South India’s cultural capital and gateway city, Chennai, is frequently counted among the best cities to visit in the world for food and culture among other things. But what really stands out in terms of Chennai‘s potential as a tourist destination is the sheer number of cultural, historical, architectural and other sites it is home to. If planning a visit anytime soon, these are the top attractions you shouldn’t miss.
Chennai’s Marina Beach is famous around the world for being the second-longest urban beach in the world. It is counted among the most popular beaches in India and is undoubtedly Chennai’s biggest landmark. In fact, more than a landmark, it was indeed this long and wide coast that led to the British founding the city of Madras here in the first place. Apart from its history, the beach is also a cultural identifier for Chennai and preferred venue for everything from weekend picnics to political rallies and protests.
The other major landmark that is crucial to the very existence of Chennai is the Fort St. George. It was the first British centre of power in the south and continues to be the seat of the Government of Tamil Nadu since independence. The Fort is a landmark steeped in history and it was around its walls that Madras coalesced and grew into a city. It has seen a number of wars and conflicts since its inception in 1644 and even saw action during World War I.
The Vandalur Zoo, in its current form, is the largest zoological park in the country and attracts thousands of visitors on a daily basis. However, its history dates back to 1855, when it was started as the Madras Zoo in the Government Museum complex by noted conservationist Edward Balfour and was the first public zoo in India. Today, the zoo is spread over more than 600 Ha in Vandalur and houses more than 1,500 wild species, including 46 endangered species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects.
Counted among India’s first and oldest public museums, the Government Museum complex in Egmore’s Pantheon Road has been one of Chennai’s most famous recreational and educational attractions for more than 160 years. The museum is best known for its extensive numismatics collection and artefacts related to Tamil history. The museum complex also houses other popular attractions such as the Museum Theatre, a popular stage venue in the city and the Connemara Public Library, which is one of the oldest in the country.
While the Marina Beach certainly attracts more crowds than any other beach in the city, the Besant Nagar Beach is definitely the more popular one among youngsters in the city, primarily because of its numerous restaurants, cafes, and dessert joints. Named as Elliot’s Beach in honour of the once governor of Madras Edward Elliot, this beach has been a popular hangout spot in the city since the 20th-century. Among the popular restaurants and dessert spots along the promenade are Murugan Idli Shop, Mash, Cozee’s, and Amadora Gourmet Ice Cream.
Located within the Fort St. George compound, the Fort Museum is Chennai’s go-to place for anyone with an interest in Chennai/Madras’ British heritage. Among prized collections of the museum are several colonial-era uniforms, weapons and even a number of personal letters written by eminent persons such as Robert Clive and Lord Cornwallis. The building originally housed the first office of the Bank of Madras, which was later merged with two other such banks and would come to be known as the State Bank of India.
Famous for being the first Anglican church in India, the St. Mary’s Church is also located inside the Fort St. George compound and continues to be an important Christian religious centre in the city. The church boasts an illustrious history, and at the time of its consecration in 1680, was the only bombproof building in the fort. At the altar is a prized painting of Last Supper, which was brought to Madras as spoils of war from Pondicherry.
With a history going back nearly a 1,300 years, the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Chennai‘s Mylapore is one of the oldest places of worship in the city. Apart from being a religious landmark, the temple is a major centre of culture and regularly hosts several classical music and dance performances. The surrounding area of the temple still retains its traditional Agraharam style of architecture and the temple complex also includes a large water tank. The temple’s tallest Gopuram stands at over 40 m, while there is another smaller Gopuram facing the water tank.
The Santhome Basilica in Chennai’s Mylapore neighbourhood is an important Christian site in not just Chennai but all over the world. Said to be one of the only three basilicas in the entire world to be constructed over the tomb of a direct Apostle of Jesus Christ, the church was constructed in the year 1523 by the Portuguese. Built in the neo-gothic style of architecture, the church was raised to the status of a minor basilica in the year 1956.
Chennai is one of the few cities in the country to have a fully-fledged national park within its limits. While the Guindy National park might be the eighth smallest national park in the country, the green space definitely boasts a spectacular diversity of flora and fauna and serves as the lungs of Chennai. The park spreads over 2.70 sq. km and is home to over 130 species of birds and 14 species of mammals, including the Blackbuck, spotted deer, and jackal.
