Kerala, India

The state of Kerala stretches for 550 km along India’s southwest coast, divided between the densely forested mountains of the Western Ghats inland and a lush, humid coastal plain of rice paddy, lagoons, rivers and canals. Its intensely tropical landscape, fed by the highest rainfall in peninsular India, has intoxicated visitors since the ancient Sumerians and Greeks sailed in search of spices to the shore known as the Malabar Coast. Equally, Kerala’s arcane rituals and spectacular festivals – many of them little-changed since the earliest era of Brahmanical Hinduism – have dazzled outsiders for thousands of years.

The best travel tips for visiting Kerala

Travellers weary of India’s daunting metropolises will find Kerala’s cities smaller and more relaxed. The most popular is undoubtedly the great port of Kochi (Cochin), where the state’s long history of peaceful foreign contact is evocatively evident in the atmospheric old quarters of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin.

In Kerala’s far south, the capital, Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), is gateway to the nearby palm-fringed beaches of Kovalam and Varkala, and provides visitors with varied opportunities to sample Kerala’s rich cultural and artistic life.

One of the best aspects of exploring Kerala, though, is the actual travelling – especially by boat, in the spellbinding Kuttanad region, around historic Kollam (Quilon) and Alappuzha (Alleppey); travellers are increasingly setting out from Kumarakom too.

Cruisers and beautiful wooden barges known as kettu vallam (“tied boats”) ply the backwaters, offering tourists a window on village life in India’s most densely populated state. Furthermore, it’s easy to escape the heat of the lowlands by heading for the hills, which rise to 2695m.

Roads pass through landscapes dotted with churches and temples, tea, coffee, spice and rubber plantations, and natural forests, en route to wildlife reserves such as Periyar, where herds of mud-caked elephants roam freely in vast tracts of jungle.

RoughGuides tip: Planning a trip to India? Perhaps our local experts in India can help you!

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Kerala backwaters © Shutterstock

Best things to do in Kerala

From the chilled-out clifftop town of Varkala to hiking around the tea plantations and grassy mountains of Munnar, here’s what to do in Kerala.

#1 Chill out at Varkala

Devout Hindus have for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years travelled to Varkala , 54 km north up the coast from Thiruvananthapuram, to scatter ashes of recently-deceased relatives on Papanasam beach.

The beach, 4 km from Varkala town itself, is dramatically set against a backdrop of superb, burnt-clay-coloured cliffs, which, coupled with comparatively low-key development, makes this a more appealing place to spend a beach holiday than Kovalam.

Tightly crammed along the rim of crumbling North Cliff, its row of restaurants and small hotels stare out across a vast sweep of ocean – a view that can seem almost transcendental after sunset, when a myriad tiny fishing boats light up their lanterns.

Rough Guides Tip: make sure to read all about the best beaches in Kerala

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Varkala beach, India © Shutterstock

#2 Explore the beautiful waterways of Kerala

One of the most memorable experiences for travellers in India is the opportunity to take a boat journey on the backwaters of Kerala. The area known as Kuttanad stretches for 75 km from Kollam in the south to Kochi in the north, sandwiched between the sea and the hills.

This bewildering labyrinth of shimmering waterways, composed of lakes, canals, rivers and rivulets, is lined with dense tropical greenery and preserves rural Keralan lifestyles that are completely hidden from the road.

The region’s bucolic way of life has long fascinated visitors. And the ever-entrepreneurial Keralans were quick to spot its potential as a visitor destination – particularly tourists willing to pay to explore the area aboard converted rice barges (kettu vallam).

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the houseboat tour industry has grown exponentially in size and sophistication, bringing with it major environmental drawbacks as well as increased prosperity.

best places to go with kids Kerala backwaters houseboat, India

Kerala backwaters © Shutterstock

#3 Go hiking around Munnar

The tea plantations, grassy mountains and dazzling viewpoints around Munnar are the perfect antidote to the heat and humidity of the coast.

Although south India’s highest peak, Ana Mudi, is off-limits due to the Nilgiri tahr conservation programme several of the other summits towering above Munnar can be reached on day-treks.

The hiking scene is surprisingly undeveloped and it makes sense to use the services of a guide, particularly for Meesapulimalai Peak (2640m), which can be accessed from Silent Valley or Kolukkumalai estates and could easily be incorporated into a multiday excursion. Always check whether transport to and from the trailhead is included.

Munnar landscae in Kerala, India © Shutterstock

Munnar - Kerala, India © Shutterstock

#4 Take a free walking tour around Fort Cochin

Dutch, Portuguese, British and traditional Keralan townhouses line the backstreets of Malabar’s old peninsular port. See the fisherman hauling their catch at sunrise and take in a performance of kathakali – elaborately costumed ritual theatre.

