Far from the more famous tourist spots such as the Taj Mahal in northern India we find Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu and the cultural capital of all of South India. Chennai, or Madras as it is formally known, is at first sight an extremely busy, rather dirty and chaotic metropolis to visit. However, scratching beneath the surface reveals a wealth of interesting places to visit, a vibrant variety of activities to partake in and a welcome local population that loves to present their beloved town in the most charming way possible.
Accomodation is easily found in the form of reasonably priced hotels or furnished rooms for rent if you plot a longer stay in Chennai. Very basic hotels wont make much of a dent on your wallet, but if you require european style luxury and full service, expect to pay european prices.
The first place to visit on a sightseeing tour of Chennai has to be the National Art Gallery and Museum. It holds amazing temple friezes and South Indian bronzes. You can easily set a full day aside for exploring this museum alone, or simply nip in to see the highlights. Either way it caters for anyone interested in the cultural history of Tamil Nadu and the rest of south india. Other highly interesting landmarks to visit in Chennai are the Cathedral of San Thome, the Mylapore Temple, and St Mary’s Church. Theres plenty more and countless local temples, places of worship and old historic buildings to explore. Generally all historic landmarks are “guarded” by self appointed tourist guides, who will show you around the location, tell you about the history and ensure you get to see the highlights of whatever monument you are visiting. Dont be fooled into thinking they are doing it as a favour though, it is their job and you will cause great offense if you refuse to pay for the service afterwards.
The Anna Zoological Park at Vandalur is another nice spot to spend an afternoon in the company of a wide range of mammals, reptiles and birds. The animals are roaming more or less freely in natural surroundings by using a special enclosure for nocturnal creatures. Sometimes they roam a bit too freely though, during my visit we had to be suddenly evacuated as a load of poisonous snakes had escaped their enclosure. An exciting little roadtrip down the coast takes you to another load of rather dangerous animals. The Crocodile Bank is located some 44 kms from Chennai. It is a research and breeding centre for crocodiles with a generous display of african and indian crocodiles and alligators wandering the pens for visitors to study. For a small fee you can even buy a bucket of raw meat and try feeding the majestic animals yourself – rumour has it of course that several tourists has fallen in the pens and gotten eaten, the truth need not exploring, its an entertaining myth. On your way from Chennai to the crocodille bank you pass a few giant rivers, do yourself the favour to stop there for a bit. Little tour boats will take you out on the rivers, but even more interesting is that you can pay local fishermen in canoe style boats to take you out with them on a fishing trip (ask them, its not officially announced in any way).
Now, those are a few of the official things to do in Chennai. There are tons more including the fort from the british colony times, numerous hindu temples and the christian disciples Thomas´ church on top of a small mountain. Thomas´ evangelium was stripped from the bible and he was eventually killed on this exact mountain in Chennai. He is still kept sacred by the small christian community with a church and monuments on the mountain. However, the real beauty of Chennai is found in the interaction with its people and taking part in their busy activities round town. Go out and explore the little markets, try some of the local restaurants, go to the parks or enjoy a cricket match with enthusiastic supporters either in a stadium or a bar. You will be amazed by the friendlyness, the vibrance and bubbly approach to life expressed by the Chennai locals.