We have been to Chennai with our kids many times, and yet I have never written a post about the experience. Strange, right? I love writing travel guides for parents, and have waxed lyrical about London, Paris, New York, and Copenhagen in the past, but not Chennai. Why?
Because, to be very honest, Chennai is hard to visit with kids. The extreme heat, unbelievable traffic, a lack of safe pavements and walking routes, and very few outdoor play spaces make life hard for those with little adventurers tagging along. We visit Chennai to be with our close and beloved relatives, that is our reason for being there and that tends to be the focus of our trips, but kids are kids and they need to play and discover.
Chennai has beautiful temples, bustling street markets and great restaurants. However, finding (screen free) activities to keep the kids happy while their cousins are at school has not been easy. My kids like to play outdoors, and they love nature. They also like to visit museums,especially ones with interactive exhibits. Chennai has some great places that tick those boxes, but not nearly enough. I’m hoping that changes very soon. We didn’t spend as long as usual in the city this year, as we took a break in Kerala as well (more about that later). But in the short time we were there, we sniffed out some places that pleased our kids greatly. I hope those of you who plan to visit Chennai will find this list useful . Please do share your own discoveries as well!
Our top pick, Dakshinachitra, is slightly outside Chennai, but you should visit it anyway. We walked around reconstructed villages and homes from different parts of Southern India, and learned about how our ancestors used to live. There are lots of things to touch and explore, and crafts for the kids to try. My kids tried their hand at pottery, basket weaving, and grinding rice with a stone. It’s also a peaceful environment that gives you a respite from the noise and bustle of the city. We didn’t have time, but if you continue down the East Coast Road, Mahabalipuram is stunning with its ancient temples, ruins, and views of the sea.
The Chennai Metro
Chennai has a brand new metro system! This is fabulous news for my transport obsessed son. He spent a day riding around in its shiny, spanking new carriages and got to see the city from new angles from it’s windows.
Tugbug Childrens Centre
We went shopping at the Besant Nagar branch of FabIndia (a great place to shop for beautiful clothes and textiles) and discovered a really cute play area on it’s top floor. I didn’t have the presence of mind to take photos, but I did take pictures of the cafe opposite it, which was an oasis of calm and light, and had a great menu. I also took pictures of every wall in that building. What is it with wall art and Chennai? Beautifully painted/covered walls seemed to be everywhere. The children’s center is not free, but they have staff that will play with your kids and run art and craft activities for them while you shop. When we visited, there were a couple of older kids who looked around nine or ten playing there happily, so it’s not just for tiny ones. My nine year old really liked it, but was too hungry to really focus on anything other than the cafe next door instead!
Not all beaches are equal. Some in Chennai are too grimy or crowded to visit. Kids love sand and water, so we couldn’t leave without visiting one. We walked along the Kottivakkam beach in the evening and enjoyed the (relatively) peaceful atmosphere. This beach used to have a great boardwalk, but it was removed after heavy rain and floods damaged it. A shame, but the children still enjoyed the water. On our next visit, I plan to take them to Marina beach, Chennai’s largest and most famous beach, to watch the vendors and kite flyers, and take pony rides.
A clued in relative introduced us to this place. It is an old world European style cafe that is the perfect spot to go to when your kids start craving non Indian food. They have great cakes there as well. The wall art outside the cafe should make you giggle as well. Anokhi, another great Indian textile store is just downstairs, should you wish to look at some beautiful hand block printed things. I’m textile designer, so I was delighted to walk away with some hand carved blocks.
Express Avenue Mall
Okay, stay with me here. I reeeally do not like malls, and I don’t usually recommend visiting them either on or off vacation. However, you know that day when your kids are super antsy and whiny, and the weather is scalding, and all you want to do is lie down? This is where you go in Chennai. It is air conditioned and has big wide spaces to run around and an arcade. Arcades seem to be something of an obsession in Chennai, and each mall has one. Arcades are not a favorite of mine either, but I almost wept tears of gratitude when my kids happily spent an afternoon playing air hockey, Fruit Ninja, and took their aggressions out on the bumper cars. They had huge grins on their faces, and guess what? The food in Indian malls is good. Imagine being able to get a channa bhatura or mysore masala dosa at a mall? Sold.
Cholamandal Artists’ Village
Full disclosure: the nine year old was more interested in the huge Banyan tree outside this centre than any of the artwork. This was more for my artsy thirteen year old. The galleries are full of beautiful art, but you get the impression that hardly anyone visits (or funds) this place. The docents at the front desk mentioned that there are big plans being put in motion for this place, and I really hope so. It needs all the support it can get.
Oh, and don’t forget to drop by the legendary Grand Sweets to fill up on South Indian snack foods.
I’m already beginning to find new places to visit on our next trip to Chennai. Apparently, I just need to look and ask more. Thanks for reading this far, and please do send me your own suggestions!