15 things to do in Mahabalipuram | A Mahabalipuram guide

Sea Shells & Temples on the shore
Carved caverns without a door
Surfing & swimming in the sea
Enjoy the best things to do in Mahabalipuram with a glee.

Discover the top tourist places in Mahabalipuram and get tips on how to plan a visit in this guide. 

60 odd kilometers from Chennai, along the East Coast Road, lies a little town called as Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram. This town is a popular weekend getaway for the people in Chennai and a great stop-over for people traveling to or coming from Pondicherry. With its UNESCO World Heritage sites, it attracts plenty of visitors from the world over. I have been here at least thrice and I reach time, I have found new and unique things to do in Mahabalipuram.

One of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mahabalipuram
One of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mahabalipuram

Back in early 2000s, when people asked me what to see in Mahabalipuram, my list used to be quite small. It would just comprise of the top Mahabalipuram attractions. However, with every subsequent visit that I made (and I have been there at least four times now), this list grew longer. Today, it not only includes the top tourist places in Mahabalipuram but other activities like surfing and turtle walks.

In this post, you will get a list of the best places to visit in Mahabalipuram. In addition, this Mahabalipuram guide is full of tips on how you can get here, where to stay and the best time to visit. It even includes the entrance fees & timings for the various places for sightseeing in Mahabalipuram.

History of Mahabalipuram

Legend has it that a great demon king Mahabali used to rule this part of the world. He managed to get some of the Amrit (nectar) that made him and his subjects immortal. This caused a lot of chaos in the universe and to stop him finally, Lord Vishnu took the avatar of Vaman. With his charm and intellect, Vaman trapped the king in the netherworld (neither heaven nor hell). It is believed that this was when he attained liberation. In any case, the kingdom he ruled came to be known as Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram was ruled by the Pallava dynasty. In 642 CE, it was developed as a major port by King Narsimhavarman I . In fact, it even acquired a new name – Mamallapuram. (City of a wrestler – mamalla). King Narsimhavarman I was a great wrestler who took revenge against the Chalukyas for having defeated his father Mahendravarman. A famous 7th-century Tamil text Thirumangai Alvar described this port with lots of wealth and ships docked under the reign of this King.

The Pallavas built a lot of temples and monuments in the town – many of which still survive to date. A lot of these came up during the subsequent rule of King Rajasimha (King Narasimhavarman II). This is also, when the Shore temple is believed to have been constructed along with six other temples that have got submerged in the sea. These are in line with the elusive seven pagodas mentioned in the various European accounts of 7th and 8th century.

Eventually, after the Pallavas, the port and its activity were reduced. Though a few monuments got lost with tsunamis and time, many still survived. Most of these are now UNESCO World Heritage sites – specifically called the Group of Monuments Mahabalipuram. The town currently, offers its visitors, not just a peek into the history but a fabulous beach experience too.

15 things to do in Mahabalipuram

Whether you are there for a day in Mahabalipuram or more, there are tons of activities that you can add to your itinerary. These don’t just include sightseeing in Mahabalipuram. You will in fact, find yourself embarking on some adrenaline-pumping activities. Check out this list which only keeps expanding every time I visit Mamallapuram.

There are detailed posts on many of these Mahabalipuram tourist places. You can just click through them and discover more details, stories and mysteries surrounding them.

1) Shore Temple – the best of the Mahabalipuram attractions

Visit the Mahabalipuram Shore temple - one of the key things to do in Mahabalipuram
Visit the Mahabalipuram Shore temple – one of the key things to do in Mahabalipuram

As evident from the name, the Mahabalipuram Shore temple from the Pallava era lies along the shores of the Bay of Bengal. What struck me during my visits was the golden color of the temple against the clear blue skies. The shore temple has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is said that it is the only surviving temple of a set of seven such temples (the seven pagodas that have been mentioned in various accounts of historic explorers). The other temples are assumed to have submerged in the ocean. Interestingly, a few of them were sighted again during the Tsunami of 2004. Unfortunately, there is no diving expedition, else most likely I would be in the queue to know more.

