Pondicherry is a confluence of two worlds, a place where dualism is exhibited at its best through the colonial division of the Old Town into White and Black, French and Tamil. It is a small town that has beautiful amalgamation of contemporary and colonial, hedonistic and spiritual, tranquil and chaotic. It is a place where the past and the present wonderfully coexist. Not many cities in India can claim to be so compact and yet so cosmopolitan—the expats, people drawn by the ideology of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, French citizens, old Pondicherrians, new settlers—all thrive happily in this city.
Enough is said and written about the famous tourist places like Aurobindo Ashram, Auroville, Rock beach, Paradise beach, café xtasi etc that stand like iconic symbols of the city. But there is much more to the beautiful French town that I was raised in. They city has now become one of the sought out beach destinations in India, while my memories trace back to the days of growing up in the broad, sun-dappled boulevards, watching cyclist pedalling in the streets lined with mustard, apricot and tangerine walls with bursts of bougainvillea cascading over them; catching the different shades of blue water hugged by an even bluer sky.
This is not one of those places you can walk around with a to-do list in hand, for there are few ‘sights’ to see, but much to experience. It is in its streets that the city truly reveals its soul. So many people miss the once-in-a-lifetime moments and the unforgettable encounters when their faces are buried deep in the maps or stuck with other tourists at iconic landmarks. The key to the most life-altering, memory-making and utterly beautiful travel is to do it like a local. And here is the list of off-beat places/things to do in Pondicherry for all travelling souls.
What to see?
Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges
While Basilica of Sacred Hearts and Cathedral Church are quite popular, the Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges (Our Lady of Angels Church) depicts the Greco roman architecture. This is the only church that celebrates mass in 3 languages with French mass happening every Sunday.
For all the Life of Pi fans this is where the Richard Parker Zoo scene was shot. The flower show conducted every year attracts a lot of locals and outsiders to visit the place. For people who love to just chill among the lush of green trees, this is the place for you.
The beautifully restored INTACH building on Aurobindo street has a permanent display for pictures on how they restored the old buildings to conserve the city’s heritage and architecture. For all the art and architecture lovers, this is a must visit place.
Want to have a glimpse of Rome? Visit Arikamedu, the only city with an archaeological record of Roman presence in India. Famous for manufacturing amazing bead jewellery, the glass beads site here was considered as the “mother of all bead centers” in the world.
The new light house provides the best vistas in the city and its coastline. This place is one of the spots where photographers will fall in love with the city
This beach is a 20 min drive to the north of the town. Fishing boats are parked on the shore and one can see kids do summersaults off the deck. Most of the beach is covered with creepers and the green helps cool the place
Veerampattinam is the biggest coastal village in the Union Territory of Pondicherry and is very close to Arikamedu archaeological site. The village has one of the longest beach and most beautiful beaches in the south of India. It is also home to one of the biggest festivals – The Temple car festival, where hoards of devotees pull massive wooden chariots using thick natural rope. A sight to behold indeed!
Pichavaram mangrove forest is at a distance of 78 kms from Pondicherry, the Vellar estuary in the north and Coleroon estuary in the south. The backwaters offer abundant scope for water sports such as rowing, kayaking and canoeing. The Pichavaram forest not only offers waterscape and backwater cruises, but also another very rare sight of the mangrove forest trees that are permanently rooted in a few feet of water.
Constructed in the late 17th century during the Mughal era, the Alamparai Fort once had a 100-metre long dockyard stretching into the sea, from which zari cloth, salt, and ghee were exported. The remains of the fort still exists. Standup paddle boat ride is done on the backwaters here.
What to do?
Wake Up Pondy Cycle Tour
Stroll through the streets of Pondicherry on a customised and quirky vintage cycle. The trail starts from SITA cultural centre and goes via kuruchikuppam through goubert market and heritage town. This will give you a perspective of the city at dawn when the streets are empty and all yours.
Kallialay Surf School is the place to go for your surfing sessions. If you are confident of swimming in the sea, Spanish brothers Juan and Samai Reboul will make sure you stand up on your board by the end of lesson one.
One needs to understand Pondicherry is no Andamans, but even our seas have so much to offer. Temple Adventures are the only people who take scuba diving sessions on the east coast. This is India’s first and only east coast scuba diving center.
Pondicherry now boosts a bit of adventure tourism with scuba diving and surfing. Parasailing can also be done for the ones who are looking out for adventures.( Mind you, it’s an overland experience)
Do I hear art and culture?! Yes, there is so much the city offers for people wanting to indulge in art and culture travel
SITA culture centre
Even if you’re someone who has come for a few days trip, you can find classes that suit you from kallaripayatu to French cooking.
Cluny Embroidery Centre
A gorgeous 18th-century mansion where women bend their heads over pieces of lace, their needles working nimbly, while old tunes drift out of a transistor radio. Choose from among intricately embroidered bed linen, tablecloths and handkerchiefs.
Be it capoeira or samba, this is the city’s exclusive address for latin cultural arts. P.S. The rooftop has a travellers café that serves amazing tibetian momos.
Discover local art and watch free performances by various artists from across the globe while staying in the artsy rooms
If you’re someone who wants to weave some art into their holiday, then check out this place which is a little ahead of aurodhan.
Adhisakhi Lab for theatre arts and research
This is a place formed by thespian Veenapani Chawla. Head out to this place that has a sunlit stage among the acres of green where you can witness theatre acts performed by renouned artists.
Where to stay?
For every kind of traveller, Pondy offers a beautiful place to stay. From its super luxurious La Villa, Villa Shanthi, Hotel de L’Orient to affordable homestays, we have it all. For story-book like guest houses head to the white town area and stay in one of the above mentioned places. Most of these places are located in Rue Dumas, Rue Roman Rolland and Rue suffren ( between “rue”means street).
If you wish to stay in palatial restored tamil mansions, then you should pick La Maison Tamoule or Maison Perumal. The lemongrass scented rooms and the vintage teak furniture gives you the real essence of our heritage.
Where to eat?
This by itself needs a separate post. Anyways I have mentioned few places here. For all the food lovers, Pondicherry offers a plethora of cuisine options. If you’re someone who has a penchant for cheese, head to Mango Hill to try these 11 varieties of cheese. To indulge in some exotic French staples , head to Rendezvous or le club. For some European and Asian cuisine, Umami Kitchen is the best. For all the biryani lovers, we do have Kamatchi and Aristo. For Vietnamese cuisine, le Paris is your go to place. If you’re someone who enjoys street food, then you should try the mutton samosas from the street shop bang opposite the railway station. This food stall is city’s famous spot of mutton samosa and soup. Head to Zuka to satiate your chocolate cravings.
When to go?
We only witness different variations of summer. The ideal time to visit the place would be from November to February mid as the weather is pleasant and not burning hot. When you visit Pondy, don’t be surprised by shop keepers with strings of jasmine in their hair conversing in fluent French or if an autorickshaw-driver greets you with a resounding ‘Bonjour’. The French connection is the strongest, which collides with Indian sensibilities to create a concoction that’s uniquely Pondicherry.
Pondicherry is a place that makes us pause to find the parts of ourselves we lose while rushing between traffic lights, trapped in glass cabins of the corporate life, chasing the undefined. It is a place that has a part of my heart and my life forever.