I was surpised to see that Lonely Planet listed Chennai, India at number 9 on their list of the top 10 cities to visit in 2015. I love Chennai, but I don't think of it as a top tourist destination. Tourists like cities where they can walk down medieval streets, visit famous museums, move comfortably from place to place, check off the boxes on their "to do" list in 3 or 4 days. Chennai is a tricky city for a tourist. Things are decentralized, streets are completely off any logical grid, museums lack airconditioning, and there is a shortage of monumental architecture. There are few sights that will take your breath away. Lonely Planet points out the impending opening of the Metro Rail that should help movement around the city, and of course the amazing Dravidian temples.
I never say to friends, "Oh, you have to go to Chennai if you're traveling through India." They'll get more out of Agra, New Delhi, Varanassi, and a number of cities in Rajastan. Tourist destinations need to provide instant gratification. On the other hand if you have a month or two, Chennai rises to the top of the list. Why? Because there is so much that isn't immediately obvious. One of the reasons for this is that Chennai's great attraction is its culture. I've written a few posts about this already. Chennai and the state of Tamil Nadu are seen by other parts of India as being conservative. Women are less likely to embrace western fashion, the cuisine is much more likely to be vegetarian, classical Indian dance and music have been kept alive. All of this takes time to appreciate.
So what do I recommend in Chennai for those looking for tourist activities? Well, there's no Taj Mahal, but there is still much to see. There are some small but interesting museums. The well-known museum of bronzes is located in the Government Museum - a great collection of Victorian buildings in Central Chennai. The gallery of primarily Hindu bronzes dating from the 3rd century A.D. is a must.
Fort St. George gives you a taste of the British legacy in Chennai (see also my earlier post on the Gymkhana Club). This was the first British outpost in India, dating to 1644. The site is currently used for state government offices. The oldest Anglican Church in India, St. Mary's, built in the 17th century, is worth a visit. The namesake of Yale University, Elihu Yale, was actually married here in 1680 (the first registered marriage in the church). If you're a history buff, you'll like the Fort Museum as well - portraits, letters, etc.
More on Chennai in my next post.
By Kevin O'Neill