Mysore, or Mysuru as it’s now known after post-colonial name-change, is a sleepy little town 150KM south west of Bangalore. It’s famous for being at the epicentre of resistance against the British during the 18th century. Sultan Tipu of Mysore is known throughout India as being one of the few rulers that not only defied the British but met them in battle and won decisive victories.
It took all the might of the army of the British East India Company plus alliances with other kingdoms to bring the reign of Sultan Tipu to an end. Even then, it was perhaps fortuitous for the British that Sultan Tipu’s own allies were facing their own troubles and unable to provide assistance that the battle was finally won.
Today, Mysore has a town-like vibe to the place, while being just as developed as Bangalore. Indeed, you are likely to see more sprawling bungalows and villas in Mysore than in any other major city in India! There’s plenty to see and do in and around Mysore and visitors can easily spend two or three days exploring the history and palaces of the city.
Getting to Mysore from Chennai
Mysore does not have an airport so getting to the city from Chennai can be a bit of a pain. Here’s three ways you could reach there. You could use a combination of all three if you want!
This is the quickest and most expensive option and takes around 7 hours. You fly to Bangalore, and if you book early enough the cost can be as low as Rs 2,500 return per person. You then take a car all the way to Mysore which takes around 4 hours. The cost of the car will be around Rs 2,500 and up, depending on the type of car you choose.
You can take a Shatabdi train from Chennai all the way through to Mysore. This takes 7 hours and costs about Rs 1,850 return per person. It leaves Chennai Central at 6am and arrives at 1pm. This train has comfy, reclining seats and food is served complimentary throughout the journey. The return journey leaves at 2:15pm and arrives in Chennai at 9:25pm.
You can take an overnight bus to Mysore. The journey will take about 10 hours. You’ll get fully reclining, comfy seats. The cost will be around Rs 1,600 return per person.
Once you are in Mysore, you can get around by auto or by Uber. The later comes with ultra-competitive rates and for any distance over 2KM is my preferred method of transport. If you use Uber in Chennai then you’ll be able to use it in Mysore.
Where to Stay
Mysore is a tourist town for many people from Bangalore looking to escape the big city during long weekends. It’s less popular with foreign tourists – perhaps due to the difficulty of reaching it by plane. For this reason, while there are plenty of hotel options, there are very few recognizable brand name hotels in the city. Some of your options include:
Radisson Blu Mysore
This is the biggest chain hotel in the city. The cost is around Rs 6,000 per night (can go higher during peak season and public holiday weekends). The hotel is centrally located.
Royal Orchid Metropole Mysore
Located just minutes from Mysore station, the Royal Orchid is part of a national chain of hotels. Prices start at around Rs 4,000 per night (higher during peak season and public holiday weekends). The main tourist attractions of the town are a short auto ride away.
An old fashioned hotel, again just minutes from the station. Booking through a site like Make My Trip can give you rates as low as Rs 3,500 per night. The hotel is centrally located, just short auto rides (don’t pay more than Rs 80 to reach the palace!) away from the main tourist attractions of the town.
Things to Do
There’s plenty to do in Mysore to fill a full two days of sightseeing. Be advised though, foreigner rates applies to almost all the attractions and entry can be as much as 10 times the cost of a regular ticket. Even if you have a PAN card, the decision to offer regular ticket price seems to be at the discretion of the person sitting at the ticket counter. For this reason, you’ll often hear seasoned foreign tourists in India refer to the ‘foreigner tax’, that is, the special rate foreigners have to pay compared to the locals to enter various tourist attractions.
As with every major tourist attraction in India, arrive as early as possible to avoid the crowds. A suggested itinerary is below.
Day One – Mysore Attractions
The primary attraction of Mysore is the palace. Built in 1898, one of the most remarkable pieces of trivia about this palace is that the architect was British! Not something you’d expect from a palace that looks quintessentially Indian. The palace is owned by the Wadiyar royal family, which was installed as the ruling family of the kingdom of Mysore in 1799 after the British East India Company defeated Sultan Tipu.
The palace opens by 9am and costs Rs 200 per person for foreigners. You can try to use a PAN card if you have one, but don’t hold your breath. Budget around two hours for visiting the palace and grounds.
There is a no shoes and no photography policy inside the actual palace. Before you enter the palace, you have to join the scrum of people (unless you heeded our advice and arrived early) and pay 2 rupees per footwear that you hand over. If you arrive later in the day, be prepared to face chaos.
