Spreading across islands 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 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 and India’s first European church are all close by.
The best travel tips for visiting Kochi
Old Kochi, the thumb-shaped peninsula whose northern tip presides over the entrance to the city’s harbour, formed the focus of European trading activities from the sixteenth century onwards.
With high-rise development restricted to Ernakulam across the water, its twin districts of Fort Cochin, in the west, and Mattancherry, on the headland’s eastern side, have preserved an extraordinary wealth of early colonial architecture, spanning the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras – a crop unparalleled in India.
As you approach by ferry, the waterfront, with its sloping red-tiled roofs and ranks of peeling, pastel coloured godowns (warehouses), offers a view that can have changed little in centuries. Closer up, however, Old Kochi’s historic patina has started to show some ugly cracks.
The spice trade that fuelled the town’s original rise is still very much in evidence. But over the past twenty years an extraordinary rise in visitor numbers has had a major impact.
Thousands of tourists pour through daily in winter, and with no planning or preservation authority to take control, the resulting rash of new building threatens to destroy the very atmosphere people come here to experience.
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Best things to do in Kochi
From the old quarter at Fort Cochin to the old district of red-tiled riverfront wharves at Mattancherry, here are the best things to do in Kochi.
#1 Explore the evocative, European-era Fort Cochin
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. 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.
#2 See the famous Chinese fishing nets
Probably the single most familiar photographic image of Kerala, the huge, elegant Chinese fishing nets lining the northern shore of Fort Cochin add grace to the waterfront view.
Traders from the court of Kublai Khan are said to have introduced them to the Malabar region. Known in Malayalam as cheena vala, they can also be seen throughout the backwaters further south.
The nets, which are suspended from poles and operated by levers and weights, require at least four men to control them. If you linger, the fishermen will beckon you over to help (for a small tip).
Rough Guides Tip: make sure to read all about the best beaches in Kerala
#3 Visit the Church of St Francis, the first church built by Europeans in India
South of the Chinese fishing nets on Church Road (the continuation of River Road) is the large, typically English Parade Ground. Overlooking it, the Church of St Francis was the first built by Europeans in India.
Its exact age is not known, though the stone structure is thought to date back to the early sixteenth century. The facade, meanwhile, became the model for most Christian churches in India.
Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524, but his body was later removed to Portugal. Under the Dutch, the church was renovated and became Protestant in 1663, then Anglican with the advent of the British in 1795.
Inside, the earliest of various tombstone inscriptions placed on the walls dates from 1562.
#4 Go antique shopping in Mattancherry
Mattancherry, the old district of red-tiled riverfront wharves and houses occupying the northeastern tip of the headland, was once the colonial capital’s main market area – the epicentre of the Malabar’s spice trade, and home to its wealthiest Jewish and Jain merchants.
Like Fort Cochin, its once grand buildings have lapsed into advanced states of disrepair, with most of their original owners working overseas.
When Mattancherry’s Jews emigrated en masse to Israel in the 1940s, their furniture and other un-portable heirlooms ended up in the antique shops for which the area is now renowned – though these days genuine pieces are few and far between.
#5 See inside the captivating Mattancherry Palace
The sight at the top of most itineraries is Mattancherry Palace, on the roadside a short walk from the Mattancherry Jetty, 1km or so southeast of Fort Cochin.
Known locally as the Dutch Palace, the two-storey building was actually erected by the Portuguese, as a gift to the raja of Cochin, Vira Keralavarma (1537–61) – though the Dutch did add to the complex.
While its squat exterior is not particularly striking, the interior is captivating, with some of the finest examples of Kerala’s underrated school of mural painting, along with Dutch maps of old Cochin, coronation robes belonging to past maharajas, royal palanquins, weapons and furniture.
#6 Go inside the Paradesi Synagogue
The neighbourhood immediately behind and to the south of Mattancherry Palace is known as Jew Town, home of a vestigial Jewish community whose place of worship is the Paradesi (White Jew) Synagogue.
Founded in 1568 and rebuilt in 1664, the building is best known for its interior, an incongruous hotchpotch paved with hand-painted eighteenth-century blue-and-white tiles from Canton.
An elaborately carved Ark houses four scrolls of the Torah, on which sit gold crowns presented by the maharajas of Travancore and Cochin, testifying to good relations with the Jewish community.
The synagogue’s oldest artefact is a fourth-century copperplate inscription from the raja of Cochin.
#7 Catch a Kathakali show in Kochi
Kochi is the only city in Kerala where you are guaranteed the chance to see live kathakali, the state’s unique form of ritualised theatre.
Whether in its authentic setting, in temple festivals held in winter, or at the shorter tourist-oriented shows that take place year round, these mesmerising dance dramas – depicting the struggles of gods and demons – are an unmissable feature of Kochi’s cultural life.
Among the most magical experiences a visitor to Kerala can have is to witness one of the innumerable ancient drama rituals that play such an important role in the cultural life of the region.
Kathakali is the best known; other less publicised forms, which clearly influenced its development, include the classical Sanskrit kudiyattam. Many Keralan forms share broad characteristics.
A prime aim of each performer is to transform the mundane into the world of gods and demons; his preparation is highly ritualised, involving otherworldly costume and mask-like make-up.
