Budget Travel

15 free things to do in Chennai, India's southern capital

Chennai, the steamy capital of Tamil Nadu, is huge, sometimes hectic, along with a perfect introduction to the great, frenetic energy of South India. The city sprawls for miles along one of the world's largest urban beaches, dotted with temples, museums, Raj relics, and restaurants serving what could well be the world's finest vegetarian cuisine.

South India's largest city is about atmosphere instead of paying to see big-name sights, meaning visits are rich in color but gentle around the pocket – ideal for travelers on the smallest budgets. It won't cost you a rupee to wander Chennai at leisure, taking in the sensations, sounds and scents from the Indian south (and if the urban sprawl begins to near the coast, easy day trips consume fascinating sights along the Tamil Nadu coast).

Come throughout the mild, dry winter months to enjoy Chennai at its best. Here's our guide to the very best samples by mail to do in Chennai.

Catch a breath of fresh air on Marina Beach

There's free to wander the broad sweep of sand that marks the eastern limits of Chennai. Marina Beach is one of the longest city beaches on the planet, sprawling for 13km (8 miles), and the sands are crowded with promenading locals, fortune tellers, kite flyers, fish hawkers, corn roasters and teenagers giving it their all in beachside cricket matches. It is a fascinating place to wander at the start of the morning or late in the afternoon to catch the town at play.

Take a snap in the surface of Madras Lighthouse

There's a very modest 20 rupee (US$0.27) entry fee to take the lift to the top of Madras Lighthouse for panoramic views up and down the shoreline (with no rather garish red and white lighthouse marring the vista). From here, you'll get a sense of the length of time and broad Marina Beach really is, while enjoying the cooling, salt-scented breezes that blow in in the Bay of Bengal. Come late in the afternoon for the best photo opportunities (there is a small camera charge).

Soak up Chennai history in Fort St George

It's often forgotten that Chennai – then Madras – was the very first formal British outpost in India. Through negotiations using the Hindu rulers of Vijayanagar, the English East India Company purchased the rights to a small strip of find the Coromandel Coast in 1639, and promptly constructed Fort St George to safeguard their investment.

Few mourned no more British rule in 1947, and the institutions from the colonial government were quickly taken over by the new Indian administration. Should you wander around inside the fort walls today, you can view the gleaming white colonial buildings housing Tamil Nadu's state, the engaging Fort Museum and St Mary's Church.

Hone your haggling abilities at Pondy Bazaar

The rainbow-colored bazaars around the affluent neighborhood of T Nagar are thronged by shoppers bargaining for silk saris, slippers, glass bangles, gold wedding jewelry and other sartorial essentials. The whole district is crammed with stores and stalls, and the crush of individuals could be unbelievable sometimes, but the streets are a carnival of color.

Pondy Bazaar may be the core action for clothes and accessories, as the area surrounding Panagal Park is famous across India for its silks – one of the industries that put Chennai into the spotlight. Arrived at people-watch and pick up a sari, kurta (long shirt) or salwar kameez (shirt and trouser combination).

Visit a guru at home at Vivekananda House

Built as an extravagant storage room for ice imported by sea from America, this marshmallow-pink pavilion was used like a meditation space by Swami Vivekananda, India's famous 'wandering monk'. It's still a popular location for devotees from the guru today.

Born in 1863, Vivekananda played a pivotal role in raising awareness of Hinduism and yoga in the Western world, traveling by ship to look in the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893. For any minimal 20 rupee (US$0.27) fee, you can see the Swami's chambers and exhibits on his life, including photos from his two tours of America.

Take a mindful moment at Sri Ramakrishna Math

Orange-robed monks wander the flower-scented precincts of this famous Mylapore spiritual center, dedicated to the teachings from the 19th-century guru, Sri Ramakrishna. Despite his austere lifestyle, the Bengali saint was hugely influential amongst India's elite, and also the Ramakrishna Math organization was founded by his disciple, Swami Vivekananda, to spread word of his teachings across India.

Visitors of all faiths are thanks for visiting explore the campus and pray and meditate at the salmon-pink Universal Temple, which incorporates design elements from all of India's major religions.

Follow in the footsteps of an apostle at San Thome Cathedral

According to Chennai legend, the Apostle Thomas – of Bible fame – ended his days on St Thomas Mount in Mylapore in CE 72, after being fatally speared by villagers who objected to his attempts to convert the local population.

