Chennai is a thriving city on the Coromandel Coast facing the Bay of Bengal, known for its own unique culture, food, architecture and people. Formerly known as Madras, the city is the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. With a rich history, beautiful colonial buildings, mysterious temples and lovely beaches, and there are plenty of amazing things to do in Chennai.
Chennai’s attractions make it one of the places to visit in South India that should be high on your bucket list. This is especially true if you’re keen on history and love good food.
- Best Time To Visit Chennai
- 20 Things To Do In Chennai
- 1- Walk Along Marina Beach
- 2- Pay Homage To Thiruvalluvar At Valluvar Kottam
- 3- Experience The Tradition Of The Sari
- 4- Feel the Sanctity Of The Gods At Kapaleeshwarar Temple
- 5- Marvel At Historical Colonial Architecture
- 6- Shop At Spencer Plaza
- 7- Explore Arignar Anna Zoological Park
- 8- Marvel At The Architecture of Dakshin Chitra
- 9- Discover A Hidden Beach
- 10- Relish The Taste Of Chennai Food
- 11- Be Mesmerised By The Bharata Natyam
- 12- Buy Some Indian Gold Jewellery
- 13- Feed Your Artistic Soul At The Government Museum
- 14- Float Around The Muttukadu Backwaters
- 15- Gaze In Awe At The White Ripon Building
- 16- Say A Prayer In A Historic Church
- 17- Marvel At The Mahabalipuram Stone Carvings
- 18- Get Some Fresh Air At Semmozhi Poonga
- 19- Visit the Nawab’s Palaces
- 20- Visit the Guindy Snake Park
Best Time To Visit Chennai
The climate in Chennai is hot from March to May, with peak summer temperatures hitting the thermometer between April and May, which means summer is attractive to beach lovers looking to work on their tan.
Chennai experiences monsoon showers during July and August, which can hamper plans for sightseeing.
The best season to travel around Chennai is when the weather is not so hot and when you’re not likely to experience a monsoon.
The ideal months would be from September to February.
20 Things To Do In Chennai
Interested in visiting Chennai? Here are the top things to do in Chennai for your bucket list.
1- Walk Along Marina Beach
The 6km-long promenade of sand facing the Bay of Bengal has a lot to offer, especially during the evening.
Learn about Tamil literature by hearing the story of Kannagi and Kovalan in the epic poem Silapathigaram as you gaze at the statue of Kannagi standing with her anklet in her arms in a gesture of seeking justice.
It’s fascinating to learn more about those statues of these legendary personalities.
Pay homage to great leaders like Annadurai, who was the last Chief Minister of Madras from 1967 to 1969, and Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR.
Fort Saint George, at the north end of the beach, is an iconic building that was the foundation of the city of Madras.
Also known as the white town, it was built by the East India Company in 1644.
Part of the building hosts the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and the Secretariat today.
Watch the sunset from the top of the lighthouse, where you can see Fa bird’s eye view of the city and its beautiful coastline.
2- Pay Homage To Thiruvalluvar At Valluvar Kottam
The 35 m chariot depicting the works of Thiruvalluvar, a great poet and philosopher, stands at the Valluvar Kottam as a mark of respect to the only longest surviving classical language today, Tamil.
The words written on the granite walls speak of ethics and morality, stand the test of time even today due to its universal and secular nature and have been translated into various major languages of the world.
3- Experience The Tradition Of The Sari
Ladies will enjoy draping a Kangeevaram Silk Saree and adorning their tresses with strands of jasmine.
Sport a pattu vaetti sattai if you are a man and wear some of the finest silk in the region.
There’s a range of silk and cotton available for all budgets at a silk saree showroom and once you see the fabrics on display, you’ll be enticed into shelling out a few dollars.
Nalli is a popular sari chain that has been selling saris since 1928.
For those willing to invest in Kancheevarm silk, travel to Kancheepuram (75kms from central Madras) the birthplace of weaving.
4- Feel the Sanctity Of The Gods At Kapaleeshwarar Temple
Originally built in the 7th Century CE by the Pallavas, an Indian dynasty that ruled southern India from 275 CE to 897 CE, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple was destroyed by the Portuguese.
It was reconstructed in the 16th Century at Mylapore.
The temple is the house of Shiva and his wife Parvathi and has a Dravidian style architecture with bas reliefs that tell the stories of the gods.
5- Marvel At Historical Colonial Architecture
Home to the second-largest heritage building collection in India, Chennai has quite a lot to offer in terms of buildings from the British bygone era.
Most of these marvels stand to reflect the architectural splendour, even after almost 150 years.
