13 of the best places to visit in Tamil Nadu, South India.
The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is a fascinating destination to travel because it is home to one of humanity’s oldest remaining living classical civilisations. The areas rich history goes back to the stone age and is easy to see in the places to visit in Tamil Nadu. The area has been in continuous human habitation for over two millennia and the ancient culture is still very much alive today in the Tamils’ language, temples, religion, dance, poetry and food.
Tamil Nadu was the home of 3 ancient Tamil empires – Chera, Chola, and Pandya who were in a constant struggle with each other for control of this land but this contributed to one of the world’s oldest and most unique languages and culture, including some of the oldest extant literature in the world and important ancient Dravidian temples and UNESCO places to visit in Tamil Nadu.
This means that Tamil Nadu is heaven for culture vultures, pilgrims and those who enjoy history and visiting old temples – there are alot of temples in Tamil Nadu so expect these to form much of your sightseeing itinerary when traveling in Tamil Nadu but there are many more places to visit in Tamil Nadu and interesting things to discover in India’s deep south.
Tamil Nadu isn’t as firmly on the backpacker trail as places like Kerala, Hampi and Mysore in Karnataka and the ever popular beaches of Goa but those who make the effort to come over here will travel through and experience one of the world’s oldest living cultures without feeling like they are on the tourist trail too much.
The Best Places to visit in Tamil Nadu:
On the first places to visit in Tamil Nadu is the capital Chennai (formerly Madras) Chennai is a busy, sprawling city that holds on to its ancient Tamil culture and traditions and also has some interesting colonial architecture and history. Chennai is not packed with obvious tourist attractions like Delhi but is worth spending a few days to explore the temples, museums, galleries and the beach and to start getting an insight into Tamil culture and get to know the people of Chennai who are infectiously enthusiastic about their city and offer less hassle than in the other big Indian cities.
Chennai makes a great gateway to South India from South East Asia as there are many cheap flights from places like KL, Bangkok and Singapore.
Kanchipuram, Mahabailpuram and Chennai are often referred to as Tamil Nadu’s Golden Triangle. Kanchipuram was once the capital of the Pallava dynasty, and is famous for its fine silk saris and known as a “City of a Thousand Temples.” Only 100 temples remain today and are noted for their beauty and diversity. Kanchipuram it is only 80 kms from Chennai and is one of the best places to visit in Tamil Nadu on a day trip for the capital.
After Chennai one of the most popular places to visit in Tamil Nadu for backpackers is Mahabalipuram, only about 2 hours south of Chennai. Mahabalipuram (Mamallapurma) is a chilled out seaside town home to many interesting temples including the UNESCO World Heritage listed Shore Temple, the Five Rathas (sculptured temples in the shape of chariots) and the huge rock carving of Arjuna’s Penance which depicts scenes from the Mahabharata epic. Mahabalipuram’s beach is more of a fisherman’s beach than one for sunbathing but it’s a good place for surfing and the town has a lively backpacker vibe and also some nice resorts to relax in.
Read More: Mahabalipuram Guide.
Mount Arunachala in the holy Tamil town of Tiruvannamalai is believed to have very special spiritual energy as the mountain is considered to be the embodiment of Lord Shiva and has the ability to quieten the mind. Tiruvannamalai is the one of the best spiritual places to visit in Tamil Nadu and draws both Hindu pilgrims and Western backpackers looking for a more spiritual scene than in nearby Mahabalipuram to the Arunachaleswar Temple and Sri Ramana Ashram and the town is especially busy on full moon nights when pilgrims walk around the holy mountain.
Pondicherry is a surprising place to find on the coast of Tamil Nadu – Pondy is actually a tiny separate union territory as it was a former French colony in the 18th Century. Pondicherry is still India but the French influence can still be felt along the relaxed streets of yellow colonial buildings, along the sea front promenade at sunset and in the cafes and patisseries. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram also attracts spiritual seekers and the interesting Auroville community is nearby.
Only about an hour from Pondicherry lies Auroville, one of the most interesting and unique places to visit in Tamil Nadu. Auroville is an experimental utopian international community founded by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in 1968 as a collective experiment dedicated to human unity and international understanding. You can visit the famous golden Matrimandir and learn about Auroville in a day trip from Pondicherry (as a tourist you can’t go inside the Matrimandir though) but if you really want to learn and experience Auroville then you will need to stay for longer – there are communities, cafes, organic farms and variuos projects and workshops in Auroville and also guesthouses where visitors can stay. An even better to become properly immersed into the community stay and volunteer in Auroville for a few weeks.
