In February 2020, we happened to be in Chennai, so we thought we’d take a quick 3-day trip to Pondicherry. We were lucky, because a month later, everything went south.
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We’d been wanting to visit Pondicherry for a long time, so being in Chennai on ‘business’ gave us the perfect opportunity. Being foodies, we were especially looking forward to trying out the French cuisine the place is known for. We spent a little over three days there, and—sadly—came away with the feeling that it was a bit overrated. Maybe we hadn’t been there long enough, or maybe we’d just gotten really unlucky. Or maybe Pondicherry just isn’t the place for vegetarians.
Still, there were definitely a few things that we enjoyed while we were there. Quiet beaches, fresh croissants for breakfast, interesting ruins and lovely churches were just some of them. Oh, and a day-trip to the magnificent Mahabalipuram temples, though that’s actually closer to Chennai than to Pondicherry.
Here’s a visual diary of our trip.
In this post
We arrive, settle in and take a look around
We left for Pondicherry from Chennai early on a Sunday morning (though it took us some time to find a cab willing to take us). After a relatively uneventful three-hour drive, we got to our homestay, the charming Gratitude Heritage Home, just before lunch. Not only was this old mansion renovated in the traditional style, it was in the middle of Pondicherry’s (admittedly somewhat unkempt) heritage quarter, and a few minutes’ walk from its famous seafront promenade. Definitely a contender for best homestay in Pondicherry.
After checking in, we strolled down the street in search of lunch, and decided on the grand-sounding Le Chateau. The roof-top restaurant was nice enough, but the food was pretty average. Little did we know that this would be par for the course for the rest of our stay, too.
The promenade, and one of ‘India’s best restaurants’
That night, we walked around a little more, taking in more of the French-Tamil atmosphere of the not-so-PC-named ‘White Town’. There was interesting street art on the walls of the French-sounding streets, and the seafront promenade was very pleasant. It being a Sunday night, though, there were hordes of people everywhere.
We finally retired to the famous Coromandel Cafe for dinner, and received another shock. Despite making the list of India’s best restaurants, the food was quite forgettable. The only redeeming factor was the chocolate cake, which was quite nice. But the gado-gado salad (which we’d had some experience with on our trip to Bali) was downright terrible. The day hadn’t ended as well as we’d hoped.
Also read: 30 unique hotels we’ve discovered in India and beyond
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Day 1: We go in search of pottery, and see more of town
The next morning, we decided to explore Pondicherry the way we love exploring any new place: on a motorbike. Or, in this case, on a scooter that the good people of Gratitude Heritage Home made arrangements for. So after a lovely home-style breakfast featuring fresh croissants, we headed out.
We’d heard a lot about the pottery and ceramics scene. So we went in search one of the more well-known pottery schools, and one of the first in Pondicherry: Golden Bridge Pottery. First, though, we stopped off to admire the Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, one of the more beautiful churches in the area. But not before we almost got scammed at the petrol pump on beach road.
Pondicherry beyond White Town
Our route to Golden Bridge Pottery took us outside the heritage quarter, so we saw what the rest of Pondicherry was like. And it was like any other bustling South Indian town: crowded, noisy and not very clean. But one we finally found Golden Bridge, it was like an oasis of calm among the chaos.
That evening, we did a short ride towards Auroville, and though the ashram really wasn’t our scene, we enjoyed the pretty and scenic road. Later at night, we did some more wandering around the promenade. To our delight, it was far from crowded, proving our theory that the crowds the previous day were because of weekend tourists. We ended the stay with an average dinner at Villa Shanti, of which a flambéed serving of crêpes Suzette was the highlight.
Also read: 10 restaurants for surprisingly good vegetarian food in Hyderabad
Day 2: We do a day-trip to Mahabalipuram
We’d always wanted to see the magnificent rock-cut temples of Mahabalipuram, so we thought we’d do that on our second day. Granted, Mahabalipuram (also called Mamallapuram) is much closer to Chennai than it is toPondicherry, so we should’ve done it on the way in. But this was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and those aren’t always ideal.
That morning, we hopped in a cab and did the two-hour drive to Mahabalipuram. It was humid and blazing hot, and we couldn’t see everything there was, but it was still worth it. After all, it’s not every day that you to see a hill covered in thousand-year-old temples carved out of solid rock! And a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.
A discovery on the way back: Serenity Beach
We got back, tired and happy, just as the sun was setting, so we thought we try and find a quiet beach to chill at. It was by chance that we found the cosy Serenity Beach, because the bigger northern beaches were cut off by roadworks. And it was perfect for a cup of tea and some R&R after a hot day in the sun. The day ended, of course, with a walk on the promenade. I don’t even remember where we had dinner, let alone what we ate. Pity.
