Chennai, India

Grand colonial architecture, tranquil gardens and a long sandy beach make Tamil Nadu's capital one of India's most glorious cities, says Cathy Packe
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WHY GO NOW?

In the city formerly known as Madras they claim that there are three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest, when temperatures can reach 50C. Now it's merely hot, which makes this the best time of year for sightseeing. And in December and January, the Chennai Dance and Music Festival takes place, celebrating the cultural traditions of south India. A comprehensive list of events is available at www.artindia.net.

TOUCH DOWN

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Chennai. Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com/uk) flies from Birmingham, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester via Dubai. Plenty of operators can organise a tailor-made holiday, including Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com). The airport is confusing, but just outside the arrivals hall is a row of kiosks where you can arrange the 10-mile ride into town. A pre-paid taxi should cost Rs350 (£4), or take a local train from the airport station, Trisulam, to one of the city-centre stations, like Egmore (1), for Rs7 (8p).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The capital of Tamil Nadu is situated on the Bay of Bengal, which forms the city's eastern boundary and provides Chennai with a long, sandy coastline. Two rivers, the Cooum and the Adyar, cut through the city. North of the Cooum are Fort St George and nearby George Town, which were at the heart of the area occupied by the British in the 17th century. Chennai's main thoroughfare, Anna Salai, begins at the Fort and cuts diagonally through the city towards the south-west. Between Anna Salai and the coast are the central districts of Triplicane and Mylapore. Street names in the city have recently been "Indianised"; Anna Salai is still shown on some maps as Mount Street. The main tourist office (2) is at 154 Anna Salai (00 91 44 2846 0285), open 9.30am-6pm Monday to Friday, until 1pm Saturday, closed Sunday.

CHECK IN

The newest of Chennai's upmarket hotels, the Rain Tree (3) is hard to beat. This boutique "ecotel" is in a quiet residential location at 120 St Mary's Road (00 91 44 2430 4050; www.raintreehotels.com) and has a wonderful rooftop pool with views all over the city. Doubles start at US$191 (£106) including breakfast. The Connemara (4) on Binny Road (0870 730 1332; www.tajhotels.com) is an old colonial building, slightly faded but offering excellent facilities. Double rooms start at $225 (£125); breakfast is an extra Rs525 (£6). Kennet Lane is a bustling street packed with budget hotels. The New Victoria (5) at number 3 (00 91 44 2819 3638) is good value, with doubles from Rs1,407 (£16) and singles at Rs1,073 (£12), including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

Explore colonial Chennai by taking a walk through Fort St George. This walled area at the northern end of the city was built in 1640 and was the hub of British life. Go in through the Sea Gate entrance (6) on Kamarajar Salai, and in front of you is St Mary's, the first Protestant church in south India. The gothic style has been adapted to suit the climate: there is no glass in the windows, pews are made of wood and rattan, and the building is protected from the elements by wooden shutters. Robert Clive - Clive of India - was married here, and the house where he lived, behind the church, is now a government office. As you come out of St Mary's, head left, inside the walls of the fort. The imposing building on the left was the original headquarters of the East India Company and is now the State Legislature. Beyond this is the Fort Museum (7), open 10am-5pm Saturday-Thursday; admission is Rs100 (£1.15). Items left behind by the British form the basis of the collection: weapons and ammunition, medals, porcelain, and a collection of military uniforms completely unsuitable for the climate. Continue around the back of the building and into the parade ground before leaving the Fort again through the Sea Gate (6) Continue to the left along the main road to the ornate red brick building on the corner; this is the High Court (8), also built by the British.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The best option in the George Town area is Saravana Bhavan (9) (00 91 44 2538 7766; www.saravanabhavan.com), part of a chain of vegetarian restaurants opposite the High Court at 209 NSC Bose Road. Main dishes start at Rs150 (£1.75). If you are hungry, there is a South Indian Banquet - soup, several main dishes and rice - for Rs350 (£4). For a wider choice of cuisine, try the food court in Spencer Plaza (10), part souk, part western-style shopping mall on Anna Salai.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The tranquil gardens around the headquarters of the Theosophical Society (11), in the southern suburb of Adyar, are a pleasant place to escape the noise and bustle of the city. One of the highlights is the vast 400-year-old banyan tree, said to be one of the largest in the world. The unusual aerial roots give the impression that it is walking across the landscape. The gardens open 8.30-10am and 2-4pm daily except Sunday, admission free.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The locals shop in the narrow streets of George Town, although visitors may be more attracted to Spencer Plaza (10); open 10am-8.30pm daily. There are plenty of typical Indian handicrafts for sale at Cottage Industries (12) at 118 Nungambakkam High Road (00 91 44 2833 4800).

AN APERITIF

A number of new bars have opened up and cocktails are the latest trend. Current local favourite is Zara (13) at 74 Cathedral Road, which also serves some passable Spanish tapas.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Some of the hotels have good restaurants attached to their bars: the Lemon Grass oriental restaurant at the Rain Tree hotel (3) is a good example. A more authentic alternative is Annalakshmi (14), a vegetarian restaurant at 804 Anna Salai (00 91 44 2852 5109; www.annalakshmichennai.com) which serves excellent south Indian cuisine.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Santhome Church (15) (00 91 44 2498 5455; www.santhomechurch.com) in the Mylapore district, commemorates the apostle who brought Christianity to India. Sunday Mass is at 7.15am, 9.30am and noon. In contrast, less than a mile away is the Kapalishvara temple (16), built in typical style with a pillar hall and temple tank. Get there before 9am and you will see the bronze statues of Shiva and Parvati carried back into the temple after being paraded around the local streets - a policy of bringing the gods to the people who are unable to get to the temple.

OUT TO BRUNCH

At the buffet in the Main Street restaurant at the Residency Towers Hotel (17) on Sir Thyagaraya Road (00 91 44 2815 6363) you can help yourself to dishes from all over the world for Rs400 (£4.60).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Government Museum (18) on Pantheon Road (00 91 44 2819 3238; www.chennaimuseum.org), housed in a building that was the British Court House, is one of the oldest museums in India. The highlight is its impressive collection of Chola bronzes, statues of the gods that came from some of the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu. It is open 9.30am-5pm daily except Friday, admission Rs250 (£2.90).

WRITE A POSTCARD...

...from the beach. Chennai has the longest beach of any city in the world apart from Miami, although swimming is frowned upon. But at weekends, and in the early evening, Marina Beach (19) is a buzzing social centre: people come to meet their friends, paddle in the water, and buy freshly-cooked fish.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Mingle with the stars on the sets at the AVM Film Studios (20) at 38 Arcot Road (00 91 44 4213 6500). Chennai is the centre of a flourishing Tamil film industry and foreigners are welcome to visit the sets and watch the filming - just turn up at the main gate and ask for a pass.

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