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 bythe district’s giant rain trees, some of which are more than two centuries old), but dozens of other evocative European-era monuments survive.

Get to grips with Fort Cochin’s many-layered history by picking up a free walking-tour map. It leads you around the district’s more significant landmarks, including the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, Vasco da Gama’s supposed house and several traders’ residences.

#5 Witness dramatic spirit-possession ceremonies at temples in northern Malabar

Parades of extravagantly decorated elephants, backed by drummers and fireworks, form the focal point of Kerala’s Hindu festivals, among them Thrissur’s famed Puram; you can also see intimate (theyyem) spirit possession rituals in the north.

Theyyem (or theyyam) – the dramatic spirit-possession ceremonies held at village shrines throughout the northern Malabar region in the winter – rank among Kerala’s most extraordinary spectacles.

More than four hundred different manifestations of this arcane ritual exist in the area around Kannur alone, each with its own distinctive costumes, elaborate jewellery, body paints, face make-up and, above all, gigantic headdresses (mudi).

Unlike in kathakali and kudiyattam, where actors impersonate goddesses or gods, here the performers actually become the deity being invoked, acquiring their magical powers. These allow them to perform superhuman feats, such as rolling in hot ashes or dancing with a crown that rises to the height of a coconut tree.

Rough Guides Tip: make sure to read all about the best temples in Kerala

#6 Explore the isolated mountain region of Wayanad

The seven mountains encircling the hill district of Wayanad, 70 km inland from Kozhikode, enfold some of the most dramatic scenery in all of south India.

With landscapes varying from semi-tropical savanna to misty tea and coffee plantations, and steep slopes that rise through dense forest to distinctive, angular summits of exposed grassland, the region ranges over altitudes of between 750m and 2100m. Even at the base of the plateau, scattered with typically ramshackle Indian hill bazaars, it’s cooler than down on the plains.

The main Mysuru–Kozhikode highway, NH-17, slices through Wayanad. Since the late 1990s, it has been the source of new income in the form of overstressed dot-com executives and their families from Bengaluru and Delhi, with numerous high-end resorts, eco-hideaways and plantation stays springing up to service the screen-weary. The Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is also one of the best places in India to spot wild elephants.

Wayanad, India

Wayanad, India © Shutterstock

#7 Visit the iconic Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram

Padmanabha, the god Vishnu reclined on a coiled serpent with a lotus flower sprouting from his belly button, is the presiding deity of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, a vast complex of interlocking walled courtyards, shrines and ceremonial walkways in the south of the city.

The iconic image of the temple’s seven-tiered, Tamil-style gopura gateway, reflected in the waters of the adjacent bathing tank, graced the front pages of many newspapers across the world in June 2011 when it was discovered that a vast horde of treasure had been discovered in vaults below its inner sanctum.

Sealed inside the secret chambers were sacks of diamonds, a thousand kilograms of gold, thousands of pieces of gem-encrusted jewellery and, the pièce de résistance, an exquisite 1m-tall gold image of Vishnu shimmering with precious stones. Experts are still debating the value of the items, with estimates ranging from US$40–200 billion. Either way, the find makes this by far the richest place of worship in the world. Non-Hindus are unfortunately not permitted inside

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Thiruvananthapuram, India © Shutterstock

#8 Take in the wonderful Puttan Malika Palace

The Puttan Malika Palace, immediately southeast of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, became the seat of the Travancore rajas after they left Padmanabhapuram at the end of the nineteenth century. The cool chambers, with highly polished plaster floors and delicately carved wooden screens, house a crop of dusty royal heirlooms, including a solid crystal throne gifted by the Dutch.

The real highlight, however, is the elegant Keralan architecture itself. Beneath sloping red-tiled roofs, hundreds of wooden pillars, carved into the forms of rampant horses (puttan malika translates as “horse palace”), prop up the eaves, and airy verandas project onto the surrounding lawns.

The royal family have always been keen patrons of the arts, and the Swathi Sangeetotsavam festival, held in the grounds in January, continues this tradition.

#9 Relax on Kovalam's beaches

Kovalam consists of four coves, each with markedly different characters. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour to walk from one end of them to the other, but there’s no shortage of potential pit stops along the way to restore your energies.

The largest and most developed cove at Kovalam, known for obvious reasons as Lighthouse Beach, is where most foreign tourists congregate. The bay is overlooked by the eponymous lighthouse at the southern end. You can scale the 142 spiral steps and twelve ladder rungs to the observation platform for a fine view.

A small rocky headland divides Lighthouse Beach from Hawah Beach (or Eve’s Beach) – almost a mirror image of its busier neighbour, although backed for most of its length by empty palm groves.

