7 cheap things to do in Chennai in South India on a backpacker budget

Chennai is the gateway to Tamil Nadu, (one of India’s most underrated states) and many people use it as a stopover, so if you’re a backpacker or on a budget then here are my top 7 things to do in Chennai.

It is known as the ‘Detroit of India’ for its vehicle manufacturing industry and it is full of traffic and pollution. Despite this, the artist formerly known as Madras is increasingly cosmopolitan and very relaxed for a city of its size.

Chennai is very spread out so I would recommend staying in Mylapore as that’s where many of the sights are, and you’re close to the main beach as well as many hotels and restaurants.

As Chennai isn’t that touristy, there aren’t many budget options, so we stayed in a serviced apartment which served us well. There are several high-end hotels if you do want somewhere nice to escape the city noise. If you want to treat yourself, Amethyst Wild Garden do great food.

You can easily see all of Chennai’s sights in a day, so if you plan on staying longer then I would venture further afield on some day trips.

1. Visit the Tomb of St Thomas

This is probably Chennai’s most famous site, where St Thomas the apostle is said to be buried after he was killed on St Thomas Mount. Much of his remains is meant to be in Italy, but this tomb apparently contains a relic of him. The tomb is downstairs and they put on mass around it, there is also a small museum that includes the lancehead that apparently killed him.

Much like in other temples in India, you are required to remove your shoes before entering.

Price: Absolutely free

Tomb of St Thomas, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Tomb of St Thomas, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

2. Attend mass

There are several churches dotted along the coast in Chennai, including the Armenian Church, St. Andrews Church and Luz Church. We went to San Thome Cathedral which is next to the tomb. The mass was in English and the timetables are posted outside. You also get a sheet with some of the songs on if you want to join in.

San Thome Cathedral, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
San Thome Cathedral, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Price: Also free

3. Go to the beach

You may have heard that Marina Beach is the second longest urban beach in the world and in many ways it’s the best way to see Chennai life. If you turn right from the lighthouse there is a fish market where you can see the catch come straight off the fishing boats, caught by men and prepared by their wives or female relatives. There are other stalls selling coconuts, trinkets and fruit as well.

The tides on this side of India can be very dangerous so be aware and swimming isn’t recommended.

Marina Beach, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

If you take a drive along the seafront, then you’ll take in many sights, including churches, war memorials, the University of Madras building and the Mahatma Gandhi statue.

4. Take the lighthouse lift

The way to really appreciate Chennai is to get above it and witness the urban comings and goings in all its glory. Don’t forget to take a series of photos so you can make a panoramic shot later.

This triangular lighthouse is the only one in India with a lift and its popularity means that you won’t be alone up there.

Chennai lighthouse and fish market
Chennai lighthouse and fish market

Price: 50 rupees for a foreigner plus camera fee.

5. Get historical at the museums

The main museum of Chennai is the Government Museum which is an impressive building, filled with bronzes, sculptures, tribal artefacts and artworks that tell the history of South India. It’s also the second oldest museum in India.

There is also the less-grand Fort Museum which is in the old fort complex. The complex is a slightly odd place that houses administrative buildings and isn’t very exciting to look around.

There is a security check before you enter and the museum is on your right hand side. This slightly overpriced museum houses information on the fort, colonial artwork and military memorabilia.

Fort Museum, Chennai
Fort Museum, Chennai

Price: Government – 250 rupees for a foreigner plus camera fee. Fort – 300 rupees for a foreigner.

For cheap eats while you’re sightseeing, I recommend one of the Coffee House branches, you buy a ticket and take it to the relevant counter, depending on what you’re buying. A samosa and a coffee will only cost you 40 rupees and drinking water is free. There are also branches of the bargainous Indian Coffee House cooperative here, which costs a couple of rupees more but has table service so it’s slightly easier.

Coffee House, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Coffee House, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

6. Watch a classical dance show

Chennai is an incredibly artistic place, with several schools of dance and art. Bharatanatyam is a form of Indian classical dance that began in the temples Tamil Nadu and Chennai is a great place to see it. Sometimes dance schools even show it for free so their students can practise. The city also hosts the Chennai Festival of Music and Dance that lasts from December until January.

There are several venues that show classical dance, including Amma Arangan, Kalakshetra Foundation and Madras Music Academy. Check online for schedules.

Indian Female Classical Dancer in the style Bharatanatyam

If there are no dance shows on, you can always catch a Tamil movie at one of Chennai’s many cinemas.

Price: Dance show – free or as ticketed. Cinema prices start at 120 rupees.

7. See the UNESCO site of Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is one of the most important ancient sites in South India. It has three main groups of stone carved monuments and temples built in the 7th and 8th centuries by the Pallava Dynasty.

It is about 1 and a half hours away from Chennai by bus or you can get there by taxi or tuk-tuk. It can be done as a day trip or you can stay the night here if you’re heading south to Pondicherry or Madurai.

If you take a bus to Thiruvanmiyur bus station and cross over, the government bus to Pondicherry goes from there. If you walk south then the Mahabalipuram bus goes from the shelter next to Marudeeswarar temple and it costs 38 rupees.

Head to the shore temple by the beach first to buy your ticket and then head the monuments on the Main Street. The main group of monuments in the centre of town can be visited for free.

Mahabalipuram temple, India

Price: 600 rupees for a foreigner plus transport costs

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Have you been to Chennai? What did you really enjoy doing while you were there? Let me know in the comments below.

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7 cheap things to do in Chennai in South India on a backpacker budget
7 cheap things to do in Chennai in South India on a backpacker budget


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