Chennai: Culture and Coast

Chennai: Culture and Coast
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Only 24 hours in the city? We tell you how to cherish and walk the colonial and contemporary era line finely

Simrran Gill
December 08 , 2021
06 Min Read

I stood absolutely still, letting the lingering aroma of mogra in the air, mixed with a faint smell of the wet soil as the first raindrops hit the ground, taking over my olfactory senses. As the clouds roared, I prepared for a downpour, taking shelter while making sure that I didn’t spill my much sought after cup of filter kaapi. I hadn’t expected to trace the streets of Mylapore on a rainy evening like this one, but here I was staring at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple while the slightly damp air engulfed me.


Chennai is where cultures make and break. While some parts of the city exude an old world charm; secured with a layer of conundrum, the others pocket a cosmopolitan vibe. I began my day with a hearty South Indian breakfast. Being the stickler that I am with my culinary choices, I went for the steaming idlis, crisp dosa and a deep fried vada. All of it with lip-smacking sambar and dollops of coconut and tomato chutneys. However, as opposed to regular ones, I went for the much talked about ghee podi idlis. And as it turned out, they were a pleasant surprise and till date, my go-to breakfast.

If you’re one to experiment with your taste buds, I’d suggest trying pongal, a very common South Indian household breakfast made out of rice and served with sambar, or the idiyappam, a noodle cake made out of vermicelli generally. While outsiders might classify missing Murugan Idli Shop a sin, the locals here vouch for the Ratna Cafe. Both the places have multiple outlets and more often than not, a considerable waiting time too, especially on weekends.

Despite the sultry weather I wasn’t quite ready to give up on my expedition, at least not yet. I hailed a cab and after a few hand gestures, and even fewer broken sentences in English and Tamil, I headed to the Connemara Public Library. While I was busy marvelling at the sheer amount of books, the clouds moved a little; the sun rays now piercing the stained glass and lighting up the creaky wooden floor, which a few minutes ago looked aged and mundane.

The Connemara Public Library is an architectural marvel. Its foundation stone was laid in the year 1890 and even today it stands in all its pride with an impenetrable silence making for a perfect reading environment. My next stop was the northern part of the city. The red sandstone — out of which most buildings are made here — was my constant companion and immediately transported me back in time to the colonial era.

This part of the city is where one will find most official buildings, including the Madras High Court. While I sipped on coconut water, I couldn’t help but notice most lawyers here flocking a tiny shop a few metres away.

As I followed their lead, I didn’t realise I was sorting my lunch out for the day. It took a few attempts, a slight struggle and two extremely humble lawyers to order my plate of sambar rice along with a glass of fresh lime at the Sangeetha Canteen. This place is a gem discovered — extremely light on the pocket and abundantly heavy on taste. And nothing beats the Chennai heat better than a glass of jigarthanda available at the Murugan Idli Shop right across the street from Sangeetha.

An afternoon snooze fest after this was inevitable but not before one more pit stop — the Armenian Church. Located in the northern part of the city and being one of the oldest churches in the Indian subcontinent — now a heritage site — it was originally constructed in the year 1712, later reconstructed in 1772 and houses the graves of over 300 Armenians, with the last burial made here in 1850.

After a well rested afternoon and a serious case of north Indian street food hunger pangs, I was headed to Bombay Lassi. Braving the weather once again, I made my way to Triplicane. After the initial hesitation and some self convincing and motivation, I ditched a cab and opted for the MRTS. Being the country’s first elevated railway line and also the country’ longest elevated corridor, I must admit the services were quite smooth and hassle free.

Although the waiting period might make some edgy. As I walked the narrow lanes of Triplicane, it wasn’t very difficult to spot Bombay Lassi, for it had already started crowding early in the evening. I partly blamed the now overcast sky. As I walked closer to the shop, the sizzle of the oil and the whiff of hot, piping samosas and kachoris filled the air. Even though not the one with a sweet tooth, I couldn’t resist a serving of the jalebis being made right in front of me.

Post this began my hunt for that one — possibly more than that — perfect cup of filter kaapi and led me to Mylapore. This expedition required quite a bit of walking and I felt thankful for that afternoon nap. The streets of Mylapore are filled with ‘light on the pocket’ places for coffee although the sitting arrangement is slightly debatable.

I was distracted from my caffeine kick with a loud roar from the sky. Even though people seemed to be rushing around looking for shelter, everything in the moment seemed slow paced.

While I cherished South Indian meals throughout the day, the city surprised me with a warm, and quaint cafe for dinner — Mezze. Situated in Alwarpet, I’d recommend it for their cosy vibe, courteous staff and lip smacking food. And if you’re the one for desserts and coffee (like me), the Old Madras Baking Company (OMBC) should be your last halt for the night. Only a stone’s throw away from Mezze, cherish their adorable decor while dunking into your dessert and coffee. Pro tip - both Mezze and OMBC have limited seating, one might have to wait, but both the places are definitely worth it.

The city is home to early risers. And with a little time at my disposal before my afternoon flight, I headed to the beach. Chennai is home to a few, each with its own charm. I opted for the comparatively quieter Thiruvanmiyur, but if a batch of fresh catch is your choice, the well known Marina is also an option. As the sun rose on the eastern coast, the skyline (and my eyes) filled up with a fiery orange, faint hues of pink and lavender and the anticipation of my next visit.

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