Some of the elegant architectural buildings in Chennai worth mentioning are:
- Chennai Central Railway station at Park Town, built during 1873 in the Gothic Revival style
- Madras High Court at George Town, built in 1892 in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style and considered the world’s second-largest judicial complex housing the most number of courts in Asia
- General Post office in George Town, built in 1884 with its Victorian County-Colonial architecture.
6- Shop At Spencer Plaza
Spencer Plaza Mall on Mount Road has an array of souvenirs to take home.
Buy Pashmina shawls from Kashmir, strands of amethyst or a Taj Mahal souvenir from one of the galleries.
There’s a variety of Indian traditional clothing and household items you can buy from a number of small shops.
Visiting Spencer Plaza is a Chennai cultural experience and a place where you can taste local food.
While on Mount Road, make it a point to look for the oldest book shop in India, Higginbotham’s.
Another historic building on Mount Road is the 1916 brick Cuddon (Gove) Building, which was built as a car showroom for Simpson and Co and is now a Mercedes-Benz showroom.
7- Explore Arignar Anna Zoological Park
When it was constructed in 1855, the Arignar Anna Zoological Park was known as the Madras Zoo.
Now known to locals as the Vandalur Zoo, it’s a zoological garden with 2500 species of flora, fauna and a range of reptiles, mammals and birds.
It’s one of the places in India to see tigers, leopards, Indian rhinos and bison.
Another place to see wildlife is Guindy National Park, which is one of the few national parks in India within a city and home to chitals (spotted deer), jackals, Indian civets, macaques, hyena and pangolins.
8- Marvel At The Architecture of Dakshin Chitra
Dakshin Chitra is a heritage village developed to portray dwellings and life patterns of people of south India.
Craft bazaars, stone workshops and souvenir kiosks make it an ideal place to get a glimpse of life in Southern India.
The place has a range of houses built in different styles with displays of typical items used by the inhabitants as a showcase of their lifestyles.
9- Discover A Hidden Beach
Chennai has around 40 beaches within a radius of 50 km and if rubbing shoulders with tens of thousands of people on Marina Beach is not your cup of tea, there are plenty of tranquil beaches to discover.
Also known as the Bessie or Besant Nagar Beach, Edward Elliot’s Beach is a calm beach without the crowds.
Feed the pigeons on the beach early in the morning after watching a scenic sunrise or trace the crab paths on the sand.
If you’re looking for blue water and tortoises, head to Neelankarai (Blue shore) Beach.
Other beaches you might like are Copper, Juhu, Blue and ECR Beaches.
10- Relish The Taste Of Chennai Food
A visit to Chennai is not complete without tasting the local food and there are many authentic restaurants in the city.
The food in Chennai can be rather spicey so be careful when ordering a hot curry.
Dishes to try are idli, a typical Chennai breakfast of rice and black gram flour served with sambar and chutney, deep-fried vadai, dosas and paniyaram dumplings.
Please don’t be a faint-hearted and walk into a Pizza Hut or McDonald’s for sandwiches and fries but you might want to try the items on the menu that have a twist of Indian taste.
For an authentic experience, try eating in a langar or community kitchen.
For more amazing places to visit in India read:
11- Be Mesmerised By The Bharata Natyam
The Bharata Natyam is the Indian equivalent of the opera, so do make a booking in advance to see a concert of Bharata Natyam or Carnatic vocal music.
The Kalakshetra Foundation is one of the top music and dance groups that run shows for the public.
You’ll love watching the ladies dance like a peacock on the floor, not just with her arms and feet, but impress with her eyes and the expressions on her face.
Carnatic Music (Karnāṭaka saṅgītam) is a soothing blend of ragam (melody), thalam (beat) and pallavi (theme) accompanying the nattiyam (dance) and the bhavam (expression).
This combination of artistry will fill your evening with delight.
12- Buy Some Indian Gold Jewellery
Walk into the gold showrooms and look for a tiny Netri Chutti, a bridal forehead ornament, or small kammal earrings.
There’s a range of local jewellery to suit most budgets, from ordinary metal to gold-coated jewellery and pieces made from real gold.
If you’re looking for real India yellow gold, which is at least 22 carat, it’s best to buy from a bigger showroom.
In India, gold jewellery is considered a form of investment and the purer the gold the more valuable it is.
13- Feed Your Artistic Soul At The Government Museum
The Chennai Government Museum was established in 1851 and has numismatics and archaeological collections.
It houses rare paintings from Asia and Europe and is home to an impressive collection art of Tamil artist, Raja Ravi Varma, which is something you must see.