The fact that you are not allowed to take photos is a shame, but given the sheer volume of tourists that pass through the palace every day, you can understand why it’s in place. If everyone stopped to take photos, you’d be endlessly waiting for the crowds to move on to the next room.
The palace durbars (the great halls where the kings met with visiting dignitaries and other royal families) are quite majestic with some incredible architecture and wall frescos. I found the lack of information about what I was seeing to be particularly frustrating. There’s no explanation of what a particular room was used for, why certain objects are there, the meaning of the paintings etc. An audio guide (included in the cost of foreigner ticket) is available but they had run out of English language tours – indicative of the type of organization the palace was under.
After finishing the main palace, you can visit the residential wing of the palace. There is an additional charge for this but if you pay foreigners rates you get a free audio guide tour. Again, there is a no photography policy and you have to take your shoes off before entering. The residential wing is a collection of decaying toys, furniture and faded photographs of the royal family. It’s interesting if you have the time but if you are on a tight schedule it is missable.
The palace grounds give you an opportunity to snap some photos of the exterior of the palace.
Every Sunday evening at 7pm, the palace is lit up in a spectacular light show until 7:30pm. Thousands of bulbs adorn the palace and surrounding buildings and when the lights are turned on it makes for an impressive sight. Guess what my advice is here? If you want to see it, arrive early, at least by 6:30pm because they don’t open the gate until 6:50pm. Entry is free and be prepared for crowds. When the lights go off at 7:30pm, a human tsunami heads towards the exit gate so either wait for everyone to leave or get a jump on them by heading out before 7:30pm.
Sand Sculpture Museum
India has an unusual habit of calling many exhibitions as museums. The Mysore Sand Sculpture Museum is one of them. It’s not a museum, but an exhibit of sand sculptures. It might not sound interesting, but don’t dismiss it! It’s actually quite impressive, and if you have kids, they’ll love it! Randomly there was even archery and trampoline stands. I had a go at the archery but I was no Legolas with the bow and arrow.
The creator of the sand sculptures is a young lady and it seems that she knows a thing or two about building non-historical tourist attractions. Entry is Rs 40 per person, there’s no foreigner tax and you are encouraged to take as many photos as you can and share them on Facebook. Budget around 30-45 minutes to go around the place.
St Philomena Church
This church was gifted by the Maharaja of Mysore. The unusual thing about this is that the Maharaja was a Hindu, which shows the huge amount of respect he had for other religions. The church looks quite old but is actually relatively new, having been built in 1936. There’s not too much to see at the church other than the impressive architecture. Budget around 30 minutes for visiting.
Image credit: Punithsureshgowda – Wikipedia
If you start early enough in the day, you might have time to visit Mysore Zoo. However, if you’ve visited Chennai Zoo (which you should), you would have seen many of the same animals already. If you have children, then you might want to consider a visit to the zoo. The cost is Rs 300 per person. Budget around 3 hours for visiting.
Jaganmohan Palace – Art Gallery
If you have time, and if you have a particular interest in Indian art, you can visit the Jaganmohan palace, which is actually an art gallery inside the palace. My wife, who studied fine arts at college in Chennai found the gallery to be quite the let down due to the poor lighting of the paintings and lack of information about the exhibits. If you don’t know your Raja Ravi Verma from your S.L. Haldankar you might wonder what it is you are supposed to be looking at.
Additionally, you are asked to hand over your camera and mobile phones at the entrance to be picked up once you’ve gone around the gallery. There are staff placed all around watching out for people taking photos or using a phone and if you are caught, you’ll be asked to delete any photos and escorted back to the entrance to hand over your phone or camera.
On your second day in Mysore, you can visit all the places outside the city. For this you’ll need to hire a car for the whole day. It will cost between Rs 2,200 and Rs 3,000 depending on the size of car you choose and that doesn’t include the customary tip which you should give. Your hotel might offer their car, but this tends to be far more expensive than hiring a local one so if you can, get someone to organize your car for you. You should aim to leave no later than 9:30am and head straight for the Somnathpura Temple.
This temple is over 750 years old and was looted (fun fact: loot is a Hindi word that made its way into English lexicon) and vandalized by Mughal invaders. The desecration of the temple means it is no longer ‘active’ and open to tourists. The earlier you arrive, the better. Even though it’s an hour’s drive from Mysore, plenty of tourists make their way to this spot.
