trekking spots in the area. One trail leads to the ruins of 18th century Droog Fort, used by Tipu Sultan.

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The British created Kodaikanal as an alternative to Ooty. The town is nestled into the densely forested Western Ghat mountains northwest of Madurai. While it's not as developed as Ooty and retains some old-world charm, it still attracts a lot of Indian tourists during summer. Walking, trekking, boat rides and horse rides are popular activities. For peace and quiet, ideally stay out of town at a property such as Lilly's Valley Resort with its own nature trail.

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Mudumalai National Park

Group of axis deer, chitals -Axis axis-, Mudumalai National Park, Tamil Nadu

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One of the top national parks in India, Mudumalai isn't far from Ooty in the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu on the border of Kerala and Karnataka. It's reportedly home to over 260 species of birds (including peacocks), as well as elephants, tigers, deer, monkeys, wild boar, bison, and leopards. Tree house accommodations are a popular feature at many of the properties around Mudumalai.

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One of the best places to visit off the beaten track in India, Pollachi is a relatively unexplored destination that will delight nature and wildlife lovers. It's close to the Anamali Hills and the Kerala border. The Papyrus Itineraries offers immersive trips including bird watching, nature walks, boat rides, village and farm visits, handicrafts, and tea tours. Grass Hills Tours and Travels is also a reputable company that specializes in local nature and wildlife tourism. Try to catch the annual Kongu Nadu Cattle Festival, held in January. Stay at Coco Lagoon Resort, or the cheaper Coconut County Farm Stay.

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Overview of the Trichy city from Rockfort Temple, Tamil Nadu

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Tiruchirappalli (commonly called Trichy) is among the oldest inhabited cities in Tamil Nadu. Its ancient and diverse history can be traced as far back as the Early Chola Dynasty in the 3rd century BC. The city has had about 10 different rulers who have left their mark on it, including the British. However, it really flourished in the 16th century, when it was part of the Madurai Nayak kingdom. The eclectic attractions include an old fort, temples, churches, and markets.