The Chennai Rundown
The frenetic and colossal capital of the state of Tamil Nadu is the fourth most populous city in India, with well over 4.5 million inhabitants. The big picture, however, is that the metropolis of Chennai (Madras) throbs with a population of more than 7 million people and, all told, covers almost 1,200 km². The core of the city is curiously chaotic and has a population density that outranks even Mumbai by a prodigious 7,000 people per square km. Chennai, then, as a busy economic dynamo chockablock with commerce, industry and people, is a meaty endeavour to undertake as a visitor to India.
What indubitably rises to the surface in the city once known as Madras, however, is remarkably rich Tamil culture, grand colonial and Dravidian landmarks and a dynamic Bollywood film industry. Home to stars of the silver screen and cricket oval, captains of industry, high-tech entrepreneurs, powerful politicians and influential academics, Chennai is a poster child for the New India. For travellers to Tamil Nadu, the state capital should embody much more than a mere platform to the coast and popular southern enclaves of the country.
Chennai’s Top 10
10. Ripon Building is the headquarters of the oldest municipal Commonwealth body outside of the United Kingdom and a masterpiece of Indo-Saracenic architecture.
5. St. George’s Cathedral is a significant relic of the colonial past that dates back to 1815.
9. Vivekanandar Illam is a museum cum cultural centre dedicated to the late 19th Century Vedanta and Yoga missionary Swami Vivekananda.
4. M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is one of the most impressive cricket grounds in the world.
8. St. Mary’s Church at Fort St. George is one of the oldest Anglican churches outside of England.
3. San Thome Basilica was first built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and rebuilt by the British more than 250 years later.
7. Birla Planetarium is an eminently historic spot for star gazers.
2. Guindy National Park is tiny in comparison to other nature reserves in India but is worth a trip. The park is contiguous with the oldest zoo in India in Arignar Anna Zoological Park.
6. National Art Gallery of Tamil Nadu unfurls a stellar collection of Indian art.
1. Kapaleeshwarar Temple is a Dravidian magnum opus that dates back to the 7th century.
Chennai (Madras) History
- Kancheepuran – This small town is known as one of the Hindu’s seven sacred cities.
- Santhome Cathedral – This basilica honours Saint Thomas and has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since it was built by the Portuguese in the 1300s.
- St Mary’s Church – One of the oldest surviving churches of those built by the British.
- Big Mosque – A historical landmark with incredible symmetry and an amazing structure.
- Parthasarathy Temple – Known as the oldest temple in Chennai.
Chennai (Madras) Art & Culture
- Government Museum – This museum includes six buildings, 46 galleries and sections for archaeology, zoology, botany and geology.
- National Art Gallery – Wonderful red sandstone building that is decorated with motifs and impressions of Mughal architecture.
- Parry’s Corner – Located in Chennai’s oldest business district and has wonderfully preserved art deco architecture.
- VDS Arts Academy – Offers music and Bharatanatyam dance concerts.
- Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall – Features international and Indian music.
Chennai (Madras) Shopping
- Mylapore Tank – A great place to find knick-knacks.
- The Spencers Plaza – Located on Mount Road and has more than 400 shops, with everything from accessories to clothing to tech gadgets.
- The Abirami Mall – Known for brand name clothes, jewellery and shoes.
- Express Avenue Mall – The newest mall in Chennai and the largest in southern India.
- Chennai City Centre – Notable for its neo-classical structure and a warm atmosphere.
Gay & Lesbian Chennai (Madras)
- Chennai Dost – A pub that organizes meetings, parties, film screenings and the Pride Parade.
- Diesel T Nagar – A cool pub that is open on Wednesdays.
- Besant Nagar Beach – A great cruising spot in Chennai.
- Diesel Nungambakkam – A newly opened joint.
- Men’s Community Development Society – The first gay club in India.
Chennai (Madras) Outdoor
- Marina Beach –While this beach is not for swimming, it is the second-longest beach in the world and a lovely place to walk along the shore or play sports.
- Guindy National Park – Home to varieties of trees, shrubs and woodland mammals.
- Besant Nagar Beach – A lovely beach and relaxing spot for people to hang out at night.
- Guindy Snake Park – Has more than 30 different types of Indian snakes and a variety of lizards, crocodiles and turtles.
- Crocodile Bank – A nature and wildlife area with a small park.
Chennai (Madras) Sport
- The most popular sport in Chennai is cricket, the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium is where you can go to watch games.
- The Chennai Veerans is the premier hockey team and plays at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium.
- Tennis is also a popular sport, and the ATP Tennis Championships are held in the SDAT Tennis Stadium every January.
