On the Coromandel Coast overlooking the Bay of Bengal is Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. It is also the most prominent cultural, educational, and economic center of southern India. As such, there is an endless list of incredible things to see and do in Chennai. The city, which is the sixth-most populous in India, is one of the most visited in the country by foreign tourists. It is also considered the safest city in India and welcomes a large number of health tourists as “India’s health capital.”
The city’s appeal is not lost on expats, who have given Chennai the distinction of having the third-largest expat community in India. According to Lonely Planet, Chennai was one of the top ten cities to visit in the world in 2015 and after spending some time there myself, I can understand why. From the succulent Tamil seafood offered on its beaches to the phenomenal shopping at its markets and the remarkable Tamil architecture seen at its temples, Chennai is a city of wonderful opportunity. These are the top 10 things to see and do in Chennai, India.
Try Mud Koffee
If you’re exploring Chennai and find yourself in need of a caffeine boost, look no further than Mud Koffee in the beachfront area of Besant Nagar. This small, unassuming stall was opened in the summer of 2018 by a self-professed coffee enthusiast named Aadhithya Nandhan.
While on a trip around the world, he observed the Turkish coffee brewing technique, fell in love with it, and combined it with traditional filter coffee to create Mud Koffee.
At Mud Koffee, the South Indian filtered coffee is brewed in a metal container with the help of a kadai that’s filled with sand heated by a gas stove. A secret ingredient is added to the coffee and then it’s served in a cup made of mud! The thick, frothy, and milky coffee is incredibly flavorful and unlike any I’d ever had. It reminded me a lot of hot chocolate! If you’re a coffee lover, trying Mud Koffee is one of the top things to see and do in Chennai!
Eat Spicy Tamil Food at Thambi Vilas
Travelers who enjoy flavorful, expertly-prepared food with a fiery kick should make a stop at Thambi Vilas Restaurant a priority during their time in Chennai. This exceptional spot has been open since 1959 and has a very old-school, yet relaxing, atmosphere that makes you feel right at home when you enter.
I highly recommend trying the prawns, which are served in an amazing masala-like curry with curry leaves. Another must-have on the menu is their tender and juicy chicken leg, which was slightly fatty and was bathed in an incredible masala.
If you’re feeling brave, give the fried mutton brain a whirl. This phenomenal dish has a slightly gelatinous texture and gives your taste buds a spicy kick. It’s full of masala and curry leaves and is my favorite dish I tried in Chennai!
My meal at Thambi Vilas convinced me that you can take any part of a sheep or goat and make it delicious, as even the fiery, masala-rich mutton intestines are divine.
Other fantastic choices at the restaurant include the egg khalakki, spicy calamari, mutton chest, Nethili fish fry, chicken saalna, mutton saalna, kothu parotta, mutton dosa, and chicken kappa. You really can’t make a bad choice there!
Finish your meal with a thick, coconut-based pudding called elaneer cake. It is rich in fresh coconut flavor and is the perfect way to end a spicy Tamil feast!
You have to experience the food at Thambi Vilas for yourself. It’s one of the best things to see and do in Chennai!
Watch the Fishermen at Marina Beach
No trip to Chennai is complete without visiting Marina Beach, the second longest beach in the world. Along the beach is a seafood market that sells shark, prawns, shrimp, eel, crab, and more, which are provided by the fishermen who work nearby. Many of the city’s fishermen live in the subsidized housing directly across from the beach.
Along Marina Beach, you’ll find dozens of fishing boats, which the fishermen take out on the water from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. After they’ve finished fishing for the day, they deliver the fish to the nearby seafood market and sell it to the street food vendors. You’ll have to get up early to see the fishermen do their work, but it’s an incredible sight to see.
Even if you arrive at the beach later in the day, you can always take amazing photos along the rows of boats lined up on the sand!
Eat Tamil Seafood on Marina Beach
After you watch the fishermen bring in their catch for the day, make your way to the street food vendors along Marina Beach. There, you can watch the cooks fry up the seafood they just purchased from the fishermen and try some for yourself. Tamil seafood is on another level and eating some is essential when you’re visiting Chennai.
Stop by the famous Sundari Akka Kadai food stall for a meal of fish fry with prawn gravy, rice, eggplant, and boiled eggs. The tender prawns are easily the star of the show. I also loved the super meaty fried fish. Just be careful of the bones – there are a lot of them!
This was one of the best seafood meals I’ve had anywhere in the world. This meal alone makes visiting Sundari Akka Kadai one of the best things to see and do in Chennai. Just know that there is no seating there, so I ate standing up on the beach!
Other Tamil seafood street foods you must try at Sundari Akka Kadia include the salty and spice-filled vancharam fry, which is a type of fried fish, and a super tender and fatty mutton. At the stall next door, I highly recommend the heavenly fried squid with curries and onion. It’s rich in phenomenal flavors and has a really nice crunch to it.
Not only was it the best dish I had at Marina Beach, it was also my favorite squid dish of all-time!
