Must see attractions in Tamil Nadu

  • Top ChoiceSights in Thanjavur (Tanjore)

    Brihadishwara Temple

    Come here twice: in the morning, when the honey-hued granite begins to assert its dominance over the white dawn sunshine, and in the evening, when the rocks capture a hot palette of reds, oranges, yellows and pinks on the crowning glory of Chola temple architecture. The World Heritage–listed Brihadishwara Temple was built between 1003 and 1010 by Raja Raja I (‘king of kings’). The outer fortifications were put up by Thanjavur's later Nayak and British regimes.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Madurai

    Meenakshi Amman Temple

    The colourful abode of the triple-breasted warrior goddess Meenakshi (‘fish-eyed’ – an epithet for perfect eyes in classical Tamil poetry) is generally considered to be the peak of South Indian temple architecture, as vital to this region's aesthetic heritage as the Taj Mahal to North India. It’s not so much a 17th-century temple as a 6-hectare complex with 12 tall gopurams, encrusted with a staggering array of gods, goddesses, demons and heroes (1511 on the 55m-high south gopuram alone).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Trichy (Tiruchirappalli)

    Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

    So large it feels like a self-enclosed city, Sri Ranganathaswamy is quite possibly India's biggest temple. It has 49 separate Vishnu shrines, and reaching the inner sanctum from the south, as most worshippers do, requires passing through seven gopurams. The first (southernmost), the Rajagopuram, was added in 1987, and is one of Asia's tallest temple towers at 73m high. Non-Hindus cannot pass the sixth gopuram so won't see the innermost sanctum, where Vishnu as Ranganatha reclines on a five-headed snake.

  • Sights in Tiruvannamalai

    Gingee Fort

    With three separate hilltop citadels and a 6km perimeter of cliffs and thick walls, the ruins of enormous Gingee Fort rise out of the Tamil plain, 37km east of Tiruvannamalai, like castles misplaced by the Lord of the Rings. It was constructed mainly in the 16th century by the Vijayanagars and was later occupied by the Marathas, Mughals, French and British, then abandoned in the 19th century. The fort's sheer scale, dramatic beauty and peaceful setting make it a very worthwhile stop.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

    Arjuna’s Penance

    The crowning masterpiece of Mamallapuram’s stonework, this giant relief carving is one of India's greatest ancient artworks. Inscribed on two huge, adjacent boulders, the Penance bursts with scenes of Hindu myth and everyday South Indian life. In the centre, nagas (snake-beings) descend a once water-filled cleft, representing the Ganges. To the left Arjuna (hero of the Mahabharata) performs self-mortification (fasting on one leg), so that the four-armed Shiva will grant him his most powerful weapon, the god-slaying Pasupata.

  • Sights in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve

    Mudumalai Tiger Reserve

    In the foothills of the Nilgiris, this newly enlarged 765-sq-km wildlife reserve is like a classical Indian landscape painting given life, with chital deer, wild boar, gaur (Indian bison), peacocks, langurs, jackals, Malabar giant squirrels and wild elephants concealed between thin, spindly trees and light-slotted leaves. Also here are over 60 tigers – though you'd be incredibly lucky to see one. Overall, Mudumalai is Tamil Nadu's top wildlife-spotting place.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kumbakonam

    Gangaikondacholapuram Temple

    The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram ('City of the Chola who Conquered the Ganges'), 35km north of Kumbakonam, is dedicated to Shiva. It was built by Rajendra I in the 11th century when he moved the Chola capital here from Thanjavur, and has many similarities to Thanjavur's earlier Brihadishwara Temple. Its beautiful 49m-tall tower, however, has a slightly concave curve, making it the 'feminine' counterpart to the mildly convex Thanjavur one. Artistic highlights are the wonderfully graceful sculptures around the tower's exterior.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin)

    Padmanabhapuram Palace

    With a forest’s worth of intricately carved rosewood ceilings and polished-teak beams, this labyrinthine palace, 35km northwest of Kanyakumari, near the Kerala border, is considered the finest example of traditional Keralan architecture today. Asia’s largest wooden palace complex, it was once capital of Travancore, an unstable princely state taking in parts of both Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Under successive rulers it expanded into a magnificent conglomeration of corridors, courtyards, gabled roofs and 14 palaces. The oldest sections date to 1550.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Tiruvannamalai

    Arunachaleshwar Temple

    This 10-hectare temple is one of India's largest. Its oldest parts date to the 9th century, but the site was a place of worship long before that. Four huge, unpainted white gopurams mark the entrances; the main, 17th-century eastern one rises 13 storeys (an astonishing 66m), its sculpted passageway depicting dancers, dwarves and elephants. During festivals the Arunachaleshwar is awash with golden flames and the scent of burning ghee, as befits the fire incarnation of Shiva, Destroyer of the Universe.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Thanjavur (Tanjore)

    Royal Palace

    Thanjavur’s royal palace is a mixed bag of ruin and renovation, superb art and random royal paraphernalia. The mazelike complex was constructed partly by the Nayaks who took over Thanjavur in 1535, and partly by a local Maratha dynasty that ruled from 1676 to 1855. The two don't-miss sections are the Saraswati Mahal Library Museum and the Art Gallery.