- Check out the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium for soccer games and other sports.
- The Irungattikottai Sriperumbudur track hosts car races through the year.
Chennai (Madras) is a major metropolis and state capital that teems with over 4.6 million people. Although the core area of interest for tourists is relatively compact, it pays to run down several districts of note.
The south suburb of Alandur contains several temples of note, from Sri Veera Anjaneya to Sri Subramanya Swamy Koil.
Alwarpet is a relatively affluent residential area with numerous hotels and restaurants.
Anna Nagar is home to some of the most expensive real estate in Chennai. A commercial and residential precinct fast on the rise, with a conspicuous central landmark in Visveswaraya Tower.
Besant Nagar is home to leafy boulevards, notable temples and Elliot’s Beach.
Chepauk district contains massive M. A. Chidambaram Stadium, which holds over 75,000 cricket fans on ODI and Indian Premier League match days. The foremost area of Chennai is also home to Chepauk Palace and the University of Madras.
Egmore is home to the historic Spencer Plaza department store, prominent Chennai Egmore railway station, Connemara Public Library, Government Museum and St. Andrew’s Church.
Fort St. George, or White Town, marks the site of the first British military outpost in India. Built in the early 17th Century, the fortress area is home to the state assembly of Tamil Nadu.
George Town, or Black Town, was where colonial Madras took shape after the construction of the citadel by the British.
Guindy is the eponymous home of Guindy National Park, in addition to Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Tamil Nadu.
Kodambakkam is a major hub of Kollywood, the Tamil film industry, and overflows with many homes of the stars.
Kovalam is a major beach destination in Tamil Nadu and some 25 km from Chennai.
Koyambedu is home to the massive Koyambedu Wholesale Market Complex.
Mount Road, or Anna Salai, is a major commercial thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of Chennai. Home to many fine hotels, shops and landmarks like Semmozhi Poonga park and St. Thomas Mount.
Mylapore is a premier Chennai cultural hub, most notably as the home of Kapaleeswarar Temple, Parthasarathy Swami Sabha and Madras Music Academy.
Nungambakkam is a wealthy residential, commercial and consulate zone.
Theagaraya Nagar is a central pulse point that lures well over half a million people to Pondy Bazaar every weekend.
Chennai Eat & Drink
As a nexus point for Tamil culture, Chennai has a host of restaurants that evince the very best of the state. Plenty of others, meanwhile, cover a rich breadth of culinary ground from all over India, Asia and the world.
Zara’s (74 Cathedral Road, Teynampet) is a lovely clandestine tapas bar with sweet digs and a lively atmosphere.
Coconut Lagoon (Cathedral & TTK Roads, Alwarpet) gives diners a taste of west coast Indian cuisine.
Amaravathi (Cathedral & TTK Roads, Mylapore) serves earthy, banana leaf fare to a happy trickle of regular clients.
Amethyst (14 Padmavathi Road) is a posh jewel on the Chennai restaurant scene and a requisite must for afternoon garden tea.
Benjarong (537 TTK Road, Alwarpet) is a lush, upscale Thai restaurant with superb service and décor.
Kitchen K (10 Montieth, Egmore) whips up rich dishes from the northern Indian school of cuisine.
(24 Gandhi Nagar 2nd Main Road, Adyar) provides the best sugar rush in Chennai.
Gyan Vaishnava Punjabi Dhaba (260 Anna Salai Thousand Lights) is the best vegetarian restaurant in Chennai.
Annapurna (23 Pantheon Road) is far from flashy but doles out stellar Bengali classics nonetheless.
Copper Chimney (74 Cathedral Road, Teynampet), on the other hand, is for carnivores who adore tandoori.
Chennai is a decent festival city where the usual colourful mix of Indian holidays and cultural celebrations dot the annual events calendar.
Chennai Sangamam is described by organisers as “India’s biggest city-wide festival”. Whatever the case, the five-day folk medley of art, music, dance, and food is a good reason to visit in January.
Chennai Superstars is one of only nine teams in the Indian Cricket League and play out of Mayajaal Cricket Ground. The Superstars are named after Rajinikanth, a foremost cultural icon of Tamil cinema.
The hot cricket ticket in the city, however, is for the Chennai Super Kings, the most successful franchise in the Indian Premier League.
Chennai Tennis Open is an important stop on the ATP tour that draws some of the best players on the men’s side of the game in early January, such as hometown favourite and doubles master Mahesh Bhupathi.
Arubathimoovar Festival is a sacred Hindu festival that takes place in March/April at the Kapaliswar Temple in Mylapore.
