Chennai is India’s fourth largest city. It's located in the northeastern corner of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, with a population nudging ten million. Hot, congested and noisy, it’s the major transport hub of the south and a tourist destination in its own right. The attractions of the city are diverse. It boasts fine specimens of Raj architecture, pilgrimage sites connected with the apostle, Doubting Thomas, superb Chola bronzes at its state museum, and plenty of classical music and dance performances.
The best travel tips for visiting Chennai
Geographically, Chennai divides into three main sectors.
North of the River Cooum stands Fort St George, site of the first British outpost in India, and George Town, the commercial centre, which developed during British occupation. George Town’s principal landmark is Parry’s Corner, located at the southern end of Rajaji Salai.
Sandwiched between the Cooum and Adyar rivers is central Chennai, the modern, commercial heart of the metropolis, crossed and served by the city’s main thoroughfare, Anna Salai.
East of Anna Salai is the atmospheric old Muslim quarter of Triplicane and beyond is the long straight Marina with its massive beach, fishing boats and hordes of domestic tourists, saris and trousers hitched up, enjoying a paddle.
Further south along the coast is the district of Mylapore, inhabited by the Portuguese in the 1500s, with its two important places of pilgrimage and tourist attractions, Kapalishvara Temple and San Thomé Cathedral.
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Best things to do in Chennai
From one of the longest city beaches in the world to Cholamandal Artists’ Village here are the best things to do in Chennai
#1 Marvel at Fort St George
Fort St George is quite unlike any other fort in India. Facing the sea amid state offices, it looks more like a complex of well-maintained colonial mansions than a fort.
Many of its buildings are today used as offices and are a hive of activity during the week. It is now the house of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and the Secretariat.
The fort was the first structure of Madras town and the first territorial possession of the British in India. Construction began in 1640 but most of the original buildings were damaged during French sieges and replaced later that century.
The most imposing structure is the slate-grey-and-white eighteenth-century colonnaded Fort House.
#2 Explore Fort Museum in Chennai
The collection within faithfully records the central events of the British occupation of Madras with portraits, regimental flags, weapons, East India Company coins, medals, stamps and thick woollen uniforms that make you wonder how the Raj survived as long as it did.
The first floor is now an art gallery, where portraits of prim officials and their wives sit side by side with fine sketches of the British embarking at Chennai in aristocratic finery, attended by Indians in loincloths.
Also on display are etchings by the famous artist Thomas Daniell, whose work largely defined British perceptions of India at the end of the eighteenth century.
#3 Seek out St Mary’s Church
South of the Fort Museum, past the State Legislature, stands the oldest surviving Anglican Church in Asia, St Mary’s, built in 1678 and partly renovated after the battle of 1759.
It’s distinctly English in style, crammed with plaques and statues in memory of British soldiers, politicians and their wives.
The grandest plaque, made of pure silver, was presented by Elihu Yale, former governor of Fort St George (1687–96) and founder of Yale University.
A collection of photographs of visiting dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II, is on display in the entrance porch.
#4 Wander around George Town
The former British trading centre of George Town remains the focal area for banks, offices, shipping companies and street stalls.
This network of streets harbours a fascinating medley of architecture: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century churches, Hindu and Jain temples and a scattering of mosques, interspersed with grand mansions.
In the east, on Rajaji Salai, the General Post Office occupies a robust earth-red Indo-Saracenic building constructed in 1884.
George Town’s southern extent is marked by the bulbous white domes and sandstone towers of the High Court and the even more opulent towers of the Law College, both showing strong Islamic influence.
#5 Check out the remarkable Government Museum
The Chennai Government Museum contains some remarkable archeological finds from south India and the Deccan.
Inside the deep-red, circular main building, built in 1851, the first gallery is devoted to archeology and geology; the highlights are the dismantled panels, railings and statues from the second-century AD stupa complex at Amaravati.
These carved marble reliefs of the Buddha’s life are widely regarded as the finest achievements of early Indian art.
