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Pocket Guide: Chennai

A vibrant mix of modern and traditional, Chennai is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu on India’s eastern coast. It was the first British outpost in India, and until 1997 was known as Madras. Today it combines diverse districts, some fine museums and a growing number of sophisticated hotels and swanky restaurants.

The historic heart to this gateway to South India is the 17th-century British Fort St. George, which is at the tail end of the narrow streets of George Town. The Portuguese left their mark, too, which you can see clearly in the 16th-century San Thome Cathedral in the southern part of Chennai.

Things to Do in Chennai

Start at the Government Museum, a sprawling complex of galleries. The Bronze Gallery has an excellent collection of seventh-century South Indian bronzes. Your ticket also gets you into the National Art Gallery, the Children’s Museum and the Contemporary Art Gallery.

Look out for the elaborate colonnade of the eighth-century Parthasarathy Temple, one of the oldest in Chennai. From here you’re only a short walk to Marina Beach, one of the biggest gathering points in Chennai. Watch the locals play cricket as you wander past market stalls and fortune-tellers. Head to the southern end to find Madras Lighthouse, the only lighthouse in India that has a lift. The views from the top of the coast and the city are superb.

One of the most entertaining ways of getting to know Chennai is by taking an organised tour. Local experts take you around the city giving you the lowdown on everything from food to bazaars to temples.

Where to Stay in Chennai

There’s a good selection of hotels across Chennai, as well as beach resorts further down the coast – find a hotel in Mahabalipuram to get wonderful views of the Bay of Bengal. Choose a family-friendly contemporary hotel in central Chennai and you’ll be able to relax in the spa and indoor pool. Or book an upmarket Chennai hotel with fine dining and an outdoor pool.

Where to Eat in Chennai

Vegetarians will be spoilt for choice in Chennai, where you can feast on thalis – a feast of small dishes accompanied by rice. Dosas are another South Indian speciality, a thin pancake served with vegetables, lentils and coconut chutney. Meat-eaters can get their fill of biryani dishes in the Muslim district around Triplicane High Road. For high-end dining, check out the restaurants in Chennai’s luxury hotels, where you can get international cuisine.

Shopping in Chennai

Browse the many silk shops in the area around Panagal Park, where exquisite and colourful fabrics catch your eye. For a touch of luxury, check out the designer boutiques in Khader Nawaz Khan Road. If you want the convenience of having international and Indian brands under one roof, visit Chennai’s shopping malls, Chennai Citi Centre and Express Avenue.

After exploring Chennai’s many urban villages, temples and beaches, you’ll find plenty of attractive hotels wherever you choose to stay – whether it’s in the heart of the city or overlooking the Bay of Bengal.