And, here we go – my very first travel post starting with the city I was born in – Chennai! Madras to some, Chennai to others, this is a city that grows on you. As you step out of the airplane in its famous international airport, you will immediately feel its humidity. Once you leave the airport, you will immediately notice all the different kinds of architecture around this city and the centuries of history behind each building. Chennai has always been the most overlooked of India’s megacities. While travelers rave about Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, the capital of India’s steamy south has long been seen as a stepping stone to other parts of India rather than somewhere to visit on its own merits. With the opening of the Chennai Metro Rail, the first integrated mass transit system in India, the capital of India’s south is making it easy for its residents and visitors to go around the city and explore all its angles. And there’s plenty to see: statue-covered Dravidian temples, institutes for Indian classical dance, fascinating museums, British-era fortifications and churches, a three kilometer-long beach that throngs with locals night and day, and India’s second-largest movie industry centered on “Kollywood” in the western suburb of Kodambakkam. Chennai is one of the most welcoming cities in India. And, I sincerely mean it. Just like how Georgia is known for its “southern hospitality,” Chennaites, as we call the residents of Chennai, are some of the kindest people in the world.
Chennai is a city of best of both worlds. While you see the immense growth of manufacturing and technology, it is also a city that well preserves its rich culture from its diverse religions to appreciation of the arts. Tamil, as many already know, is the local language, but most signs are also in English as it’s one of the popular business centers in the world! Knowing English itself can get you around the city easily – most auto drivers speak the basic English needed to find attractions and nice hotels to stay in. I’m telling you, southern hospitality at its finest in Chennai. Don’t be shy in Chennai – people are everywhere at all times, so go interact with the locals and experience the city that loves its Tamil cinema industry and filter coffee! As the hometown of music legend, AR Rahman, and rising stars all over the Indian film industry, the lively atmosphere of Chennai will make you come back to explore more and more.
Here in this post, I will feature the top five things you absolutely have to go experience in Chennai including a quick tips sheet on do’s and don’ts in this still traditional city. I lived here my first five years but don’t remember much other than the short summer days I’ve spent there. I’m hoping to cover these five to-do things myself!
#1 – Our Famous Dravidian-Styled Temples
While there are plethora of temples located all around the city (you can see some as you’re waiting in traffic too), one temple you just cannot miss is the Kapaleeswarar Temple. As one of the most popular temples in Chennai, it is the epitome of the Hindu and Tamil culture. Devoted to the Hindu god, Shiva, devotees believe that praying here can cure you of any obstacle. It’s located in Mylapore, a very old area of the city. The little streets around the temple seemed to have stayed the same for decades. They are crowded with small shops catering to the needs of devotees with items like flowers, lamps, coconut, and anything you can possibly need for an archana. Interestingly enough, this area attracts many street photographers who capture the majesty of the temple and its rich history. Another grand temple in the area is the Parthasarathy Perumal temple in Triplicane. Both of the temples have their respective rich cultural heritage and traditions that are fascinating to its devotees. These temples are guaranteed to give you plenty of information on Hinduism in the South. If you want the best experience from any of the temples in Chennai, be sure to visit them during a Hindu festival like Deepavali or Ganesh Chaturthi. Dress appropriately as they are some of the most respected Hindu temples in the world.
#2 – Our World’s Second Longest Beach
Chennai has a variety of beaches –from the ever crowded Marina Beach to the scenic Kovalam Beach with plenty of calm beaches in between. Each beach has its own sub culture. You could choose Marina Beach, the world’s second longest beach and the most popular one in the city and is usually thronged by local visitors and kids playing cricket or soccer or Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, which is relatively upscale and is visited by couples. There are of course quieter beaches along the coastline like Thiruvanmiyur Beach or Covelong Beach, but if you want the most out of your Chennai experience, I’d say visit Marina Beach. Not a typical American beach though — both women and men swim full-clothed and swimming suits are much of a thing there. But, it’s still an enjoyable experience walking around the shore as you’re munching some spicy chick peas and sour mangoes.
#3 – Long Drives along the East Coast Road or popularly known as ECR
If you want to experience what Chennaites love to do in their free time to relax, then grab a car or taxi and take a long drive along ECR. Start at Thiruvanmiyur and end at Mahabalipuram. This drive covers around 40 kilometers and will take about an hour depending on speed and traffic. I’ve always, always, always wanted to do this drive but haven’t had a chance yet. I’m hoping it’ll happen soon! Once you are out of the city in that road, you can see the sea at many places along the road. If you have the time, you can walk around the World Heritage Site at Mahabalipuram too. You can visit Marundeeswar Temple closeby and see the thousand year history behind the famous Hindu epic, Ramayana. Also along ECR is Dhakshinachitra – a center for performing arts, crafts and architecture. For those interested in the South Indian arts, be sure to visit this place! For those really into photography (ME!), this place is heaven and a place to capture wonders! Driving along ECR will also show you the varieties of homes and families settled in Chennai –from foreigners to the fishermen. A tip I’d give (since I’ve gotten it so many times) is to go early in the morning or late in the evening when the heat is less and so is the traffic. You’ll thank me later! 🙂
#4 – SHOPPING. Period.
No one shops like we do! How can you miss the humongous malls like Express Avenue, Phoenix Mall, and Forum Mall located in different parts of the city. They are such a blessing in disguise. I love Express Avenue for its diversity in shops and the nice customer service. After all, Chennai Super Kings are spotted there all the time according to my cousin. I’ve never seen a famous person there, but would love to someday! These malls cater to all your needs right from branded clothing, footwear, and accessories with the food court to give the best food from the best food sellers when you get tired of shopping and the theaters in the same mall for entertainment with the best ambiance. If you want the one ultimate shopping destination rather than these malls, then T Nagar is the place for you. Name it you get it. Right from dresses to jewelry and electronics, Ranganathan Street and Usman Road are the right places for all your needs. The shopping stores like RMKV, Saravana Stores, and Pothys give you a gazillion options under one roof right from Kancheevaram silk sarees to trendy designer bridal lenghas. This is where I always shop besides Madurai and Bangalore. They have great options to choose from, and most of the stores are pretty decent-priced too! All you need is to have patience to shop in the crowd especially during festive seasons like Deepavali and Aadi season.
#5 – Brace yourselves, last must do in Chennai that you’ve probably already guessed: FOOD.
I’ve done this a billion times already, but been two summers already and can’t wait to go back to have more! The two restaurants (at least the only two I’ve visited recently and enjoyed) are Saravana Bhavan and Anjappar! I never thought I could eat this much! I finished a thali plate in less than 15 minutes at Saravana Bhavan! Those chefs know how to cook. Just thinking about the food makes me go crazy. I’m not even a foodie, but that place attracts you like no other! Of course, if you’re wanting a nice fancy meal, Anjappar should do! Its lollipop chicken is cooked to perfection! A million more restaurants/street vendors exist that all sell authentic Chennai cuisine! I’m hoping I can explore more when I go there next time! 🙂