To the left of here high, arcaded halls full of stuffed animals lead to the ethnology gallery, where models, clothes, weapons and photographs of expressionless faces in orderly lines illustrate local tribal societies, some long since wiped out.
A fascinating display of wind and string instruments, drums and percussion includes the large predecessor of today’s sitar and several old tablas.
The museum’s real treasure trove, however, is the modern wing, which contains the world’s most complete selection of Chola bronzes.
#6 See the sublime Georgian architecture of St Andrew’s Kirk
Just northeast of Egmore Station, St Andrew’s Kirk, consecrated in 1821, is a fine example of Georgian architecture.
Modelled on London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, it’s one of just three churches in India with a circular seating plan, laid out beneath a huge dome painted blue with gold stars and supported by a sweep of Corinthian columns.
Marble plaques around the church give a fascinating insight into the kind of people who left Britain to work for the imperial and Christian cause.
A staircase leads onto the flat roof, surrounding the dome, from where you can climb further up into the steeple past the massive bell to a tiny balcony affording excellent views of the city.
#7 Relax at The Marina, one of the longest city beaches in the world
One of the longest city beaches in the world, the Marina (Kamaraj Salai) stretches 5km from the harbour at the southeastern corner of George Town to near San Thomé Cathedral.
Going south, you’ll pass the Indo-Saracenic Presidency College (1865–71), one of a number of stolid Victorian buildings that make up the University, as well as adjacent Vivekananda House.
The beach itself is a sociable stretch, peopled by idle paddlers, picnickers and pony-riders; every afternoon crowds gather around the beach market.
However, its location, just a little downstream from the port, which belches out waste and smelly fumes, combined with its function as the toilet for the fishing community, detract from its natural beauty.
#8 Visit the interesting Vivekananda House
Housed in a splendidly rotund and ornate stone building, the nineteenth-century Madras depot of the Tudor Ice Company has been converted into the interesting Vivekananda House museum.
It offers an excellent account of the life of the nineteenth-century saint, Swami Vivekananda, who stayed here for some time in 1897. Now a branch of the Sri Ramakrishna Math organisation, the museum contains attractive visual displays of Hindu beliefs, as well as photographic and detailed textual material on Vivekananda’s life.
#9 Wander around Mylapore in Chennai
Long before Madras came into existence, Mylapore, south of the Marina, was a major settlement; the Greek geographer Ptolemy mentioned it in the second century AD as a thriving port. During the Pallava period (fifth to ninth centuries) it was second only to Mamallapuram.
Its two outstanding sights are the venerable San Thomé Cathedral and the mighty Kapalishvara Temple, while the Sri Ramakrishna Math also warrants a visit.
#10 See some early Portuguese maps of India inside San Thomé Cathedral
An important stop on the St Thomas pilgrimage trail, San Thomé Cathedral marks the eastern boundary of Mylapore, lying close to the sea at the southern end of the Marina on San Thomé High Road.
Although the present neo-Gothic structure dates from 1896, it stands on the site of two earlier churches built over the tomb of St Thomas.
The saint’s relics are kept inside the nave, accessed by an underground passage from the small museum at the rear of the courtyard, and are the object of great reverence.
The museum itself houses stones inscribed in Tamil, Sanskrit (twelfth-century Chola) and early Portuguese, and a map of India, dated 1519.
#11 Find peace at the Kapalishvara Temple
The huge Kapalishvara Temple sits just under 1 km west of the San Thomé Cathedral, off RK Mutt Road.
Seventh-century Tamil poet-saints sang its praises, but the present structure, dedicated to Shiva, probably dates from the sixteenth century. The huge (40m) gopura towering above the main east entrance, plastered in stucco figures, was added in 1906.
Surrounding an assortment of busy shrines, where priests offer blessings for devotees and non-Hindus alike, the courtyard features an old tree where a small shrine to Shiva’s consort, Parvati, shows her in the form of a peahen (mayil) worshipping a lingam.
