A first-time guide to Pondicherry, India

Scoop up an 18th-century French town and plop it down in the middle of coastal Tamil Nadu, India, and voilà: you have Puducherry.

More familiar as Pondicherry, this breezy city was under French colonial rule from the late 17th century until 1954. Although indisputably Tamil, Pondicherry still holds onto countless traces of its Gallic past, from pastel-hued heritage hotels and churches to an abundance of croissant-slinging cafes, particularly in White Town, its French Quarter.

While Pondicherry’s abundance of French food and architecture are among its biggest draws, it’s also an old favorite among spiritually inclined visitors, many of whom are more interested in visiting temples and ashrams than they are in wolfing down coq au vin and crêpes Suzette.

Whatever Pondicherry experiences you seek out, here’s all you need to know to plan a perfect trip to this singular city.

Pondicherry still holds onto countless traces of its Gallic past © Jean-Yves Barralis / Shutterstock

When should I go to Pondicherry?

Although Pondicherry is attractive year-round, the best time to visit Pondicherry is between January and March, when temperatures are at their coolest and there’s little chance of rain. Things start to heat up in April, with temperatures rising through June before slowly dropping again in July, when the southwest monsoon begins. The rains often continue through the end of the year, with the northeast monsoon arriving in the Pondicherry area in October.

How much time should I spend in Pondicherry?

It depends on what you want to do. With three full days in Pondicherry, you’ll have enough time to see the main sights at a relaxed pace and spend a day in nearby Auroville. With four or five days, you can tack on a day trip or two. Over a week or more, you’ll have time to relax and get a feel for the rhythm of life in the city, with time left over to attend a yoga retreat at a nearby yoga center. 

An aerial view of busy streets at dusk in the new town of Pondicherry, India
Exploring the busy streets of Pondicherry on two wheels is a real treat © Frédéric Soltan / Corbis via Getty Images

Is it easy to get to and around Pondicherry?

Yes. Pondicherry has a relatively new airport, though since flights are limited, many visitors opt to fly into Chennai, 145km (90 miles) away, then continue onward by bus or private taxi (count a minimum of three hours’ drive). Trains depart for Puducherry from Chennai Egmore; the trip takes roughly 4 hours.

Getting around Pondicherry is equally straightforward. The city is mostly flat, with well-maintained roads and pavements that make getting around on foot a breeze, especially if you base yourself in or near White Town. Auto rickshaws are easy to hail off the street (just negotiate in advance), and there are plenty of taxi companies for destinations further afield. If you’d prefer a bit more independence, bicycles and scooters are also widely available to rent from outfits such as JP Two Wheeler. 

Matrimandir, an edifice of spiritual significance for practitioners of yoga, situated at the center of Auroville, Pondicherry, India
The golden Matrimandir in nearby Auroville draws pilgrims from around the world © Francesco Dazzi / Shutterstock

Top things to do in Pondicherry

Experience Pondicherry’s spiritual side

Pondicherry is home to numerous spiritual sites, the most famous of which is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, founded by Bengali philosopher Sri Aurobindo and his French collaborator Mirra Alfassa (widely known as “the Mother”). The ashram is a major hub for spiritual life in the city; curious visitors can explore it and learn about ashram activities by taking a tour, or dropping by for an evening meditation session. It’s just around the corner from the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, a centuries-old temple to Ganesh whose colorful interiors are adorned with intricate friezes displaying mythological scenes.

Go gallery hopping

Pondicherry is a great place for art lovers, with galleries in addition to museums and shops selling local creations. Must-sees include the Puducherry Museum, with its centuries’ worth of art and artifacts, and the adjacent Puducherry Contemporary Art Gallery, a government-run space that launched in 2022 to display more-modern expressions of creativity. A 10-minute walk north, Tasmai, a Centre for Art & Culture showcases the works of contemporary artists from Pondicherry and surrounding areas.

Visit Auroville and its golden Matrimandir

Just north of town, Auroville is a “universal township” where residents from around the world live together in an experimental community. Founded by the Mother in 1968, it has continued to grow over the years into the large, spread-out town that it is today. The key attraction here is the Matrimandir, a golf-ball-shaped golden dome at the center of the community. You can make a reservation to visit the interior or drop in to see it from a viewing platform near the visitors center, which doubles as a small shopping complex selling everything from musical instruments to incense, all made by Aurovillians.

People walk by the Gandhi Memorial on at the promenade beach front, Pondicherry, India
Pondicherry’s promenade along the Bay of Bengal comes alive every evening with families and other locals © Hari Mahidhar / Shutterstock

My favorite thing to do in Pondicherry

If you love exploring cities on foot, Pondicherry will feel perfect. I particularly love strolling along Goubert Ave (Beach Road) at sunset, when large crowds of families, couples and roving cotton-candy vendors head out on one big evening walk along the seafront. The vibe is super-festive. 

A good place to start is at Our Lady of the Angels (Notre Dame des Anges), a massive church with a huge arched ceiling adorned with pale-blue, jasperware-style tiling. From here, you can cut across the Joan of Arc Park to Beach Rd and continue north – the road continues for about a kilometer before merging with St Louis St.

How much money do I need for Pondicherry?

It’s easy to have a great time in Pondicherry on a tight budget – but the city also has plenty of higher-end places to dine and spend the night. Budget travelers will find a range of guesthouses and homestays to choose from, as well as casual restaurants serving modestly priced dosas and other Tamil and South Indian favorites. If you’ve got more cash to spend, you’ll find lots of deluxe restaurants and hotels, many housed in heritage buildings.

  • Basic room for two: ₹800–1200
  • Room for two in an upscale heritage hotel: ₹7,000–₹16,000
  • South Indian filter coffee: ₹25
  • Espresso drink: ₹120
  • Cocktail: ₹400–500
  • Vegetarian thali at a casual restaurant: ₹150
  • Dinner for two at an upscale restaurant ₹1,600–₹2,000

What to pack for a trip to Pondicherry  

Expect heat and humidity no matter when you visit. Loose-fitting, light-colored clothes made from natural fibers plus a wide-brimmed hat are ideal for staying cool (or at least trying to). Comfortable shoes are a must – especially sandals that are easy to slip on and off if you plan to visit temples. Don’t forget the mosquito repellent, especially if you plan to be outside at dawn or dusk.

The shore temple at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India
The stunning 7th-century temples at Mamallapuram are under two hours away by car from Pondicherry © f9photos / Shutterstock

The best day trip from Pondicherry  

Perhaps the most popular spot within easy day-tripping distance of Pondicherry is the Group of Monuments at Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), a UNESCO World Heritage site that preserves a collection of intricately carved Pallava temples and edifices, most dating to the 7th century. In the opposite direction, the city of Chidambaram is a great spot for a half-day trip. Its draw is the massive Thillai Nataraja Temple, an exquisitely carved Chola-era complex dedicated to Nataraja (Hindu deity Shiva in his cosmic dancer form).

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