Where is Chennai (formerly known as Madras) ? I used get that question a lot, when someone asks me where I am from and I respond, I am from Chennai. Now a days, the question has changed to what are the best places to visit Chennai or Madras.
It’s a city west of Bangalore, really close to Sri Lanka, etc., are the answers I used to give until recently. But, now that Chennai is actually on the tourist map, I excited to pen this detailed article to get you acquainted with Chennai, that is located at the East Coast of Southern India. Chennai(Madras) is the capital city of State of Tamil Nadu.
So, what are the best places to visit in Chennai ? Cultural immersion through ancient temples and churches, thousands of vegetarian dishes, world class surfing beaches, hundreds of art lessons, relaxing beach resorts with a touch of over 1000s of years of history are what it takes to visit the best places in Chennai.
Read on to dive deep into this city that will dazzle you if you can exhibit a bit of patience, when it comes to navigating through the hustle and bustle of one of the most populated cities in India.
How to Get to Chennai ?
First order of business, let’s get to Chennai.
- Fly into Chennai. Several international flights from all over the world weave their way through the Chennai air ways. To find the best flight to Chennai, I recommend using Skyscanner, that I still rely on to find the best flights.
- If you are already in India and in one of the southern states like Karnataka or Kerala, there are several nightly buses to Chennai. Basic google search should give plenty of options from your origin city.
- Rental Car – Is an option, but I HIGHLY recommend that you DON’T drive in the city, especially if you are coming from outside India and not used to Indian traffic system. Just ignore this option and move on.
- Train. One of the most high demand transportation in India. It can be hard to get trains during weekends and holidays. But, if you travel at non-peak hours or weekdays, it’s possible to get the ticket. I advice booking as early as possible. Train ride in India is very rewarding, experience wise. I usually prefer day trains so I can actually see the country side. Do yourself a favor and book in 1st or 2nd A/C cars. Worse case 3rd A/C. Regular sleeper class tend to be not tourist friendly.
How to Get Around in Chennai ?
Now that you are in Chennai, as a tourist, I recommend the ways where you don’t have to deal with someone trying to rip you off.
- Uber or Ola Cabs or Autos (My preferred hassle free method)
- Public buses
- Electric Trains and Metro Trains
- Your two foot.
When it comes to public buses, there are couple of challenges:
- You have to find the right bus number that would take you to your destination. Most bus name boards are in Tamil (local language) and it can be confusing and hard to find the right bus numbers.
- We are talking about city buses that come with threats such as pick-packets, theft and sometimes even being groped.
I do like the local trains in Chennai. They tend to easier to navigate, especially to get in and out of the airport and to reach Marina beach etc., Only advice here is to avoid peak-hours. Otherwise, I highly recommend trains if you do want to take public transportation.
Here is a link to the Chennai Metro Rail Map.
Chennai Metro Rail is different from Electric Trains. They have different stations and serve mostly different parts of the city. Both are pretty good in terms of speed and efficiency. However, as a general thumb of rule, in both the trains watch out for your belongings and yourself.
They are perfectly fine options. But, you are 120% guaranteed to be ripped off when it comes to cost. To avoid the hassle just book the Ola or Uber Autos.
Walking Around in the City:
It’s perfectly a common way to commute in the city. You will never ever be alone walking on the streets. Only thing I recommend is to have your phone gps/map on you can track your way.
- India sim card for foreigners
It’s really complicated to get India sim card for foreigners, but it’s possible. Here are the ways to go about it:
- If you have a local you know, either a friend, a tour operator etc., ask them to help you get a SIM card. It’s almost instantaneous for locals.
- If you don’t anyone who can help you, consider an option like Trabug. I don’t have any personal experience with Trabug but I have read reviews on Tripadvisor and their service seems legitimate and effective.
- Most restaurants accept credit cards. However, you will find yourself reaching for cash pretty much every day. And these days, there will be an ATM in every main street. A good data service will help you find the nearest ATM.
- So, I recommend a combination of both cash and Credit card to get around.