#12 Saunter through the peaceful and extensive grounds of Sri Ramakrishna Math
A short walk south of the Kapalishvara Temple, lie the peaceful and extensive grounds of the Sri Ramakrishna Math, an active place of study for devotees wishing to follow the teachings of the famous nineteenth-century master.
The focus of interest for the casual visitor is the Universal Temple of Sri Ramakrishna, an elegant construction combining architectural motifs from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, as well as European churches.
The manicured forecourt echoes the Islamic themes of the Mughals.
Within the temple itself are a series of prayer halls, approached by steps, and the inner sanctum contains a solid marble statue of Ramakrishna seated on a lotus.
#13 Seek refuge in the Little Mount Caves
St Thomas is said to have sought refuge from persecution in the Little Mount Caves, 8 km south of the city centre.
Entrance to the caves is beside steps leading to a statue of Our Lady of Good Health. Inside, next to a small natural window in the rock, are impressions of what are believed to be St Thomas’ handprints, created when he made his escape through this tiny opening.
Behind the new circular church of Our Lady of Good Health is a natural spring. Tradition has it that this was created when Thomas struck the rock, so the crowds that came to hear him preach could quench their thirst; samples of its holy water are on sale.
#14 Walk to the top of St Thomas Mount
It’s said that St Thomas was speared to death while praying before a stone cross on St Thomas Mount, 11km south of the city centre.
Our Lady of Expectation Church (1523), at the summit of the Mount, can be reached by 134 granite steps marked with the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
Alternatively, there is a road that curls its way to the top, where a huge old banyan tree provides shade for devotees who come to fast, pray and sing.
Inside the church, St Thomas’ cross is rumoured to have bled in 1558, while the altar is said to mark the exact spot of the apostle’s death; the painting of the Madonna and Child above the altar is attributed to St Luke.
#15 Explore the rare Tibetan xylographs at the Theosophical Society headquarters
The Theosophical Society was established in New York in 1875 by American Civil War veteran Colonel Henry S. Olcott and the eccentric Russian aristocrat Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who claimed to have occult powers.
Based on a fundamental belief in the equality and truth of all religions, the society in fact propagated a modern form of Hinduism, praising all things Indian and shunning Christian missionaries.
Needless to say, its two founders were greeted enthusiastically when they transferred their operations to Madras in 1882, establishing their headquarters near Elliot’s Beach in Adyar.
The society’s buildings still stand today, sheltering several shrines and an excellent library of books on religion and philosophy.
The collection includes 800-year-old scroll pictures of the Buddha; rare Tibetan xylographs; exquisitely illuminated Korans; a giant copy of Martin Luther’s Biblia printed in Nuremberg three hundred years ago; and a thumbnail-sized Bible in seven languages.
Best areas to stay in Chennai
Finding an inexpensive place to stay in Chennai can sometimes be a problem.
With the 24hr check-out system, it’s difficult to predict availability and some of the cheaper places don’t take advance bookings.
The good news is that standards in the cheapies are better than in other cities.
Egmore and Triplicane
Most of the mid-range and inexpensive hotels are around the railway station in Egmore and further east in Triplicane.
To the south of Chennai
The bulk of the top hotels are in the south of the city and several offer courtesy buses to and from the airport.
Explore the best hotels to stay in Chennai.
Best restaurants and bars
Chennai offers the complete range of dining options you would expect from a major city.
The choice ranges from dirt-cheap vegetarian “meals” joints to high-class Westernised hotel restaurants, with some unique independent venues in between. Make sure you don't miss Saravana Bhavan, a south Indian fast-food chain, there are more than twenty branches dotted around the city.
Chennai’s bar and club scene has also been growing along with the disposable income of the local middle class. Most of the major nightspots are located in the top-end hotels dotted around the south side of the city.
With a number of shopping centres, there is plenty of choice for foodies in busy Nungambakkam. The best places are on Nungambakkam High Rd and Dr MGR Salai.
Located in South Chennai, Adyarhas some trendy cafes and good-quality South Indian restaurants, especially along Sardar Patel Rd.