The West entrance of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The West entrance of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

The Mahabalipuram shore temple is shrouded with mysteries – including the submerged sister temples. This guide takes you through these facts and mysteries.

The current temple has a walkway through a green lawn. As you approach the temple, you can sight the sea in the background. It is a prime example of the Pallava-Dravidian style of architecture. There are three main sanctums – two big ones for Lord Shiva that is connected by a smaller one with a reclining statue of Lord Vishnu. Though it was bright noon, the inner sanctums were quite dark. However, it is said that with the first ray of light, the chambers, especially the one with the reclining Vishnu get lit very beautifully.

Recent excavations also, unearthed another temple that has a Bhu Varaha statue in it. You will also, find a monolithic structure of Goddess Durga in her Mahishauramardini form in the complex.

The Durga Shrine of the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram
The Durga Shrine of the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram

One of the best things to do in Mahabalipuram is to catch the Shore temple sunrise or sunset when it glows golden. Such is the beauty of this place that it is no wonder that this is an annual venue for the cultural dance festival of India, which normally takes place in December or January. If you are curious about more, check out this post.

  • Mahabalipuram Shore temple timings – 6 am to 6 pm
  • Ticket booking – The temple entrance tickets requires a composite ticket that gives you access to the other UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mahabalipuram. The price for the same is INR 30 for Indians and INR 500 for Non-Indians.
  • Average time required – 1 hr

2) Pancha Rathas – my favorite part of sightseeing in Mahabalipuram

The rock cut monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram - the Pancha Rathas is one of my favorite tourist places in Mahabalipuram
The rock cut monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram – the Pancha Rathas is one of my favorite tourist places in Mahabalipuram

Another one of the UNESCO group of monuments in Mahabalipuram, this is my favorite. The sheer beauty of the monolithic rock-cut temples in the form of chariots or rathas, can really mesmerize anyone. These are a set of 5 temples that are named after the Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame. The first temple that you see is shaped like a hut and is dedicated to Draupadi. This has a small entrance and you can enter in to see a sculpture of the Goddess Durga. The base of the temple has tigers etched to possibly symbolize the Goddess’ vehicle.

This is followed by Arjuna’s ratha, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The sculptures around the temple are stunning and are of various Gods, Goddess’ and humans. Right behind this is a mammoth ratha dedicated to Bhima followed by the last ratha in this line, for the eldest Pandava Yudhisthira.

The Mahabalipuram five Rathas temples are a great example of the monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture
The Mahabalipuram five Rathas temples are a great example of the monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture

Yudhisthira’s ratha is dedicated to Lord Shiva and there are lovely sculptures of Lord Shiva in various forms. Now here is one curious fact – The Yudhisthira Ratha has a lovely ground floor and a first and second floor as well. What makes the whole deal curious is that there is no staircase from ground to first but there are stairs from first to second.

There are several other interesting secrets that this site has. You should read my detailed guide on this Mahabalipuram attraction to know more.

  • Mahabalipuram Pancha Ratha timings – 6 am to 6 pm
  • Ticket booking – The temple entrance tickets is the same composite ticket that gives you access to the other UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mahabalipuram. The price for the same is INR 30 for Indians and INR 500 for Non-Indians.
  • Average time required – 45 minutes

3) The Mahabalipuram Cave Temples

Tiger Caves - one of the offbeat Mahabalipuram attractions
Tiger Caves – one of the offbeat Mahabalipuram attractions

9 open-air treasure troves of amazing Mahabalipuram sculptures carved into the rocks with 9 different themes. These caves temples are mostly monolithic and have a mandapam (assembly area or pavilion) but are mostly devoid of a dedicated shrine. The walls of these Mamallapuram cave temples have significant carvings and in some cases, also, sport pillars.

The cave temples are quite spread out and are not really walkable from one place to another. Here are the key ones that you can include in your one day in Mahabalipuram. I have added the highlights of each of the cave temples of Mahabalipuram.

