Tamil Nadu bursts with a fiery flavour, offering up sunny coasts, spicy cuisine, and a serious culture scene. Plus, it isn’t nearly as crowded as neighbouring Kerala. Explore candy-coloured temples with elaborate carvings, take surf lessons in its glittering waters, or retreat to the lush hills, alive with the call of macaques and hornbills. Whatever your perfect holiday, odds are it’s in our quickie guide.
The seaside town of Rameswaram has long drawn pilgrims for its Ramanathaswamy Temple; it is believed that Rama made its sand lingam and worshipped Shiva here. But the town’s prime location on Pamban Island, overlooking the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, is slowly luring a different crowd. Adventure lovers plunge into Rameswaram’s aquamarine waters for snorkelling and diving (sea turtles and dolphins, anyone?), as well as kayaking and kite-boarding. Explore marine wonders and visit nearby coves and islets with adventure outfits like Quest Expeditions. A half-hour drive away is the ghost town of Dhanushkodi, abandoned by residents after the devastating 1964 cyclone, but blessed with a picturesque seaside.
Getting There Rameswaram is 150km/2hr30min from Madurai, which has the closest airport. It has its own railway station.
Karaikudi, in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, would make for a fantastic girls’ trip—think magnificent mansions, peppery cuisine, and markets, so many markets. There are ones for handloom textiles, metal crafts, traditional kitchen ware, and antique furniture, all at throwaway prices. Check into the Bangala heritage hotel and make day trips to explore the region. The town of Kanadukathan, 30min away, has crumbling mansions with iron-pillared courtyards, Italian tiles, and Burma teak furniture.The outskirts of Karaikudi has antique shops the size of football fields, and weaving clusters where you can score bright Chettinad cotton saris to bring back home. More here.
Getting There Karaikudi is 87km/2hr from Madurai, which has the closest airport and major railway station.
For a serene ashram retreat without religious overtones, slot in a weekend at the Isha Yoga Centre in the foothills of the Velliangiri Hills near Coimbatore. Travellers seeking spirituality or a week of detoxification often turn to the centre, but guests seeking a quiet weekend can also book a room here. Begin the day with a yoga class, tuck into hearty vegetarian fare in the communal hall, and stop by the rejuvenation centre for an Ayurvedic massage. Wind down with a meditative session of yoga nidra breathing before tucking into bed.Cultural buffs can time their visit with the annual music and dance festival Yaksha that falls around Mahashivratri, between February and March. More here.
Getting There Isha Yoga Centre is 38km/1hr30min from Coimbatore airport, and 30km/1hr from Coimbatore railway station.
For a heady shot of heritage, choose the former royal capital of the Chola kingdom. Thanjavur glistens with ancient treasures: Almost every Bharatanatyam posture is sculpted on the walls of its massive Brihadeshwara Temple, part of the Great Living Chola Temples UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the 400-year-old royal library, Saraswati Mahal, there are rare palm-leaf manuscripts and treatises on Chinese torture and Ayurvedic therapy to pore over. Wander through the bazaars for Thanjavur paintings of deities, made with semi-precious stones and gold leaf. Before you leave, pick up a brightly painted Thanjavur bommai—a terracotta bobblehead that perpetually sways above its rounded bottom. More here.
Getting There Thanjavur is 320km/6hr from Chennai, which has the most convenient airport. The closest airport is in Tiruchirapalli, about 60 km/1hr away. Thanjavur has its own railway station.
The southernmost tip of India is a hugely popular seaside getaway, one with plenty of quirky charm. There are conch painters, rice engravers, and palm readers—but also the town’s chief temple dedicated to a feisty goddess who vowed to remain a virgin when Shiva stood her up on her wedding day. A short boat ride away is the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, where the famed saint is said to have swum out to for meditation. A half-hour ride away is the Vadasseri jewellery market where temple jewellery is made for deities in a centuries-old style, now worn more frequently by classical dancers. More here.
Getting There Kanyakumari may lie in Tamil Nadu, but it is closer to Kerala’s capital than to Chennai. The closest airport is in Trivandrum, 90km/2hr away. Kanyakumari is a major railhead.