Entry is Rs 200 for foreigners and I had no luck trying to use my PAN card here to get local rates. Before entering the temple you need to take your shoes off and leave them in the rack outside. There are guides available to take you around and if you are interested in what all the statues and carvings represent, they are quite useful. We paid Rs 400 to be taken around although the information was probably more interesting to my Indian friends who already knew much of the Hindu history.
The carvings and architecture of Somnathpura Temple make it an unmissable part of your Mysore trip. Everything is so intricately carved and well preserved, it’s hard to believe the temple is over seven centuries old.
Inside the temple, make sure you look up. The various carvings in the ceiling represent a blooming banana plant.
The Srirangapatna Fort is part of the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Mysore, ruled by Hyder Ali and Sultan Tipu from 1761 to 1799. The fort is about 45 minutes from Mysore or if you are travelling from Somnathpura Temple it’s about an hour’s drive.
Sultan Tipu became known as the Tiger of Mysore after his decisive victories against the British and other kingdoms through the latter part of the 18th century. However, he also over extended himself and made powerful enemies which brought about his downfall in the Fourth Battle of Mysore in 1799. It’s said that an alliance of over 50,000 troops laid siege to the fort, which was well protected on three sides by the Cauvery river.
Unfortunately the fort hasn’t been as well preserved as many other forts I’ve seen in Hyderabad and Jaipur. There are hints at its vastness and imposing walls, but much of it is in ruins or overgrown.
Some of the hints can be found at the southern gate. A few of the great ramparts still exist, although nature is making a successful attempt to reclaim what it lost. Our driver mentioned that there were secret tunnels around the fort, but there’s no mention of that at the site. They could be rumour, or like so many historical places in India, they could exist but the authorities haven’t felt it necessary to let tourists know about them.
Along the north ramparts is a large dungeon called Colonel Bailey’s Dungeon. It’s actually named after a prisoner that was kept and subsequently died there. He was one of the highest ranking British army officers ever captured by a kingdom in the Indian sub-continent. Sultan Tipu defied the British and astonished many other kingdoms by not only capturing many high ranking British army officers, but holding them captive in deprived conditions. As you walk around the dungeon, the blocks where the prisoners were chained night and day paint a vivid picture of the conditions the prisoners were held in.
Travelling east along the northern ramparts, you come across the point where Sultan Tipu’s body was found. The attackers were able to break through a weaker section of the wall after some treachery by Tipu’s foreign advisor. It’s said that although injured, instead of retreating, he faced the British, sword in hand and died in battle. His sword and other jewellery were looted by the British where much of it ended up in museums in London.
Outside the main fort is the summer palace of Sultan Tipu. Entry is Rs 200 for foreigners and the lady at the ticket counter laughed at me when I showed my PAN card and asked for Indian rates. Every square centimetre of the summer palace has been painted and words don’t do it justice to describe it.
Unfortunately the summer palace is another “no photography” place so I can’t show just how amazing it is. The only reason I can think of for not allowing photography is perhaps the flash damages the hand painted walls. If this is the reason then it’s quite asinine because palace hasn’t been particularly well maintained and many of the paintings are becoming quite damaged due to people touching them. I noticed many people couldn’t resist rubbing their hands over the wooden carvings or paintings, although I can’t understand why. This seemed to be perfectly acceptable to the staff who would only shout at people trying to catch a sneaky photo on their phone.
Brindavan Gardens & Cauvery Dam
From Srirangapatna Fort, you can head to Brindavan Gardens which sits in the shadow of the great Cauvery dam. It takes about 30 minutes to reach from the Fort. The gardens are very impressive with water fountains dominating the central path. You can spend an hour walking around the park. Unfortunately you are no longer allowed up to the dam. There’s even a Royal Orchid hotel in the gardens, which would make a great getaway if you don’t want to stay in Mysore.
We reached the gardens around 4pm and thought it was quite busy. However, by the time we left at 5:30pm, cars were streaming into the park and the queue to get in was getting really long. This is probably because at 7pm there is a light and sound show with the fountains at the bottom of the park below the damn.
- The Mysore palace lighting at 7pm on Sundays
- The Oyster Bay restaurant for dinner – excellent food, fantastic ambiance
- Try a Mysore dosa at one of the south Indian restaurants