The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust is not only one of Chennai‘s best-known wildlife attractions, it is also a premier research and conservation agency working in the field of reptile conservation and herpetology. With an exhibit of more than 2,400 reptilian species, including 14 major species of crocodiles and alligators in the world, the MCBT is the largest crocodile sanctuary in the country. Started in the year 1976 by pioneering conservationists Zai and Romulus Whitaker, the MCBT has so far bred over 5,000 specimens of crocodile and is also extensively involved in the conservation of Olive Ridley turtles.
The Birla Planetarium in Chennai is one of the three major such planetariums in the country and is an important educational site in the city. Started in 1988, the planetarium boasts several astronomical models, exhibits, and educational materials spread across a total of eight galleries covering different disciplines of science including physics, energy, electronics, and transport. It also has a large gallery that provides a great virtual experience of our night sky.
In Chennai, shopping is usually considered synonymous with T Nagar, its largest shopping district. From massive fashion and jewellery emporiums to great boutique stores, this neighbourhood is a must-visit for anyone interested in regional specialities such as the Kancheevaram silk sarees. The most major mainstream shopping complexes are located on Ranganathan Street and North Usman Road and are heavily crowded on weekends and holidays. But T Nagar also has a number of great roadside shopping markets and smaller shops and boutiques that are just as great for shopping.
One of the oldest and most chaotic markets in the entire country, Chennai’s Burma Bazaar has a vibrant history of cultural confluence. From used books and cheap grey market electronics to great street food, Burma Bazaar is a paradise for anyone who likes to shop on the road. It gets its name from the Tamil-Burmese community that set up several shops here when they settled in Chennai after being kicked out of Burma (present day Myanmar) when military rule was established there. The bazaar has been named one of the best shopping districts in several international lists and is also famous for being the go-to destination for Burmese Atho cuisine.
This quaint offbeat attraction is basically exactly what its name suggests – a broken bridge. While it’s not any good for commuting, it has some of the best views of the Bay of Bengal in entire Chennai. Located right on the mouth of the Adyar river estuary, the Broken Bridge is a great vantage point for viewing sunsets and is also smack dab in the middle of an untouched and pristine estuary ecosystem. It’s popular among youngsters and couples, but staying late after dark is not advisable since it’s also famous for being a den of delinquents and revellers in the night.
The Theosophical Society is one of Chennai’s oldest organisations and boasts a continuing history of more than a century. But what this organisation is best known for in Chennai is its sprawling international headquarters campus in Adyar that cuts across the Adyar river estuary. One of the best-maintained green spaces in the city, the campus is a cultural and spiritual centre with a fully-fledged library and also hosts a number of talks and events. It is also home to the Adyar banyan tree, which has a history of more than 450 years and is one of the largest banyan trees in the country.
This relatively new complex was completed in the year 2010 and is one of India’s largest and most modern libraries. Frequented by students, locals and experts from all across the country, the library is home to over 1.2 million books, periodicals, encyclopedias and volumes. The library features several state-of-the-art facilities such as a digital library and internet centre, an extensive braille and children’s section and also an entire floor dedicated to regional and Tamil language books.
Chennai is one of India’s oldest colonial cities and boasts a history of nearly 400 years. While the city has changed tremendously post-independence, part of it, especially the region near Fort St. George and Poonamallee High Road, still retains its colonial charm with several British-era landmarks and architectural marvels. Some of the most popular heritage structures in this area are the Ripon Building, Victoria Public Hall, Southern Railways Headquarters, and the Madras High Court Complex.
The East Coast Road is one of the most scenic highways in not just Chennai but all of India. Hugging the coast for almost its entire distance, the part of this highway that comes under Chennai city limits is a great destination for a long drive and also has some great attractions including hidden beaches, resorts, and cultural establishments. Some of the most popular attractions along this stretch are the VGP Resorts, Cholamandal Artists Village, and ECR, Akkarai, and Kovalam beaches.
If you want a complete experience of South India’s culture, traditions, and artworks without having to extensively tour the region, Dakshin Chitra in Chennai is your best bet. This cultural museum is a repository of the culture of four (now five) major South Indian states and boasts exhibits such as pre-colonial clothing, farming, music and dance forms, and architecture. This complex, located on the scenic ECR Highway is also popular for its numerous stalls that sell everything from traditional and ethnic jewellery to fashion and souvenirs.