Chennai has made it to The New York Times’ list of ‘52 Places To Go In 2014’. Even as it ranks 26th on the global list, we present 26 places and experiences that make the city what it is.
1. Old Madras
Take in the musty smells and history as you walk down some of Chennai’s (earlier Madras) oldest streets. Walk around George Town to take in the beauty of the High Court’s Indo-Saracenic architecture or the bell tower at the Armenian Church. It is startlingly contemporary, and comfortably wears history on its sleeve.
2. Arubathimoovar Festival
The glorious procession of Lord Shiva’s 63 saints across the streets of Mylapore is a feast for the eyes. This festival takes place at the Kapaleeswarar Temple every March or April. Not only is this an opportunity to witness a festive procession of thousands of worshippers, but also a chance to look at the fine architecture of the temple itself, which dates back to the 8th Century.
3. Madras Week
For one week in August, the whole city celebrates India’s first modern city. Yup, we are all ardent lovers of our heritage and culture. It is a great time to visit the city because of the number of photo, heritage and food walks that take place. Apart from this, there are also lectures, presentations, quizzes, contests and activities everywhere. It’s a great way to find out exactly what Chennai is about.
What is Chennai without its beaches? Whether it is the wide expanse of the Marina or the intrinsic link between a memorial and the waters beyond it at Elliot’s beach or even the quieter stretches that dot Thiruvanmiyur and ECR, this is an entertainment option for anyone. Watch the sun rise or the fishermen drag their boats into the sea at the Marina. If none of these interests you, sit by the waters with a packet of roasted groundnuts or fresh bajji from a mobile stall nearby.
5. Cholamandal Artists’ Village
The village was the culmination of the Madras Movement of Art and was established in 1966. This movement brought modernism to art in South India and is now the country’s largest artist commune. Walk past the banyan or take in the many sculptures and installations throughout the village. You could also bump into or meet the artists who live there.
6. Reptile Watch
For herpetology enthusiasts, Chennai is a great place to learn and watch reptiles. The Madras Snake Park was set up in 1972, and is the country’s first reptile park. Another place is the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, which promotes the conservation or reptiles and amphibians. This, too, is one of the oldest in the country.
The café scene isn’t probably as happening as in the rest of the world, but it is definitely picking up. Whether it is dining al fresco at Amethyst or sipping coffee at Chamiers Eco Café, choosing from a list of teas at Lloyd’s Tea House or even basking in the quirkiness of The Madras Place, there are varied experiences thanks to the increasing number of places where people can go to for long conversations.
8. Guindy National Park
Chennai is one of the few places that has a National Park bang in the middle of the city. The park, covering a large area, is one of the last remnants of tropical dry evergreen forests along the Coromandel coast. It boasts a variety of flora and fauna (jackals, deer, butterflies, spiders, tortoises, snakes, geckos and more).
9. Vandalur Zoo
The first public zoo in India, the Arignar Anna Zoological Park was opened in 1855. Not only is it the biggest such park in the country, it also has over 1,500 species of animals. So take those picnic baskets and cameras and head out!
Malls existed in Chennai before they became a statement of style everywhere. Take Spencer Plaza, for instance, which has been around since the 1800s. It continues to offer something for every customer. Now, of course, we have Citi Centre, Express Avenue, Ampa Skywalk Mall, Forum Vijaya Mall and Phoenix Market City to this list.
11. Turtle Walk
Imagine walking across the wet sand late at night, watching little eggs hatch and guiding turtle hatchlings towards the sea. This is a yearly event that’s popular in the city. Olive Ridley turtles nest in the beaches between December and April and during this time, volunteers walk the beaches each night to collect eggs, relocate them to safer places and release the hatchlings into the ocean.
12. Legend of St. Thomas
The legend of St. Thomas is prevalent all over the city. The saint’s visit in the first Century, which begins at San Thome (the city of Saint Thomas) moves across to R.A. Puram (where there is a church erected on the place he rested), Chinnamalai (where he lived in a cave that still exists) and ends in St. Thomas Mount (where he was believed to be killed). One can spend a day tracing his life through the streets of the city.
13. Theosophical Society
Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott set up the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar to promote theosophy. The society is also one of the largest green pockets of the city and boasts great views of the Adyar River. It is also home to a variety of birds and trees. It’s a great place for an evening stroll or just a nice break from the noise.
14. December Music Season
Since it feels like summer for most part of the year, it is December we look forward to; there is a nip in the air and the city is alive with the sound of music. rRasikas from far and wide come to Chennai as much to soak up the Carnatic music on offer at sabhas as they do for the great food at the canteens that spring to life. Keera vadai after a good keeravani is a unique Chennai experience!
