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© Arian Zwegers / Flickr |  © Sankar Pandian / Flickr
© Arian Zwegers / Flickr | © Sankar Pandian / Flickr
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Chennai Or Mumbai: Where to Go First?

Picture of Anjana
Updated: 5 April 2017
These two cities represent two very different aspects of this diverse country. Both coastal, they share a colonial past and have had changes in their names, but the similarities stop there. A trip to India couldn’t be complete without visiting these two distinct metropolises. We’ll help you make up your mind on where to go first.

Mumbai

Previously known as Bombay, the city has witnessed continual cultural diversification under Mauryan, Mugal, Portuguese and British rule. Built on what was once an archipelago of seven islands, the city of Mumbai has an eclectic mix of elements that will amaze and assault your senses. Home to Bollywood, its vibrancy has helped shape the country’s image, while itself metamorphosing into a technicolor kaleidoscope of sorts. Mumbai’s architecture is a confluence of styles like gothic revival, Indo-Saracenic, art deco and contemporary. Gateway of India is a popular spot in Mumbai, flocked to religiously by tourists. Built in 1911, the Indo-Saracenic structure was erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary at Apollo Bunder.

Gateway of India | © Güldem Üstün / Flickr
Gateway of India | © Güldem Üstün / Flickr

Another popular and scenic beauty in Mumbai is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. Built in a combination of Victorian Italianate, gothic revival and classical Indian architecture, this structure was built in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. Formerly known as Victoria Terminus, this headquarters of India’s Central Railway zone is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Facade of Mumbai's Victoria Terminus | © fish-bone / Flickr
Facade of Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus | © fish-bone / Wikimedia Commons

A ferry ride from Apollo Bunder will take you to Elephanta Island, which lies 11km (7 mi.) away from the mainland. The island has about seven rock-cut caves, of which the one on the eastern side is incomplete. With intrinsically worked sculptures dedicated to different forms of Lord Shiva, the locals here believe that these caves are not man-made. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Elephanta Caves are a marvel to behold.

Visit the paramount Haji Ali with its Indo-Islamic architecture or head to Mumbai’s famed Juhu Beach for some celebrity spotting. Mumbai is also well known for offering some of the rarest sights in India. Visit Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market), which has an assortment of trinkets and junk piled up or possibly Dhobi Ghat – the world’s biggest open-air laundry – it will blow your senses for its sheer size. A trip to Mumbai cannot be complete without driving down Marine Drive. The cosmopolitan city also serves some of the most mouthwatering food and is best known for its vada paav and chaai (tea). Most of its popular dishes speak volumes of its cultural cornucopia, with a happy mix of Mugalai, Parsi and Maharashtrian cuisine, among others.

Chennai

This quaint city in South India stands out from its counterparts for more than one reason. Formerly known as Madras, its cultural offering give Chennai a very discernible air. A beautiful mix of Dravidian, Indo-Saracenic and contemporary architectural styles add to its visual appeal. The city is constantly rediscovering itself and is known as the Detroit of Asia and is also the healthcare capital of India. It has a beautiful balance of traditional and modern, and is a paradise for foodies. The very famous Chicken 65, dosas or a cup of freshly brewed filter kaapi (coffee) are some of the things you must taste while in Chennai.

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The myriad streets of Mylapore, the buzzing alleys of Parrys and the busy streets of T. Nagar are some of the places you’ll have to visit. Travel costs aren’t as high as Mumbai, and unlike in the larger city, travelling around using public transport isn’t all that chaotic. Home to Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music, Chennai hosts several art, music and dance shows year round.

Ruled by the Pallavas, Cholas, Nayaks, Nawabs, Portuguese, Dutch and the British, it has developed a distinct sensory appeal. The Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the city also boasts one of the longest beaches in the world, the Marina. With a heady cultural mix, Chennai has retained its old-world charm amid all the chaos of development.

Verdict

While Mumbai has an edge to it, Chennai has an all-round appeal. One is home to Bollywood, while the other hosts Kollywood. Mumbai is always buzzing and its local train network is one of the most complex in India. Chennai has a charming appeal to it, with its quiet beaches and numerous temples. The ever-evolving Mumbai offers ever more to discover and is constantly pulsing with life, at any time of day. Representing two very distinct faces of India, both cities are worth a visit. You might want to start from the Gateway and then saunter down the streets of Chennai.