Chennai, the largest city in southern India — known until 1996 as Madras — faces the Bay of Bengal. It has a very hot and humid climate almost year round, so it's best to avoid trying see and do everything and instead explore at a relaxed pace, especially at midday. Experiencing the city's vibrant temples and enjoying its beaches are the main reasons for visiting Chennai. The region's residents speak Tamil, although English is the lingua franca among Indians whose first language isn't Tamil, so it is widely spoken.
What We Love
The Flavors of Chennai: Above all, this city is extremely well respected for its food, which some consider the best in India. Rice is a staple at all meals, mixed with chutneys, curries, lentils, and other sweet and savory flavors — many in vegetarian dishes.
Marina Beach: Indians are drawn to this 2-mile strand for the markets, cafés, kite flying, and socializing. It’s easy to meet locals here, if that interests you. At the end of the beach is Madras Lighthouse, which can be climbed (taking the elevator — this is the only Indian lighthouse with one — is much easier) for great views of the sea, the city, and recreational action below.
Best Known For
Kapaleeshwarar Temple: This multicolored temple, dedicated to the god Shiva, is the city's best-known ancient monument. The original dated to the 7th century, but it was rebuilt after being destroyed in the 16th century. Many festivals take place here among the various shrines, which include the highly detailed gopuram (gateway tower).
Government Museum: Built by the British in the late 19th century, the Government Museum houses a large collection of bronzes dating from the 7th century to today, as well as sculpture spanning almost two millennia.
Mahabalipuram Temple: Located less than 40 miles south of Chennai, this intriguing Shore Temple has had the Bay of Bengal lapping at its foundations for more than 1,400 years.
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Who It's Best For
Active Travelers: Anyone with a good level of fitness will find plenty to see during the heat of day. Those with less stamina can still get a feel for the city along Marina Beach as the sun begins to set and things cool off.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Don't Rush: The heat can take a quick and dangerous toll.
Theodore W. Scull is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has written several books on crossings.