Visit Chennai Lighthouse
Before you leave Marina Beach, there is one last stop you must make before setting of to explore other parts of the city: Chennai Lighthouse. Formerly known as Madras Lighthouse, this famous landmark faces the Bay of Bengal and opened in 1977.
The 150-foot-tall lighthouse is home to the local meteorological department and is also one of the few lighthouses in the world with an elevator. It’s also powered by a solar panel, making it a green lighthouse.
During my visit to Chennai Lighthouse, my friend Sam and I rode the elevator to the lookout point at the top and got some stunning views of the city. From our spot atop Chennai we could see Marina Beach, the ocean, the cricket stadium, the fishermen housing, and much more. If you love visiting towers and observation decks as much as I do, you have to add visiting this amazing lighthouse to your Chennai itinerary!
Have a Southern Indian Breakfast at Eating Circles Restaurant
If you’re looking for an amazing spot to have a phenomenal southern Indian breakfast in Chennai, you have to visit Eating Circles Restaurant. It’s a small, intimate eatery in a modern space and the food they serve is some of the best you’ll find in the city.
I recommend starting your southern Indian breakfast off with a dosa. The dosas at Eating Circles have a nice crunch on the outside with a doughy center. The contrast of textures is one of my favorite things about it. Try your dosa with the spicy Chennai sambar and the sweeter Bangalore sambar. My personal favorite was the Bangalore.
If you’ve never had khichdi before, get it at Eating Circles. This rice and lentil dish has a consistency similar to that of polenta. It isn’t super over-the-top with flavors, so if Indian spices are a lot for you to handle, this is the perfect dish for you.
There’s also a slightly sweet dish called sabudana Pongal, which contains a rice, dal, and vegetable dish that contains little jelly balls called javvarisi. On the savory side is the crispy, fried, doughnut-like vada, which is perfection with Eating Circles’ mint chutney.
I also highly recommend the sambar vada, which is a vada that comes soaking in a rich, tomato-based sambar. The vada absorbs the flavors of the sambar and is a flavor bomb in your mouth!
Other amazing dishes include the puri, which you should try with the potato masala with carrots and various Indian spices. Try it with the tomato chutney, but be prepared for the heat that sneaks up on you afterward! Don’t forget the masal vada, which is a deep-fried vegetable patty. Dip it into the mint chutney and enjoy!
Besides the plain dosa, there are other varieties on the menu, including the red rice dosa, which has a completely different flavor profile from other dosas and is incredible with the mint and tomato chutneys. There’s also the fatty butter dosa with potato mash and the neer dosa, which looks like a sponge and is served with coconut flakes and mint and tomato chutneys.
This dosa is like a gooey, gelatinous pancake. If you love coconut as much as I do, you will love this dish! This dosa alone makes having breakfast at Eating Circles one of the top things to see and do in Chennai!
Wrap up your meal at Eating Circles with some filtered coffee, which is very similar to a café con leche. It’s very rich and sweet and is the perfect way to wake you up so you have energy throughout the morning!
Visit Kapaleeswarar Temple
One of the best places in Chennai to learn about and experience Tamil culture is Kapaleeswarar Temple, one of the most famous Hindu temples in the city. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was built 1,300 years ago in the 7th century. As with all Hindu temples in India, you must take your shoes off before you enter. Through the main gate are houses to the gods where people pray as well as a sitting hall.
The temple is a beautiful example of Tamil architecture, which you can also find in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. On top of the temple is a colorful collection of gods, while the base looks very ancient. During my visit, my guide Deepak took me and my friend Sam into the shaded sitting area to listen to some live music.
But the most special and most memorable moment of my time at Kapaleeswarar Temple was the moment Deepak applied some sacred vibhuti ash and kumkuma to my forehead and put a holy thread around my wrist. Being welcomed and embraced in such a beautiful way is something I will never forget and made my temple visit one of my favorite experiences in Chennai.
Eat at a local Dhaba – Sangeetha Dhaba Hotel and Restaurant
When traveling around India by road, one of the best ways to find a good meal is to stop at the roadside restaurants called dhabas. These restaurants usually serve a wide variety of dishes from states all over the country to cater to truck drivers who travel from state to state for their work.
One of the best dhabas in the Chennai area is Sangeetha Dhaba Hotel and Restaurant, which sells incredible food at an affordable price. Here, I recommend trying a large variety of dishes. Be forewarned, though: many of them are really spicy!
The chicken Hyderabadi contains cashews, carrots, and an orange curry. Eat it with some roti and prepare to be transported to Indian food heaven! It’s very rich and has a nice amount of heat to it, but it isn’t exceedingly hot. There’s also a crispy and juicy deep-fried chicken drumstick that you must try – it’s out of this world!
There are also two types of Maharani chicken. Go with the one with that is topped with cashews, egg, and a minty green curry. There is a much spicier version on the menu that contains lots of chilies, but flavor-wise, this one is the clear winner.
