The former French colony of Pondicherry is just a short 3-hours by road from Chennai, with good bus and hire car connections (the train takes forever, don’t do it)
Pondicherry is a beautiful and peaceful getaway from the big city. The heritage section by the sea, called “White Town”, is a joy to walk around in, from the Promenade, a paved “boardwalk” along the water, to the quiet streets with old houses and bougainvillea. Head into town and have a stroll.
The Promenade will be hot during the day – best to save it for dusk. Instead, check out the air-conditioned shops featuring the crafts of Auroville. At the corner of Nehru and Gandhi streets is Hi Design, a founded-in-Pondicherry leather shop good for leather bags (and there is a Hi Design outlet down Nehru street for last season’s models at discount prices). Diagonally opposite Hi Design is Kalki, the best Auroville boutique in town. The prices are not cheap but the quality and selection is excellent. Opposite Kalki is an old fashioned department store called Casablanca with good selection of brands and local items. For Western clothes, go around the corner to Titanic, which has Indian made Western brand factory off-cuts, e.g. Benetton shirts with the wrong size label at Rs 450 instead of Rs 2,000. There are also lots of touristy stores with Indian crafts (most of these will be dusty and horrible, but fun to look in.) The central Pondicherry market is also good during the day – hot and crowded but a great experience, and in the side streets behind the market is a street of brass where lots of small shops sell beautiful statuary. The brass is sold by weight, and you can find some fine pieces if you hunt.
Heading away from Gandhi street towards the water, the crowds thin out and it becomes very peaceful. The Ashram and Vinayaka temple are a must see. A good walking tour is to cross the (stinky) grand canal from Nehru street, visit the Ashram, give Rs 2 to the temple elephant, and then proceed to the waterfront. Head south along the Promenade to the Gandhi statue. Turn there into the Promenade hotel for a cold beer in the beer garden. The Promenade is a really nice hotel, but at minimum 5k per night a bit pricey. Still, the food is good and safe and the location is excellent. We prefer to stay at Hotel L’Orient, where you can get rooms for under 4k and you experience part of the colonial heritage (the hotel is a converted French mansion). A cheaper but still good choice is Hotel Du Parc, one block from the Ashram, or, cheaper still but a bit restrictive unless you like pure veg and early to bed is the Ashram guesthouse itself. There is also the very nice Hotel Dupleix in town. Dupleix is run by the same group as Promenade, so rates, food, service will be similar. Promenade is probably better, as you are right on the water and there is a small plunge pool to cool off, but Dupleix has old world charm that is missing from the newer Promenade. One warning – do NOT stop at Le Café on the waterfront as their hygiene is poor and severe stomach trouble is almost guaranteed.
In the afternoon, avoid the heat with a siesta or explore the design stores and furniture boutiques on the south side of White town. Two places not to miss: Baker St. Café on Lal Bahadur Shastri street has fantastic French baked goods, great for coffee and cake or lunch, and, near Baker Street, Zuka which does superb handmade chocolates and icecream. Another pleasant spot in the afternoon is the Alliance Francais courtyard café, just at the end of the seafront promenade. It’s hidden behind an imposing wall, but good coffee in an intimate and quiet garden. Just down from Alliance on Subbaiah Salai is another cluster of restaurants.
After a late afternoon rest, head back into town. There is a small but relatively lovely central square, around which is a charmingly idiosyncratic bookstore and nice boutiques on Rue Romain Roland such as Maison Rose. At dusk the best place to enjoy is Hotel Seagull, behind the Ashram guest house down Port Road at the end of the Promenade – zero ambiance but the best deck view in town. After dark, seek out L’Espace, a cocktails-only roof garden lounge. To find it, walk down Romain Rouland and turn right when you see the Citibank ATM and signs for Bamboo Garden, then take the left just after the ATM. Strong cocktails at Rs 190 in a bohemian atmosphere. Just don’t ask for beer or wine, as they only serve a selection of mixed drinks. Near L’Espace are a number of good dining options. Le Club is fun but tourist central, and a bit pricey. Consider Satsanga, which is very similar but for less money. A traditional favorite for local seafood is the Hotel Rendezvous, and the grilled fish is good at Madame Shante. And if places are full, there are dozens of other restaurants nearby, one of the better ones being Umami Kitchen. Note: for South Indian, Surguru (near Hotel Du Parc and the Ashram) is highly recommended.
For a night cap, there are a bunch of “down-home” bars near the Petit Canal that will fix you a cheap drink, if you don’t mind a certain lack of ambiance, or, you can venture back to the Promenade roof for a deluxe cocktail overlooking the water. Unfortunately, the other restaurants on the waterfront tend to be pure-veg Indian with no booze, and are almost aggressive in not using their location to advantage.
The most important thing is to be unhurried and let serendipity flow – the heart of Pondy has lovely side streets, and most will have an unusual boutique, café, or art gallery down them.