Thaipusam is a vital Hindu and Tamil full moon festival in January/February with a number of devotional rituals and processions at temples in Chennai and all over Tamil Nadu.
When To Go
Chennai’s position on the planet’s thermal equator is a telltale signal that the city confronts some vicious heat and humidity. Indeed, the mercury seldom dips below 68°F (20°C) in the Tamil Nadu capital and soars above 95°F (35°C) between May and July. The humidity, however, defines the daily grind in Chennai and can wreak havoc on even a simple stroll under the persistent sun.
A tropical wet and dry climate showers the city with consistent rainfall in the months of October and November. The two months feature almost half the annual average precipitation in Chennai but, in truth, the wet season covers July to December. While there is no real escape from the swelter of the city, January and February, with temperatures between 70°F (21°C) and 86°F (30°C) remain the most painless options.
What To Miss
Traffic, auto-rickshaw and taxi meter scams, touts and less than desirable, slummy ‘hoods all contend for top spot on the “what to miss” list in Chennai. The first, vehicular chaos, is unfortunately impossible to bypass in urban India and very much part and parcel in the capital of Tamil Nadu. Consider it all part of the experience and be patient - after all, you may be stuck in that car/bus/auto-rickshaw for quite some time.
Auto-rickshaw drivers, ever-notorious, will take liberty on occasion to demand exorbitant fares from patent non-natives. Negotiate politely and without malice or discernible rudeness in order to avoid a subsequent wild goose chase. If the driver is unreasonable, walk away. While auto-rickshaws do fine for a short trip in the city, most medium and long-term visitors simply hire a car and driver and pay one flat rate for the service.
Chennai is not altogether devoid of tenacious street entrepreneurs either. Freelance tour guides probably win the nuisance title, although a parade of plucky peddlers seem to lurk around every corner in the busy urban core of the metropolis. Just be firm and stubbornly on your way. Lastly and obviously, keep your wits and a decent map about you at all times.
Chennai (Madras) International Airport is the chief domestic and international gateway in the state of Tamil Nadu. The airport ranks third in all of India in passenger movements, a stat which may well change when it doubles in capacity, incredibly, after a prolific spate of terminal expansions in 2012. Important destinations on the Chennai International roster include London-Heathrow, Abu Dhabi, Bangkok-Suvarnabhumi, Brussels, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. From the airport, the vast majority of visitors rely on pre-paid taxis to navigate the 7 km to the big city.
Trains and buses ferry ample travellers to Chennai from a slew of usual suspects like Bengaluru (Bangalore), Hyderabad, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. As a gateway to South India and the rest of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is also a major stop on the way to Coimbatore, Tirupati, Pondicherry and Thiruvananthapuram.
Congestion in Chennai is infamous, even for India, and a bit of a shock to the system. For long stays, common sense prescribes car and driver hire. Do so, however, with a reputable travel agent or hotel, not only to minimise cost but to secure the services of a reliable coachman.
The Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) is serviceable. Close to 80,000 daily passengers use the network for travel between Chennai Beach and Vellachery. A suburban commuter rail system also operates at full capacity in the metropolis, with 6 lines and close to 900 km of track. State government-run buses in Chennai also provide a modicum of dependable, cheap transport, above and beyond the typical mix of auto-rickshaws and taxi cabs.
The capital of the state of Tamil Nadu ranks fourth in city population in India, with well over 4 million inhabitants. All told however, the metro population of Chennai has more than twice that many people and as a result, is among the most important economic hubs in the country. For visitors though, what surfaces in the city once known as Madras is superlative and rich Tamil culture. From a dynamic theater scene and film industry to the phenomenal Madras Music Season every December and January, Chennai is a lively city.
It has been this way in Chennai for over two thousand years, which is about how long the city has been a major administrative capital in India. Visitors never need to travel far in Chennai to experience heritage landmarks and architecture, from Kapaleeshwarar Temple to the colonial-era San Thome Basilica. Chettinad Palace is just outside the city but the exceptional limestone and marble complex is well worth a visit.
Attractions & Activities
- Kapaleeshwarar Temple
- Guindy National Park
- San Thome Basilica
- St. George's Cathedral
- Chettinad Palace
- Chennai Sangamam
- Chennai Superstars Cricket
- Chennai Tennis Open
- Arubathimoovar Festival
- Kavadi Festival
Restaurants & Nightlife
- Murugan Idly Kadai
- The Leather Bar
- Bike and Barrel
Chennai, like the rest of Tamil Nadu, has a tropical climate, with hot, humid weather throughout the year. The rainy season is between June and September and average temperatures waver between 22°C and 34°C.
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