Indian cities aren’t exactly the kind of places to be visited for peace and quiet or solitude and Chennai is no different. With its boisterous culture and packed crowds, it is nigh impossible to completely insulate yourself against the chaos, especially if you’re visiting any of its tourist centers.
However, that being said, with proper planning, research, and some basic tips, Chennai’s tourist crowds are pretty easy to navigate, at least to the point where they aren’t a hindrance to the overall experience. So if a visit to this southern metropolis is on your mind, here are some basic tips that you need to keep in mind to soak in the city’s culture sans tourist crowds.
Visiting Chennai in summer would most definitely mean you would encounter much fewer tourist crowds than in the peak season months of November to February. However, this would also mean that you would have to brave Chennai’s legendary heat, which is just as unsettling as its crowds, if not more. While the weather is the most conducive for travel in the months of December and January, this is also the time when tourists, both local and international swarm the city. November, on the other hand, sees more than average precipitation and seasonal cyclones and even floods which, to be honest, are best enjoyed indoors. If fewer crowds and conducive weather are both on your mind, then your best bet would be late January to February, which constitute the fag end of winter (or at least what passes for it in this part of the world) in Chennai.
While tourism mostly works in seasons in Chennai just like anywhere else in the world, what most people don’t take into account while planning their trips is that Tamil Nadu has its own local calendar and respective seasons. And unlike the western calendar, each month in the local Tamil calendar has some particular cultural significance. While the holy month of Aavani pulls more visitors to temples, the month of Margazhi brings out the best in Chennai’s culture with concerts and events pulling in most crowds. If you’re thinking of doing some shopping in the city, you should definitely avoid the annual wedding season which falls around August. While there are certain things best enjoyed in their respective seasons, there is no better guidebook to navigate crowds in Chennai than the Tamil Calendar.
While the city really does come alive during its religious festivals, there are definitely some which you should avoid stepping out on at all costs if you want to escape crowds. The major ones such as Diwali and Pongal are a no-brainer, but other national ones that do not have any ritualistic or religious traditions associated with them, such as Republic Day or Gandhi Jayanti also pull in a lot of crowds at popular destinations such as parks and beaches. And in case you are in town during Pongal, you should know that Tamil culture is one of the few cultures in the world that has a separate holiday to celebrate tourism and going out called Kaanum Pongal, which falls on the fourth and last day of the festival. On this particular day alone, local tourists from all across the state descend upon the city’s tourist centers and crowds could be multiple times higher than the average.
The previous rules don’t apply for the month of Aadi, particularly if you’re in the mood for some shopping. This traditional Tamil month that falls between July and August doesn’t have any major festivities and neither does it boast a particular religious seasonal theme. However, while Aadi was traditionally considered the month of a slump in trade, shopping markets and major stores in the city turned the tables by making it a collective clearance sale season. Now, the Aadi sales pull major crowds across the city centers and markets such as T-Nagar and Purasawalkam. While going shopping during Aadi is guaranteed to get you the best deals, it is advisable to fight the urge and stay home if you want to avoid the crowds.
While Chennai has often been criticised for downing its shutters early in the night, it more than makes up for it by starting the day much earlier than most other Indian cities. Unlike in Mumbai or Hyderabad, most shops and destinations are open by as early as 6 am. But of particular attention in the mornings should be any of Chennai’s popular major temples, which truly come alive in the early hours of the day. While beaches do fill with local residents early in the morning, they are, for the most part, devoid of the usual tourist crowds that pour in during the evening. Besides, Chennai is gifted with long and wide beaches where there is space enough for all.
Chennai is blessed with a long and beautiful coastline and boasts the second-longest urban beach in the world – the Marina Beach. Along with Elliot’s Beach and Thiruvanmiyur Beach, these three beaches pull the largest crowds within the city. However, if you are looking for some solitude and want the beach all to yourself, the best thing you can do is keep heading south – the farther down the coast you go the fewer crowds you’ll encounter. Beaches in Sholinganallur, Uthandi, and other places along the ECR do come under city limits and offer a sandy getaway that is devoid of crowds and just as beautiful as the more mainstream beaches. Head further south and you will reach the pristine beaches of Kovalam, which offer activities such as surfing and waterboarding. Pick these beaches for some peace, quiet and picturesque sunsets, because nature, after all, doesn’t discriminate and you get the same view of the azure waters that you would in Elliot’s or Marina!
Most tour operators in the city have a similar set schedule, which means that while they will be taking you to an attraction, other tour operators will be bringing in tourists by the bundle as well. Besides, tour operators often have deals with local businesses, which means that you will most probably be going during busy business hours.
While Chennai’s weather makes it impossible to get out and have fun during the day, the evenings too are usually marred by heavy tourist crowds. However, the time when Chennai really shines is during the night, when there is very little vehicular traffic and literally no crowds. Over recent years, there have been a number of night-time activities that have popped up in the city. Establishments such as the popular Madras Crocodile Bank Trust on ECR has been organizing night-safaris at the Croc Bank for quite some time now, while more recent organizers such as night-cycling facilitator Tent n Trek are also providing interesting options to enjoy the city after sunset.
Although Chennai has no dearth of mainstream tourist attractions, the city is also filled with dozens of hidden gems that pull far fewer crowds but are definitely worth your time. For example, while the more popular Vandalur Zoo attracts large crowds, the slightly distant and quaint Madras Crocodile Bank offers an equally spectacular wildlife experience. Other such destinations and experiences include the idyllic Sadras Fort, surfing at Kovalam, or soaking in the city’s rich heritage at Connemara Public Library.
Technological advancement has made it possible that it is fairly easy to figure out just about anything about a popular destination, including the busiest hours of the day. If it’s a major attraction such as the Vandalur Zoological Park, all you need to do is to Google it and you can find out which time is the best to visit on which day if you want to encounter fewer tourist crowds. Also, pore through a few reviews to find out how long a visit to each attraction takes, along with travel time estimates from your location. While these are some very basic things to keep in mind, it still begs to reiterate since good research and planning is still the best way to avoid crowds!
While this isn’t specific to Chennai, it holds true for this city just as well as it does for any major tourist destination in the world. Give Chennai the time to grow on you and never do more activities than you can on a single day. If possible, extend your stay and take your time enjoying this beautiful city, one attraction at a time.