Chennai might not be one of India’s most famous cities for epic sites. We’re not going to argue that Chennai can compete with cities like Mumbai, Agra and Jaipur, but it does have its fair share of interesting places to visit during your stay. Here is our list of the top 10 things to see in Chennai.
1. Marina Beach
It’s impossible to take a drive to anywhere in downtown Chennai without coming across Marina Beach. This is the world’s second longest beach, and it hugs the city along its coastal region. While Indian beaches outside of Goa and Kerala are not really the ideal places where you’ll want to hang out in a bikini or even go for a swim (very strong currents), you’ll find the city’s life concentrated here. People from Chennai congregate on the golden sands for a game of volleyball, drink chai or come here at sunrise and sunset. This is the perfect place to come and people watch, since you’ll find people from all walks of life down here. Check out the fish market stalls around the prominade for something different or watch the kids fly their kites at sundown.
2. San Thome Church
Located right on the beach, the white-washed Roman Catholic cathedral might be a surreal sight to see in downtown Chennai. Dating back to the 16th century, this cathedral has seen a shift of styles over the centuries, where the current form carries a neo-Gothic style that’s typically characteristic of the 19th century. Legend has it this cathedral houses the remains of St. Thomas the Apostle, who bought Christianity to India in 52 AD. The saint’s bones are mostly in Italy now, but there is a small bone fragment on a cross against the wall that’s said to be the ‘Relic of St. Thomas’.
3. Little Mount Shrine
Speaking of St. Thomas, it is believed the saint was living and hiding out in a cave at Little Mount. Local legend has it that you can still see St. Thomas’ handprint even today on the cave wall. St. Thomas was said to be martyred on the neighbouring mount, St. Thomas Mount in 72 AD, so it’s possible to visit both mounts on the same day.
4. Kapaleeshwarar Temple
During your stay in Chennai, you must visit the Mylapore neighbourhood along with its famous, colour Kapaleeshwarar Temple. Mylapore is one of Chennai’s most traditional areas, one that shows the character of the villages that predated the colonial city. The temple is said to be over 1000 years old, but the original temple was destroyed in the 16th century by the Portuguese. This temple is typically characteristic of Tamil temples, with its brightly coloured gateway towers (gopurams), intricately painted pillared pavilions and its huge neighbouring tank. This temple is dedicated to the god Shiva. If you see one temple while you’re in Chennai, make sure it’s this one, which ranks high in the top 10 things to see in Chennai without question!
5. The Theosophical Society Gardens
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Chennai’s busy streets, then the garden at the Theosophical Society is the place for you. You can get lost in the 100-hectare grounds, where you can just wander amidst the greenery. You’ll even find a church, a mosque, a Buddhist shrine, as well as Hindu and Zoroastrian temples inside the complex.
6. Fort St. George
Fort St. George marks the part of the city where the British East India Company set up its community. Since it was finished in the mid 17th century, the fort has since undergone many aesthetic changes. Today, the walls now house the former Legislative Assembly & Secretariat of Tamil Nadu, now a hospital. But you’ll still find the Fort Museum as well as interesting colonial buildings and relics from the era, such as St. Mary’s Church – India’s oldest surviving British Church.
7. Valluvar Kottam
Valluvar Kottam is a strange site. It’s a memorial which honours Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar and his magnum opus Thirukural. His poem, despite having been written in the 1st century BC, is still a moral code for millions of followers. Thiruvalluvar was native to Chennai, or at least the villages that would become Chennai. The monument dedicated the poet is a curious 35m high sculpture in the shape of a temple chariot, with inscriptions of the 1330 couplets from the epic poem. The memorial lies on three levels, and may feel unfinished in parts, especially the long building leading to the monument, but it’s best to approach it from the rooftop.
8. Shopping in T. Nagar
T. Nagar might not be a specific site and might seem out of place on a list of top 10 things to see in Chennai, but it’s the place to go to in the city if you’re looking to do a spot of shopping. You’ll find row after row of shops selling bangles and jewellery to huge department stores with sarees in every single colour imagineable, in every single fabric you desire. It’s quite a sensory overload to go around the markets in T. Nagar, but you can be sure you won’t return empty handed.
9. The Government Museum
This complex of red-stoned colonial architecture is one of the city’s cultural highlights. The Government Museum is definitely a worth a visit for the buildings alone, which span a large park, sporting stunning Indo-Saracenic architecture. However, the museum buildings are also striking, with an excellent art collection mixing up Indian and European arts; a stunning collection of South Indian bronzes as well as ancient sculptures and even a zoological departmentare among the best things to see in Chennai! One ticket will get you into all of the museums in the complex.
10. Vivekananda House
The house of the wandering monk Swami Vivekananda is not only interesting for the exhibition on display, the unusual shape of the house, which was once a Victorian-era ice house, is interesting in itself. The house has a marshmallow pink façade, laid out in a semicircular form. Vivekananda didn’t stay very long here in 1897, but you’ll find a comprehensive photo exhibition, where his bedroom is now a mediation centre, where you can join in free weekly one-hour meditation classes.
Of course there are many more things to see in Chennai, but we are sure this list will keep you busy for a while!