Unfortunately, the city's attractions are very spread out, and getting around can be nightmarish; select a few choice sights in one area or get an air-conditioned taxi for the day.
South Chennai -- Exploring Marina Beach and the temples and churches of Mylapore, the old heart of Chennai, can be done on foot; to cover the sights further south you're probably best off hiring a car for the better part of the day; be prepared for traffic.
Presuming you've already spent the night in Chennai, get a predawn start by taking in the early morning activities along the 12km (7 1/2-mile) Marina Beach -- if you're there early enough (around 6am) you can watch the fishing boats being launched. If you'd rather sleep in, save the beach for dusk, when it becomes a colorful pageant of boys playing cricket, families strolling, vendors selling souvenirs, and food carts offering fast-food snacks. Given that it's the world's second-longest city beach you might want to concentrate your energies on the best area: the vicinity of Triplicane, along Kamaraj Road, walking towards South Beach Road.
The 8th-century Parthasarathy Temple (off Triplicane High Rd., west of South Beach Rd.; daily 7am-noon and 4-8pm) is very near the main drag of Marina Beach; dedicated to Krishna, it is believed to be Chennai's oldest temple, though extensively renovated by the Vijaynagar kings in the 16th century.
Farther south (this is quite a long walk, but pleasant enough given it's along South Beach Rd. with views of the beach and sea; if it's too hot, catch a rickshaw), near the lighthouse, lies Mylapore's Basilica of San Thome (San Thome High Rd., Mylapore; daily 6am-6pm), where the so-called final resting place of Thomas the Apostle has become a neon-lit attraction. Legend has it that St. Thomas, one of Christ's disciples, was martyred at St. Thomas Mount after spending the final years of his life preaching on a nearby beach. Stained-glass windows recount the slain saint's tale, and wooden panels depict Christ's final days on earth. The interior is also now decked with modern kitsch: bits of tinsel, polystyrene, and a halo of fairy lights.
Near the basilica (1km west) is Chennai's most impressive temple: Kapaleshvara (also spelled Kapaleeshwar/Kapaleswarar; off Kutchery Rd. and Chitrukullan N. St., Mylapore; daily 6am-12:30pm and 4-8:30pm) is a classic example of Dravidian architecture, and the thronging devotees will give you an idea of what Tamil Nadu's devout worship is all about. The temple is marked by a 36m (118-ft.) goparum (gateway) tower adorned with detailed figures and inscriptions dating from A.D. 1250; if you're destined for the temples of Tamil Nadu this is a fine foretaste (though by the same token, missable if you're pushed for time). A hive of activity at the best of time, the place really comes alive during the Arupathumoovar Festival, held usually around 10 days in March. From here you can walk to Luz Church (Luz Church Rd.), built by the Portuguese, and said to be the oldest church in Chennai.
If the congestion and chaos of Chennai has you beat, hop in a cab and visit the peaceful 16th-century Church of our Lady of Expectations (Senhora da Expectação), atop St. Thomas Mount. Built in 1523 by the Portuguese, the little church provides fine views over the city and is serenely removed from the city's nonstop commotion. Along the way (or on the way back), spend some time roaming the gardens of the Theosophical Society, a sprawling 108 hectares (270 acres) of rambling pathways and shaded by trees including an enormous Banyan tree, said to be 400 years old. The society was founded in 1875 in New York by American Civil War veteran Col. Henry S. Olcott and Russian Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. They based their belief primarily on Hinduism but promoted the equality and truth of all religions. The duo moved it to Chennai in 1882. The international headquarters of the society is still here, in the 1776 Huddlestone mansion, where relief imagery and quotations representing various faiths are on display, and there is an excellent library, though to gain full use of the latter you need to register with the society (E. Adyar; tel. 044/2491-3528, -7198, or -2904; daily 8:30-10am and 2-4pm).
Central Chennai -- At the heart of Chennai, Anna Salai is the city's major business-lined artery. North of Anna Salai is Egmore, where you will find Chennai's top museum, and to the west, Nungambakkam, an upmarket residential area that is home to an increasing number of hotels and businesses, as well as Khader Nawaz Khan Road, where you will find the densest concentration of Chennai's boutique and high-street stores. Best to hop onto auto-rickshaws to get around this congested part of the city.
