It’s hard to explain what Chennai, India really means to me, since I was born there and lived in its protected walls (hypothetical, of course) for 25 years. It’s a city that wears its culture on its sleeve, strutting proudly through ancient streets dotted with buildings that go back centuries.
It’s also a city where India’s modern history began, the morning coffee is almost a religion, and evening discussions can go anywhere from passionate political debates and cricket commentaries to the right consistency of rice and lentils to make soft, fluffy idlis for breakfast.
That said, if you were a tourist in Chennai, where should you go? There is, the ancient Kapaleeswarar Temple and Parthasarathy Temple (both over 1,000 years old), the iridescent rathas of the old Pallava kingdom of Mamallapuram and Marina beach, all popular tourist destinations and definitely a must-see. But there are other places that I only came upon on my own search to discover my city. Here’s a cultural tour that starts at the very beginning.
Fort St. George, on one end of Marina’s shoreline, is a popular location for locals, government officials (it currently houses the city’s legislative assembly), and tourists. The building itself is India’s very first British fort, built in 1640, and houses several heritage buildings, including the Fort Museum and St. Mary’s Church.
When the British East India Company got permission to establish their first headquarters on the Coromandel Coast, they built it in a fishing village that they called Madras (Chennai’s earlier name). Thus began the linking of small villages into the city we have today.
St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in the country, is a hidden gem, for sure. Its walls are bomb-proof and five feet thick and it sits in a quiet corner of the fort and is easy to overlook. A small wedding registry lies entombed in a glass box inside the church.
On the other side of the shore is Santhome, which is home to the Santhome Cathedral Basilica. The basilica was built in 1523 over the tomb of St. Thomas, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. And right alongside it is one of the oldest areas of the city; Mylapore.
Proudly traditional and filled with quaint old buildings housing families who’ve lived there for generations, Mylapore is not just a heritage and cultural find, but also a haven for lesser-known street food.
Here, right next to the Kapaleeswarar temple, you have the Jannal Kadai (which translates to Window Shop), which doles out local snacks like bajjis and even lunch, in the afternoon and evening. It’s essentially a blue window of a traditional home, through which a small family food business now flourishes.
Walk a little away from the temple to East Mada Street and you have Kalathi stores, where you can get fresh Rosemilk on a hot, humid day. You also get Goli Sodas, which is a soda made in special bottles, that have marbles in them.
This is a dying tradition and you rarely find these bottles or this kind of soda in the city anymore. In the evening, more bajji (fried vegetable fritters) stalls pop along all along the street, offering a variety of them (potato, onion, bell pepper, eggplant, chili, and plantain, to name a few).
There are a million other things that you can do. Spend time along the promenade of Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar (further South of Chennai), full of small, quirky restaurants and boutiques.
Take a drive along East Coast Road, following the Bay of Bengal up to Pondicherry, a small town with french heritage, shop in T Nagar’s sari stores or go on a Chaat walk-in Sowcarpet and other parts of North Chennai. You could even take a day off to spend time at the Egmore Museum, which has one of the biggest collections of Chola Bronzes.
For authentic food, there’s Hotel Saravana Bhavan, an international chain of South Indian food, Sangeetha Veg Foods, Hot Chips, Annalakshmi, Paati Veedu, and Ratna Cafe (for piping hot coffee and sambar-soaked idli). For fusion cuisine, spend a day having the best farm-fresh food at The Farm on OMR or Salt at Forum Vijaya Mall.
This is just one side of a city that has so much to offer. Cafes, nightclubs, bars, history, heritage, culture, and art -- no matter what you’re looking for, you will find something that represents you here.
Want to learn more about India's rich culture? Check out some stories from our other writers!
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