When it comes to South India, travelers gravitate more often than not toward Kerala for its beaches and lazy days spent on houseboats plying lagoons and backwaters. However, due east, over the tall, green mountains of the Western Ghats, is one of India’s largest states and smallest union territories. Tamil Nadu and Puducherry face the Bay of Bengal, sharing a 500-mile-long coastline that ends at the southernmost tip of the subcontinent. Here, a guide to two of South India’s under-appreciated cities.
Chennai, formerly Madras, is a steamy, vibrant, crowded city—once the most important seaport for the East India Company and first landfall for the nascent British Raj. The elegant, white-washed Fort St. George, founded in 1644, is a good place to start exploring.
- A visit to St. Mary’s Church, the oldest, built by the British in 1680 and considered the “Westminster Abbey of the East.”
- The San Thome Cathedral Basilica, a neo-Gothic confection from 1896, is the final resting place of St. Thomas the Apostle, who brought Christianity to India in 52 A.D.; other churches of note include the Scottish St. Andrew’s in Egmore, inspired by London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the 18th-century Armenian Church in historic George Town.
- The Government Museum has a superb collection of Chola bronze statues from as early as the late-eighth century—and the largest collection of Roman antiquities outside of Europe.
- In the Mylapore district, the 17th-century Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar temple is a stunning example of Dravidian architecture, festooned with thousands of brightly-painted sculptures.
- The bright pink, semi-circular Vivekananda House now hosts an exhibition on Swami Vivekananda, the nineteenth-century monk who was instrumental in introducing yoga to the West, but was originally built to store ice imported from the United States in the mid-nineteenth century (it was cheaper than hauling it down from the Himalayas!).
- The Marina is one of the longest city beaches in the world and a popular, albeit chaotic, gathering spot at dusk.
- The city is also home to a fantastic array of movie theaters built between 1930 and 1970. Even better? They’re still screening new and old Bollywood fantasies.
- If you’re in the city between mid-December and mid-January, don’t miss the Margazhi Festival of Dance and Music. Begun in the late 1920s, it is one of the country’s largest and the most authoritative on the region’s ancient Carnatic art and culture.
Where to Stay
Recently opened and incongruously-located inside the city’s half-glitzy, half-tacky Phoenix MarketCity shopping mall, Design Hotel by jüSTa is a quirky option from the creative team at Urban Studio in Mumbai. For five-star accommodations, you can’t go wrong at the business-styled Park Hyatt Chennai or the sea-facing Leela Palace Chennai.
Where to Shop
For splendid take-home Kanchipuram-style silk weaving and hand-painted kalamkari textiles, stop at the Kalakshetra Craft Centre on Kalakshetra Road.
Where to Eat
As predictable as it may sound, a vegetarian meal at Saravana Bhavan (a chain with branches in nearly 20 countries around the world) is both delicious and dependable, although we also like any of the Junior Kuppanna outlets for a lively lunchtime thali. The garden cafe (plus boutique and florist) at Amethyst on Whites Road is where you’ll find society folk and expats throughout the day.
Get out of town…
An hour and a half south, the beachside, 7th-century, monumental rock carvings of Mahabalipuram are truly spectacular, illustrating dramatic events from the Mahabharata. A new option for an overnight nearby is the swanky InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort, a good pit stop before continuing another 70 miles to charming Puducherry (also known as Pondicherry, or Pondy).
Once the heart of French India and capital of the Compagnie des Indes Orientales from 1675 onwards, it became a Union Territory only in 1954. The aptly-named and atmospheric French Quarter is easily explored on foot or by bike.
- Stop to visit the Notre Dame Des Anges, modeled on the Basilica at Lourdes, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, and Gothic Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
- The strikingly white Aayi Mandapam (Park Monument) was built during the time of Napoleon III as a miniature Arc de Triomphe.
- Streets lined with yellow and white houses and colorful bougainvillea might look familiar—the entire first act of Ang Lee’s Life of Piwas filmed here (the town’s Botanical Gardens from 1826 stood in for a zoo, CGI tiger aside).
Where to Stay
Favorite historic hotels are Le Dupleix, housed in the 1700 mansion of a French mayor, and the Hotel de L’Orient from the folks at Neemrana Hotels. More playful and modern, La Villa Shanti has bright rooms and a wonderful on-site restaurant for upscale dinners. A suite at The Promenade hotel comes with fantastic views of the town’s lighthouse.
Where to Eat
Two blocks in from the seaside promenade, Café des Arts is a perfect spot for a late breakfast or light lunch, and wouldn’t look out of place in the south of France. Kasha Ki Aasha has a lovely roof terrace cafe open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. as well as a boutique for local crafts and books.
Get out of town…
- The Chunnambar Boat House gives tours of the area’s backwaters and has day trips to the castaway-like, off-shore Paradise Beach. Serenity Beach, just north of town is only a 15-minute taxi ride away and frequented by picnicking Pondicherien families.
- Just outside of town is the archaeological site of Arikamedu, a trading post established in the first century B.C. Numerous Roman artifacts have been found here over the years.
- Also of note is nearby Auroville, the City of Dawn—an experimental, New Age community founded in 1968, designed by architect Roger Anger, and crawling with devotees around its golden temple, the Matrimandir. If it’s yoga or a spot of meditation you’re after, this is the place (if you don’t mind a haze of ubiquitous cannabis in the air).