Situated along the coast, it’s the seafood stalls on the beach that attracts most travellers to Besant Nagar, but it’s worth stepping back onto 4th Main Rd as well where a clutch of restaurants offer plenty of variety.
How to get around
Chennai’s sights and facilities are spread over such a wide area that it’s impossible to get around without using some form of public transport.
Most visitors jump in auto-rickshaws, but outside rush hours you can travel around comfortably by bus or on the suburban train.
A section of the new Chennai metro between Koyambedu and Alandur was up and running, as was the line from Little Mount to the airport.
By bus tour
One good way to get around the sights of Chennai is on a TTDC bus tour. They’re good value, albeit rushed, and the guides can be very helpful.
The TTDC half-day tour takes in Fort St George, the Government Museum (Birla Planetarium on Fri), the Snake Park, Kapalishvara Temple, and Marina Beach.
City trains travel between Beach (opposite the GPO), Fort, Park (for Central), Egmore, Nungambakkam, Kodambakkam, Mambalam (for T Nagar and silk shops), Saidapet (for Little Mount Church), Guindy, St Thomas Mount and Tirisulam (for the airport).
If you want to travel south from central Chennai to Guindy (Deer Park) or the airport, the easiest way to go is by suburban train (aka the MRST). Buy a ticket before boarding.
Local bus routes radiate out from the amalgamated Express and Broadway bus stands, between Central train station and George Town. On Anna Salai and other major thoroughfares buses have dedicated stops, but on smaller streets you have to flag them down, or wait with the obvious crowd.
Auto-rickshaw drivers in Chennai are notorious for demanding high fares from locals and tourists alike. The diversions and one-way systems in place due to the construction of the metro are having a considerable effect on journey times and hence rickshaw prices.
Chennai’s yellow-top Ambassador taxis have metres but drivers often refuse to use them, so prepare yourself for some hard bargaining.
What is the best time to visit Chennai?
The ideal time to visit Chennai is during the pleasant winter months from November to February, with temperatures ranging from 20°C to 25°C. This allows for enjoyable exploration of the city's attractions, outdoor activities, and leisurely beach walks.
It is advisable to avoid the monsoon season from June to September due to heavy rainfall and the hot and humid summer months from March to May.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How many days do you need in Chennai?
If you're primarily interested in exploring the city's major attractions and experiencing its cultural offerings, a duration of 2 to 3 days should be sufficient. This will allow you to visit popular landmarks such as the Marina Beach, Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Fort St. George, Government Museum, and San Thome Basilica. Additionally, you can explore traditional markets like Pondy Bazaar and T. Nagar for shopping and immerse yourself in the local cuisine.
If you wish to extend your stay and explore beyond the city, you can consider allocating more time. Chennai serves as a gateway to other notable destinations in Tamil Nadu, such as Mahabalipuram (famous for its UNESCO World Heritage site temples and beach) and Pondicherry (known for its French colonial architecture and serene ambiance), which can be visited as day trips or overnight stays.
How to get here
Chennai airport, the airport in Tirisulam, 16 km southwest of the city centre on NH-45, is comprehensively served by international and domestic flights.
The new international and domestic terminals are a short walk from each other, on opposite sides of the old terminal.
Facilities at both are much better on the air side than the land side.
Chennai has two main long-distance railway stations – Egmore and Central, both on the north side of the city centre and just 1.5km apart. Egmore station is the arrival point for most trains from Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Mofussil Bus Stand Buses from all long-distance destinations use the huge Mofussil Bus Stand, inconveniently situated in the suburb of Koyambedu, more than 10 km west of the centre.
Mofussil is linked to other parts of Chennai by a host of city buses, which depart from the well-organised platforms outside the main terminal.
Boats leave Chennai every week/ten days for Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Islands.
The first thing you’ll need to do is contact the Shipping Corporation of India at 17 Rajaji Salai, Jawahar Building, George Town to find out when the next sailing is.
Tickets usually go on sale up to a month prior to departure. There are no ticket sales on the day of sailing.
Find out the best ways to get to India.