If you feel that adjusting to the heat and weather conditions in Chennai is hard, then adjusting to its unique culture is even harder. From figuring out how to get around to trying to pick up at least a few words in the local tongue, there are a lot of things you can do to make the rest of your trip as comfortable as possible.
Most importantly, it is extremely useful to make a comprehensive plan on what to visit and what to skip on the very first day. However, make sure you take into account local holidays, events such as bandhs, and closing times for each of the places you’d like to visit. It goes without saying that some of the best stay options in Chennai that give a real feel of the city are all located close to the sea. So if you’re living in any of the coastal areas from Royapettah and Mylapore to Adyar or Besant Nagar, going around your neighbourhood and experiencing the local culture and cuisine is in itself a great way of spending the first day.
The story of Chennai, or Madras, is essentially linked to the British Raj in India, and the city served as an important seat of power in the region for the British for more than three centuries. And owing to this fact, large parts of the city’s identity has to do with its cultural and colonial heritage.
From colonial era forts such as the Fort St. George to heritage buildings reflecting Indo-Saracenic or Art-Deco styles of architecture, the city’s northern parts are filled with heritage attractions at every turn. And it’s not all just British since Chennai is also home to some remnants of Dutch, Portuguese and French colonial cultures since all of these countries left their mark on the city. Even an entire day is hardly enough to get the full taste of the city’s colonial heritage, however, if planned well, it’s definitely possible to get a clear picture of the city’s history.
It goes without saying that the best place to start is the rather imposing Fort St. George, which in many ways was the cradle in which Madras was born. Apart from its historical significance, the fort is also one of the best-maintained examples of colonial architecture and continues to be the seat of power for the Tamil Nadu government. The fort compound also houses several other important historical landmarks such as the Wellesley House and St. Mary’s Church, the first Anglican church in India.
Another must-visit landmark is the Santhome Cathedral Basilica, which is located a little south of the fort in Mylapore’s Santhome neighbourhood. The basilica apart from being an architectural marvel is also one of the very few churches across the world to be built upon the tomb of a direct apostle of Jesus Christ. Other important and must-visit colonial landmarks in the city include the Government Museum complex in Egmore and the heritage district in Parry’s and High Court region, which includes several important structures such as the Ripon Building, Victoria Public Hall, Southern Railways Headquarters and the Madras High Court Complex.
While the modern-day version of Chennai was born out of British colonial occupation, the city is also home to a number of neighbourhoods that predate Madras by more than a 1,000 years. And some of the most striking remnants of these neighbourhoods and their cultures are Chennai’s ancient and exquisite temples. The beauty of Chennai’s temples is that unlike other parts of Tamil Nadu, there are temples in Chennai that are reflective of almost all major dynasties to have ruled the region.
Apart from their architectural beauty, however, Chennai’s temples are also unique in that the area around them is still reflective of Tamil Nadu’s ancient Tamil culture. The most popular among temples in Chennai are the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore and the Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, which are reflective of Saivite and Vaishnavaite cultures respectively. While the Kapaleeswarar Temple is best known for being an important centre for the performing arts, the Parthasarathy Temple is a great repository of the various traditions and rituals associated with Vaishnavite culture. Some of the other important and must-visit temples in the city include the Vadapalani Murugan Temple, the 1,000-year-old Dhenupureeswarar Temple in Madambakkam, the Marundheeswarar Temple in Thiruvanmiyur, and even the rather peculiar ‘Bodyguard’ Muneeswarar Temple in Pallavan Salai.
Chennai’s beaches are among its most identifiable landmarks and the city is home to some of the longest and most beautiful urban beaches in the world. At the top of the list of most popular beaches in Chennai is the Marina Beach, while other large beaches such as the Besant Nagar Beach and Thiruvanmiyur Beach also occupy important spots in Chennai’s cultural map. Filled with street food stalls, cafes and beautiful promenades, these beaches offer a lot more to visitors than just a good view of the sea. While Marina is best known for its food stalls and other fair-like attractions, rides and souvenir shops, Besant Nagar or Elliot’s Beach is among the best destinations in Chennai for seaside cafes, restaurants and bars. However, apart from these major beaches, Chennai is also home to several lesser-known ones that flank the scenic East Coast Road and definitely deserve a visit.
As for food, Chennai has consistently been rated as one of the best food cities in the world and boasts a number of great cuisines and specialities. The vegetarian fare at popular Udipi hotels such as Mathsya or Saravana Bhavan is a must-try. For meat-eaters, hotels serving Dindigul Biryani or Chettinad cuisine are a dime a dozen and boast great meat options. One of the most popular and must-visit non-vegetarian hotels in Chennai is Buhari, a 70-year-old restaurant chain that is largely credited with having invented the popular Chicken 65!
Temples, beaches or other big attractions aside, Chennai is also home to a number of great minor destinations that suit just about every interest. Some of the best minor attractions to visit include the Government Museum complex, which is also home to the age-old Connemara Public Library and Museum Theatre, the Anna Centenary Library, Birla Planetarium and the St. Thomas Mount Shrine.