The Government Museum and National Gallery (Pantheon Rd.; tel. 044/2819-3238; admission to Pantheon Complex Rs 250; camera fee extra; Sat-Thurs 9:30am-5pm) is considered one of the finest receptacles of 10th- and 13th-century bronze sculpture in the country, including the Chola Nataraj -- sculptures of Shiva dancing in a ring of cosmic fire, these are almost as definitive of India as the Taj Mahal. The museum, a complex of six buildings and 46 galleries, is a definite stop if you're at all interested in Indian art as there are also 11th- and 12th-century handicrafts and Rajasthani, Mughal, and Deccan paintings. One of the buildings in this complex is the beautifully renovated Museum Theatre, where you can sometimes catch a dance or a music performance. While in Egmore, pop into St. Andrew's Kirk (off Periyar E.V.R. High Rd., northeast of Egmore Station, Egmore; tel. 044/2561-2608; daily 9am-5pm) -- inspired by London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields, St. Andrew's steeple rises 50m (164 ft.) into the air; you can climb this to reach a small balcony for a good city view. Alternatively, head south to Khader Nawaz Khan Road for some retail therapy.
Northern Chennai -- A tour to admire George Town's grand architectural colonial heritage -- the main reason to venture north -- can mostly be covered on foot (heat allowing) -- best on a Sunday when traffic is at a minimum.
Set aside a few hours to visit Fort St. George (Kamaraj Rd.) -- the first bastion of British power in India, constructed in 1640. The cluster of gray and white colonial buildings with pillared neoclassical facades now houses the Tamil Nadu State Legislature and the Secretariat. Visit its Fort Museum (tel. 044/2567-1127; admission Rs 100; Sat-Thurs 10am-5pm; still camera without flash allowed with permission from tourist office; video camera extra fee) to see the collection of portraiture, oil paintings, sketches, vintage photographs, silverware and etchings that reveal the nature of colonial life in early Madras. In the compound you will also find Asia's oldest existing Anglican church, St. Mary's (daily 9:30am-5pm), incidentally where Yale University's founder, Gov. Elihu Yale, was married. The church has numerous 17th- and 18th-century gravestones -- look for the Latin memorial to Mrs. Elizabeth Baker (1652), believed to be the oldest British inscription in India.
Just north of the fort is the red-sandstone High Court (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm), built in the mid-19th century in the Indo-Saracenic style, and still in use today. Guided tours of the building take in the various courtrooms, many of which are remarkably decorated. Busy George Town, bounded by Rajaji Salai and N.S.C. Bose Road, was once known as "Black Town," a racist appellation for a settlement occupied by East India Company textile workers who came from Andhra Pradesh in the mid-1600s (the name "Chennai," incidentally, is derived from the name given to the area by the dyers and weavers who lived here: Chennapatnam). Today, George Town is a bustling collection of streets that should be explored on foot -- but again, not a good idea in the middle of the day.
Tip: Fans of the iconic Enfield Bullet, a contemporary classic due to its looks rather than performance, may know that it is manufactured in a Chennai factory (18km/11 miles north of Anna Salai); you can arrange for a 90-minute tour of the factory, a highly recommended experience for motorbike enthusiasts or anyone with a yen for the nostalgic (tel. 044/4204-3300; www.royalenfield.com; Rs 500; Mon-Fri 9:30am-5:30pm). Ironically there are no Enfield tours of Tamil Nadu.
Great Guided City Walks
Storytrails (tel. 994-004-0215; www.storytrails.in) conducts a number of interesting walking tours through Chennai -- in many ways, this is the best introduction to an Indian city, particularly for newcomers to India. The Peacock Trail (Rs 595, including breakfast; 7 or 7:30am-10 or 10:30am, or evenings) covers the ancient temples and heritage of Mylapore, the old heart of modern Chennai, said to predate the city by some 2,000 years. The Bazaar Trail (Rs 795; 4:30-7:30pm) takes you through the historic, colorful, chaotic, and vibrant George Town on foot and cycle rickshaw, visiting (among others) flower and vegetable markets, an experience that gets you feeling as close to local as is possible. But perhaps the best (if you're as much as a fan of southern Indian cuisine as we are) is the Spice Trail (Rs 1,500, including lunch; 9am-2pm), in which you are taken from narrow streets to fine-dining restaurants to experience the delicious and diverse flavors of South India, with advice on how to re-create some of the recipes provided along the way; come hungry!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.