Places to Visit When in Chennai
I have decided to group them because there are really a lot of things to do and see in Chennai.
- Temples and Churches
- Shopping in Chennai
- Historical Buildings in Chennai
- Parks & Nature in Chennai
- Theme Parks in Chennai
- Markets in Chennai
Best Beaches in Chennai to Visit
As I mentioned earlier, Chennai is on the East coast of Indian Ocean. So, there are beaches and a lot of them. But, there are things one need to know about Chennai beaches.
- The beaches listed here are the most popular
- They are best visited after sunset or early morning before sun raises.
- Forget about bikini. These are not swimmable beaches and NO sunbathing.
- Moderately dress up, please! You don’t want to be followed by strangers because you are showing your legs.
These beaches come alive after sunset. Locals hangout at the beaches at night to:
- Wind down from the busy work day
- Take the lover for a romantic walk
- Eat street food such as roasted corn, fried goodness, and lots of calories
- play with the miniature version of amusement park for the kids
You get the point. Even though they are beaches, they are more of a hangout places in Chennai.
So, what are the best and cleanest beaches in Chennai to visit ?
Locals dearly believe Marina beach is the 2nd longest beach in the world. It seems up for a controversy. Facts aside, this natural sandy beach is has an average width of the beach is 300 m (980 ft) and 13KM (8.1 m) long.
Besant Nagar beach AKA Elliot’s Beach
Considered one of the cleanest beaches in the city. And I recently visited this beach in March 2019. I can vouch for the cleanliness of the beach. Also, right across from the beach, the entire strip of full of amazing restaurants and botique shops. Truly a great “hangout with friends in Chennai” type of place.
You can rent a surf board or take a surfing lessons in Chennai at Covelong Point surfing school.
A great beach to watch a sunset over the Bay of Bengal.
Very much a locals beach, where kids play cricket / volleyball and other sports on the beach. Last time, I visited this beach, I found it very crowded.
If you are looking for less crowded beaches, ECR (East Coast Road) has variety of resorts that have private beaches, where locals are not allowed. I will address them in the Resort section.
A great spot of photographers, this is the beach to go if you want to quietly listen to the roar of the water, while dangling you legs from the pier, as the sea breeze blows your mind away, all to yourself without the crowd.
Places to Eat in Chennai
I am a local here and I grew up in Chennai. However, every time, I visit home, I am overwhelmed by the choices of places to eat in Chennai. I can take a wild guesstimate that there are over 5000 restaurants in Chennai to choose from and I am sure I am still low balling the number.
There are a few things to keep in mind as a tourist approaching the food scene in Chennai.
- AVOID street food. It’s not worth it to get food poisoning in a new place.
- ALWAYS drink bottled water.
- DRINK plenty of fresh coconut water
- DON’T eat watermelon in Chennai. There are controversies on how colors and water are injected into the watermelon to make them look bigger and brighter.
- DON’T drink carbonated drinks or juices. They may be contaminated and a new stomach may not handle it well.
Now that we got some basic eating rules out of the way, here are the places you can eat safely. This is not an exclusive list, but a high level recommendation to give an idea.
- Saravana Bhavan chain is probably one of the most popular chain in Chennai that you will find throughout the city.
- A2B Chain also known as Adyan Anandha Bhavan
- Murugan Idli Kadai – One of my most favorite restaurants in the city. If you ever go to one of the chains, eat “Podi Idli” and “Jigarthandha”.
- Anjappar Chettinad Restaurant (Non-veg)
- Ponnusamy Restaurant (Non-veg)
- Sangeetha Veg Restaurant
All of these are chains and where locals go. Every time I visit Chennai, I do go to these places. So, the recommendations are based on personal tasting.
These restaurants serve south Indian food. However, as I said there are 100s of other top class and 5-star level restaurants out there.
Besides South Indian, Chennai offers a variety of North Indian and international cousins spread out throughout the city. Your best bet is to use Tripadvisor and Zomato for reviews for places near you.
