Chennai, the fascinating, frenetic capital of Tamil Nadu, offers the perfect introduction to the Indian south – colourful temples, famously spicy food and a rich history that leaps out of the architecture.
Formerly known as Madras, Chennai was the site of the first British trading post in South India, and the legacy of the Raj is still visible in the colonial buildings and historic churches that dot the streets of the old city, centred on Fort St George. For more than a century, rival colonial powers squabbled over this corner of South India before the British finally gained the upper hand in the 18th century.
Modern Chennai has grown up rather haphazardly around this colonial core, sprawling along the coastline beside the city’s most famous landmark, the 13km-long (8 mile) Marina Beach. This wide strip of sand is where Chennai residents come to promenade, fly kites, eat snack food and just unwind away from the urban crush.
As the capital of the Dravidian south, Chennai is understandably proud of its Tamil culture, with traditions and religious customs that predate the influx of tribes from central Asia into the north of India.
You’ll see signs of Tamil culture everywhere, from the curving letters of Tamil script on shop signs to energetic performances of Carnatic music and dance and the riotous films produced in Kollywood – the southern Chennai suburb that is home to India’s second largest film industry.
The Tamil influence is also obvious in the city’s famously spicy cuisine, with fiery vegetarian curries flavoured with coconut, tamarind and chilli – traditionally served on banana leaf plates.
Other must try dishes include dosa (crispy rice and lentil pancakes), idli (steamed rice cakes), uttapam (like a dosa but topped with vegetables) and the spicy chicken, lamb and seafood curries produced by the Chettiar community.
In many ways, Chennai is still traditionally conservative, lacking the cosmopolitan flavour (and nightlife) of Mumbai, Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Delhi. However, Chennai is just a short bus or train ride from some of South India’s most famous sights, including the ancient temples of Mamallapuram and the French outpost of Pondicherry.