Krishna cave temple  - an important part of sighseeing in Mahabalipuram
Krishna cave temple – an important part of sighseeing in Mahabalipuram
  • Krishna caves – one of the most popular of cave temples in Mamallapuram. The two significant carvings that you must check out is that of Lord Krishna milking his cows and one of him holding the Govardhan mountain on his finger tip.
  • Mahishasurmardini Caves – As the name suggests, this cave is dedicated to the form of Goddess Durga where is slays the demon Mahishasura. The entire cave has scenes from this epic story.
  • Varaha Caves – You can literally read the story of Lord Vishnu taking the form of a boar to save Mother Earth. The tale is depicted through carvings on the walls of this cave temple.
  • Kotikal Mandapam – This one is by far the simplest and has a small shrine that has a missing idol. Historians attribute the temple to Goddess Durga – more so owing to the female Dwarpalikas (gatekeepers) inscribed on the doors of the shrine.
  • Trimurti cave temple – This Mamallapuram tourist place features the divine trinity of Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
  • Tiger cavesmy favorite offbeat ones for which I have an exclusive blog post. This has enormous tiger carvings throughout the caves, including the mouth of the caves.
  • Koneri cave – a little off the usual course, this one is located near the water tank in Mamallapuram. It is dedicated to the five forms of Lord Shiva.
  • Mahabalipuram Cave temple timings – Most of the cave temples open by 7 am and close by 6 pm
  • Ticket booking – Some of the cave temples are a part of the composite entrance ticket to the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mahabalipuram. Tiger caves do not need an entrance ticket
  • Average time required : 1 hour

4) Thirukadalmalai temple in Mamallapuram

Thirukadalmalai temple in Mahabalipuram
Thirukadalmalai temple in Mahabalipuram

A temple built by the Pallava kings to protect all the other temples from the sea waves.:-) This temple, also called Sthalasayana Perumal Temple, has some beautiful Dravidian-style architecture and while a part of the UNESCO sites, this is still a functional temple. You will find some religious activities and Poojas happening here still. One must visit this white-colored temple a contrast to the golden ones across Mahabalipuram. The temple has two shrines and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is said that after building this temple, no harm has indeed, come to the rest of the temples and structures in Mahabalipuram.

  • Temple timings – The temple is open at 6 am and remains open till late
  • Ticket booking -Does not need a ticket
  • Average time required : 20 mins

5) Arjuna’s Penance – one of the key places to visit in Mahabalipuram

Arjuna's Penance in Mahabalipuram
Arjuna’s Penance in Mahabalipuram

There is no way that you can miss this when in Mahabalipuram – for it is one of the World’s largest open-air Bas relief. Also, known as Descent of the Ganga, this amazing Bas relief stretches across 100 feet in length and is 45 feet high with intricate carvings of humans, elephants and other animals. The relief depicts the story of Arjuna doing his penance in the forest to please Lord Shiva in order to get his celestial weapon. However, some say that it is actually Sage Bhagiratha, who is bringing the holy river – Ganga to Earth. 

  • Arjuna’s Penance timings – It is an open-air display. There are no timings here
  • Ticket booking – No tickets are required
  • Average time required : 15 -20 mins

6) Krishna’s Butterball – one of the most unique tourist places in Mahabalipuram

Krishna's Butterball   in Mahabalipuram
Krishna’s Butterball   in Mahabalipuram

You don’t need to be a Tom Cruise to defy gravity for this marvel already does that. Heaven knows how this huge stone of around 16 feet diameter balances itself on a slope, and not just for the last couple of years but for over 1000 years. Attempts have been made to roll it down with the help of elephants but surprisingly the rock does not budge. I think Ripley’s Believe it or not should definitely feature this one.