15. Fort St. George
The seat of power, even today, in the old part of the city, Fort St. George is important to Madras’ history. The complex has in its folds, the Secretariat, a museum (check out the stunning portraits of various men and women of power of yore), and St. Mary’s Church — the oldest Anglican church in India… If you are lucky, you may also catch a glimpse of high-profile politicians as they make their way to their majestic office here.
16. East Coast Road
A road trip is perhaps the best way to get to know a place. Conceived as a scenic highway, the East Coast Road connects Chennai to Puducherry and beyond. On your lovely drive, catch some photo-ops at the beautiful beaches — Kovalam, for instance, go for a boat ride in Muttukadu, stop for filter coffee along the Highway, watch the tropical sun work its magic on salt pans, drink sweet tender coconut under a canopy of trees overlooking lush green fields... All just an hour or two away from the metropolis.
17. Party on
The story of Chennai’s most happening nightlife reads like a Bollywood script. The underdog, labelled too conservative that many international artistes were happy to skip only a decade ago, it now has a party scene that betters even the likes of Mumbai. With pubs staying open till midnight and the many new ones in star hotels keeping their doors open for patrons well into the night, many DJs now have a new city to call their favourite. Go pub-hopping from The Hilton’s Q Bar to Park Hyatt’s Flying Elephant, stopping in between at Ten Downing Street, Illusions The Madras Pub and Sheraton Park’s Dublin before heading to Taj Mount Road’s Blend…
18. Filter coffee
Be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, or just about any break, no day is complete without this perfect blend of pick-me-up goodness for most of us. Freshly ground coffee beans’ decoction, freshly boiled milk and just a bit of sugar on a davara-tumbler — and there you have it, chapter one of filter coffee for dummies. Stop at one of the many ‘Bhavans’ or ‘Pure Vegetarian Hotels’ for a hit of this potent concoction.
A British legacy, tiffing, has over time become tiffin. Watch out for boards that cheerfully scream out ‘Tiffin Ready’ on roadsides. Evening snacks, mainly crisp, perfectly golden vadas with chutneys are great indulgences.
A cradle of culture of sorts in Chennai, Kalakshetra plays an important role in preserving the traditional arts, and Bharatanatyam, in particular. Founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale and spread across lush green spaces, the idyllic school hosts several performances and lectures throughout the year.
A museum of art, crafts and architecture, DakshinaChitra presents snapshots of South India to the world in a small scale. Heritage houses, streets, folk performances, a fair-like exhibition of local crafts and wares… it is indeed the next best thing we have to a time machine.
22. Sari shopping
Nine or six yards? Cotton or silk? Or are you one of those new-age jute-meets-tissue person? For lovers of weaves, Chennai is indeed ‘the’ place. Amble along T. Nagar’s Usman Road and visit Nalli, RMKV, Pothys or head to the newer niche showrooms such as Sundari Silks and Paduka and spare a thought for our handloom weavers who spin wonders that are comfortable, elegant and just perfect for all occasions.
From Superstar to Power star (and all the other stars in between), there’s space for every variety of performer in Kollywood. There is quite nothing like catching the first-day-first-show of a “mass entertainer” — be it a Rajinikant-starrer or a Vijay-starrer. While the art-deco-styled Casino theatre makes for a charming setting to travel back in time, Escape and Satyam Cinemas have redefined the movie-going experience for Chennaiites. All for Rs.120 only.
24. Mada streets
In the middle of all the metro rail construction work and swanky new pubs are spaces right in the heart of Chennai that continue to preserve the spirit of past ever so delicately. In Mylapore, West Mambalam and Triplicane’s Mada Streets that surround historic temples, hawkers selling wares and sweetmeats can transport you to a simpler time. Stroll along these gullies and discover the charm of a city that has a strong hold on its past, even as it makes its moolah from the IT revolution.
25. Bronze gallery
The bronze gallery at the Government Museum in Egmore, housing stunning works from the past, is a delightful example of the sort of cultural richness Chennai has in store. From Ayyanar to Nataraja and the four-headed Brahma, catch a glimpse of the workmanship of the past at this gallery.
A chance to visit historic monuments such as Arjuna’s Penance, shopping for colourful trinkets and clothes and catamaran rides at star-rated resorts, there is something for every kind of tourist at Mamallapuram, which is halfway between Chennai and Puducherry. Make a day trip to this town, watch the waves crash into the beautiful shore temple as the sun sets — even as you guzzle down beer at one of the many shacks and sample some fresh, local sea food.