Another tidbit of info, locals call the restaurants as “Hotels”, so don’t get confused.
Art Galleries in Chennai
A must include activity for art lovers, if you are ever in the city. Stunning world class art work and traditional art work that will leave you in awe of the local talent.
I have to write a detailed article on all forms of local arts and where to take classes if you are in town. Until then, here is my list of favorite galleries to visit.
- Apparao Galleries is one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Chennai
- Focus Art Gallery – offers a vast selection of modern & traditional art in a simple, easy to consume fashion.
- National Art Gallery – established in 1907, this gallery is the ultimate for traditional paintings such as Tanjore paintings, Ravi Varma painting gallery etc.,
- Cholamandal Artists’ Village – a community of 20+ artists who live and work together to preserve local art that are exhibited all over the world. This is bit outside of the city center. If you are headed in the direction of Mahabalipuram, this is one of interesting places in Chennai to visit.
- DakshinaChitra – Located at the East Coast Road of Chennai, this is an exciting cross cultural living museum of Art, Architecture, lifestyle, crafts and performing Arts. This is one of the best tourist spots in Chennai.
If you only have time to go to one place to experience local Art it’s a close tie between DakshinaChitra and Cholamandal Artists’ Village.
Temples in Chennai
This is Chennai we are talking about. Chennai might as well be synonym to Temples. But, if I have to pick a top 5 temples as a local, these would be my choice.
An ancient temple, ~12th century, located at the cultural heart of Chennai at Mylapore. This is one of the most visited temples among the tourists and locals, and all for absolutely valid reasons. It’s worth it. Go to the temple around evening time and walk around the neighboring streets filling your shopping bags with things you would otherwise not be able to find in other parts of Chennai.
Close to Marina Beach, this 8th century architectural wonder is another must visit while in Chennai. In the evenings, the street becomes bazaar and people returning from work stop by to pick up their daily vegetables/fruits and other goodies just off the road at competitive prices. So, a great place to witness evening market scene.
Sri Vadapalani Andavar Temple
Built around 1890, this temple is very popular among the locals to organize weddings. It gets really crowded on Fridays and if you happen to be at the temple in the morning time, you might witness a wedding too. Enjoy !
Here comes my favorite. Ashtalakshmi Temple is located just off of the Elliot’s Beach at Besant Nagar. I love climbing the intricate and narrow stairs of this temple to get to the top and stand there for hours taking in the ocean breeze on a hot summer evening.
Can someone tele-transport me there now ?
Mangadu Kamakshiamman Temple
Outside the city center, Mangadu Kamakshiamman Temple, is another popular among the locals. It’s believed to have been built over 2000 years ago. The temple itself is large and bit on a quieter side. Unless, I am in the area, I probably wouldn’t go out of the way to visit this temple.
Churches in Chennai
St. Mary’s Church
Built in 1679, this is the first Anglican Church built by the East India Company in India. The church has an excellent collection of antiques along with the mind-blowing interior.
- Location: Rajaji Salai
- Timings: 8:30 AM-6 PM
Initially, built by Portuguese in the 16th century and rebuilt by British in 1893. It is believed that St Thomas – one of the 12 disciplines of Jesus Christ, lived here from 52 A.D to 72 A.D, making the church the most important place in the city.
- Location: Santhome High Road
- Timings: 6 AM-9 PM
St. Thomas Mount
Located at a hill top, this Church is a beautiful climb. A great place to watch the city from above.
- Location: Parangi Malai
- Timings: 6 AM-8 PM
Just off of Eliot’s beach, dedicated to Madonna is a replica of real Velankanni Church located in deep south of India.
- Location: Annai Velankanni Road
- Timings: 6:30 AM-7 PM
Dedicated to Virgin Mary, this church was built in 1712. One of the most beautiful churches to visit during Christmas in the city for the glittering decoration.
- Location: Armenian Street
- Timings: 9:30 AM-2:30 PM
Mosques in Chennai
There are several mosques in the city, however, Thousand Lights Mosque built in early 19th century is the most esteemed one to visit.
