One Day in Chennai: How to Have a Fantastic Time

Have only one day in Chennai? Must-see places include churches, beaches, and museums. And how can food not be a part of this 24 hours travel guide? This travelogue is the final part of my Southern sojourn with three friends (W, K, & J). We were in Pondicherry for three days before moving on to Mamallapuram and finally to Chennai.

Table of Contents
1. Chennai Travel Tips
2. San Thome Basilica & Marina Beach
3. Egmore Museum
4. Lunch at Rama’s Cafe
5. Goodbye, Tamil Nadu

Chennai Travel Tips

If you have ever been to Chennai, you know how the auto rickshaws ply. Fares begin at fifty and are thereafter offered in multiples of the same. Rickshaws running by meter are practically non-existent and while a little bargaining in Tamil might bring down the fare by ten rupees or so, it will still create a steep dent in your pocket.

With this in mind, we stuck to buses for most of our time in Chennai and I found them to be rather well-serviced and frequent, comparable to Mumbai’s public transport. We had already made our reservations at a hotel close to the airport. However, the bus dropped us at Thiruvanmiyur, a busy junction with a large bus-depot from where we caught another bus to Pallavaram, the nearest stop to our hotel.

San Thome Church in Chennai
San Thome Church in Chennai

I felt quite at home, conversing with the bus conductors in Tamil. Chennai reminded me of Mumbai tremendously with its large roads, motley nature of residents and ample crowds even in the night-time. However, the difference in pace was palpable. Where Mumbai makes you breathless with its relentless rushing, Chennai is relatively laidback even though it’s a metropolitan city as well.

Chennai is my hometown but it had been years since I had laid eyes on its wide highways and brown and ochre buses. I had no memory of the place; yet I recognised most of the suburb names partly due to the Tamilian pen friends I used to have and partly because of my reading.

We had barely any energy left that night and early next morning, W and I bid goodbye to K and J who returned to their respective homes. W and I had a late flight and so we were able to explore Chennai during the day. After a scrumptious complimentary breakfast of upma, dosa, sambhar, chutney and sheera, we headed downstairs with very little idea of where to go.

Alas, we hadn’t done any research on Chennai prior to our arrival. We spoke to the hotel receptionist, flipped through the sight-seeing booklet and formed an itinerary quite at random. We would first go to Mylapore and see the San Thome Basilica, we decided. From there, we would go to Marina Beach and then perhaps check out a museum. We wanted to be back by evening so we could catch our flights at eight without any last-minute rushing.

San Thome Basilica & Marina Beach

Armed with several different bus numbers that threatened to slip out of memory any moment, we headed to the nearest bus-stop. The majestic San Thome Basilica was a short walk away from the Mylapore bus-stop.

St. Thomas Basilica or San Thome Church, Chennai

Originally built by Portuguese explorers over the tomb of St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus, the basilica was rebuilt as a church by the British in 1893. We paused to admire the tall, pristine white facade of the church before entering.

We were fortunate enough to catch the mid-day mass, complete with sermons in English and Tamil and singing of joyous carols. A few English tourists peeped in but left, disheartened by the priest’s robust Tamil. We knelt, folded hands and sang songs with the rest of the church. Strangely, I simply cannot recall what it is that I prayed for.

We then caught a rickshaw to Marina Beach, Chennai’s equivalent of Mumbai’s Juhu Beach. In the blazing sunlight however, we weren’t too enthused by the idea of spending any time by the sea. Besides, after witnessing Pondicherry’s sparkling seaside, a quintessentially urban beach like Marina simply didn’t catch our fancy!

Egmore Museum

We spoke to some locals and decided to catch a bus to Pudupet, from where we could make our way to the famous Egmore Museum, also known as Government Museum. This is the second oldest museum in India and spread over a vast complex, it houses various sections such as the national art gallery, a children’s museum and a public library.

Bronze Gallery, National Museum, Egmore
Bronze Gallery, National Museum, Egmore

It was impossible for us to explore every inch of the museum in a couple of hours but what we saw literally turned the clock back for us. Dynasties from my history textbook such as the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Pandyas came alive in the archaeology and history section of the museum.

I devoted ample attention to every sculpture, studying the differences in detailing and reading the brief backgrounders beside each figure. The only grouse we had was the limited information available. True history enthusiasts would crave much more than a few lines replete with spelling errors and omissions.

Gargoyle at Egmore Museum, Chennai

Gargoyles and haughty Gods and demigods followed us with their stone-carved eyes while we strolled through the walk-through sculpture garden. This garden also houses the fossil of one of the oldest trees in India.

We then entered the section housing the museum’s zoological and botanical artefacts and displays. Stuffed emus and macaws lay still beyond glass doors, captured for eternity in a moment of animation. An amazing life-size skeleton of a shark, suspended from the ceiling, held our attention for several minutes as we inspected its head, tail and fin bones.

We then encountered the most memorable display of the museum – a giant replica of a tyrannosaurus. We began talking to the lady who guarded the dinosaur and she agreed to ‘play’ it for us ahead of schedule.

Unsure of what to expect, we were flabbergasted when the animal began roaring and reaching out with its talons in quite a realistic fashion.

A crowd gathered immediately to watch its histrionics. However, after a few moments, the movements began to get repetitive and we moved away, nevertheless greatly entertained.

Lunch at Rama’s Cafe

Ravenous and exhausted after our day’s wandering, we settled for a late lunch at Rama’s Cafe, a spacious, airy and unassuming restaurant. Once again, we gorged on typical South Indian fare – masala dosas and filter coffee. Though the dosa filling was a little bland, the sambhar and chutney were exceptional.

Satisfied with our glimpse of Chennai, we hitch-hiked our way back to the hotel, changing buses in between but never resorting to expensive rickshaw rides. While my flight from Mumbai to Chennai had gone off without a glitch, this time I wasn’t so lucky. All flights were delayed by at least an hour and I spent a long time at the waiting lounge.

I made good use of the time though, scribbling down the details of the trip so I wouldn’t be slave to a fast-diminishing memory when I sat down to pen a travelogue. When the plane finally took off, all I could think about was how absolutely satisfying, tiring and inspiring this trip had been.

Goodbye, Tamil Nadu

In five days, we had seen three cities, basked in serene beaches, tasted the finest of French cuisine and lost ourselves in bygone eras.

I was weary but it was the kind of weariness that makes you smile from deep-within, the kind where you are completely spent but the resultant silence feels so good and so miraculous. Au revoir, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu.

Chennai Airport
Chennai airport

If I had to pick one memorable snapshot from each of these cities, it would be the video documentary I shot from my pillion seat in the French-inspired lanes of Heritage Town in Pondicherry, the quest for the elusive Krishna’s butterball in Mamallapuram and the life-size shark and animated dinosaur we witnessed at Egmore Museum in Chennai.

(By Ankita)

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