A taste of southern India

A city mad about its film stars and its politicians

Fans tie a garland onto a cutout of Tamil film actor Rajnikanth on the release of his latest film <i>Endhiran</i>, Chennai, October 1, 2010

Chennai is famous for its giant movie posters © AFP

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Ask a local what he loves about Chennai and you'll be in for a surprise. He might not wax eloquent about the Marina (welcome to the second longest beach in the world) or the exquisite Pallava architecture (many of the city's temples date back to this 7th century period), or hold forth on the cultural capital of India. Chances are he might just shrug and declare simply, nonchalantly, "Everything". He isn't short for words, mind you, or even remotely disinterested. He just doesn't believe in extremes. He is Tamil.

But do make his acquaintance and you might get to experience gracious south Indian hospitality first hand. And you will be regaled with tales about the city over piping-hot idli-vadais and filter kaapi (coffee) in a tumbler - the typical Tamil breakfast. While in Madras (the former name by which the city is still fondly called), a common sight is the bright yellow of the autorickshaws, just as omnipresent in their rumbling glory as the serene temples, posters on cinema and politics - the Chennaiite's twin passions - and a robust display of kolams (a type of floor painting) outside every Tamil home.

The more centrally located areas narrate a different tale, of the emerging high-street fad and late-night parties, while Chepauk, the area synonymous with the MA Chidambaram Stadium, receives just as many fond glances a day as would a merry-eyed child. But just off the road, in the shopping district of T Nagar lingers the true spirit of the city, amid the calls of street vendors and the aroma of spicy masala vadais, topped with the mild scent of fresh jasmine.

Weather

Weather for April-May If one could find fault with Chennai, it has to be its weather. The summer months are probably the most oppressive as temperatures shoot up to the 40s. Humidity too is at an all-time high so drink lots of water. Chennai is a bit more conservative than Delhi and Mumbai, so for women, it is best to avoid wearing very revealing clothing.

Getting around

Public transport services are aplenty, with buses, autorickshaws, call taxis, suburban trains and the MRTS (Mass Rapid Transport System) plying till midnight. The suburban railway network is connected to 35 stations across the city, while the MRTS starts at the Beach station and runs up to Velachery, passing various points along the way. Fares range between Rs 4 and Rs 10 for a one-way ticket. From Beach station, take a train to Chepaul, where the MA Chidambaram Stadium is situated, and hop across the road to MAC.

To get around the city, ride the autorickshaws, though you'll find it hard to get one who doesn't overcharge. Samson, an auto driver with his own website, is popular with tourists and can be found outside the Taj Coromandel. He even promises to put you on to his trusted network of rick drivers, in case you need more.

For distances longer than 10kms, hire a call taxi. Fast Track works 24 hours and has a minimum rate of Rs 100.

Where to stay

From five-star deluxe hotels to neat little breakfast places, there's no dearth of accommodation in Chennai. And these are located at a reasonable distance from MAC, the farthest being around 5km.

High-end Taj Mount Road, less than 2km from the stadium, has awesome early bird discounts (from Rs 7500). Or hop across the road to the other Taj property (from Rs 6400), Connemara, or opt for the centrally located Coromandel in Nungambakkam. The Park (from Rs 11,100) is a premium boutique hotel in the same locality. ITC Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers (from Rs 9500) is another luxurious option if you are willing to travel 5km to the stadium.

Mid-level Courtyard by Marriott (from Rs 5,100) offers a good deal just a stone's throw away from Chepauk. A new addition is Spring Hotel (from Rs 3400), with its playful decor and a themed restaurant, just off Nungambakkam High Road. The Residency Towers is also a favourite, located in the shopping district of the city (from Rs 6000).

Children step into the water at the beach, Chennai, March 20, 2010

Marina Beach is always bustling with holiday-makers and locals © Getty Images

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Budget Footprint, a Frommer's India Guide-recommended breakfast place is classy and quiet, located in an upscale residential area (from Rs 3200), quite close to the Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers. Samaya Inn a Lane (from Rs 2800), a much sought-after premium breakfast place, are both located in Nungambakkam. All these places offer complimentary WiFi connectivity. Oriental Inn (from Rs 2600) offers value for money with a choice of Indian and continental breakfast.

Where to eat

In Chennai you will find restaurants at every turn, for there is nothing that a Tamil enjoys more than a good meal.