Shopping in Chennai
It’s T.Nagar. That’s the area where you want to be. There are 3 sub sections in T.Nagar you would want to visit.
- Ranganathan Street
- North Usman Road
- Pondy Bazzar
You can get down at the Mambalam train station that drops you off at Ranganathan Street and walk your way to Pondy Bazaar.
Mind it, it will be extremely crowded on the weekends. I mean, it will be make you think the entire Chennai is concentrated on these streets.
I recommend going during weekdays, day times when the rest of the crowd is either working or at studying.
Now here are my favorite shops:
Silk Sarees: Nalli Silks, Kumaran Silks
Casual Wear for Men and Women: InStore in Pondy Bazaar or Max (it’s a chain)
Kids Clothes: Pothy’s, Max
I am positive there are other hidden gems in the maze of stores, I just stick to my favorites.
Again, the same streets mentioned in Clothes section apply to Jewelry too. I am not a jewelry person and I usually don’t visit these stores. But, from what I hear, all the stores are legitimate. It purely depends on what design you live at which store and your price point.
Kitchen / Household items
Utensils of all kinds, and most household items are reasonably priced in the city. And the stores are abundant.
Mylapore near Kapaleeshwarar Temple are some of the best places to get your kitchen items.
Another recent favorite of mine is Essential Traditions by Kayal in Mylapore.
High End Boutiques and Designer Clothes
Nungambakkam High Road – There are several high end stores that I have never even imaged to step into, because of the price.
Spencer Plaza and other shopping malls around the city.
Historical Buildings in Chennai
Located at the Pantheon Road, this museum holds the National Art Gallery discussed in the Art Gallery section above. This building was built in 1800s to give you an idea of how architecturally significant this place is.
A must visit monumnet in Chennai. This 35 meters of Chariot is the main attraction of the place. This monument is built in memory of the great writer and the logician called Thiruvalluvar, who is believed to have lived over 2000 years ago. Few of his fine works can be seen engraved on this famous landmark.
Fort St George
The first English fortress in India, founded in 1644 by British where the East India Company worked. This is where the current Tamil Nadu legislative assembly is held.
This was built in the 1840s. Swami Vivekananda is said to have stayed here for some time in 1897. Thus the name of the house. Today, the room where he stayed is used for meditation.
Connemara Public Library
This book lovers paradise was established in 1896. This library hosts a wide variety of the rare books. The stunning architectural design of this library is a mixture of the Southern Hindu Decani, Rajput, Gothic, and Mughals. If you are one of those who loves to explore the impressive rare collection of books, then this is the right place for you.
Opposite to Paris Corner, one of the must visit places in Chennai. The buildings here are built in 1700s that will take you back in time as you stroll through the street.
The Madras War Cemetery
Located in the heart of the city and extremely well maintained, this cemetery houses the last remains of 1000s of world war and commonwealth war fallen heroes.
Madras High Court
Madras High Court was built in 1892 and an important landmark in the city of Chennai. It is one of the courts in the country established by letters patents granted by Queen Victoria. A beautiful red building is probably one of the most photographed buildings in entire Chennai.
Higginbotham’s is the oldest bookstore in the city, built in 1905. Located in the busy section of Anna Salai(aka Mount Road) in Chennai, the bookstore was originally opened by Abel Joshua Higginbotham.
BM Birla Planetarium, Chennai Overview
Considered one of the most modern planetariums in the country, Birla Planetarium in Chennai had been founded around 30 years ago, in 1988. This is one of the most visited places as a school field trip in Chennai for stargazing.
Parks in Chennai
Nageswara Rao Park
Nageswara Rao Park located Luz Corner in Mylapore, Chennai is one of the large parks in the city with with 4 acres park land. This park offers a separate play area for children. Park is open to public from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. You will find a lot of people walking off their calories early in the mornings.
