Known as Madras for three centuries, the city reverted to its traditional, pre-colonial name – Chennai – in 1996. The first British settlement in India, the then Madras was founded in 1639 by the British East India Company on the site of a fishing village called Chennapatnam. Now the capital of Tamil Nadu state, the fourth largest city in India and the gateway to the south, Chennai is a sprawling industrial metropolis often compared to Detroit for its heavy involvement in automotive manufacturing.
Modern-day Chennai is frequently knocked for not having Mumbai’s money, Bengaluru’s buzz or the dramatic history of Delhi, but as many Chennaiite’s will attest, it possesses a culture unlike any other in India. At the essence of Tamil tradition and culture is the celebration of beauty; exemplified through dance, clothing and sculpture. This can be best experienced by the city’s traditional arts, music and dance scene.
Admittedly, Chennai is not a city that immediately captivates. However, scratch the surface and the surprising modesty of this cosmopolitan city and economic powerhouse will soon grow on you, as demonstrated by its large migrant and expatriate population.
With the second longest continuous beach in the world, Chennai’s Coromandel coastline is justifiably well known. Marina Beach is 12km long and its elegant promenade features colourful flowerbeds and makes for a wonderful walk.
Alternatively visit Edward Elliot’s Beach. Favoured by Chennai’s youth, it is quiet during the day but action packed at night. Finally, avoid the humidity at Breezy Beach. As its name suggests, a gentle breeze whips the heat away from this small stretch of beach and it’s therefore favoured by tourists unused to Chennai’s sultry climate. However, be careful: the beaches may be beautiful and inviting, but the water is not. Strong currents pose a considerable risk to even the strongest swimmer.
From Marina Beach, head south and look out for the 8th-century Parthasarathy Temple which is believed to be Chennai's oldest temple. Further south still is Mylapore, the old heart of Chennai. Here is Basilica of San Thome, the supposed final resting place of Thomas the Apostle. A major (and neon-lit) attraction, the stained glass windows recount his tale. Just 1km west is Chennai’s most impressive temple: Kapaleshvara. A hive of activity, the temple is marked by a 36-metre gateway tower adorned with detailed figures and inscriptions dating from the 13th century.
Chennai has numerous restaurants, offering an assortment of cuisine from Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese, to Spanish, Italian and Mexican. Fine dining options are mainly confined to the city’s five star hotels but for a true taste of Chennai, head for one of the many traditional South Indian restaurants. Here you’ll be expected to eat with your fingers as opposed to cutlery. Rice, dosa, idli and uttapam are staples of Tamil cuisines, while one of the city’s most famous beverages is its piping hot filter coffee.
Vegetarian options abound, but if you’re a meat eater look for the ‘non-vegetarian’ restaurants where the meat will be coated with intense spices. The densest concentration of restaurants is found at Alwarpet’s TTK Road, or along the beachfront, but ask around for the best recommendations.
Chennai’s orthodox values ensure that its nightlife is somewhat muted: a situation further encouraged by the police who ensure that the official closing time of midnight is strictly adhered to. Most of the best options can be found in the city’s upmarket hotels – consult Chennaiites, concierges and local newspapers for the best bars and nightclubs.
Take a day trip to Mamallapuram, 60km south of Chennai. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its stone carvings and ‘Krishna's Butterball’, a giant, natural, completely spherical rock perched on a hillside. The town is a little commercialised but still worth a visit. Fifteen kilometres past Mamallapuram is Kanchipuram, the ‘City of a Thousand Temples’. It’s located on the Palar River and in addition to its numerous temples the city is known for its beautiful hand-woven silk saris.