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  • Writer's pictureHiranmayi Narayanan

WHEN IN CHENNAI (MADRAS): TOP THINGS TO DO

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

We can visit a million places in the world, but the place we call ‘home’ would always hold the most special place in each one’s heart. I was born in Madras and although I wasn’t raised there, I’ve always called it home. Every time I land in the city, I’m engulfed by a sense of belonging that I don’t feel elsewhere. Officially called Chennai since the late 1990s, Madras (as most of us still like to call it), is one of the oldest metropolises in India. It has its own charm, quirks and a distinctive soul. My favourite part about the city is that it strikes the right balance between ancient culture and modern living. It has one of the largest expat population in India, a testament to its versatility and appeal to all kinds of people. A visit to this coastal city should be a must on everyone’s Indian itinerary.


So here you go - the list below focuses largely on things/sites that are unique to this city and doable if you’re on a 3-4 day trip.


PLACES TO VISIT

1. Fort St. George Museum – Museums may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s always best to start with history. Fort St. George is where present day Madras began in the 1600s. It is also the only part of India to have been attacked in World War 1. While Fort St. George is an entire area, not all of which is accessible, you can visit the Museum in particular and also St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in India.


2. Santhome Basilica – It’s one of the only three basilicas in the world to have been built on top of the tomb an apostle of Jesus, the other two are in Vatican and Spain. It has stunning interiors and is a must visit. Before you go, do a quick read on St. Thomas and his visit to India, to put things in a better perspective.


3. Kapaaleshwarar Temple – We in Madras do something called “Temple-Hopping”. Probably sounds rather uncool by modern millennial standards, but it really is pretty interesting if you’re interested in ancient art and architecture. My all-time favourite place in Madras is the Kapaaleshwar Temple in Mylapore. It’s nearly a thousand years old and just stunning. The Mylapore area in itself is believed to be older than the temple. It’s a vibrant, bustling marketplace that can be better explored if you have a local person to accompany you.


4. Dakshin Chitra – It’s a gateway to the South-Indian way of life and is one of the very few “living-history” museums in the country. If you like culture and architecture, no better place than Dakshin Chitra. It’s a massive space, which will take you at least three hours to cover so you’ll need to plan accordingly.


5. Cholamandalam Artists Village – This is the largest artists commune in the country. Again, this is something you should visit only if you’re into serious art. Both Dakshin Chitra and Cholamandalam are located on the East Coast Road, a bit farther from the city.


6. Kalakshetra Foundation – If you’re in the Besant Nagar area, try and visit the Kalakshetra Foundation (check visiting hours), a centre for the South-Indian performing arts. You don’t have to spend a lot of time here if the performing arts isn’t your thing, but it’ll be like nothing you’ve seen before, so it’d be a unique experience in that sense.


7. Beaches – This is also a city of beaches. Marina Beach is the largest and most crowded. Most young people prefer the more laid-back Elliots beach in Besant Nagar and the beaches on the East Coast Road. Madras wakes up a lot earlier than the rest of the cities in the country, that’s part of the culture. The ideal time to visit these public beaches would be in the morning between 6 am and 7:30 am. The air is fresh, you’ll see the sunrise and it’s perfect for a run along the beach or to just laze around. Alternatively, if you’d like to experiment with some “local” things to do, you should probably visit these beaches during the evening and try your hand at “balloon-shooting” and eat bajjis (fritters), raw mangos laced with chilli and roasted peanuts. If you’re visiting the East Coast Road, there’s quite a bit to do there, so definitely research a bit before you venture there.


8. Mahabalipuram – To get here, you’ll have to travel about 50 kms outside of Madras. It’s a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site and it oozes antiquity from every rock, pun intended. Everything in this tiny town dates a thousand years. Plus, additions in this century include some brilliant sea-food restaurants, I’m told (I wouldn’t know, I’m vegetarian – but, it’s highly recommended by my sea-food loving friends).


For a quiet, undisturbed place to relax or read a book, head to the Theosophical Society. Also, when you have the time, you can plan a trip to Pondicherry.


Other things to try:


1. When in Madras, do as the locals do. So, you must sample the local cuisine. For a typically full South-Indian breakfast, you must have something called a “Mini-Tiffin” which has small portions of everything in a Tamil breakfast.


2. Filter Coffee. You have to have filter coffee – it’s a crime to leave Madras without actually having a “tumbler” (steel cup) preferably accompanied by a “davara” (steel bowl) of fragrant filter coffee. There are multiple places that serve really good filter coffee, but the easily accessible ones are outlets of Sangeetha, the chain of vegetarian restaurants and the chain called Madras Coffee House.


3. It’s a coastal city after all, so you’d be able to find fresh sea food in plenty of restaurants. You’d also find some fantastic Chettinadu cuisine, even though Madras is hardly in the Chettinadu region of Tamil Nadu. A quick search on any one of the popular food-apps (Zomato for instance) will guide you to the best, authentic Tamil non-vegetarian cuisine. If you want to see where all the seafood is actually coming from, make an early-morning trip to the Royapuram fishing harbour with a local to guide you (not recommended if you are averse to strong smells of fish).


4. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous and would like to be a ‘local’ in town, you can visit the shopping areas of T Nagar and Ranganathan Street. Narrow streets lined with stores selling everything from textiles, jewellery, household appliances and everything in between, these are crazily crowded but thoroughly authentic parts of Madras. If you’d rather avoid crowds but would still want to buy silks and other textiles that Madras is so famous for, I recommend Tulsi Silks and Palam Silks, both in the area of Mylapore.


5. If you’re in the city in the Tamil month of Margazhi (usually between December 15-January 15), it’s “Katcheri season” or for the uninitiated - the season of the performing arts and temple festivals. It’s a great time to be in Madras because the city takes on an extremely vibrant atmosphere with concerts and performances in every nook and cranny (some ticketed and others free – depending on the popularity of the artist). Plus, the weather averages around 20 degree Celsius, which makes strolling around town a pleasant experience.



Happy Travelling!

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