Guindy National Park
A national park in the middle of the city ? Well, don’t compare it to National Parks in the US. But, for what its worth, it’s indeed a great place that is so popular among both the locals and the tourists who visit the city. The park houses wild animals and birds including some rare species from around the world.
As the name suggests, snake park is literally adjacent to Guindy National Park. You can visit both of them together.
Smack in the middle of T.Nagar’s shopping district, this urban green space features a kids play area, benches to rest after hours of shopping & walking trails, plus a badminton court & small temple.
Huddleston Gardens Of Theosophical Society
One of the main reasons to visit this place is to see the 450 year old Banyan Tree inside the campus. Check timing before you go. They have specific time reservation for public visit. In the middle of the busy city, you can find absolute silence hear at this park.
A beautiful botanical garden with well groomed landscaping, Semmozhi Poonga is one of the most visited parks in the city. It is located near the Anna flyover in cathedral road.
This park used to be the Legendary Drive in Woodlands hotel. I remember eating cheese bonda at Woodlands growing up. Really miss the restaurant. However, the park is an excellent replacement.
Tholkappia Poonga or Adyar Eco Park
Government of Tamil Nadu in the Adyar estuary area of Chennai, Tholkappia Poonga or Adyar Eco Park is one of the Chennai’s best kept secrets. Tranquility is the one word that comes to my mind, thinking about this park.
Arignar Anna Zoological Park AKA Vandalur ZOO
Take your kids there if you are in town. We had an awesome experience last time. Went there with my 1 year old son and he was absolutely excited to see the animals. Interestingly, we witnessed the fight between the Lions. I would say, plan for a whole day trip to the Zoo.
You can rent Bicycles for a deposit of Rs.200 and Rs.30 /hr.
The Secretariat Park is located opposite to the Secretariat at Fort St. George near the Chennai Port. This area used to be an undeveloped land for a lot time. The Corporation of Chennai made the move in 2009, to create this 18.5 acre park adorned with a fountain at the center and laid with pedestrian walkways. A great for to go on a casual walk catching up with a friend, under the tree shades on a hot summer day.
Theme Parks in Chennai
If you are looking for things to do in Chennai with kids, you have hit a jackpot. There are four major theme parks in Chennai that are very popular among adults as much as kids.
If you pay close attention, theme parks are not just for kids. These are one of the popular hangout places in Chennai among college students.
This park is located near Tambaram and know for water rides. Kishkinta also a corporate outing places in Chennai.
MGM Dizee World
Located on ECR (East Coast Roda), this park is where you go if you like daring rides. Another great place in Chennai for youngsters.
Located on NH4 (National Highway 4) is a good mix of chilled and daring rides, suitable for families with all age groups.
VGP Universal Kingdom
Located on ECR (East Coast Roda) is a beach resort with rides. Growing up, this used to be one of the top places to visit with friends for me.
Markets in Chennai
Vegetable Markets in Chennai
There are street markets and venders throughout the city. Especially you will find small venders selling fruits and veggies at the foot steps of train stations, and bus stops. At the two ends of subways and walkways, there are shops everywhere. However, to get a wholesale scale view of the markets, here are some of the top ones to visit.
- Koyambedu Vegetable & Fruit Market
- Mylapore Kadaiveethi
- Thannithurai Mylapore
- T. Nagar Market
- Thiruvanmiyur Vegetable Market
Fish Markets in Chennai
- Kasimedu in Royapuram
- Pattinapakkam near light house
- Chintadripet- Opposite to New secretariat building in Anna Salai
Reach there early to watch the fresh fish off the boat being bartered.
Pin this for later!
As I mentioned earlier, I can go on for hours listing out more interesting places to see in Chennai. However, I chose to highlight the top few in each category. If you attempt to visit every place listed in this article, it will probably take you a whole week.
As they say, Chennai never sleeps and you can stay here for a month and never get bored. I intend to write an article to extend the things to do in Chennai by writing about more of experiential activities such as adventure sports, art and culinary classes etc.,
Also read more about India.
So, what do you think ? Are you inspired to visit Chennai ? Would love to hear you comments.