Spreading across islands and promontories between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters, Kochi (long known as Cochin) is Kerala’s prime tourist destination. Its main sections – modern Ernakulam and the old peninsular districts of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin to the west – are linked by bridges and a complex system of ferries. Although some visitors opt to stay in the more convenient Ernakulam, the overwhelming majority base themselves in Fort Cochin, where the city’s complex history is reflected in an assortment of architectural styles. Spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India’s first European church and seventeenth-century Dutch homes can all be found within an easy walk.
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While the majority of visitors use the city as a base for day-trips into the surrounding backwaters and satellite villages, there’s nothing to stop you doing the opposite, basing yourself in quiet backwater locations out of town – such as Vypeen Island to the north, or Kumbalanghi to the south – and travelling in to see the sights by bus, taxi or auto-rickshaw. There is some outstanding homestay accommodation in Kumbalanghi village.
Fort Cochin, the grid of old streets at the northwest tip of the peninsula, is where the Portuguese erected their first walled citadel, Fort Immanuel, which the Dutch East India Company later consolidated with a circle of well fortified ramparts. Only a few fragments of the former battlements remain (the outline of the old walls is traced by the district’s giant rain trees, some of which are more than two centuries old), but dozens of other evocative European-era monuments survive.
A good way to get to grips with Fort Cochin’s many-layered history is to pick up the free walking-tour maps produced by Kerala Tourism and the privately run Tourist Desk. They lead you around some of the district’s more significant landmarks, including the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, Vasco da Gama’s supposed house and several traders’ residences.