Most visitors make the scenic drive from Chennai to Pondicherry for fresh seafood and inexpensive alcohol, but the seaside town has lots more to offer. Sign up for a guided heritage walk through the former French colony, or cycle at your own pace past pretty colonial bungalows and restored Tamil mansions. The waters off the coast have thriving coralreefs that attract scuba divers and the township of Auroville (also nearby) is a magnet for earth-friendly travellers, lined with quirky boutiques and organic cafes. Stock up of sustainable foods, sign up for a wellness programme (from getting massages to studying meditation), or volunteer at permaculture outfits. More on diving here, restaurants here, and a city guide here.
Getting There Pondicherry is 100km/3hr from Chennai, which has the most convenient airport and railway station. Pondicherry has its own railway station, but is most easily accessible by road from Chennai.
For a hill-station holiday without the crowds, set your sights on Avalanchi, once a pastoral delight for homesick Brits. A 28km-drive from Ooty, this town in the heart of the Nilgiris is carpeted with clipped plantations, and surrounded by forests of towering trees. Picnic by the lake, take a horse ride with valley views, and spot screeching owls and wild boar in the Mudumalai National Park nearby. Avalanchi is especially delightful for lovers of the great outdoors—its forests are perfect for treks, mountain biking and camping. More here.
Getting There Avalanchi is 28km/1hr from Ooty, which has the closest rail head, and 85km/2hr from Coimbatore that has the closest airport. Take the picturesque Nilgiri Mountain Railway from Coonoor or Mettupalayam to Ooty, if possible, and then make your way to Avalanchi from there.
Laid-back travellers will love Tranquebar, about a 6hr-drive from Chennai. A former Danish colony, Tranquebar is officially named Tharangambadi, “the place of the singing waves”. It’s the kind of seaside holiday that includes picnic lunches, afternoons spent curled up with a book on an old armchair, and strolls on a boulder-strewn beach at dusk. The town is peppered with majestic churches and colonial mansions. INTACH has a helpful map for a self-guided tour, and the museum at the recently renovated Dansborg Fort has quirky exhibits including a whale skeleton. Visit nearby towns for its famous spiritual sites, such as the Christian town of Velankanni, an hour away. Or just let the salty ocean tang and whispering waves lull you into a restful laze. More here.
Getting There Tranquebar is 280km/6hr from Chennai, which has the most convenient airport and railway station. Trichy is the nearest airport, and lies 128km/4hr from Tranquebar. The nearest railway stations are at Nagapattinam (35km/45min) and Chidambaram (40km/55min).
Tamil Nadu isn’t short of temple towns, but Kumbakonam is as famed for its legendary shrines as for its impeccable coffee. According to legend, the town gets its name from its massive tank, which holds the nectar that flowed from Brahma’s “kumbha” (pot) when it was destroyed at the end of an epoch. The mythic event is marked by the Mahamaham Festival every 12 years, known as the Kumbh Mela of the South, when millions dip in this tank. No surprise then, that the town quivers with sacred trails dotted with shrines, including the Airavateswara Temple 4km away. The chariot-shaped temple, a Unesco World Heritage site, has intricate carvings of the epics, and has been described as poetry in stone. Fuel yourself with tumblers of the famous Kumbakonam filter kaapi—you’ll need it to tackle the bustling markets of traditional cooking vessels, bronze lamps, and pure silk saris. More here.
Getting There Kumbakonam is 100km/2hr north of Tiruchirapally, which has the nearest airport. Kumbakonam has its own railway station.
Kolukkumalai is perched at 8,100ft above sea level, and is arguably the world’s highest tea plantation. Being near the state border, it is blessed with sweeping views of Tamil Nadu’s rolling plains and Kerala’s hills. The plantation was set up by the British in the 1930s, and still makes tea the old-fashioned way: slowly, and by hand. Begin the day with a pot of the light, flavourful brew, then stroll over to the tea factory to see how it is processed, and spend the rest of the time birdwatching with a naturalist or walking along nature trails. More here.
Getting There Kolukkumalai is 140km/3hr from Kochi, which has the nearest airport, and railway station (at Aluva). The most convenient way to reach the Kolukkumalai tea plantation is to hire a jeep from Suryanelli, a town about 25km/1hr out of Munnar in Kerala. The bumpy 14km-ride should take about 1hr 15min.
Madurai, is one of Tamil Nadu’s most prominent Hindu temple towns. Here, Shiva takes a backseat for his consort: the three-breasted Meenkashi, considered the ultimate tribute to womanhood. Visit the fierce goddess at the Meenakshi Amman temple, the nucleus of the old city. At the Pudhu Mandapam market (built in the 17th century), wander through a labyrinth of stores set among carved stone pillars, for temple ritual objects, fabrics, and hair accessories. Madurai is as much of a draw for its culinary preparations. Cafes in the city serve excellent south-Indian breakfasts; sweetmarts dish out hot, ghee-doused sweets through the day, and “messes”, serve carnivorous preparations, including mutton, chicken, rabbit, and quail, until the wee hours of the morning. More here.