Also read: A visit to two of the most famous temples in Tamil Nadu
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Day 3: We hunt for beaches. And ancient history.
On our last full day of our 3-day trip to Pondicherry, we decided to finally go in search of beaches. Since the beach at the promenade had been washed away, and since we’d seen Serenity Beach in the north, we headed south. And since we were going that way, we thought we’d take a look at the ruins of Arikamedu. Those were the remains of a Greco-Roman trading post supposedly dating back to 300 BCE, from where the ancient Romans and Greeks traded with local bead makers.
Our first stop was the beach just south of the new lighthouse, where all the sand eroded from the promenade seemed to have been piled up in dunes. The initial bit of Lighthouse Beach (marked as ‘Pondy Marina’ on Google maps) was the most incredibly filthy beach we’d ever seen! The ‘beach’ was an almost continuous carpet of litter, probably from the kiosks on the other side of the road. Luckily, we kept going along the path beyond the marina and behind the dunes, and the beach further on was a bit better. But not much.
The ancient mysteries of Arikamedu
After a while, we headed back, and did the wide loop around the backwaters and through town, to Arikamedu. Being one of the more off-beat things to see in Pondicherry, the place was difficult to find. Even using GPS, we took a few wrong turns getting there. The site itself wasn’t very impressive, with two gateposts and the ruins of a warehouse the only visible structures. But the entire place was strewn with bits of brick and broken pottery, and the thought that these might be over 2,000 years old made us feel like real explorers! Add to this the fact that some consider this, “the single most important bead-making site ever” and it began to feel pretty special.
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Vast and glorious ‘Chin-Veer’ Beach
After soaking up the ancient atmosphere for a while, we headed back. On the way, we’d spotted an intriguing signboard pointing the way to ‘Chin-Veer Beach’, so we went beach hunting again. It turned out that ‘Chin-Veer’ was short for Chinna Veerampattinam, and the beach was an incredible, almost endless, stretch of clean sand with hardly anyone around. Paradise Beach, a little further south, may be the most famous beach in Pondicherry, but what we saw could definitely give it a run for its money. Sadly, it was midday and beastly hot by then, so we didn’t tarry as long as we’d have liked.
We spent our last evening in Pondicherry sampling coffee at The Motorcycle Diaries cafe, shopping for souvenirs and admiring temples from the outside. And we ended the day at one of the more romantic restaurants in Pondicherry, 1 Rue Suffren, with a (by now unsurprisingly) average meal. Our 3-day trip to Pondicherry had thrown up some nice experiences, but we probably won’t be heading back anytime soon.
Also read: 4 reasons why Agonda is one of the best places to stay in south Goa
IQ’s top tips for a 3-day trip to Pondicherry
- Don’t expect Pondicherry to be another Goa. It’s got its own history, culture and overall vibe.
- Visit Pondicherry during the week instead of the weekend, if you want to avoid the crowds.
- Pondicherry has a small airport, so check if there’s a flight to and/or from where you are. Probably more convenient that flying into Chennai and driving from there.
- Pondicherry is three hours’ drive from Chennai. Plan your day accordingly.
- Mahabalipuram is about an hour’s drive from Chennai, on the road to Pondicherry. If you’re planning to visit, it’s probably a good idea to stop off on the way, instead of driving all the way back.
- Indian nationals pay around INR 40 to see the monuments at Mahabalipuram, plus INR 25 for a video camera. Non-Indians can expect to pay around INR 350.
- The Tiger Cave is about 5 km outside Mahabalipuram, on the road to Chennai. Entry is INR 25 for Indian nationals and INR 300 for non-Indians.
- If you like colonial heritage, then ‘White Town’—the part of the heritage quarter closest to the ocean—is probably where you want to look.
- If you’re looking for heritage hotels in Pondicherry, then Gratitude Heritage Home is a great option. They have some slightly quirky house rules, though.
- Pondicherry isn’t the cleanest town in the world, so expect littered beaches, open drains and the odd overflowing garbage bin.
- The seafront promenade is very pleasant, and is closed to traffic from 6:00 PM to 7:00 AM. Don’t expect much of a beach though; most of the sand’s been washed away.
- If you’re looking for nice beaches near Pondicherry, head to Serenity Beach (a quiet beach with fishing boats and a few cafes) to the north; or to Chinna Veerampattinam beach (a long stretch of clean beach with some facilities) to the south. If you go to the lighthouse beach, expect lots of litter.
- Arikamedu is one of the more off-beat historical places in Pondicherry. Use GPS to get there, and expect to take a few wrong turns. And don’t expect much except an atmosphere of ancient mystery.