Kovalam Beach, the third of the coves, is dominated from on high by the angular chalets of the five-star Leela resort. Coachloads of excited Keralan day-trippers descend here on weekends.

The most northerly of Kovalam’s quartet, Samudra Beach was until recently a European package-tourist stronghold.

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Kovalam Beach ©Shutterstock

#10 Or join the devotees on Papanasam beach

Known in Malayalam as Papa Nashini (“sin destroyer”), Varkala’s beautiful white-sand Papanasam beach (also known just as Varkala beach) has long been associated with ancestor worship. Devotees come here after praying at the ancient Janardhana Swamy Temple on the hill to the south, then perform mortuary rituals on the beach, directed by specialist pujaris (priests).

The best time to watch the rites is in the early morning, just after sunrise – though out of respect, it’s best to keep your camera in your bag. Western sun-worshippers keep to the northern end of the bay, where whistle-happy lifeguards ensure the safety of swimmers by enforcing the no-swim zones beyond the flags: the undercurrent is often strong, claiming lives every year.

Dolphins are often seen swimming quite close to the coast, and, if you’re lucky, you may be able to swim with them by arranging a ride with a fishing boat.

A beautiful landscape with a house in the seashore of Papanasam Beach, Varkala, India © Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

Seashore of Papanasam Beach, India © Shutterstock

#11 Have a nose around the Old British Residency

Of the few surviving colonial vestiges, the only one worth a detour is the former British Residency, a magnificent 250-year-old mansion on the shores of the lake, now only open for official events. Among the last monuments surviving in India from the earliest days of the Raj, it perfectly epitomizes the openness to indigenous influences that characterized the era, with typically Keralan gable roofs surmounting British pillared verandas.

There are no set visiting hours – just turn up and ask the manager if you can have a look around.

#12 Take a backwater cruise from Kollam

DTPC run popular cruises from Kollam to Alappuzha on alternate days, with stops for lunch and tea. Tickets can be bought on the day from their tourist office at the boat jetty on Ashtamudi Lake, and at some of the hotels. They also offer exclusive overnight kettu vallam cruises, and half-day canal trips to nearby Monroe Island, as well as guided village tours taking in Ayurveda factories, coirmakers, boat-builders and bird-nesting sites.

You may find that you get a far better impression of backwater life by hopping between villages on the very cheap local ferries. DTPC have timetables and route information; tickets are sold on the boats themselves.

#13 Listen to the sound of songbirds at Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary

A twenty-minute bus ride west of Kottayam brings you to the shores of Vembanad Lake, where the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary forms the focus of a line of ultra-luxurious resorts on the water’s edge.

A backwaters cruise hereabouts is a much better bet for peace and quiet than in Alappuzha or Kollam, although you will have to pay a little more if you want to arrange things from here: your hotel or homestay will be able to help.

The small Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary in the wetlands is a good place to spot domestic and migratory birds such as egrets, osprey, flycatchers and racket-tail drongos, as well as glimpses of otters and turtles in the water.

Common Kingfisher, (Alcedo atthis), male perched with a fish, Snettisham RSPB Reserve, Norfolk @ tony mills/Shutterstock

Kumarakom kingfisher © Shutterstock

#14 See some of Kerala’s most celebrated medieval wall paintings at Ettumanur

A day-trip from Kottayam is the magnificent Mahadeva (Shiva) temple at Ettumanur, on the road to Ernakulam, whose entrance porch holds some of Kerala’s most celebrated medieval wall paintings. The most spectacular depicts Nataraja (Shiva) executing a cosmic tandava dance, trampling evil in the form of a demon underfoot.

Rough Guides tip: make sure to visit one of these waterfalls in Kerala

#15 Explore one of the largest national parks in India

One of the largest national parks in India, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary (also known as the Periyar Tiger Reserve) occupies 925 square kilometres of the Cardamom Hills region of the Western Ghats. The majority of its visitors come in the hope of seeing wild elephants – or even a rare glimpse of a tiger – grazing the shores of the reservoir at the heart of the reserve.

Daily safari boats ferry day-trippers around this sprawling, labyrinthine lake, where sightings are most likely at the height of the dry season in April. However, for the rest of the year, wildlife is less abundant than you might expect given Periyar’s overwhelming popularity.

Periyar Park National, India © Shutterstock

Periyar National Park, India © Shutterstock

Best places to stay in Kerala

Kerala has an extensive range of accommodation, much of it of very high quality. Look out for heritage hotels, a good hostel scene as well as family-run guesthouses.

Kochi (Cochin)

Historical Kochi has numerous accommodation options and serves as a convenient base to explore the surrounding attractions. From scores of excellent homestays to luxury palaces-turned-hotels, the choice seems endless.