As you head away from the Coast and into the real heart land of Tamil Nadu make time to marvel at the impressive Dravidian architecture at the Brihadeswara Temple in what was once the ancient capital of the great Chola empire. The city is also famous for its amazing golden inlaid Tanjore paintings and you can also check out the decaying Thanjavur Royal Palace.
As the geographical centre of Tamil Nadu, Trichy makes a good base but also has enough attractions from it’s colourful history passed between the hands of warring dynasties to entertain you for a day or two. The highlights of Tiruchirappalli include the imposing Rock Fort Temple, the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple (possibly the biggest temple in all India) along with a vibrant bazaar, some more interesting temples.
The Chettinad region is famous for Chettinad cuisine, fiery curries and opulent old mansions filled with curiosities and antiquities from around the world when this region used to be the home of some of the most successful traders and bankers. Some of the mansions and open to the public or have been converted to heritage hotels like Bangala in Karaikudi which is also revered for the amazing 7 course Chettinad meals served on banaa leaves and cooking courses.
The ancient Tamil town of Madurai is over 4,000 years old and a vibrant center for Tamil culture, spirituality and learning. Madurai is home to the towering and colourful Meenakshi Temple, one of the most important and most impressive temples in all India and an absolute must see when traveling in South India making Madurai one of the most important places to visit in Tamil Nadu.
Read More: 8 Things to do in Madurai
If the heat of South India is started to get to you escape to the hill station of Ooty, short for Ootacamund. This refreshing hill station in the Western Ghats close to the border with Karnataka was the British summer headquarters of the Madras government and nowadays, especially in Summer, the cool breezes and stunning vistas make it one of the most popular places to visit in Tamil Nadu. You can take the fun toy train from Metupalaiyam and enjoy the scenci views, once you reach Ooty enjoy the huge botanical gardens, boating on the Lake and trekking in the hills nearby.
Read More on the hill stations of Ooty and Kodaikanal
Rameshwaram at the most Easterly tip of South India is a peaceful little pilgrim town surrounded in legend and mythology as the place where Hanuman lept across the ocean to Sri Lanka to save Sita in the Ramayana . Rameshwaram is popular with Hindu pilgrims and Indian tourists who come to visit Ramanathaswamy Temple, pray and bathe in the holy water.
Getting to Rameshwaram is itself an adventure as you cross the long bridge that links it to mainland India. Also explore the eerie remains of Dhanuskodi that was destroyed by a cyclone in 1964 not far from Rameshwaram and look out over Adam’s Bridge – a chain of reefs and sandbanks that almost connects India with Sri Lanka, only 30 kms across the ocean.
Finish your exploration of Tamil Nadu by visiting Kanyakumari at the furthermost tip of India. Kanyanumari is a spiritual town where 3 oceans collide as the Bay of Bengal merges with the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The best time to visit Kanyakumari is on the full moon night in April, you’ll be treated to the magical sight of the sun setting and moon rising simultaneously over the ocean. One of the most famous features of the town is the Swami Vivekananda Memorial and the huge statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar which sit out on a rocky island off the shore.
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More Tips for traveling in Tamil Nadu
Although there are many incredible places to visit in Tamil Nadu this area is not so touristy as other parts of India and sometimes not so well developed for travellers as popular places like Rajasthan or Kerala. English is not so well spoken or signposted and it can sometimes be hard to find a English speaker and your Hindi won’t get you very far here either as the language is Tamil here.
But don’t let this put you off, Tamil people are generally very friendly and helpful and as a solo female traveller I also felt safe here and didn’t get hassled too much at all.
Also bear in mind that Tamil Nadu, in contrast to most parts of India, gets most of its rain from the North East Monsoons in October, November and December while the rest of India is drying out.
To avoid the rains and the steamy Southern heat the best time to visit Tamil Nadu is between January and March for cooler and drier weather.
After exploring Tamil Nadu you could head into Kerala, the capital Trivandrum is only a few hours train ride from Kanyakumari. Check out my Kerala Guide for loads of awesome things to do and places to go in beautiful Kerala!
Have you traveled in Tamil Nadu? Any tips or awesome places to visit in Tamil Nadu that I missed?