How to Spend a Weekend in Chennai (9 Things to See and Do)
Chennai is one of the four major metropolitan cities in India. It is known for its thriving IT and automobile industry, and it has the largest expatriate population of any Indian city. This city was named 'Madras' by the British during the colonial era, and the British legacy can be felt there even now.
One needs a minimum of one week to explore Chennai as a first-time visitor. But time is precious, and we may not always have the luxury of being able to take a week-long vacation. If you have just a couple of days in Chennai, this list will help you choose from among the city's many attractions, allowing you to discover its atmosphere and soul in a short amount of time.
Top 9 Things to Do and See in Chennai
- Visit DakshinaChitra Museum
- Try Vegetarian Madrasi Meals
- Visit Mahabalipuram
- Try Filter Coffee at Madras Coffee House
- Go Shopping on T. Nagar
- Take a Trip to Vandalur Zoo
- Enjoy Non-Vegetarian Madrasi Meals
- Take a Tour of Colonial-Era Buildings
- Go to Marina Beach
1. Visit DakshinaChitra Museum
Any trip to Chennai would be incomplete without a drive on the ECR. I would recommend doing this on the first day, as it involves some travel. We are spoiled with many choices on the ECR, but personally, I would pick a visit to the DakshinaChitra Museum. It is a unique attraction not seen elsewhere in India.
The museum showcases many traditional residences seen across South India. There are separate sections for each South Indian state. One can also enjoy activities like mehndi, pottery, cultural events and shopping in Crafts Bazaar. The traditional residences were moved from their original locations to the museum to keep authenticity intact. For more information, check out my list of the Top Things to Do at DakshinaChitra Museum.
2. Try South Indian Vegetarian Meals
South Indian vegetarian food is a specialty in Chennai, but there is no guarantee you will be served an authentic South Indian breakfast at your hotel. So lunch is your best opportunity to taste authentic Chennai food.
There are two options on the ECR for good South Indian vegetarian food with a touch of Chennai. Sangeetha near DakshinaChitra Museum is the ideal choice if you wish to have lunch immediately after the museum visit. If you have time, you can also reach Adyar Ananda Bhavan in Mahabalipuram to have a taste of Madrasi food. Sangeetha and Adyar Ananda Bhavan also have many locations within the city.
3. Visit Mahabalipuram
After lunch, spend some time in Mahabalipuram, a town on the East Coast Road that can be reached in 30 minutes by car from DakshinaChitra. It is a coastal town known for its stone sculptures created during the 7th century. Shore Temple, Pancha Rathas, Arjuna Penance, and the cave temples are the major attractions in Mahabalipuram.
It is also a great place to buy craft items and stone sculptures. Edible treats abound here as well; palmyra fruit and tender coconut are sold by roadside vendors on the East Coast Road connecting Chennai and Mahabalipuram.
4. Try Filter Coffee at Madras Coffee House
South Indian filter coffee—known for its strong, yet pleasant, aroma—was not invented in Chennai, and the city does not have coffee plantations nearby. Yet filter coffee and Chennai are closely associated, so much so that no visit to the city would be complete without a cup of filter coffee.
In the good old days, the streets were filled with many coffee shops, but there are far fewer now. Still, authentic filter coffee is available in a few places, like Madras Coffee House. They have many locations in the city, so chances are you can find one near wherever you are.
I recommend rounding out your evening in style with a cup of filter coffee when you return to the city from Mahabalipuram.
5. Go Shopping on T. Nagar
When the evening is still young, head to Usman Road near Panagal Park on T. Nagar. You will find many hypermarkets, garment stores, jewellery shops, and more. But T. Nagar is not known just for organized retail outlets; the streets are filled with many hawkers who sell everything from electronics to fruit.
Ranganathan Street leading to T. Nagar Railway Station is a place where one can experience an ocean of humanity on most evenings. Be prepared to enjoy the crowds, as this place is always buzzing with activity.
6. Take a Trip to Vandalur Zoo
The first half of your second day in Chennai can be spent in Vandalur Zoo, one of the largest zoos in India. One of the best things about this place is that it provides enormous green cover right in the middle of the city. The animals are also housed in reasonable comfort.
You can see a wide range of animals, including many big cats, elephants, bison, zebras and giraffes. They even offer a lion safari during the daytime. Battery-operated vehicles that can be used to go around the park are available for a nominal fee. Walking is a healthier option, but it might take a full day to see all the sections that way. So I would recommend using the battery-operated vehicle to hasten the process.
7. Enjoy Non-Vegetarian Madrasi Food
Chennai is also known for its great non-vegetarian restaurants, some of which have been in operation for several decades. I recommend trying Buhari Restaurant at Mount Road near Tarapore Towers or the Ponnusamy Hotel Restaurant on TTK Road. You will be treated to great food and a touch of Chennai flavor.
What should you order? A mutton biryani or a parotta can be tried in either of these hotels. Buhari makes dum biryani, and Ponnusamy makes biryani in the South Indian style. If you go to Buhari, do not miss their tea.
8. Take a Tour of Chennai's Colonial-Era Buildings
Go for a drive from Chennai Central to Santhome Church to cover the following colonial-era buildings:
- Ripon Building
- Chennai Central Railway Station
- Fort St. George
- Napier Bridge
- Madras University Building
- IG office
- Santhome Church
Chennai city was developed by the British during the colonial era. Before the city came under British rule, the Dutch held it for a brief period, leaving their footprints as well. We may or may not appreciate this part of history, but there is no doubt that its architecture provides a visual treat.
9. Spend the Evening at Marina Beach
There is nothing more refreshing than the sea breeze on an evening in Chennai. It is no wonder that thousands of residents and tourists throng the beaches in the city.
There are many good beaches in the city, and the most famous—Marina Beach—is not my favorite. That said, I would still recommend Marina Beach for a first-time visitor, as it is the largest and the most crowded. You have not seen Chennai if you have not seen Marina Beach.
Stay Options in Chennai
The city has many multi-star hotels, including Taj Connemara, Taj Clubhouse, Taj Coromandel, Hyatt, Crowne Plaza, The Leela Palace, and ITC Grand Chola. There are also many good budget options, such as Woodlands, Savera, and Ambassador Pallava in the city center.
Being a major metropolis, the city is well connected by road and rail to other parts of the country. It has one of the busiest airports in the country, with connectivity to all major cities in India and many international destinations.
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© 2020 Mohan Babu