Fort Kochin

This European-esque city is renowned for its wide choice of homestays and heritage accommodation. The hostels aren’t bad either.

Munnar

This popular hill station is a great place to get away from it all and the town has lots of guesthouses and homestays to pick from.

Alleppey (Alappuzha)

Famous for its backwaters, Alleppey is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the East’ and staying on a traditional houseboat here is one of Southern India’s greatest experiences.

Kumarakom

Located near Vembanad Lake, Kumarakom is another prominent backwater destination in Kerala that has a wide choice of houseboat options.

Wayanad

There are some basic bed-only spots amongst the forests and national park in Wayanad.

Kovalam

Situated along the coast of the Arabian Sea, Kovalam is a famous beach destination with humorous hostels and hotels.

Browse the places to stay in Kerala.

How to get around

Most travellers will navigate Kerela using trains and buses, though a trip through the backwaters on a boat is an essential experience in the state too.

By train

Kerala has an extensive railway network that connects major cities and towns within the state and also provides connectivity to other parts of India.

By taxi

Taxis, both regular and app-based services like Uber and Ola, are available in cities and can be hired for local travel or day trips.

By auto-rickshaw

Found in every town and city, auto-rickshaws are ideal for shorter distances and can be easily found near bus stands, railway stations, and popular tourist spots.

By bus

Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) operates a comprehensive bus service connecting various towns and cities within the state. It is an affordable option and covers most major destinations.

By boat

Since Kerala is known for its backwaters, travelling by boat is a unique experience in areas like Alleppey, Kumarakom, and Kochi.

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Kovalam's beach © Shutterstock

How many days do you need in Kerala?

To get a well-rounded experience of Kerala, you’ll need a minimum of 7 to 10. This allows you to visit popular destinations such as Kochi (Cochin), Munnar, Alleppey (Alappuzha), Thekkady, and Kovalam. However, if you have more time, you can extend your stay and explore additional places such as Wayanad, Varkala, Kumarakom, and Thrissur.

Keep in mind that Kerala has a diverse landscape and various attractions, so the number of days needed may vary based on your preferences and the pace at which you prefer to travel. It's also worth considering whether you want to participate in activities like Ayurvedic treatments, houseboat cruises, or cultural performances, as these may require additional time.

Looking for inspiration for your trip? Check our India itineraries.

What is the best time to visit?

The period from December to February is generally considered to be the best time to visit Kerala, especially if you’re planning some beach time – the skies are blue and the humidity isn’t too fierce. From March the heat builds up until the skies open in June for the state’s first monsoon, which lasts until August and is more intense than October’s “retreating” monsoon.

Visiting in December? Make sure to read our article about visiting Kerala in December

A word of warning, however, for budget travellers. Kerala’s accommodation is pricey (though it tends to be of a high standard) and in high season cheap places to stay are thin on the ground everywhere. March, April and May are good months to negotiate discounts and the best time to hike in the cooler climes of the Western Ghats

Find out more about the best time to visit India.

Festivals in Kerala

Huge amounts of money are lavished upon many, varied, and often all-night festivals associated with Kerala’s temples. Fireworks rend the air, while processions of caparisoned elephants are accompanied by some of the loudest (and deftest) drum orchestras in the world. Thrissur’s famous Puram festival is the most astonishing, but smaller events take place throughout the state, with everyone welcome to attend.

Between December and March it’s possible to spend weeks hopping between village theyyems in northern Kerala, experiencing rituals little altered in centuries. The snake boat races in June, August and September are an incredible sight, while Christmas sees paper lanterns and fairy lights decorating homes and churches. Kerala’s Hindu festivals are fixed according to the Malayalam Calendar, so dates change from year to year – see keralatourism.org.

  • Swathi Sangeetotsavam (Jan)
  • Maha Shivrati (Usually early March; the moonless night)
  • Vishu (Mid-April)
  • Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race (Second Sat in Aug)
  • Onam (Ten days in Aug or Sept)

How to get here

By plane

Connected to most major Indian cities, Beemapalli airport lies 6 km southwest of Thiruvananthapuram and receives plenty of daily flights.

By bus

The long-distance KSRTC Thampanoor bus station is opposite the railway station in the south-east of Thiruvananthapuram, within walking distance of most of the city’s budget accommodation. Numerous private bus companies also run interstate service.

By train

Kerala’s capital is well connected by train with other towns and cities. Although you can buy a ticket just before departure, getting seats at short notice on long-haul journeys can be a problem, so make reservations as far in advance as possible from the efficient computerised booking office at the station.

Find out the best ways to get to India.

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Andy Turner

written by Andy Turner

updated 18.06.2023

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