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A melting pot of cultures, Chennai reflects Southern India's heritage and traditions. The capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is as proud of its beaches as it is of the century-old temples, churches built by the Dutch, Portuguese and the British and the nature reserves and parks within the city limits.
6 am: The city wakes up early. So leave your bed with the first rays of the sun and step outside to enjoy the pleasant morning breeze. If you can wake up before dawn, head out to ECR (East Coast Road) beach on the outskirts of the city for one of the most spectacular sunrises. At this time of the day, there is hardly any traffic on the road and the beach is also relatively empty, except for a few walkers and joggers. You may also find a few yoga classes in session. There are several quaint cafes in the vicinity, where you can enjoy a traditional or multi-cuisine breakfast. If you are an art aficionado, you can pay an early-bird visit to the Cholamandala Artists Village nearby, which opens by 9.30 am. Another equally stunning sunrise view can be enjoyed at Elliot's Beach or the nearby Broken Bridge. The latter, a bridge that leads nowhere, offers unhindered views of the sun as it rises above the Adayar estuary.
8 am: From the Broken Bridge, walk over to the Schmidt's Memorial that stands on the beach in testimony to the valour of a young Dutch officer. Spend a few minutes to read the poignant story inscribed on aboard. There are several beach-facing restaurants here and also traditional snack stalls, which become busy right after dawn serving morning walkers. If you want, you can also step inside the Annai Vailankanni shrine on the periphery of the beach.
9 am: About 5 km away is the Kalakshetra Foundation, one of Chennai's most popular cultural spaces. Established in 1936 by Rukmini Devi Arundale, the over 100-acre campus is one of the most important centres for studying fine arts in South India. Watching the iconic dance classes being held under the shade of large banyan trees is a unique experience. Lore says one of the world's largest and oldest banyan trees stands here. You can also shop for musical instruments, mementoes and traditional Kalakshetra sarees.
11 am: Next, you can hop over to the Thiuruvanmiyur Marundeeswarar Temple, which has been a much-revered place for over a thousand years. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple's intricate Dravidian-style architecture is awe-inspiring. It is believed that praying at the temple can cure the worshippers of sickness. Devotees queue up at the temple throughout the day to pray to the Lord. While visiting, be sensitive towards religious sentiments.
1 pm: Around 10 km away is the cultural heart of Chennai, and one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods, Mylapore. Embracing over 2,000 years of history, Mylapore gives a peek into Chennai's living heritage. From historic buildings and spiritual sites to busy food stalls and street-side shopping, there is a lot to explore in Mylapore. Start from the 12th-century Kapaleeshwarar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. While the temple is closed between 1 pm and 4 pm, you can admire it from the outside. If you want you can always come back to the temple later for the evening rituals. Next walk over to the Kutchery Road mosque and then the 16th century Santhome Church or San Thomas Basilica. This soaring Roman Catholic cathedral said to be built on the final resting place of St Thomas the apostle, just 200 m from Marina beach, was founded by the Portuguese in 1523. In 1896, the British rebuilt it in neo-Gothic style. The next stop can be one of the oldest churches of the city, the Luz Church. A Roman Catholic church built more than 500 years ago by the Portuguese, it is a landmark in the area. Step inside the cool interiors of the church decorated with amazing paintings on the ceiling and high arches. The altar is intricately decorated with silver and gold leaves. Meander around the bylanes of Mada Street lined with old houses, some of them around a century old, and savour the scenes and smells of local life. There are several other important temples in the area. Have a hearty lunch at one of the many traditional cafes or 'mess' as these eateries are called locally. To keep yourself hydrated, keep sipping on fresh coconut water.
4 pm: Mylapore tank, or the bustling streets surrounding the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, is like a mini-city on its own. As you walk the narrow lanes, engulfed by the fragrance of fresh flowers, incense sticks and filter coffee being brewed, you will realise that this neighbourhood reflects Chennai's traditional heritage. But what attracts most tourists is its popularity as a shopping paradise. From makeshift stalls selling home decor items, clothes and imitation jewellery to looming multi-storied shops offering luxurious Kanjeevaram silk sarees and precious metal ornaments, there is enough on offer here to satisfy your retail therapy craving. If you’re in luck, you may get to enjoy a concert or dance recital at Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan nearby.
7 pm: Carrying on with your shopping spree, your next stop should be Thyagaraya Nagar or T Nagar, around 5 km away. Known to be the largest shopping centre in the city, the broad but busy roads here are lined by gigantic retail stores, which remain crowded from 10 am to 9 pm, when they close. Once a trading hub, it has transformed into Chennai's commercial centre over the last 40 years. Whether you're looking for traditional textiles, sarees, gold jewellery or affordable knick-knacks, T Nagar has it all. For more pocket-friendly prices, explore the maze of hawker stalls on every pavement. Walk to adjacent Pondy Bazaar for women's clothing and accessories.
9 pm: The walking and shopping will make you hungry, so walk into any of the several restaurants in T Nagar. After dinner, if you want, you can hop into a cab and go for a trip around the city, passing the beaches and the beautifully lit-up Vivekananda House at Kamaraj Salai.
8 am: On the second day head out to the extremely popular Marina beach for a morning stroll and the unique experience of buying fresh fish from the fishermen's nets. Do keep in mind that swimming is prohibited due to the strong undercurrent. Enjoy the breeze as you walk over to the red and white striped lighthouse towering over the beach. Built-in 1976, the lighthouse is an iconic tourist spot that offers you a bird's-eye view of the city. The best part is that there is an elevator to take you to the ninth floor's viewing deck. For a very small entry fee, enjoy sweeping views of the ocean and Chennai's skyline. It opens at 10 am. After this, head towards Triplicane, a busy commercial hub near the beach, for a local South Indian breakfast.
11 am: Just 3 km from Marina beach stands the majestic Fort St George, a 350-year-old reminder of the British era. Just 2 km from the fort is the Armenian church, said to be one of the oldest churches in India. Also in the vicinity are the Victory War Memorial and the Kalikambal temple. The best way to see all of these buildings is to drive around or hire a cab.
1 pm: There are several restaurants around the fort so after a lunch, head over to the Government Museum, around 6 km away. The museum, housed inside a heritage building, offers an insight into Tamil Nadu’s culture, art, and natural heritage. Keep at least a couple of hours aside to explore the extensive exhibits of the museum.
3 pm: Not too far off is the National Art Gallery. The imposing sandstone building resembles an opulent palace and offers a glimpse into Southern India's heritage. Spend an afternoon discovering secrets in the cool interiors of the museum. Just 500 m away is the Connemara Public Library, which is another architectural marvel. Built-in 1890, the library is one of the heritage buildings of Chennai and offers a perfect reading environment.
5 pm: For a befitting end to a tour of Chennai's varied attractions, cover a distance of around 35 km to reach the Aringnar Anna Zoological Park in Vandalur. Spread over 602 hectare, the park is said to be one of the largest of its kind in India. It's most famous for its lion safari, that lets you be driven around in an enclosed van through the natural habitat of lions! It's a must-visit destination for children.