  • Krishna’s butter ball timings – 6 am to 6 pm
  • Ticket booking – No tickets required
  • Average time required : 15 mins

7) Dakshina Chitra – a slice of culture

This is inside an actual Chettinad home  - an image representation of the kind of homes that you will see in Dakshin Chitra
This is inside an actual Chettinad home – an image representation of the kind of homes that you will see in Dakshin Chitra

A cultural village on the outskirts of Mahabalipuram that showcases the culture of the Southern states of India. This is similar to the Janapada Loka center near Bangalore. You can see the various homes, indulge in a few activities, and enjoy some folklore and crafts, while soaking up the Indian culture down south. From the typical houses of Chettinad with their rich Burma teak wood carvings to the Syrian Christian homes in Kerala, these model homes give you quite a taste of South IndiaIt is advisable to do this when entering or leaving Mahabalipuram as this is not exactly within the town limits

  • Dakshin Chitra timings – 10 am to 6 pm on all days except Tuesdays
  • Ticket booking – INR 175 per adult
  • Average time required: 1 – 1.5 hours

8) Surfing & Turtle walks in Mahabalipuram

Hey you are in a beach town and you cannot really get out without experiencing the beach here. Then Mahabalipuram beach is quite safe in certain places for some general water fun but the one thing that this beach is known for is surfing. If you don’t know where to go, this surfing school can give you some tips and lessons.

Try surfing in Mahabalipuram
Try surfing in Mahabalipuram

Besides surfing, you can avail of some boat rides, turtle walks and treks through this popular restaurant called Surf. Turtle walk is a fun activity where you trek along the beach to find turtles and release them safely into the water.

9) The Mahabalipuram lighthouse

Try climbing the Mahabalipuram lighthouse
Try climbing the Mahabalipuram lighthouse

View the entire town from atop this lighthouse. Right next to it is the ancient lighthouse that was built during the Pallava era to serve as a beacon at this ancient sea port. Catch the Sunset from here with some refreshing breeze and a view of the sea.

  • Lighthouse timings – Most of the cave temples open by 10 am to 12:30 pm. And then, again between 2 pm and 4:30 pm
  • Ticket booking – INR 10 for Indians and INR 25 for non-Indians. The same ticket can be used in the Maritime museum
  • Average time required : 30 – 45 minutes

10) Visit the Crocodile Farm

Indian Mugger Crocodile that I saw during my Kabini Boat Safari
Indian Mugger Crocodile

The Madras Crocodile Bank is one of the largest crocodile breeding centers in India and is home to several species of crocodiles, snakes, turtles and more. The place is along the road to Chennai and is quite well-maintained. A great place to see these reptiles including the Indian Ghariyal, which can be viewed underwater – Thanks to the special tank here. Loved the turtles here. 

  • Madras crocodile bank timings – 9 am to 5 pm. Closed on Mondays
  • Ticket booking –  Rs. 100 for Adults
  • Average time required : 45 mins – 1 hour

11) India Sea Shell museum  – the latest addition to the things to do in Mamallapuram

Established by a shell collector –Raja Mohammed, this Mahabalipuram tourist attraction is a unique museum that showcases a wide collection of shells and other marine life specimens. The place is overwhelming with over 40,000 species of shells from all over the world, including rare and exotic varieties.

I was totally enamored by the contrast between these shells – be it size or colors. Look out for the smallest shell in the world which is the size of a grain. On the other hand, you will find mammoth ones that go to a few meters. The Mahabalipuram shell museum has interesting cultural tales related to these shells. It also has a section dedicated to marine fossils, as well as a souvenir shop selling shells and other items.

Besides the sea shell section, the museum is home to a marine aquarium, a pearl museum, a dinosaur section and even fun sections like 3D art gallery. You can book a ticket for this online through their website or just arrive there and purchase it. Definitely one of the unique things to do in Mahabalipuram.

  • India Shell Museum timings – 8 am to 8 pm
  • Ticket booking –  Rs. 100 for Adults. Cameras and other museums are charged ectra.
  • Average time required : 1 – 2 hours

12) Shopping in Mahabalipuram

It is not just the gigantic stone sculptures that you can shop in Mahabalipuram. You even have miniature ones
It is not just the gigantic stone sculptures that you can shop in Mahabalipuram. You even have miniature ones

A couple of things that you should keep an eye out for in Mamallapuram are miniature stone and wood sculptures, shell souvenirs and pearl jewelry. You will find numerous stalls and shops near the Group of monuments selling stone and wood sculptures.

