This ancient city on India’s Coromandel Coast is dubbed the Detroit of Asia, thanks to its thriving car manufacturing scene. But, says resident Shoba Narayan, Chennai is also the cultural capital of South India, and it would be a shame not to stay on an extra day or two to experience its beaches, traditional arts and street food

Just dance

Established by 1920s classical dance star Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kalakshetra is one of the oldest Bharatanatyam (a traditional Indian dance form) schools in the country. Walk through its expansive verdant grounds and watch groups of sari-clad students rehearse under a banyan tree, or visit the museum, library and weaving unit to learn more about the region’s rich performing arts history.

The coast with the most

The Coromandel Coast has two beaches: popular Marina Beach is older, while Elliott’s Beach – named after Edward Elliot, governor of Madras 1803-1820 – is more of an up-and-comer. Take a jog or walk in the morning and you’ll see yoga practitioners, Frisbee players and even the odd politician walking by with his retinue.

Caffeine fix

Chennai prides itself on the quality of its coffee. Traditional households roast and grind their beans fresh every morning, and the thick coffee decoction is mixed with frothy milk and just enough sugar to take the bitterness away. For that traditional taste, try the outdoor Namma Café at Isha Life in Mylapore, surrounded by jackfruit and mango trees.

Street eats

Trying the popular snack dosa, a crisp, golden savoury crêpe, is a must. Masala dosa has a potato filling and is popular with hungry students. Most of the city’s luxury hotels will serve dosa, while humble eateries like Karpagambal Mess Bhavan serve it for under $1.

Silk route

Find hand-woven silk and cotton scarfs, shawls and saris in jewel tones at Nalli, Kumaran or Sundari Silks, all stalwarts of the silk business for decades. For newer designs, try Palam Silks to duplicate the trendy but traditional look that Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone sported in the recent hit film, Chennai Express.

Regal accommodation

Chennai’s newest grand hotel, the 600-room ITC Grand Chola is inspired by the architecture of one of Southern India’s greatest empires, the Imperial Chola dynasty, with granite carvings and towering columns throughout. With the environment in mind, it’s also the world’s largest LEED Platinum-rated Green hotel.

Going for gold

The World Gold Council’s India arm is headquartered in Chennai, so this is the place to invest. Go to GR Thanga Maligai (which means ‘gold mansion’) to pick up and buy a 24-carat gold ring, earring or necklace. Prices are fixed, so bargaining isn’t necessary – but make sure you get a certificate of authenticity.

Be a Carnatic fanatic

Chennai is the seat of Carnatic music (South Indian music, considered one of the oldest in the world) and there are dance and music concerts all year in the city’s sabhas or concert halls. Buy a ticket to attend a concert at the legendary Madras Music Academy, where the famous month-long Music and Dance Festival takes place every December.

Bronze age

The Chola bronzes (famous figures representing Hindu gods, goddesses and devotees dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries) alone are worth a trip to the Government Museum. Go in the afternoon, when the air-conditioned confines offer a welcome respite from the tropical sun.

Be there

To celebrate its 25th year of flying to Chennai, BA has increased its services from London Heathrow to Chennai from five to six times a week. Find our lowest fares at

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