- Getting around Pondicherry on a scooter is cheap, convenient and fun, and your hotel should be able to make arrangements for you. Expect lots of traffic outside the heritage quarter.
- Even if you don’t want to visit Auroville, the drive there and back is very pretty, and there are lots of eateries where you can stop for a snack.
If you’re vegetarian and in Pondicherry, it’s probably better to stick to South Indian food. If you must try the local version of French cuisine, I recommend just ordering dessert. Every single ‘French’ vegetarian main course we ordered left us disappointed. Maybe we’re just spoiled.
Hire a scooter instead of using a taxi to get around. It’s more eco-friendly, and much more fun! Plus, you can squeeze through the narrow streets of the heritage quarter without too much hassle.
Public service announcement: Watch out for this petrol pump scam!
If you’re using a car or scooter to get round, be careful not to get scammed at petrol pumps. We almost did at the HP petrol pump on Beach Road, though that was a fairly run-of-the-mill scam, and easy to spot. Here’s how this scam usually goes:
- First, the pump attendant pretends to misunderstand you and fills your tank with less than half of what you asked for.
- When you point out the error, they say they’ll fill in the difference. Another attendant distracts you while they start the pump, so you don’t notice that they’ve not set the meter back to zero.
- In the end, they show you the meter with the difference amount so you think that they’ve filled in all the remaining petrol, when they’ve actually filled in just enough to increase the previous meter reading to display the difference amount.
- Example: You ask for INR 500 worth of petrol, but they fill in INR 200 instead. Then, instead of resetting the meter to zero and filling in the difference of INR 300, they distract you and start from the previous meter reading of INR 200 and only fill in INR 100 to bring the meter reading to INR 300. Then they pretend they’ve filled in the whole INR 300.
- Result: You think you’ve got INR 200 + INR 300 = INR 500, but you’ve actually got INR 200 + INR 100 = INR 300.
- Pro tip: If the attendant misunderstands you while filling your tank, that’s a red flag. Keep an eagle eye on the meter after that.
I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this as much as you’d hoped (and particularly the food) but your pictures sure are stunning! Beautiful temples, architecture and carvings!
Thanks so much, Peggy! I guess not every trip can be perfect. But we still came a way with some nice memories 😊
Really interesting. I’ve never been to India but I’ve always assumed the food everywhere would be fragrant, spicy and delicious. Great honest writing, just goes to show that travel has its good days and bad days.
Thanks, Carole! Pondicherry has the usual spicy local South Indian food, too, but being a former French colony, we were more interested in trying the creole food. But whoever heard of vegetarian French food apart from onion soup, so maybe that’s why it sucked 😀
That petrol pump scam has been around for years. My dad got done in the 70s. I remember him telling me. Such a shame the food didn’t live up to your expectations. That’s always such a disappointment. But at least you had the cool pottery and the amazing temple to make up for it. Loved those carvings.
Didn’t realize that scam’s been around for so long! Just goes to show that some things don’t change. Yup, it was a pity about the food. But you’re right, that visit to Mahabalipuram was the highlight.
I really enjoyed the temple carvings (the life size elephant!!). and the colonial part of Pondicherry. SUCH A SHAME about the food!!! Stick to South Indian food then. But still, a shame!
It really was a shame about the food, Lannie. Especially after everyone hyped it to us. I guess we’re spoiled 😁
I had last visited Pondicherry almost a decade ago, can’t recollect if I visited any of these places. Nonetheless, I know there’s a lot to explore. Especially for a person like me who has studied French, it’s a must visit place. Bookmarking this post for next travel whenever it is. Thanks for the detailed post.
Glad you liked it, Atul! My uncle’s a major Francophile, but he was disappointed that hardly anyone speaks French there anymore. Not sure what he thought of the food, though. That was a major let-down for us.
Hey Irfan, hope you’re doing good and safe.
Haven’t heard you for a while, but good to connect again. Like you, Pondicherry had always been on my travel list for quite some time. Thanks for the beautiful narration and stunning images. Also, liked your announcement on that petrol pump scam backed with an example.
BTW, a program on Sony BBC Earth that’s aired every other alternate day reminds me of you every time I watch. “Life off the Leash” is a travelogue where the hosts set out on a adventure trip with their pet dogs to explore the pristine and uncharted territories across the country. Hope you’re aware. Though, not as comprehensive as your posts, but it’s amazing knowing about the unexplored locations.
As always, keep posting on good places that’s worth visiting.
Hey Raghav! Good to hear from you! Glad you enjoyed reading the post. And thanks for the tip about the TV program. Looks like I’ll have to check it out 😊
Absolutely beautiful. Loved reading this post.
Thanks, Sandhya! Glad you liked it 😊