13 Favorite things in Chennai (and how to survive the heat)

We weren’t supposed to be in Chennai in 2024, but the Israel-Hamas War forced us to cancel Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, so we returned to Mother India to explore Her southern region this time around. Chennai was the perfect place for us to get some medical rests and to enjoy life one day at a time.

Except for the heat. That was hard for me.

Yea, I know – southern India is hot! But temperatures were 10 degrees hotter than normal during our stay, with ‘feels like’ temperatures hitting 108 (!), the government issued rare April heat warnings. Local people say this heat this early in the year is unusual.

With the heat in mind — because it’s never going to get cooler from here — I’ve put together a short list of my ‘favorite things’ in Chennai for slow travelers.

The Madras Fort, St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica, Sai Baba temples (Shirdi and Saytha), the air-conditioned Express Avenue mall – and more tourist spots – are not on my list since they are the ‘usual’ spots. But I visited them all and they’re definitely worth your time.

13 favorite things in Chennai

Clockwise to center: Tuscan Table cafe; Madras University seen from beach walkway area; Indian women who asked me to take their picture; typical Hindu temple in the Mylapore area; Marina Beach walkway.
  1. Marina Beach: an eight-mile urban beach (polluted and rough – no swimming), with a promenade for 3.7 of those miles with countless small fishing boats, snack stands, local people of all types.
    • Survive the heat: there is no shade; go at dawn and bring a hat and an umbrella as a parasol
      • Bonus tip: the sex-segregated public swimming pool at the northern end is less than $1 for entry and ‘locker’; ladies hour is 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
  2. Mylapore: historic neighborhood as the center of the city with narrow roads, Hindu temples, lots of tea stalls. This is a tourist ‘hot spot’ but it’s overwhelmingly, wonderfully India, so I had to include it here.
    • Survive the heat: No trees = no shade. Bring a small towel as you wander this ‘hood to sop up your sweat.
  3. Tree-shaded neighborhood streets: RA Puram, Mandaveli, Alwarpet within walking distance of Mylapore; trees like the Rain Tree, the Golden Shower Tree (which grew blooms by late March into early April), and various ferns keep things a tad cooler.
    • Survive the heat: these neighborhoods have many air-conditioned cafes and restaurants.
  4. Tuscan Table: a cafe designed to give you the vibe of Tuscan, Italy; it has the cleanest bathroom I’ve ever seen in India; good coffee – iced or hot for $2.75.
    • Survive the heat: it is always ice-box cold inside this cafe.
  5. Sangeetha – the RA Puram location: a locally-based vegetarian chain with some locations around the world, including two in the USA (New Jersey and Northern California).
    • Survive the heat: it is icy cold inside this restaurant.
  6. Muscle Town Fitness Gym – Mandaveli: I went six days a week for four weeks: clean facilities, super helpful staff.
    • Survive the heat: this gym is air conditioned with plenty of fans, another reason I chose it.
  7. Apollo Spectra Hospital MRC: has all many specialty doctors for various health checks, and it’s tucked into a quiet neighborhood so it’s not as busy as other locations.
  8. Gokulam Opticals: a small mom-and-pop place in Mylapore with older equipment that works well, great low prices, and a helpful optometrist named Meena.
  9. Specmakers – Mandaveli location: the only place in town to buy cheap polarized progressive sunglasses ($104!).
  10. Sai Sujas Dental: recommended by our Airbnb host, and was absolutely the best place I could have gone. Fantastic dentists with fair prices in a lovely office atmosphere.
  11. This Airbnb in Mandaveli: it’s within walking distance to everything above and was extremely comfortable with fantastic owners in an authentic and historic Chennai setting.
Clockwise to center: Inside our Airbnb; trying on sunglasses at Specsmakers; Marina Beach Drive swimming pool; inside Muscle Town Fitness; a ‘mini tiffin’ breakfast plate at Sangeetha.

