Madurai India – Your Quick Travel Guide
In a nutshell
Often overlooked in favour of its bigger and flashier brother Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s second-largest city Madurai should be high on the list for travellers who want to go somewhere off the tourist route. Steamy Madurai is Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital, where visitors can get their fill of temples, museums, markets, and mouth-watering South Indian snacks.
Why go to Madurai
The glittering jewel in Madurai’s crown is the towering Meenakshi Temple, a complex of several gopurams (stepped towers) all decorated in intricate and colourful style. Meenakshi is an absolute must-see, and we could easily have spent an entire day there. Once you’ve gotten this out of the way, you can relax into Madurai’s bustling but not-too-hectic atmosphere, which makes it a welcome break from megacities like Chennai and Mumbai. There’s plenty to see and do, such as the Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal, a spectacular palace built by royals in the 17th century, or the Gandhi Memorial Museum, one of only five in the country.
For when you get tired of sightseeing, there are also activities of a more consumable nature. We’d highly recommend a trip to the Puthu Mandapam, which is a centuries-old hall once used for religious purposes, but now housing a market where you can purchase everything under the sun, including locally-made souvenirs, and textiles that a tailor can whip up into bespoke clothes in next to no time.
There is also, of course, Madurai’s excellent and unique cuisine. You’ll understand why they call it the city that never sleeps as you walk the streets at dusk and watch endless street vendors set up for a long night of serving up delectable snacks. Madurai’s South Indian fare has blended with international influences over the years, meaning that varied dishes such as spice-laden biryanis, string hoppers and chutney, as well as air-light idli and sambar are now a frequent sight on the smoky streets. Dig in!
When to go to Madurai
The temperature sores in the summer months (March – June), when pre-monsoon makes the air hot and humid. If 40 degree weather doesn’t put you off then low numbers of tourists would make this a great time to visit. If you’re a normal human being, however, we’d recommend visiting in winter, when skies are clear and the temperature peaks at a pleasant 30 degrees.
Where to stay in Madurai
As Madurai isn’t very firmly placed on the backpacker circuit, accommodation options are more centred around the mid-range market. That’s not to say that there aren’t cheap guesthouses and hotels, however. Check out Kathir Palace or Hotel Boopathi for beds between INR 450 and 1000 per night. Though they might not be the backpacker haunts with rooftop restaurants that budget travellers usually find themselves in in India, you can expect rooms that are clean and comfortable, with aircon as an added bonus for the extra cost.
The aim of the game for picking accommodation in Madurai is to be as close as possible to the city centre, so anywhere near Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple is ideal. If you’re looking in this area and you’ve got a little more money to spend then there are plenty of options. The Madurai Residency and The Royal Court Hotel are perfectly located near all the major attractions, and provide comfortable and relaxing spaces to spend downtime between outings.
Where and what to eat in Madurai
Be prepared to jump into Madurai’s interesting food scene, and the more you know before you go, the more fun you’ll have. Due to the historical influences from abroad during this city’s long existence, there has developed a unique cuisine in Madurai. Walk the streets at dusk as street vendors set up their stalls so you can sample it all. The first stop should be Murugan Idli House for delicate, light idli dipped in heavily-spiced chutneys. Another unique thing to try is jigarthanda, a sweet syrupy drink known to cool you down on hot afternoons. Famous Jigarthanda shop on East Marrat St is a great place to try this renowned sweet drink.
For other interesting eats, look for Burma Idayappa Kadai on East Veli St where you can sample idayappa (string hoppers) with coconut, a legacy of Sri Lankan influence. Be sure not to miss out on a trip to Konar Mess, where you can try a range of Madurai’s signature snacks such as dosas and biryani at very low prices. You’ll never go hungry again!
How to get around Madurai
If you’re lucky, you will have found a bed in Madurai in the city centre, in which case most of the destinations you’ll be heading to will be easily reachable on foot. If you’re not so fortunate or heading further afield, there are still plenty of options for getting around. Of course, India’s ever-present rickshaws buzz around Madurai’s streets, and are always available for cheap transport.
Madurai also has a fairly useful bus system. If you’ve found yourself at the City Bus Stand, busses 3, 48 and 700 take passengers into the city, terminating near the Gandhi Memorial Museum for pocket change. A rickshaw for this distance will set you back INR 120.
If you’re looking for a taxi but afraid of being scammed, we found a very useful fixed-price taxi stand outside Madurai Junction railway station. Just tell the person in the booth where you’re going and they’ll find you a taxi for the right price. Hiring a taxi from here for a full day of sightseeing shouldn’t cost more than INR 2000.
How to get to and from Madurai
Though it’s located on the tip of India’s nose, there are a number of transport options for getting in and out of Madurai.
Firstly, Madurai has an airport connecting it by flight to the rest of India. This relatively small airport is only 12kms from the city centre, and easily reachable by rickshaw or taxi. It’s mainly local airlines that fly into Madurai, and most flights also connect through Chennai. However, international flights are also available to Colombo (Sri Lanka), and Dubai.
Travelling by train in this region is recommended for its relatively fast travel time, comfort, and the easily accessible position of most train stations. Madurai Junction is no different, being just to the west of Meenakshi Amman Temple. Madurai is an ideal hub for exploring the region, and it’s very easy to get in and out by train from many places in South India, with many trains daily to/from Chennai, Bangalore, and Mumbai. There are even long-haul connections to Delhi, though this journey takes approximately 40 hours.
Overnight trains to Chennai take approximately 8 hours (INR 180 – 660) and are a fantastic way to combine transport with accommodation. Tickets are available from the Indian Railways reservation centre in Madurai Junction, or from authorised travel agents.
Madurai’s New Bus Stand is the place to go for cheap government-run busses to other cities in South India. Tickets are booked at the bus stand or from authorised sellers, and are available to other cities in Tamil Nadu such as Chennai (INR 400, 9-10 hours), and major cities in other neighbouring states, like Ernakulam in Kerala (INR 325, 10 hours) and Mysore and Bangalore (INR 400-700, 9-10 hours) in Karnataka. However, buses are a slower and less-comfortable option. There are also private (more comfortable and expensive) busses to these destinations that leave from various points closer to the city centre. Contact an authorised travel agent in Madurai for more information.
Is Madurai a safe place to visit?
As a relatively large city of one million people, visitors should keep their eyes on their personal belongings whilst walking the streets in Madurai. However, we wouldn’t advise you to use too much caution, for this friendly city is a happy and bustling place.