Once a cluster of fishing villages along India’s southeast coast, Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s state capital, began to take shape in the 17th century when the British developed it into a major city and naval center. Today less than an hour’s flight from Bangalore, or a five-hour journey by train, Chennai (formerly Madras) is south India’s center of spirituality, traditional music, and dance. Long stretches of Tamil Nadu’s coastline on the Bay of Bengal remain unspoiled, and the charming rowhouses of the 17th-century French settlement of Pondicherry, some 100 miles down the coast, appear untouched by time. Plan to spend about three days between the two cities, exploring the historic sites along the way and checking in to some of the south’s oldest hotels.
Day One: Chennai
Begin in Chennai with a daylong tour led by a knowledgeable guide—mine was Kala Balasubramaniam from the outfitter Peirce & Leslie (91-124/404-9361; peirceandleslie.com) to get a feel for the city’s many layers. After a breakfast of dosas and coffee at the bustling South Indian restaurant Saravana Bhavan (70 Kapaleeswarar Temple, North Mada St.), stroll around Mylapore. This ancient village remains true to traditional Tamil ways, and sari-clad women, jasmine garlands in their hair, walk its streets buying items for prayer ceremonies. Make sure to visit the eighth-century Kapaleeswarar Temple, a pyramid-shaped tower covered in colorful paintings and carvings of Hindu deities.
In the neighboring area of Gopalapuram, browse the selection of high-end jewelry, contemporary clothing (mostly from Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore), and vintage photographs at Amethyst (14 Padamavathy Rd.), a well-curated boutique tucked into a restored 100-year-old colonial building. Stick around for morning tea or an early lunch on the veranda or in the garden.
Then take the seven-mile drive along Marina Beach, past the colonial buildings of the police station and the Vivekananda Illam, formerly a British icehouse and now a cultural center. Arrive at Fort George (Pantheon Rd.), built by the British around 1653 and still an army base. St. Mary’s Church, erected in 1680 and known as the Westminster Abbey of the East, is also here. It has the distinction of being one of India’s oldest surviving British churches.
Chennai vibrates with music and dance; for a true glimpse into the city’s culture, catch a midday performance at one of the many sabhas (music halls) or teaching institutions. The bulk of the musical events take place in December, but a travel specialist should be able to secure tickets year-round. Peirce & Leslie arranged an afternoon visit to a small historic percussion school run by second-generation teacher Vikku Selvaganesh. End the evening at Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel Hotel (dinner, $70; 37 M.G. Rd.) feasting on Tamil cuisine. Don’t miss the restaurant’s nightly classical dance and music performances.
Day Two: Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry
Just about an hour south, on the scenic East Coast Road, is the village of Mahabalipuram, a Unesco World Heritage site punctuated with seventh- and eighth-century rock carvings. Just before the village, stop at the Murugan Temple, unearthed in the reconstruction efforts that followed the 2004 tsunami. A team from the Archaeological Survey of India is working on excavating the site, but visitors are encouraged to explore.
Spend a few hours in Mahabalipuram itself, where bas-reliefs and rathas (chariots) from the sixth-to-ninth-century Pallava kingdom are carved from single boulders. Of particular note are the Tiger Cave, Arjuna’s Penance, and the Descent of the Ganges, all of which are intricately detailed storytelling panels depicting Hindu gods, animals, and scenes of everyday life. In the village stone carvers and sculptors practice techniques from 15 centuries ago. Fourth-generation sculptor brothers Ramu and Ragendran Manickam run the M.R. Architecture & Sculpture Centre (66 E. Raja St.), where small stone pieces inspired by local rock art and popular deities like Ganesh sell for $50 and up. The brothers create larger pieces on commission, too.
The scenic two-hour drive to Pondicherry from here—along the East Coast Road past lush scenery, seemingly endless stretches of coastline, and weathered fishing villages—passes quickly. By midafternoon, arrive in the former French settlement and head to the Tamil quarter for a late lunch at Calve, a 150-year-old bungalow that’s now a heritage hotel (lunch, $20; 36 Vysial St.; calve.in). The menu here claims to be Creole, but the strongest dishes are South Indian.
The French established themselves in Pondicherry in 1674, erecting still-standing buildings like the ornate white Raj Nivas governor’s house and the twin-towered Notre Dame des Anges Church, all in La Ville Blanche, the former colonial part of town. Catch a glimpse of locals playing an afternoon game of boule—a reminder of the colonizers’ lasting impact on daily life here. The day ends with dinner at Hotel de l’Orient (dinner, $22). Request a table in the candlelit courtyard and dine on cuisine that’s a mélange of French, Indian, and Creole, paired with French wine.
Day Three: Pondicherry to Chennai
Begin the day with a simple French breakfast under an old mango tree at Le Dupleix (breakfast, from $14; 5 Caserne St.; ledupleix.com), then venture to the French and Tamil quarters of the old part of town. Stop by the local office of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (62 Rue Aurobindo; intachpondicherry.org) to pick up a brochure outlining an hour-long walking tour of the area. Because of the ongoing heritage preservation in the town’s older areas, Pondicherry has become something of an antique-furniture hub, with Kathiravan Furniture (2 Rue Labourdonnais) and Via Pondicherry (22 Romain Rolland) as standouts for their South Indian–wood pieces and their handcrafted accessories, respectively. Nearby, Sri Aurobindo Ashram (3 Rangapillai St.; sriaurobindoashram.org) produces marbled silk saris, handmade paper goods, and fragrances. Refuel with lunch in the courtyard at Rendezvous (3 Rue Seffren; rendezvous-pondy.com), in the heart of the French quarter. The extensive menu of more than 250 dishes may seem overwhelming, but diners won’t go wrong ordering any of the seafood dishes based on lobster, prawns, or calamari.
Finally it’s the two-hour drive back to Chennai, where just outside the city limits is the 20-acre Fisherman’s Cove (tajhotels.com), a Taj beach resort that’s a welcome respite after this whirlwind three-day tour—an ideal place to spend a night (or two) before heading back to Bangalore. For dinner, the hotel’s Bay View restaurant serves Indian-accented seafood dishes under thatched umbrellas at tables overlooking the Bay of Bengal.
Fisherman’s Cove Built on the ramparts of an 18th-century Dutch fort, this Taj property has 88 rooms; 20 with ocean views and hammocks. Check out the small but good Ayurvedic spa, offering open-air treatments. From $230 to $400. At Covelong Beach, Kanchipuram Dist.; 91-446/741-3333; tajhotels.com.
Park Hotel The hippest spot in town (it’s the site of a former film studio), this 214-room property has a pool and a day spa called Aura, which uses fresh local ingredients in its therapies. Request one of the beech-floor rooms on the sixth and seventh floors. From $300 to $1,000. At 601 Anna Salai; 91-44/4267-6000; theparkhotels.com.
Taj Coromandel This centrally located 213-room hotel built in the seventies is popular despite its dated appearance. Ask for a room that’s been redone. From $400 to $1,350. At 37 M.G. Rd.; 91-44/6600-2827; tajhotels.com.
Hotel de l’Orient In the heart of the French district, this restored mansion dates back to the 1760s, and many of the rooms feature a dramatic colonial four-poster bed and Indian oleographs. From $60 to $130. At 17 Rue Romain Rolland; 91-413/234-3067; neemranahotels.com.