Marking the website of Thomas's tomb, and enshrining a relic in the saint, the ice-white cathedral is really a British creation, built over an earlier Portuguese basilica founded in 1523. Visit the cathedral museum to view the top of the lance that reportedly killed the unfortunate apostle.

Look out over Chennai in the top of St Thomas Mount

Rising inland from San Thome Cathedral, St Thomas Mount is much more a hill than a mountain, but this green standpoint is said to be the location in which the Apostle Thomas was martyred in CE 72. In the hilltop, there are sweeping views over the city and Chennai airport, and you can see a fragment from the saint's bone in the squat, Portuguese-style Church in our Lady of Expectation, built-in 1523. The walk up here will also lift you high over the city's noise and smog.

Explore new spiritual avenues in the Theosophical Society

The calm, tree-covered grounds of the free-to-visit Theosophical Society really are a green oasis from the rumble of traffic and also the screech of car horns. The society was founded to advertise the principle of universal brotherhood and identify the shared truth in all religions, and dotted around the campus are a church, mosque, Hindu temple, Buddhist shrine and Zoroastrian fire altar, as well as the Adyar Library, with reams of scriptures and philosophical texts.

Be blown away through the peacock colours of Kapaleeshwarar Temple

The temple that gave Mylapore its name – literally, capital of scotland- peacocks – soars over the city streets like a wave. The temple's rainbow-colored gopurams (towers) are adorned with vividly painted carvings of a large number of Hindu deities, along with a shrine inside the complex marks the spot where Shiva turned his wife, Parvati, right into a peacock as a test of her devotion. It's free to visit, but you'll be encouraged to create a donation.

The 40m-high eastern gopuram continues to be among the tallest buildings around the Mylapore skyline and behind the temple is really a vast ceremonial tank ringed by ghats. It's worth coming at any time of the year, but when you visit in March or April, you might catch the intense Brahmotsavam Festival, once the temple deities are paraded through the streets by rapt devotees.

Pay your respects at the Parthasarathy Temple

Triplicane's towering Parthasarathy Temple was founded in the 8th century, plus some of their ornately carved masonry inside goes back towards the original temple raised through the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. Inside, shrines celebrate five different incarnations of Vishnu, including his manifestation as the charioteer Parthasarathy, recorded within the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.

Temple priests offer blessings in the mandapa (pillared hall) and devotees feast on the temple's famous prasadam (ritual food), which includes a host of sweet rice treats. The towering gopurams were added in the 16th century by the rulers of the Vijayanagar empire, centred on Hampi in Karnataka.

Admire the hybrid architecture of Madras High Court

The cherry-red spires of Tamil Nadu's high court were raised through the British architect, Henry Irwin, who had been also accountable for Mysuru Palace and also the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, which might explain the kleptomaniac architectural style.

You are only able to admire this extravagant monument externally, but the court is a glorious confection of Islamic onion domes, minaret-like towers, arched windows and doorways, Hindu balconies and Gothic flourishes. Completed in 1892, it's one of the greatest judicial buildings on the planet.

Honour a vegetarian poet at Valluvar Kottam

The curious Valluvar Kottam was created to honour the ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar and the masterpiece, Thirukural, a 2000-year-old treatise on morality, ethics, non-violence and vegetarianism that is a popular reference text for advocates of the meat-free life.

Sitting calmly in a public park, the monument is covered with 31m-high statue of a temple chariot pulled by stone elephants, and the full text of the poem is inscribed on granite tablets in the surrounding pavilion. Entry is just three rupees (US$0.04).

Discover vanished Chennai in the Armenian Church

Under colonial rule, only Europeans were permitted to reside in the area around Fort St George, while other residents were relegated towards the dubiously named 'Black Town' (later rebranded as George Town) such as the city's small Armenian trading community, who first came to India on foot across the Hindu Kush.

Stroll along Armenian St and you will find the final relic from this vanished community, the distinctive Armenian church, with its six church bells, plaster cherubs, Doric columns and whitewashed, pepperpot steeple. The church holds only one service a year, but the caretakers open up to visitors most mornings.

Escape to the air-conditioning of the Chennai mall

Chennai's tropical temperatures can wither even the most dedicated sightseer, so beat heat within the city's air-conditioned malls. Express Avenue in Royapettah offers the full international shopping experience, filled with global luxe brands, courtyard music and dance performances and fashion shows.

You'll get a similar mall package in the ritzy Phoenix Market City – an excellent place to window look for clothes from big-name Indian designers such as Ritu Kumar and Manish Malhotra.

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