Situated on the Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal in south-east India, Chennai – formerly known as Madras – is both an economic powerhouse and a cultural centre.
With almost nine million people living in the metropolitan area, Chennai is India’s fourth largest city. It has a large automobile industry and is India’s second largest exporter of IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) services.
As the state capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is an important cultural centre for dance, music and cinema. Its annual music and dance festival, held from mid-December to mid-January celebrates traditional Tamil Carnatic dance and music. It also has a large movie industry, colloquially known as Kollywood.
Chennai has for centuries been an important trading port for merchants selling spices, cloth and other goods. It has been coveted by the Dutch, French, Portuguese and British. In 1639, the British established Chennai as a trading post and began to build the Fort St George, giving rise to the city as we know it today.
Despite its size and importance in economics and culture, Chennai is a slower-paced city than its Indian counterparts. This laidback pace and the humble nature of the city make its residents more friendly than you’d expect for a metropolis this size.
When to go:
The best time to visit Chennai is in the winter months from November to February. This is also the time for the great festivals. It can be very hot and humid in the high summer months.
- Visit Fort St George, which houses the Secretariat and Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu. There’s a Fort Museum near the entrance that contains memorabilia from previous Raj and Muslim administrations.
- Take a sunset stroll along Marina Beach. The 12km stretch of sand is the world’s second longest stretch of beach.
- Shop around for some bargains in the markets of George Town or Theagaraya Nagar.
- Time your visit with festival season in December/January. As well as the music season, Pongol, a traditional Hindu harvest festival, is held in January.
- Visit the Government Museum. Housed in a British-built complex, the museum has archaeology and natural history sections as well as a bronze collection. You can use the same ticket to enter the National Art Gallery.
- Book a ticket in advance for the cinema – they sell out! The Devi Cineplex in the heart of Chennai is a beautiful building in which to get your dose of Kollywood.
- Visit Little Mount, a cave where St Thomas is said to have lived and St Thomas’ Mount, the site of his martyrdom.
- Go to church – St Mary’s Church is the oldest British church in India and the Basilica of the National Shrine of St Thomas is an imposing structure of historical significance.
- Valluvar Kottam is a memorial to the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar and his epic moral poem Thirukural.
- Marvel at the Kapaleeshwar Temple in central Chennai and the 8th Century Sri Parthasarathay Temple near Marina Beach.