You will also, be able to find the shell artifacts here.  However, the better place to buy these would be the souvenir shop of the India Sea Shell museum. You will also, find authentic pearl jewelry here.

13) Maritime museum in Mamallapuram

With a maritime history that goes back to the 6th century, it is no surprise that there is an exclusive museum on it. Close to the lighthouse of Mahabalipuram, you can visit this place to get a glimpse into the maritime heritage of Mahabalipuram, including ancient shipbuilding techniques, navigation equipment, and marine archaeology finds. There is also, a replica of an ancient Tamil merchant ship.

The museum also, has a simulation of a submarine and its working. It’s a must-see place in Mahabalipuram for history buffs and marine enthusiasts.

  • Maritime Museum timings – 10 am to 5 pm
  • Ticket booking –  You can use the same tickets as the Lighthouse entrance tickets. There are no additional charges
  • Average time required : 30 – 45 mins

14) Try a cycling tour of the best places in Mahabalipuram

You will find a lot of cycles on hire in Mahabalipuram. In fact, it is possible that the hotel that you stay in might have a few to lend out. Pick one of these and take a tour of all the places that you would want to see in Mahabalipuram

15) Day trips from Mahabalipuram

It is quite possible that you decide to stay for more than a day in Mahabalipuram. If so, you might want to consider some of these day trips.

  • Kanchipuram – it is known as the city of 1000 temples. It is just 65 km from Mahabalipuram and can even be visited if you are on a road trip from Bangalore to Mahabalipuram. The city is also, known for its beautiful and rich silk sarees.
  • Pondicherry – the erstwhile French colony with its pretty beaches and the global village of Auroville is a must-visit if you are in Mahabalipuram. It is just 95 km from Mamallapuram
  • Alamparai fort 53 km from Mahabalipuram. It is an ancient sea fort that is a great example of Indian and European architecture. The beach around it also, makes a lovely outing.

Still wondering what else to do in Mahabalipuram? I am sure that even with this list, you will find that just a day in Mahabalipuram is not enough. The remaining sections of this post will help you plan an ideal visit to Mahabalipuram.

Common FAQs about Mahabalipuram

Which is the best way to reach Mahabalipuram?

Chennai – one of the key metro cities of India is just 58 km from Mahabalipuram. It is also, the closest international and domestic airport. In case you are looking at traveling by rail, then again, you will need to head to Chennai. as Mahabalipuram does not have its own railway station.

From Chennai, you can either hire a cab or self-drive a car to Mahabalipuram. There is a beautiful coastal road – ECR that is well worth the trip by road. You can also, take one of the tourist or public buses that go to Mahabalipuram from Chennai. These are available at regular intervals throughout the day.

Which is the best time to visit Mamallapuram?

It is best to plan a visit to Mamallapuram between the months of September to February, Summers from April to June are extreme with temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees celsius. Mahabalipuram also, gets a lot of rains during monsoons.

Which is the best place to stay in Mahabalipuram?

Mahabalipuram has many good hotels to pick from. Being a small town, there is no issue in accessibility to the key Mahabalipuram attractions. You can pick from the beach luxury hotels like Radisson Blu and the Welcomegroup hotels by ITC or opt for the mid-priced ones like Bodhiwood hotel that are just a walk away from the beach. If you are a budget-conscious traveler, you can find homestays and hotels within INR 1500 per night like the Living Edge homestay.

Is one day enough for Mahabalipuram?

You can definitely do Mahabalipuram as a day trip and cover a majority of the sightseeing places. However, I highly recommend spending at least one night here to enjoy it in entirety.

Is Mahabalipuram worth visiting?

