In 1996, the city of Madras was rechristened as Chennai and metamorphosed into a metro city. Chennai was an important center of British rule. The British legacy of Victorian buildings still exists and is now thriving as business centers, courts of law, and important landmarks.
Adding to this, the cultural and religious landmarks across Chennai remain major tourist attractions. It draws visitors into the culture where tradition is expertly blended with multi-variate experiences provided by interesting places, the culinary delights, and a bounty of the coastal landscape.
Bask in Chennai’s culture with these 9 destinations that make for great visitor experiences:
1. Marina beach
Chennai’s biggest landmark is also the second-longest urban beach in the world. The city’s long coastline, equipped with an active port, was among the major reasons the British made Chennai their southern capital.
It is more than just a beach as it has various attractions lined up on its shorelines, such as memorials of the State’s popular political luminaries, an aquarium, a lighthouse, statues of eminent personalities, and sculptures by famous Indian artists.
Overlooking the beach are historic buildings displaying Victorian, Saracenic, and Byzantine architectures that house the Madras University, Presidency College, and the Vivekananda House – where Vivekananda had delivered his first discourse after attaining salvation.
The shacks on the beach provide various culinary experiences to the visitors. Marina beach holds an iconic stature for Chennai and is a preferred destination for everything from hosting political rallies to marathons and various sports activities. Don’t miss the brilliant sunrise view from here, if you are in Chennai.
2. Fort. St.George
Currently the seat of the Government of Tamil Nadu, this houses the Legislative Assembly. This landmark was the center point and around it, expands the city of the then Madras, now Chennai.
The Fort‘s St. George museum has collections of prized relics of the British era including weapons, coins, hand-written letters of Robert Clive and Lord Cornwallis, and traces the origin and history of Chennai through ages and the era of post-independent India.
Do visit the first fortress in India built by the British. A popular attraction in it is the Flagstaff, believed to be among the tallest structures in the country.
3. St. Thomas Mount
Traditionally believed to be the site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas, it is a small hillock close to Chennai’s airport. A popular legend narrates that St. Thomas had spent his last days here and was killed while praying before a stone cross.
St. Thomas is believed to have traveled to India to spread the gospel after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He is said to be the first missionary to bring faith to India.
At the top of this hillock, the visitors get a panoramic view of the teeming city. Approachable by climbing the 134 granite steps and marked by 14 stations of the travels of the Cross, the Portuguese who established a mission at the top built it.
Don’t miss Saint’s handprint impressions and the natural spring believed to have sprung to quench the thirst of the believers when the apostle had struck the earth. The famous stone cross, built into the altar, is also noteworthy.
Dating back to over 1500 years, Mylapore is popularly known as the soul of Chennai. A step into this area draws you into the rich cultural heritage of Chennai.
Adorned by the famous 17th century Kapaleeswarar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva with its famous 40 meters ‘Gopuram’ (dome), it was traditionally a residential area of the Brahmin community.
A short walk brings the visitor to a grand neo-Gothic style Santhome Cathedral, dedicated to St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. To its east lies the Ramakrishna Mutt Temple. This was also the birthplace of a famous Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar.
The narrow streets in this area overflow with shops selling curios, religious artifacts, Bharatanatyam costumes, and jewelry shops. Mylapore is also famous for Carnatic music, with this area becoming home to various cultural programs in December and January.
It celebrates Carnatic and traditional music and dance festival across different temple venues and the ‘sabhas’. Don’t miss the culinary offerings of various outlets, full of mouth-watering recipes and South Indian delicacies.
5. Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)
On driving along the East Coast Road (ECR), 60 km from Chennai, one arrives at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mamallapuram. Dated back to the 7th century CE, the temple town was a famous port city, evidenced by the discovery of ancient Chinese, Persian, and Roman coins.
Popularly known as the town of the Seven Pagodas, Mamallapuram is famous for a group of royal monuments carved out of a rock. These sculptured rock reliefs recount epics and legends of the Hindu culture like the ‘Arjuna’s penance’, ‘Descent of the Ganges’, the five ‘Rathas’ monolithic temples, and a series of sculptured Shiva temples.
The stone sculpture industry is another facet of this place. Shops sell breathtaking sculptures by contemporary sculptors depicting deities and various art and dance forms.
Mamallapuram is also the venue for the popular Art and Dance festival held every year in January with the backdrop of historic rock carvings. Don’t miss the ‘Krishna Butter Ball’, a gigantic boulder balanced on a steep slope, defying gravity. Legend calls it a ‘giant dollop of butter dropped by the Gods.’
6. Theosophical Society Adyar
The Theosophical Society was started in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky. They moved it to Chennai (then Madras) in 1893.
Sprawling across 260 acres, the serene surroundings are home to migratory birds and several small animals. The gardens have full-grown trees and notably an ancient 450-year-old banyan tree, known as the Adyar Bodhi tree.
Society grounds are residence to people from over 50 countries and have shrines of all faiths. The Theosophical Society’s doctrine aims to promote equality in faiths and blends the beliefs of all faiths. Don’t forget to trace the aerial roots of the Banyan tree that stretch out for over 40,000 square feet.
7. Arignar Anna Zoological Park
Located on the outskirts of Chennai, this 200-year-old zoo is spread over 1250 acres. A host of battery-operated cars and a battery-operated train take the visitors to various enclosures to visit a wide range of animals, birds, amphibians, fish aquariums, reptiles, and a butterfly park.
A huge draw on the weekends for locals, it also has a play-park, a learning center, a library, and elephant joy rides. Visiting animals living in open enclosures provide visitors with an exciting experience of getting to watch them.
Special attractions include a walk-through Aviary with rare species of birds, the Bengal Tiger, and a Chimpanzee enclosure. Don’t miss the lion safari that covers over 70 acres and is a great 15-minute experience showing the king of the jungle living with their kinds.
8. Pulicat Lake
A bird watcher’s paradise, Pulicat Lake borders the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. This scenic brackish lagoon is the second largest lake in the country, spanning over 160 square kilometers.
This bird sanctuary reserve is the favorite picnic spot for the locals of Chennai. Here you can spot flamingos, kingfishers, pelicans, and other rare birds. Don’t forget to explore the 17th century Danish Fort ruins close to this lake.
9. Crocodile Bank
On the east coast stretch, the Crocodile Bank is the largest crocodile sanctuary in India. It is home to over 17 species of crocodiles, numbering over 2000, including some endangered species.
These species include the Indian mugger, gharials, West African dwarf, Siamese, and Nile crocodiles. Also added are Komodo dragons from the Bronx Zoo in the USA. The bank has expanded over time to include various species of turtles, snakes, iguanas, and lizards.
Take the opportunity to learn about crocodile breeding in the Crocodile Conversation Centre and don’t miss the venom extraction show at its snake farm.
A gateway to the South, Chennai offers an amazing experience with its diversity in religion, art, museums, performing arts, and regional cuisine. All you have to do is pack your bags with a few summer clothes and set out on a trip to this place.