Vandalur Zoo, as Chennai’s zoo is known, is an unexpected green oasis on the south west extremity of the city. I’ll level with you, I didn’t have high expectations for the zoo. But having visited, I can say that my views were misplaced. There were a few problems, which I’ll get to later, but on the whole, a visit to Chennai’s zoo is highly recommended.
When to Visit
First things first. Visiting the zoo during the hottest April to July months means you just won’t enjoy it. You’ll be hot, even in the extensive shade provided by all the trees in the zoo. Heatstroke, exhaustion and sunburn would be very real concerns. We visited in February of this year and the temperature was perfect.
The second thing about visiting the zoo is that you have to get there early. This isn’t unique to Vandalur zoo but applies to any tourist spot you wish to visit in India. It can’t be stressed enough. Arrive early. If it’s a public holiday weekend, I’d even suggest going on a different weekend.
You can take the train to the zoo, it’s very quick, taking just 30 minutes from Guindy station. The cost is just 15 rupees. From Vandalur station it’s about a kilometre walk to the zoo though. There are also plenty of buses that go to the zoo, but the ride time will be much longer.
We decided to use Zoomcar to rent a car to reach the zoo. The pick up was seamless and the Ford Ecosport car that we booked was excellent. It took almost an hour to reach Vandalur from Nungambakkam, even on an early Saturday morning. Keep this in mind if you decide to leave later. We reached around 9:30am and even at that time we could see that the lines were starting to form at the ticket counter.
Surprisingly, there was no foreigners tax to get into the zoo. There was one (very reasonable) price for everyone.
Adults: Rs 30
Kids (up to 10 years): Rs 10
Additionally, there’s a Rs 25 charge for using your camera, and yes, that includes your mobile phone. The zoo does have staff around the zoo that will ask to see your ticket so it’s best to buy a camera ticket. If you have a video camera, the cost is Rs 150.
Getting Around the Zoo
Vandalur Zoo is big. You may have been to some city zoos like London Zoo, Taronga Zoo or Central Park Zoo. Vandalur is not like them. It is sprawling, with animal enclosures far away from one another.
The easiest way to get around the zoo is by hiring bicycles which are a short walk from the main entrance once you are inside. These cost about Rs 20 per hour to hire. Be warned though, there’s no adjustments allowed on the bikes, so if you are really tall, like one of our party was, you might end up riding around with your knees almost above your head.
The bikes hire out quite quickly, which is another reason you should aim to get to the zoo early. The zoo is quite bicycle friendly with the footpaths and roads, however we did find it a bit of a pain that we were constantly stopping and starting and looking for places to park our bikes while looking at the animals. Overall though, I can’t imagine going around the zoo on foot!
Alternatively, you can hire a chauffeur driven golf buggy for Rs 330 an hour, which is really cheap. Again, the problem of stopping, starting and parking will be there. You might hop on the buggy for ten seconds and realize you need to get off again to see the next animal enclosure. Still, if walking or cycling is a problem, the golf buggy is pretty good.
The final option is to take a safari van around the zoo. You are restricted to staying inside the vehicle and might not see the entire zoo but if you are short on time this might make sense.
When we left the zoo at around 3pm, all the bikes had been hired out and people were waiting for groups like us to return the bikes. The queue at the ticket counter was huge and throngs of people were still streaming in. Take my advice. Arrive early and avoid all of this!
Eating & Drinking
Vandalur Zoo is not a commercial operation and that definitely shines through in many ways. There is almost zero commercialization of anything. You don’t visit the aquarium and walk through the mandatory gift shop to get out. There’s no shops selling cute fluffy toys or any of that. In some ways it’s quite refreshing.
Bringing Outside Food into Vandalur Zoo
However, the downside to this lack of commercialization is that the food and beverage options are limited. There were very few outlets where you could buy water on your way around the compound. You are not allowed to bring your own (outside) food into the zoo either, which is a problem because there are no restaurants except for one at the entrance. Since Chennai zoo is so large, you’re likely to be really far away from the entrance when you get hungry. If you’re feeling hungry your options are limited to ice creams, popcorn, and various fried Indian snacks like samosas.
We were in the zoo for about five hours and didn’t eat anything. If you’re taking small kids, you might want to consider sneaking in some sandwiches or other small snacks that will keep them going if you plan to be there for more than four hours.
Vandalur Zoo has a lot more animals than I thought it would. Monkeys, apes, tigers (lots of tigers!), lions, giraffes, zebras, hippos, elephants, gazelles, bears, wolves, birds and more. The enclosures were bigger than I expected too, certainly bigger than what other city zoos I’ve been to provide.
The highlight for me was seeing the tiger cubs bothering their Mum. They were behaving exactly like giant kittens. Everything was a game, there were always new things to explore, a moving leaf or tail is an opportunity to pounce.
Unfortunately, many animals like the big cats and birds are kept behind wire mesh fences which makes it very difficult to get good photos if you are planning to get some good shots of the animals. It’s next to impossible on a smartphone camera as you’ll just capture the wire mesh and would be tricky even on a DSLR to take the wire meshes out of focus.
You have to visit Vandalur Zoo if you are staying in Chennai. Mark a Saturday or Sunday on your calendar and just do it. It makes the perfect day out in Chennai if you have kids. If you are able to, go during the week. For more information, visit the Arignar Anna Zooilogical Park website (which is the official name for Vandalur zoo!).
If you have any questions about visiting the zoo, just ask in the comments below.