Since the 1960s, foreign tourists have flocked to Goa, India’s smallest state, attracted by its palm-fringed golden beaches, glorious sunshine and distinctly relaxed attitudes. Domestic tourism has taken off enormously in recent years too, such that now almost ninety percent of visitors are from within India.
Kerala, several hundred kilometres south, draws double the number of both domestic and foreign tourists than Goa, with its dense tropical landscape, tantalising festivals and 550km of striking coastline. It also happens to feature in our round-up of the best places to visit in winter.
Here’s what to expect from each of these captivating states, and how to decide whether to visit Goa or Kerala first.
Goa was a Portuguese territory from the sixteenth century until 1961, and a quarter of the population remain Christian today. Though Hindus still make up the majority of the population, unusually for India you’ll find churches in pretty much every town, some of the best of which are in Old Goa, the state’s former capital and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kerala is intensely ritualistic, with numerous ancient indigenous practices that are unique to this region and which make a visit here far more alien to Western perceptions than Goa. All-night festivals are frequent occurrences at temples across the state, with fireworks, splendidly adorned elephants and deafening drums combining to create magical spectacles.
A performance of kathakali, Kerala’s most famous form of ritual drama, is well-worth experiencing to see the elaborately made-up and fantastically dressed performers act out ancient stories with astonishing intensity.
Goa and Kerala are renowned for their excellent cuisines. South Indian curries are generally much spicier than those in northern India, and use simpler, tangier ingredients often including copious amounts of coconut, fresh chillies, tamarind and curry leaves.
Masala dosas originated in southern India, and are a breakfast staple across both states. Rice usually replaces bread in family homes of both states, though in touristy places – and especially in Goa – naans, chapatti and parathas are readily available.
Yet despite these similarities, Goan and Keralan cuisines differ more than you might think.
Idli, steamed rice cakes, are a staple in Kerala, usually served with sambar, a lentil-based vegetables stew. Vada, deep-fried lentil doughnuts, are also immensely popular here, where meals are often served on banana leaves. The vindaloo, meanwhile, is a Goan creation. Vinegar, one of the key ingredients, is a Portuguese legacy, and these ultra-hot curries are traditionally made with pork.
Keralan food is traditionally vegetarian, but you’ll find meat in most places, and fresh, delicious seafood is ubiquitous, as it is in Goa.
When hippies flocked to Goa in the 1960s, parties spread like wildfire. By the 1990s, Goa Trance was in full swing, attracting partygoers from all over the world to dance till dawn on the sand or in beautiful jungle settings. At the turn of the millennium, the authorities clamped down, banning loud music after 10pm, and with it went the rave scene.
These days parties do still exist (if the police are successfully paid off), and Goa still has a reputation as the party capital of India, particularly around Anjuna and Vagator. Beer as well as local and imported spirits are widely available at beachside restaurants, and cocktails are especially popular in the early evening happy hours.
Kerala, by contrast, has never had much in the way of nightlife, unless you count all-night kathakali performances. Some hotels and restaurants catering for tourists do serve alcohol (amusingly sometimes disguised in tea pots in unlicensed places). In coastal resorts such as Varkala, you’ll find plenty of cheap booze, and even the odd impromptu party which carries on till the small hours.
Goa’s beaches tend to be wider and cleaner than that of Kerala, and are, overall, more tourist-friendly. You can take strolls down the beach and continue for hours, connecting from one resort to the next, which isn’t possible in most places in Kerala. Beachside accommodation is plentiful, from budget shacks to glitzy resorts. There are coastal yoga retreats galore and shops selling the usual hippy tat wherever you go.
Though Kerala’s beaches tend to be smaller, and the beach-shack culture is pretty much non-existent, “God’s Own Country” is home to numerous pretty shores, particularly in the far north where you’ll find some gorgeous quiet coves scattered among little fishing villages. Kerala is also queen of Ayurvedic treatments – if you’re interested in some alternative therapies, this is the place to for you.
Old Goa is home to some lovely examples of whitewashed churches, and the Dudhsagar waterfalls near the southern border with the state of Karnataka manage to draw curious tourists inland. But it’s Goa’s beaches which brings most people here, rather than any specific “sights”.
The main attraction for visitors to Kerala is Fort Cochin, with its European-era architecture, spice markets, iconic Chinese fishing nets, art exhibitions and hip cafés. Another Keralan allure is the chance to ride a boat through the myriad of narrow backwaters that weave their way through lush forests and offer a glimpse into traditional rural village life that’s barely changed for centuries.
If you’re up for some serious sun worshipping, plenty of boozing and some yoga to cleanse your soul the morning after, your best bet is Goa. If you’re looking for a quieter, more culturally immersive trip, try Kerala. And if you have a weakness for punchy curries, extend your trip and go to both.