  • Sights in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)

    Five Rathas

    Huddled together at the southern end of Mamallapuram, the Five Rathas were, astonishingly, all carved from single large rocks. Each of these fine 7th-century temples was dedicated to a Hindu god and is now named after one or more of the Pandavas, the five hero-brothers of the epic Mahabharata, or their common wife, Draupadi. The rathas were hidden in the sand until excavated by the British 200 years ago.

  • Sights in Chidambaram

    Nataraja Temple

    According to legend, Shiva and Kali got into a dance-off judged by Vishnu. Shiva dropped an earring and picked it up with his foot, a move that Kali could not duplicate, so Shiva won the title Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). It's in this form that endless streams of people come to worship him at this great temple. It was built during Chola times (Chidambaram was a Chola capital), but the main shrines date to at least the 6th century.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chennai (Madras)

    Government Museum

    Housed across from the striking British-built Pantheon Complex, this excellent museum is Chennai’s best. The big highlight is building 3, the Bronze Gallery, with a superb collection of South Indian bronzes from the 7th-century Pallava era through to modern times (and English-language explanatory material).

  • Sights in Chennai (Madras)

    San Thome Cathedral

    This soaring Roman Catholic cathedral, a stone's throw from the beach, was founded by the Portuguese in 1523, then rebuilt by the British in neo-Gothic style in 1896, and is said to mark the final resting place of St Thomas the Apostle. It's believed 'Doubting Thomas' brought Christianity to the subcontinent in AD 52 and was killed at St Thomas Mount, Chennai, in AD 72. Behind the cathedral is the tomb of St Thomas.

  • Sights in Anamalai Tiger Reserve (Indira Gandhi Widlife Sanctuary and National Park)

    Anamalai Tiger Reserve

    A pristine 958-sq-km reserve of tropical jungle, shola forest and grassland rising to 2400m in the Western Ghats and spilling over into Kerala between Kodaikanal and Coimbatore, Anamalai Tiger Reserve is well off most tourists' radar. On government-run guided hikes or jungle minibus 'safaris', you might well see elephants, peacocks, spotted deer, lion-tailed macaques, langurs and crocodiles. Other elusive, endangered inhabitants include leopards and around 30 tigers. It's been a designated tiger reserve since 2007.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Trichy (Tiruchirappalli)

    Rock Fort Temple

    The Rock Fort Temple, perched 83m high on a massive outcrop, lords over Trichy with stony arrogance. The ancient rock was first hewn by the Pallavas and Pandyas, who cut small cave temples on its south side, but it was the war-savvy Nayaks who later made strategic use of the naturally fortified position. Reaching the top requires climbing over 400 stone-cut steps.

  • Sights in Tiruvannamalai

    Mt Arunachala

    This 800m-high extinct volcano dominates Tiruvannamalai – and local conceptions of the element of fire, which supposedly finds its sacred abode in Arunachala’s heart. Devout barefoot pilgrims make the 14km (four-hour) circumambulation of the mountain, stopping at eight famous linga, especially on full-moon and festival days. The inner path is closed for the foreseeable future, but it's possible to circle around on the main road, or climb the hill past two caves where Sri Ramana Maharshi lived and meditated (1899–1922).

  • Sights in Puducherry (Pondicherry)

    Seafront

    Pondy is a seaside town, but that doesn’t make it a beach destination; the city’s sand is a thin strip of dirty brown that slurps into a seawall of jagged rocks. But Goubert Ave (Beach Rd) is a killer stroll, especially at dawn and dusk when half the town takes a romantic wander. In a stroke of genius, authorities have banned traffic here from 6pm to 7.30am.

  • Sights in Ooty (Udhagamandalam)

    Botanical Gardens

    Established in 1848, these pretty 22-hectare gardens are a living gallery of the Nilgiris' natural flora. Keep an eye out for a typical Toda mund (village), a fossilised tree trunk believed to be 20 million years old and, on busy days, around 20 million tourists.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Chennai (Madras)

    Kapaleeshwarar Temple

    Mylapore is one of Chennai's most characterful and traditional neighbourhoods; it predated colonial Madras by several centuries. Its Kapaleeshwarar Temple is Chennai's most active and impressive, and is believed to have been built after the Portuguese destroyed the seaside original in 1566. It displays the main architectural elements of many a Tamil Nadu temple – a rainbow-coloured gopuram, pillared mandapas (pavilions) and a huge tank – and is dedicated to the state's most popular deity, Shiva.