Getting There Madurai has its own airport and railway station.
Vellore’s top-notch Christian Medical College hospital ensures that the town is known best for medical tourism. Still, the sleepy city has a rustic charm. The 16th-century Vellore Fort speaks of many masters and many gods—there’s a church, a mosque, and a looming temple in its complex. Built by a local chieftain, the fort later served both as an English garrison and as the site for one of the first uprisings against British rule. Today, it’s a quiet place to watch the sunset over the moat. Take a nature walk in the vast gardens of the new (and ornate) Sripuram Temple, or the serene Amirthi Forest and Wildlife Sanctuary,which is a 40-min drive from the city. Fuel up with the moist and fragrant Ambur biryani at Star Briyani. More here.
Getting There Vellore is 125 km/3hr from Chennai, which has the nearest airport. Vellore has its own railway station at Katpadi Junction.
A popular hill-station (but still quieter than Ooty), Kodaikanal shimmers with the rich wildlife and mist-laden trails. Visit honeymoon-favourite Kodai Lake for boating, trek to nearby waterfalls, and trot up woodsy trails on horseback. Pick up scrumptious fruit preserves at Cinnabar, a B&B that runs cheesemaking and bread-making workshops. Or get away from it all in a back-to-nature retreat at Karuna Farm, which matches its spartan, eco-friendly accommodation with stunning views and free morning yoga classes. For a more luxuriant stay, there’s Elephant Valley, situated on an old pachyderm migration route where guests begin their day with coffee from beans grown on the pesticide-free plantation.
Getting There Kodaikanal is 120km/3hr from Madurai, which has the closest airport and most convenient railway station. Kodaikanal has its own railway station.
About 1hr 30min by road from Chennai, Mamallapuram—Mahabalipuram or “Mahabs” as it is popularly known by locals—is perfect for an impromptu beach weekend. Devotees throng to its UNESCO award-winning stone temples, some of which have been carved from a single rock. But Mahabs has plenty of natural heritage too: Beaches that go on for miles, and a massive rock on Mamallapuram Hill that’s called Krishna’s Butterball. Check into a seaside resort, take surf lessons at the Mumu Surf School, or ask a local sculptor for a class in stone carving. Travellers often combine Mahabalipuram with Pondicherry, which is another 2hr away by road.
Getting There Mahabalipuram is 54km/1hr30min from Chennai, which has the closest airport and major train station.
For a holiday in the hills with steaming cups of home-grown chai, look no further than Sinna Dorai Bungalow. Over a century old, SinnaDorai is a trademark stone cottage built by British planters: high ceilings, wooden floors, elegant furniture, working fireplaces, and scenic views of rolling green slopes. There’s even a gramophone and typewriter, and hearty three-course meals that end with tender coconut soufflé and apple cake. Visitors can observe the workings of the tea factory, and picnic at nearby dams. The surrounding Anamalai Hills are known for their rich flora and fauna, and the estate management has marked out trails to spot deer and the elusive lion-tailed macaque. Make it a three-day stay to do justice to Valparai’s laid-back charm. More here. For a road trip in the Western Ghats that meanders through Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala via Valparai, see here.
Getting There Valparai is 104 km/2 hr from Coimbatore, which has the closest airport and railway station.
Picturesque Ooty is the most popular hill station on the tea-carpeted Nilgiris, so it’s best to stay at the outskirts to enjoy its sylvan charms. Make day trips to the Botanical Garden, where the star attraction is a 20-million-year-old fossilised tree. Take a joy ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railways toy train, which features on Unesco’s World Heritage list. In Kotagiri, an hour’s drive from Ooty, trace the history of the British tea planters and the indigenous people at the museum and library in Pethakal Bungalow. Kotagiri also has hiking trails, waterfalls, and a multitude of pretty churches. Nearby Coonoor has waterfalls, and a sacred forest with thriving wildlife and 1000-year-old megalithic tombs. Pack Nilgiri tea and home-made chocolates as edible souvenirs. More here.
Getting There Ooty is 94km/3hr from Coimbatore, which has the nearest airport and railway station.