Metro, buses, auto rickshaws, Uber

Chennai is undergoing a major metro installation that snarls traffic and changes bus routes. The work slogan is: “Inconvenience today for a better tomorrow.” Well, tomorrow is far off: this construction will last several more years.

Public buses with pink fronts and backs are free for ladies. Usual fares can range from 5 to 20 rupees (6 cents to 24 cents) depending on how far you go. Because of the metro construction, do not rely on Google Maps for bus routes. You just have to wing it — buses will eventually get to the same destinations, but the route along the way is a mystery at every turn.

Auto rickshaws (tuktuks) have to take the long way around work sites. These drivers will charge you as much as they can if you’re an obvious tourist. They will laugh if you suggest using the meters. The real price is 40 rupees for the first kilometer and 20 rupees each additional kilometer. However, these guys work in awful conditions, and we always paid 100 rupees ($1.20) to go up to two kilometers.

Uber works – kinda. Auto rickshaw drivers will drop your ride after they accept it – if they determine it’s not a far enough distance and they won’t make much money. Car drivers will usually not play games of dropping your request after they accept it. But don’t be in a rush! All drivers will take their sweet-ass time to get to you. It’s hot, and they have to finish their chai, you see.

Sometimes Uber cars cost more, sometimes they don’t. Uber is still getting started in Chennai, and the app began sending warnings about pricing during our stay. (Screen grab below.)

Pedestrians: watch out! You do not have the right of way. Goats and cows do, however, because after all, this is India!

Clockwise to center: auto rickshaws line up outside Express Avenue Mall; a quiet, shaded, pedestrian-friendly street in the RA Puram neighborhood; metro work; a goat crosses a busy street; a crowded public bus at rush hour.

#12 – Vipassana meditation centers

This favorite thing in Chennai is not for everyone: Vipassana meditation centers.

Vipassana is the meditation technique that was used by the Buddha to reach enlightenment. It translates into “to see things how they really are” and it takes staying in the moment to a whole new level.

One is in Chennai on the outskirts – Dhamma Setu; one is about four hours southwest of Chennai – Dhamma Arunachala. I have done 10-day silent meditation retreats at both locations, and also a one-day refresher course at Dhamma Setu on this Chennai visit.

Learn more about the technique and understand why a 10-day silent retreat at centers like these is necessary to start the practice of vipassana on the official website. (There are vipassana centers worldwide.)

Read about my initial experience as an American at a southern Indian meditation center in this previous post.

Worth noting: Dhamma Arunachala is a smaller vipassana center in a more rural area. I’ve been there for a 10-day retreat, but haven’t written about it (yet). Both centers are excellent choices.

Dhamma Setu pagoda and grounds, within a one our drive from Chennai.

#13 – The people!

We made some friends in Chennai, as can happen when we stay somewhere for that long. I have never received so many thoughtful gifts in one stay – it was a tad overwhelming! Indians in Chennai will give you the shirts off their backs – they are incredibly warm and generous.

The irony to making new friends: once they’re in my heart, it’s time for us to move on and change our location. After all, it’s the vagabond ethos: constantly changing locations.

That said, love and peace to our friends in Chennai, until we meet again! (Hopefully NOT in the hot season – LOL.)

Namaste 🙏

Next up for us Earth Vagabonds

Husband Tedly and I go back to the Puducherry area. This time, we’ll stay much closer to Auroville instead of in Pondicherry.

His mother Diane heads to Rome for a couple of weeks on her way back to Cleveland, Ohio.

Tedly is lucky to have his mom visit us every year during the winter months, plus that extended stay in the Philippines during the pandemic. All tallied up: Diane has stayed with us for 17 months total over six years.

It gets me really thinking about my own parents. I haven’t seen them at all in many years.

Stay tuned…

Seeing Mom Diane off at the Chennai airport; Diane and Tedly on our Airbnb deck; Diane at the ‘Chennai’ sign on Marina Drive.

Thanks for reading, “13 Favorite things in Chennai (and how to survive the heat).”

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