India’s fourth-largest city, Chennai has graduated from gateway city to the Indian south to a bona fide tourist destination in its own right. Historic Hindu temples, colonial constructions, a thriving Tamil culture and a flourishing performing arts scene combined with a growing assortment of stylish hotels and restaurants have helped put Chennai on the map.
A network of suburban railways, buses and an ever-expanding metro system help travellers get around town. Autorickshaws and taxis are alternative modes of transport; with both, it’s worth negotiating the fare before you get in. Between traffic and dodgy driving, getting behind the wheel in Chennai can be taxing. Save yourself the stress and hire a driver instead.
Chennai was first established by the British East India Company in 1639 on the site of an older fishing village. Among the relics of its earliest days as a British outpost is the historic quarter of George Town and the hulking Fort St. George. The latter now contains an interesting museum documenting the city’s origins and featuring displays of colonial weaponry, artwork and silverware.
Follow the wafting incense to the 16th-century Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore. An icon of the region, this famous Dravidian-style temple is decorated with colourfully painted mythological figures and deities.
Sunset is the optimal time to check out Marina Beach, one of the longest urban stretches of sand in the world. Though not suitable for swimming, it is a prime spot for socialising with groups and families congregating here for picnics and barefoot paddles in the shallows. For the culturally inclined, the expansive Government Museum and National Art Gallery, which occupy parts of an 18th-century colonial complex should be top of the agenda.
Chennai is also an excellent springboard for exploring South India. Just a few hours out of the city lays Kanchipuram, a holy Hindu centre renowned for its temples, while the stylish French-influenced Pondicherry is just a 3-hour hop south.
It’s one of Chennai’s greatest charms that once you’ve been exhausted by the city, wide-open spaces and nature are not far away. Head north to Pulicat Lake, the second largest salt water lagoon in India. The lagoon is at its most interesting between October and March, when thousands of visiting birds – among them a colony of striking pink flamingos – descend upon the marshy land.
Another little-publicised attraction in Chennai is the Arignar Anna Zoological Park. Covering an area of more than 510 hectares, it is one of the largest zoos in India, and all kinds of exotic animals, from tigers to giraffes, roam the enclosures here.
Chennai’s superb food scene is reason enough to come here. Dishes are mostly meat-free and often fiery. Chilli is used liberally. For vegetarians accustomed to a life as second-class diners, arriving in Chennai is like landing in Utopia, but that’s not to say you can’t find meat and seafood here either. Regional must-tries include dosas (stuffed savoury rice crepes), pancake-like uttapams (which have vegetables and spices cooked into the batter) and sambar (lentil broth), which is usually soaked up using idlis (rice cakes). Vegetarian chain restaurant Hotel Saravana Bhavan is a good place for hungry travellers to start. Meals typically end with filter kapi (coffee), an Arabica-chicory coffee blend made with milk and sugar.