It’s the second oldest museum in India and has a large collection of Roman artifacts.
The Connemara Public Library is part of the complex and an iconic structure.
14- Float Around The Muttukadu Backwaters
Although it’s not as well-known as the Kerala backwaters, the backwaters at Muttukadu is very close to the city and is a paradise for boating and a range of water sports facilities including kayaking, canoeing and surfing.
The backwater area is 36 km from the Bay of Bengal and a nice spot to watch the sunset.
It’s a popular place for locals to have a picnic and there’s a seafood restaurant on the bridge.
15- Gaze In Awe At The White Ripon Building
This eye-catching white structure is near the Central Railway Station is an eye-catching reminder of the British colonial era.
Commissioned in 1913 and named after Lord Ripon, the British India Governor-General, the grand building was the headquarters of the Municipal Corporation of Madras.
Its neoclassical style architecture is a blend of the Ionic and Corinthian orders.
Don’t miss the Westminster Quarter chiming clock installed by Oakes and Co. in 1913.
16- Say A Prayer In A Historic Church
The San Thome Church built during the 16th Century by the Portuguese was later rebuilt by the British.
The oldest Anglican Church is also called St Thomas Cathedral Basilica, has its original neo-gothic style and is one of three churches built over a tomb of an apostle of Jesus Christ.
It is believed that the Basilica is the resting place of Saint Thomas.
Another church to visit is Andrew’s Church in Egmore, which was built in 1821 and has beautiful Georgian architecture.
The 200-year-old Scottish Presbyterian church known for its unique style, stained glass art and a pipe organ built in New Yorkshire, England was installed in 1883.
St. Mary’s Church was found in 1678 and is the oldest Anglican church located at Fort St. George.
17- Marvel At The Mahabalipuram Stone Carvings
50 km from Chennai (about an hour and a half’s drive) lies a feast for archaeology lovers and one of the most famous landmarks in India.
Don’t miss out seeing these historical gems of Mamallapuram (or the Mahabalipuram), which is a UNESCO World Heritage site of the 7th and 8th Century Pallava Kingdom.
The town is known for carved stone monuments.
Must-view places on the list include:
- Descent of the Ganges, also known as the Arjuna’s Penance, which is the largest rock relief in Asia.
- Pancha rathas (five Chariots of dharma raja, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Draupadi)
- Cave Temples (Krishna, Mahishasuramardini, Varaha, Tiger)
- Shore Temples
- Krishna’s butterball
- Sculpture museum containing 3000 artefacts.
If you love exploring temples, you might also like to visit Ajanta and Ellora Caves near Mumbai.
18- Get Some Fresh Air At Semmozhi Poonga
Semmozhi Poonga is a botanical park right in the city, with botanical plants and trees older than 100 years.
Spending time in the garden is a good way to get outdoors and wander past fountains, vertical gardens, mural walks, ponds and cascades.
The park is closed on Tuesdays and is located at the junction of Cathedral Road and Anna Salai (Mount Road).
19- Visit the Nawab’s Palaces
Chennai was ruled by the Nawab of Arcot (also known as the Nawab of Carnatic) from 1690 to 1801, as a dependent region of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
There are a number of palaces you can visit to soak up the history and mystery of the ruling family.
Although the most popular palaces in India are in Rajasthan, the grandeur of the palaces in Chennai also reflects the lifestyles of the Arcot Nawabs.
The Amir Mahal, constructed at Royapettah in 1798 by the East India Company became the official residence of the Nawab of Arcot’s family.
Amir Mahal is open to the public between 10 am and 6 pm.
The Kalas Mahal in Chepauk Palace complex was the home to the Nawabs from 1768 to 1855 and was restored recently. Also in the palace is the Humayun Mahal, which is being renovated as well.
20- Visit the Guindy Snake Park
The Irula tribe near Chennai is an indigenous community in Tamil Nadu known for their knowledge of snakes.
Their ancient way of life stopped when the Wildlife Protection Act came into force.
If you are interested in snakes, go and see them at Guindy Snake Park (formerly called Madras Crocodile Bank Trust), where you’ll get to see crocodiles, turtles and lizards too.
The park is home to various pythons, cobras, an anaconda and other snake species.
S. Shahid was born in Tamil Nadu and has lived in Chennai for 20 years. His love for art and history draws him back again and again to research and enjoy Chennai’s historic spots such as the Egmore Museum, Mahabalipuram and the Rippon building. He has a Bachelor of Business Administration from Annamalai University in Tamil Naidu and has worked as a programmer, analyst and engineer in Chennai and the UAE.