Colorful, Creative, Cosmopolitan

The fourth-largest city in India, Chennai (the former Madras) is a vibrant metropolis brimming with energy. The population is exuberantly friendly; the cuisine, sizzling and spicy. And there are wonderful things to see in Chennai and plenty to do.

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Start with the sights

Attractions in Chennai are centered around a striking mix of ancient Indian landmarks and the remnants of colonial rule. Perhaps the perfect place to start is the Government Museum, also known as the Madras Museum, housed in the six-building Pantheon Complex. Overflowing with archeological finds, ancient manuscripts and weapons, puppets and taxidermied animals, and much more, the museum is a portal into a breathtaking past.

Exploring this corner of the complex could easily make for a day’s outing, but there’s more on offer here. Only a few steps away are the National Art Gallery — one of the oldest art galleries in the county — the Contemporary Art Gallery, and the Children’s Museum. If you’re pressed for time, the can’t-miss exhibit is the astonishing collection of bronze statues from the 9th-to-11th century Chola dynasty, a world-class cultural treasure.

Another of the top attractions in Chennai is Fort St. George, set on the banks of the Bay of Bengal. Built by the British East India Company in the 1650s, it served both as a trading station and a home for officials. The fort museum, with its collection of historic military equipment and displays illustrating the fort’s beginnings, is well worth a visit. Be sure, too, to stop by the portrait gallery for a look at Robert Clive (known as “Clive of India”), Commander-in-Chief of British India.

In the colorful Mylapore district of the city lies one of the most compelling things to see in Chennai: the Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar temple, covered in thousands of brightly hued sculptures. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple dates back to the 17th century — and it is still thronged with worshippers to this day. It’s a fabulous example of Dravidian architecture, with a 118-foot (36-meter) gate tower that welcomes visitors in. If you’re in town for the Brahmotsavam festival (March or April), the temple gets even busier than usual and you’ll spot lively parades in the neighborhood’s streets.
A legacy of Chennai’s centuries of colonization, the San Thome Basilica was originally built by the Portuguese in 1523, then re-envisioned by the British more than three centuries later. Said to mark the spot where St. Thomas (the famous “Doubting Thomas,” considered the patron saint of India) died, this intricate Neo-Gothic cathedral functioned as a pilgrimage center for centuries and remains a draw for visitors today.

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