Absolutely! The tiny town is seeped with history that goes back to the 5th century and has many other interesting things to do like surfing, turtle walks etc. Most of the attractions have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. You also, have museums that will appeal to any kind of traveler.

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96 thoughts on “15 things to do in Mahabalipuram | A Mahabalipuram guide”

  1. Planned a trip to this place in the month of February.But was not able to go. Your post is making us to plan a trip here.Wonderful informative post with photos,

    Sriram & Krithiga

  2. Ami, your travel posts are really professionally done and I enjoy reading them. Mahabalipuram is a favourite place of mine and I think it has far more going for it than Pondicherry but that's a personal preference:)

  3. Thank you Lata for the amazing compliment. 🙂 Am glad you enjoy them. While I like Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram in their own way, I agree that there is a certain richness to Mahabalipuram. 🙂

  4. Bang on compilation of what to do in Mahabalipuram. A lot of people combine Mahabalipuram with Pondicherry and in a rush to reach Pondi miss out the brilliance of this old town. I regret missing out Dakshina Chitra but instead went to a Jagannath Temple situated in the outskirts. Maybe Dakshina Chitra is something for the next time 🙂
    Nice article Ami!

  5. I have never heard of Mahabalipuram! Looks like there are a lot of things to do and see. That rock is crazy! I would want to know…what are some of the best places to eat here?

    • Thanks Katie. There are plenty of places to eat here and they aren’t hard to find. From plush restaurants to street food, from Italian and Chinese cuisine to Indian. Will work out a specific post on this. 🙂

  6. Fascinating! I love some of those temple. The tiger temple is quite unique. Do you know what time period they were built? Some of them resemble the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

  7. Whenever I plan a trip to Mahabalipuram, something goes wrong and till date I could not visit it! Hope I am able to visit this place soon.
    Great post Ami 🙂

  8. Mahabalipuram looks like a really interesting place! We have friends who just moved to Chennai and we are hoping to visit soon. I think our boys would love krishna’s ball!

  9. Hello Ami,

    I was going through internet, trying to find what all can be done during a day in Mahabalipuram. Seeing so many places without much description on internet, I really got confused, but your post really helped in resolving all these confusions. Thanks a lot for such an informative post.

    Would be really helpful if you add up these points as well –
    1. How one should be roaming in and around Mahabalipuram. Should he be taking a cab/bus for a day, or renting a bike/cycle and ride on his own.
    2. How should he plan his day, at what time should he be going to all these places.


    • Thanks Suchiir, Glad you enjoyed the post. On your queries – most places are walkable from each other. For the others, I suggest just hiring an auto. It is much easier. On planning the day, most of these open around 8 or 9 am. A few do open earlier but my memory fails me on which ones. Most of these can be covered in a day . Hope that helps.

  10. I never knew about Mahabalipuram but know after going through this article. I will definitely pan a trip to visit Mahabalipuram. A big hug and thanks for this discovering this wonderful place for me.

  11. when I went to mahabalipuram, I only saw the butterball, the temple and the beach. never knew there are so many things to do in mahabalipuram. thanks for sharing this great to-do list 🙂

  12. Been there twice still can’t get enough of the place. We covered all these places in a day trip. The best thing is that all the monuments are so close to each other that you can easily plan a walking trip around.

  13. Your blog is interesting and is well written. There are so many information shared by the blog which will surely help those who wish to travel these places and wish to know more about .

  14. Thanks for sharing this blog. This place is looking like a historical place. I will do study on this place and will plane to for trip. Keep shar…something like this.

  15. in case we reach here by bus(local transport) how do we cover the places? would a rickshaw take us? where would the two wheeler be available on rent? tentative cost… going wih two kids.. so any additional info would be valauble

    • You can easily cover a lot of these by walking around as they are very close to each other. Alternately, any auto will give you a package that can take you around to all these places.

  16. Great share! Such a nice content, Thanks. I have been to Mahabalipuram once and it was an amazing experience that I had. I took a cab for Chennai to Mahabalipuram. Everyone must visit this great place


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