High-end Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel provides just the setting to enjoy a traditional meal. Sit back and tuck into the elaborate south Indian thaali. Dakshin at Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers is the right choice if you want to sample the best dishes of the South. Kefi at Taj Mount Road and Azulia, GRT Grand, offer awesome Mediterranean options.

Mid-level Italia at The Park Pod and Tuscana Pizzeria, a standalone on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Nungambakkam, serve excellent Italian fare. Karaikudi (Tel 91 44 28151021) offers some lip-smacking dishes from interior Tamil Nadu. The relatively new Crimson Chakra does South Indian grills. Benjarong (Tel 91 44 24322640) is great for a Thai meal. Hiring a cab or auto would be advisable for the last three places, but make sure you get the exact fare from a local before you do so.

Budget Murugan Idli Shop - the one on Triplicane High Road is just a kilometre away from stadium - serves up the softest idlis (steamed rice cakes), and also provides ample "tiffin" (light meal) options. Head to Buhari's (Tel 91 44 42028892) on Anna Salai, en route to or from the stadium for some biryani, or order in from Anjappar.

Where to party

Currently an 11pm curfew is being strictly enforced in the city. So make sure you get to your destination early.

High-end If you want to shake a leg, head to Dublin, Sheraton Park and Pasha at The Park or Blend, Taj Mount Road. But if you just fancy a tipple and some good music, Chipstead at the Taj Coromandel is your bet. It serves the best cocktails in town.

Mid-level Havana, the lounge bar at Hotel Rain Tree, quite close to Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, and Chennai's own Spanish place, Zara Tapas Bar on Cathedral Road, around 3km from the stadium, are always bustling late in the evening.

Budget Star Rock at Spring Hotel would please rock fans, while 10 Downing Street (Tel 91 44 28152152) and Bike & Barrel in Residency Towers, T Nagar, are for some mild swaying.

Must-Dos

Go for a walk along the shores of Marina. The beach is always bustling on weekends and late in the evening. But for a quiet, pleasant time, venture out at the crack of the dawn for a refreshing jog. The adventurous can try the steaming bajjis (stuffed vegetable fritters) that are sold at the beach (Rs 15 for four pieces). The chilli variant is the most sought after, but be warned, it can be very, very hot.

Visit the Kapaleeshwarar and Ashtalakshmi temples, the latter situated on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Have some time to kill? Sign up for a tour of the city with TTDC, which will take you through some of the major tourist attractions, including the beach. Rs 140 per person.

Play haggler at T Nagar. The shopping district houses just about anything you'd want. Cottons are a steal, priced at Rs 70 onwards. Cricket buffs can also find team jerseys here at great prices. But make sure you do haggle. For branded shopping, pay a visit to Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Nungambakkam, or the new Express Avenue mall on Club House Road.

The Shore temple, a UN World Heritage Site, in Mahabalipuram survived the tsunami, December 28, 2004

Head out to Mahabalipuram to see the Shore Temple, a UN World Heritage Site © Associated Press

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Visit Mahabalipuram, an hour away from the city, where lies the Shore temple and intricately carved relief sculptures, all courtesy the Pallava architects of the 7th century. The Hop On -Hop Off Tour organised by TTDC covers other tourist spots en route to Mahabalipuram. But make sure you have a day to spare. Also, do pay a visit to Pondicherry, the quaint little French town three hours away.

Attend a Carnatic music concert or a dance recital. Though December is usually when the city celebrates fine arts, you might still be able to catch a stray concert or two at Music Academy (Tel 91 44 28112231). Otherwise pick up some recorded versions at Giri Trading - instrumental music, ideally, if you're a first-time listener.

Savour the semiya payasam and chakkara pongal, both traditional south Indian desserts - the former made from vermicelli and sweetened, flavoured milk and the latter from rice and jaggery. Available at most south Indian restaurants in the city.

Have a healthy vegetarian five-course meal, served on a plantain leaf, at Sanjeevanam, Nungambakkam.

All information is accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of publication, but please make sure and confirm it independently as required. All prices mentioned are in Indian rupees. Hotel prices are for double rooms. Prices are indicative and subject to change

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Where to

  1. Courtyard

    Courtyard by Marriott (from Rs 5100) offers a good deal just a stone's throw away from Chepauk.

Tips for Travellers

The underrated MRTS overhead trains are extremely useful, especially for getting to the Chepauk stadium. The station is right next to the stadium.

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