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Best things to see and places to visit in Chennai

The south Indian city of Chennai has a strong history rooted in religion, spirituality and art. Check out the best places to visit in Chennai and you'll see why it's one of India's most exciting cities.

1. Government Museum Chennai

This is probably Chennai’s best museum with the largest collection of South Indian art, some of it dating back to as far as the 2nd century. The museum is split over six buildings and 46 galleries. One of the best, the Bronze Gallery, has a fabulous collection which is all well signposted. There’s also some excellent examples of Indian miniatures, Thanjavur armory, copper plates and traditional Indian paintings.

Address: Beside the Government Maternity Hospital, Pantheon Road, Egmore, Chennai Opening times and entry: Saturday through Thursday, 9.30am – 5pm

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2. Kapaleeswarar Temple

This temple is the cultural heart of the city and one of the region’s most sacred shrines. It’s dedicated to Shiva, a principal deity in Hinduism, and features the traditional elements of Tamil Nadu temples, most noticeably the colorful gopuram (the tower at the temple entrance). As well as being a wonderful example of South Indian architecture, the temple also has a busy calendar with up to six daily rituals and four big festivals a year.

Address: Ponnambala Vathiar St, Chennai Opening times and entry: Daily from 5.30am – 12pm, and 4pm – 10pm. There are usually 6 daily rituals but check before visiting

Kapaleeswarar Temple is one of the best places to visit in Chennai

3. Marina Beach

You shouldn’t expect a deserted stretch of white sand at this Chennai city beach, but you can expect a nice crowd and clean water. It runs for more than 4km from Fort St George to the Foreshore Estate and is one of the most popular places to visit in Chennai on a weekend – receiving up to 50,000 visitors a day! Swimming is not allowed because of the strong currents, but there are two swimming pools (one is Olympic sized) set back form the water. It also has a busy promenade with about 500 shops selling everything, including fresh fruits, flowers and souvenirs, as well as an aquarium and running track, and is a very popular spot for couples!

4. San Thome Basilica

The Portuguese laid the first stones of this imposing building in the 16th century on top of what is believed to be the tomb of St Thomas, one of Jesus’s 12 apostles. The British then rebuilt it in 1893 and gave it cathedral status. It’s now a pilgrimage site for Indian Christians and while most of St Thomas’ remains are thought to be in Italy, there is a small bone fragment in a cross on the wall of the tomb. The Basilica also has a small museum attached which houses more St Thomas-related pieces.

Address: 38 Santhome High Rd, Basha Garden, Mylapore, Chennai Opening times and entry: Services run and doors open between 5.30am and 8.30pm

San Thome Basilica is built on the tomb of St Thomas

5. Vivekananda House

This candy pink structure was originally built to store ice that was imported to the city from the US. It’s named after Swami Vivekananda, a well-loved Indian Hindu monk who was responsible for helping spread the Indian philosophy of yoga around the world. He stayed at the house for nine days on his return from the West, making it one of the most popular spiritual places to visit in Chennai ever since. There’s a permanent general exhibition about Swami Vivekananda’s life, which includes a photo exhibition and a 3D reproduction of his famous speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 where he introduced his Hindu religion to the world. There’s also a bookstore specializing in self-help and Vivekananda.

Address: Vivekananda House, Marina Beach Road, Triplicane, Chennai Opening times and entry: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am -12.30pm and 3pm – 7.15pm. Entry costs Rs20 (Dh1) for adults and Rs10 (60 fils) for children (but this is subject to change)

6. Sri Ramakrishna Math

This is something of a ‘calm away from the storm’ feeling to the rest of Chennai. It’s a religious site occupied by monks dressed in traditional orange robes who follow Sri Ramakrishna teachings. Ramakrishna was a 19th century yogi who had an interesting life spreading his philosophies. The monks’ work is focused on the Universal Temple (the Math) which is a modern-looking pink building designed according to Ramakrishna’s beliefs – that all religions are equal. Everyone is welcome to pray, practice yoga, meditate or pray at the temple when it’s open.

Address: RK Math Road, Mylapore, Chennai Opening times and entry: Universal Temple open 5am – 11.45am, and 3pm – 9pm. The Math bookstore opens from 9.30am – 1pm, and 3.30pm – 8pm

7. Fort St George

This is the first British fortress built on Indian soil and was constructed by the British East India (Trading) Company. The works were finished on St George’s Day in 1644, hence the name. The fort is now home to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly which decides the laws of the state. There’s a museum – the Fort Museum – with exhibitions on Chennai’s origin and history, as well as artifacts from India’s colonial years. It’s not the most expansive of collections but it’s a good place in Chennai to learn some Indian history.

Address: Rajaji Salai road, Near Legislature and Secretariat, Chennai Opening times and entry: Saturday through Thursdays, 9am – 5pm. Entry Rs5/Rs100 (30 fils/Dh6) for Indians/non-Indians

8. Kalakshetra Foundation

This is one of most prestigious Tamil classical music and dance schools in India. It was set up in 1936 by Rukmini Devi Arundale and prides itself on teaching children from disadvantaged homes. The Foundation covers 100 acres by the Chennai beach and has the Rukmini Devi Museum on its land, which tells the story of its founder. It also serves a mean lunch! While you’re there you should visit the Kalakshetra Craft Center which showcases local handicrafts and is a good place to visit in Chennai for souvenirs and gifts.

Address: Kalakshetra Road, Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai Opening times and entry: Mondays through Fridays, 8.30am – 11.30am for guided and non-guided tours. Entry is Rs100/Rs500 (Dh6/Dh29) for Indians/non-Indians

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