Madurai India – Top-10 Tourist Attractions and Activities
Madurai is a bustling metropolis full of hidden attractions. As Tamil Nadu’s second-largest city, it’s considered the cultural capital of the state, with more character and flavour than its bigger (but not older) brother Chennai. The city expands from one central point, Sri Meenakshi Temple, and as in any city with a temple in its heart, Hindu culture certainly dominates the list of top tourist attractions to see here. However, aside from temple-hopping, the city that never sleeps can offer you a whole range of exciting activities.
1. Sri Meenakshi Temple
Sri Meenakshi Temple is the heart and soul of Madurai. The Shiva lingam inside was designed to be the very centre of the city when it was designed in the 14th century. We were dazzled by the intricacy and bright colours of its four towering gateways, and could easily have spent the entire day exploring the various compounds, pools, and temples contained within the complex. The temple opens at 5.00am each day, and closes over lunchtime, but is extremely busy throughout the day. This is absolutely a must-see attraction in Madurai. Entry is free.
2. Gandhi Memorial Museum
This museum is one of only five in India dedicated to the Great Soul. Housed in a gorgeous ivory-white building, the museum contains all sorts of exhibits, such as some of Gandhi’s personal belongings, letters, spinning wheels and artworks. Being fairly small, this interesting place should only take an hour or two to visit. Entry is free and you’ll leave with a sense of humility at the strength of India’s great hero. Don’t forget to duck into the excellent bookshop behind the museum.
3. Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a rich and extravagant Maharajah? Well, come to Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal to get a sense of the opulence afforded to India’s extremely wealthy as you explore the palace and its grounds. The palace was built in the 17th century and was once considered one of the South’s most beautiful buildings. Though it used to be four times the size, we still found the archways and columns a wonder to behold. Located 2kms south of Meenakshi Temple (you might want to get a rickshaw), the Mahal costs INR 10 to enter and is open until 5.00pm. Some nights it hosts a light show from 6.45pm, though we wouldn’t advise you to have high expectations.
4. Food Glorious Food
Not only does Madurai offer some of South India’s greatest snacks, but due to historical influences from Europe and Sri Lanka, Madurai offers foods you can’t find anywhere else. A highlight of any visit to the region, Madurai’s street food stalls open late into the night, tempting passers-by with snacks sizzling in ghee. We recommend you sample idli with chutneys at Murugan Idli Shop, as well as Madurai’s unique jigarthanda, a sweet syrupy drink. Other delicacies are string hoppers with sambar, and kothu parotta, a dish of fried sliced parotta and vegetables that has its origins in Sri Lanka.
5. Alagarkoil Temple
Not quite as grand as Sri Meenakshi, Alagarkoil is worth visiting for its relative peace and quiet, as well as the chance to get out of the main part of Madurai and visit a picturesque ancient temple. Alagarkoil is the name of the village 21km out of the centre of Madurai that holds Kallazhagar temple. Easily reachable by rickshaw or taxi, we recommend visiting Alagarkoil as it allows you to take in the incredible architecture away from the hustle and bustle. The surrounding countryside and ancient fort are also highlights. Beware of the cheeky monkeys that call this temple home.
6. Puthu Mandapam
Located just to the east of Meenakshi Temple, Puthu Mandapam’s purpose is slightly less sacred than its neighbour’s. We think Puthu Mandapam is one of the best places to visit in Madurai because it offers the best shopping in the area. The great hall that houses the bazaar once served a religious purpose. Its grandeur is an attraction in itself, as the 17th century hall contains elegant and intricately designed archways and columns. Now however, it offers visitors an enormous range of souvenirs and handicrafts as well as textiles and tailors to whip you up a new suit of clothes!
7. Vilachery Pottery Village
At just 15km out of central Madurai, Vilachery is a top activity as it gives tourists the chance to see Hindu idols being formed out of clay and painted in vivid hues, and even take one home. Vilachery is home to around 150 families of potters, who perform their craft every day and sell their wares to temples and individuals. Tour company Storytrails offers the insightful Potter’s Trail Tour to Vilachery for those wanting to know more about this sacred art.
8. Banana Market
Madurai’s wholesale banana market is a fantastic place to walk around, sample the goods on offer, and snap some colourful and lively photos. Even if you don’t like bananas, this market is a fascinating activity for the insights it gives tourists into life and commerce in Madurai. We loved learning about the 16 varieties of bananas for sale here, and loved even more getting to sample a few. The market operates from around 9.00am to 5.00pm, and is located just to the west of Meenakshi Temple.
9. Temple Art Museum
The temple art museum is located in the 17th century Thousand Pillared Hall, which contains 985 columns, so you know it’s going to be spectacular. Head to the eastern tower of the Meenakshi Temple complex to find this museum and discover the statues, drawings, photographs and much more housed inside, all featuring Hindu deities. We loved this attraction for its relative calm and quiet, which is a rare find in Madurai. The museum is open from 6.00am to 8.00pm, and entry is free.
10. Saint Mary’s Cathedral
Come to this 150 year old cathedral just to the east of Meenakshi Temple to see a great example of catholic churches constructed in the Indian style. Those who have also visited Kerala and Goa will recognise its bright colours and decorative style as being similar to those constructed by the Portuguese in those states. It’s not only a top tourist attraction but also a working church, so expect to find a space on a pew amongst worshippers praying under the magnificent vaulted ceiling. The cathedral closes at 7.00pm.
Ticking off everything on this list of top attractions in Madurai is definitely a recipe for having an action-packed and informative time in Tamil Nadu’s cultural heart. And once you’re done you’ll be left wondering why Madurai hasn’t yet made its way onto the list of most popular destinations in India!