I also suggest trying the pepper chicken as well as the Rambha chicken, which contains egg, cheese, carrots, beets, and cashews. The Rambha chicken is extremely hot, so prepare yourself before you take a bite. I love spice, but this one had me reaching for cucumbers that are provided to cool down your mouth!
Don’t miss out of the crispy and fiery chicken lollipop, which is a reddish chicken drumstick that looks like a lollipop when it is held upright.
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The dhaba’s Kashmiri Chicken has some notes of sweetness to it and contains more egg, beets, and dried fruit. It’s quite tasty! But the star of the night for me was the buttery Mughlai Chicken. The chicken in most of these dishes was similar, but the main difference is what is put on the egg. The Mughlai was by far my favorite!
Finish your meal with a dessert called payasam, which is made from sweet milk, noodles, grapes, gummies, and cashews. I’m not big into sweets, but I really liked this dessert. The casein in the milk helped cool my mouth down after so many hot and spicy dishes. It’s a must-have and helps make Sangeetha Dhaba Hotel and Restaurant one of the top things to see and do in Chennai!
Go Shopping in the T. Nagar Neighborhood
Tourists in Chennai looking to experience some of the city’s best shopping should make their way to the Thyagaraya Nagar neighborhood., better known as T. Nagar. This affluent and historic neighborhood in Chennai is one of the oldest areas of the city. It began as a residential neighborhood, but since its construction, has become Chennai’s commercial hub. T. Nagar is also considered India’s largest shopping district by revenue.
There are lots of shops in T. Nagar to buy goods and souvenirs to take home, including their most popular items, sarees and jewelry. One of the best places to browse is Saravana Stores along Ranganathan Street, where you can find home goods, electronics, furniture, and more at affordable prices.
If unique and beautiful clothes are more your thing, stop by Pothys on Usman Road. There, you can find a wide variety of stunning sarees as well as clothing for men and children. While you’re on Usman Road, be sure to visit NAC Jewellers if you want to browse a nice selection of fancy jewelry.
Another spot in T. Nagar you won’t want to miss is Pondy Bazaar, where you can buy an assortment of souvenirs, including beautiful bangles, colorful fabrics, bags, keychains, and much more. The bazaar is also a great spot to eat, with several restaurants and street food stalls set up along the roads. With exceptional shopping and great food, there’s no doubt that spending some time in T. Nagar is one of the best things to see and do in Chennai!
Eat Spicy Southern Indian Beef at Sukkubhai Biryani Restaurant
One of the first things most people learn about India is that cows are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and that beef is pretty much banned throughout the country.
But after several trips to different regions of India, I’ve learned that there are pockets of the country where the locals eat beef. I was extremely surprised to learn that there is a spot in Chennai where I could have a feast where beef takes center stage, called Sukkubhai Biryani Restaurant.
Here, you absolutely must try the beef liver, which was served in a dark, rich sauce I had never had before. It was like butter! I have loved beef liver my entire life and this one was exceptional. I also recommend the spicy mincemeat dish called beef keema, which has a distinctly different flavor from the other beef dishes at the restaurant.
The most exotic dish I had during my second trip to India was the beef brains at Sukkubhai Biryani Restaurant. They’re gelatinous, but not in an unpleasant way, and go down quite smoothly. I couldn’t get enough of them. If you think you’d rather skip them, I challenge you to muster up the courage to give them a try. If you’re anything like me, your taste buds will thank you!
There is also a beef cutlet patty, which contains mint and pepper, and an insanely fatty beef leg bone called beef paayaa. The beef paayaa is a bit tough to bite through in some parts, but the fat clinging to it is incredibly flavorful and makes it a must-try dish.
But the star of the meal is the beef biryani, which I had been told was the best biryani in the city. At this point in my trip, I had tried multiple types of biryani that blew my mind and I’m happy to say Sukkubhai Biryani Restaurant’s biryani lived up to the hype.
I dug into the rice and beef with my hands and ate it alongside eggplant gravy and mayo-covered onions. The biryani was tender, flavorful, juicy, and incredibly rich in spices that had my mouth watering and craving more.
Finish off your meal with some bread halwa. This dessert is a dense white bread mash that contains nuts, cinnamon, and cardamom. Its prominent, saccharine flavor makes it the perfect palate cleanser to help you get rid of the tingle of heat lingering in your mouth from the other foods!
Don’t miss out on trying the beef at Sukkubhai Biryani Restaurant in Chennai. It will blow your socks off. I walked away fully understanding why a meal there is one of the top things to see and do in Chennai!
Travelers who welcome diversity in their experiences cannot afford to skip the city of Chennai. Whether you come to India looking for amazing cultural experiences, wonderful shopping, great attractions, or magnificent food, you’ll find it all in Chennai and then some. My experiences there were some of the most memorable I had during my second trip to India. I cannot stress this enough: you need to go there at least once in your life. Book your trip to Chennai now and experience these outstanding places for yourself!
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