#8 Kerala Folklore Museum
Ernakulam’s one outstanding visitor attraction is the Kerala Folklore Museum, on the distant southeast fringes of the city. The collection of antiques is housed in a multi-storey laterite building. The building is encrusted with traditional wood- and tile-work.
The collection includes dance-drama masks and costumes, ritual paraphernalia, musical instruments, pieces of temple architecture, 3000-year-old burial urns, cooking utensils, portraits, and ancestral photographs. All of these categories were amassed by George Thaliyath, the founder and an avid antiques collector.
Its crowning glory is an exquisitely decorated theatre on the top floor, decorated with swirling Keralan temple murals and dark wooden pillars. It’s only open for exclusive, prearranged kathakali performances.
#9 Take a backwater trip around Kochi
Coir-production, rope-making, toddy-tapping, fishing and crab-farming are the main sources of income in the backwater villages south of Kochi. Easily reachable via the national highway, they’re scattered over an expanse of huge lagoons and canals, flowing west behind a near-continuous beach.
You can dip into the region for a day on one of the popular trips run out of Fort Cochin by KTDC, or with a community-based tourism initiative based at Kumbalanghi village – an award-winning project where proceeds are shared among the locals.
The trip is most easily done by auto-rickshaw; if travelling by bus, head for Perumamapadappu, aka “Perumbadapu” on Google maps, and catch an auto from there for the remaining couple of kilometres.
#10 Check out Thripunitra
Some 12km southeast of Ernakulam and a short bus or auto-rickshaw ride from the bus stand just south of Jos Junction on MG Road, the small suburban town of Thripunitra is worth a visit for its dilapidated colonial-style Hill Palace, now an eclectic museum, as well as its fabulous temple festival, held in October or November.
#11 Chill out at Cherai Beach
The closest beach to Kochi worth the effort of getting to is Cherai, 25km north on Vypeen Island. A 3km strip of golden sand and thumping surf, it’s sandwiched on a narrow strip of land between the sea and a very pretty backwater area of glassy lagoons.
Chunky granite sea defences prevent the waves from engulfing the ribbon of fishing villages that subsist along this strip. Nowhere, however, is the sand more than a few metres wide at high tide, and the undertow can get quite strong.
Even so, Cherai is gaining in popularity each year, and a row of small resorts and guesthouses has sprung up to accommodate the trickle of mainly foreign travellers who find their way up here from Fort Cochin.
Best areas to stay in Kochi
The vast majority of travellers will stay at Fort Cochin, however, Ernakulam is a well-connected alternative should you need to arrive late at night.
Most foreign visitors opt to stay in Fort Cochin, with its uncongested backstreets and charming colonial-era architecture. There are, however, drawbacks: room rates are grossly inflated (especially over Christmas and New Year), with few options at the budget end of the scale.
Ernakulam may suffer a dearth of historic ambience, but it’s far more convenient for travel connections and offers lots of choices and better value in all categories. Wherever you choose to stay, book well in advance.
Browse the best hotels in Kochi.
Best restaurants and bars
Foreign tourists tend to congregate at the pavement joints along Tower Rd near the Chinese fishing nets, drinking warm beer disguised in teapots. Your rupees will stretch further in Ernakulam, where you’ll find some of the best traditional food in all south India.
Fort Kochi is a popular area with a vibrant food scene. You'll find a variety of restaurants and cafes serving both local Kerala cuisine and international dishes. The area is known for its seafood specialties and charming streets lined with dining establishments.
Located in the heart of Kochi, MG Road is a bustling commercial area with numerous restaurants, cafes, and bars. It offers a diverse range of culinary options, including Indian, Chinese, Continental, and fast food.
Marine Drive is a waterfront promenade that offers a range of restaurants and cafes. With its scenic views of the backwaters, it's a popular spot to unwind and enjoy a meal or a drink.
Broadway is a bustling market area in Kochi known for its street food stalls and local eateries. From traditional dosas and idlis to local sweets, it's a great place to sample authentic Kerala snacks.
How to get around
From catching a ferry to cycling around the city, it is easy to navigate Kochi. Here’s how to do it.
Kochi’s dilapidated ferries provide a cheap and relaxing way to reach the various parts of the city. The most popular route for visitors is the one connecting Ernakulam’s Main Boat Jetty and Fort Cochin/Mattancherry’s Customs Jetty.
KSRTC is in the process of upgrading its ageing fleet with new, state-of-the-art, low-floored Volvo buses, coloured bright green or orange. The new vehicles – used on prime routes such as the run between Fort Cochin and the airport – are cleaner and more comfortable. But there remain plenty of the old rust buckets in circulation and they’re invariably crammed to bursting point. Frequent services run throughout the day between Ernakulam and Fort Cochin, though the ferry is a lot more enjoyable.
Bicycles can be rented from many hotels and guesthouses in Fort Cochin.
What is the best time to visit Kochi?
The best time to visit Kochi is during the winter months of December to February. This period offers the most comfortable weather conditions with temperatures ranging from 23°C to 32°C (73°F to 90°F).
Visiting in December? Make sure to read our article about visiting Kerala in December
The winter season in Kochi is characterized by pleasant temperatures, lower humidity, and relatively dry weather, making it ideal for exploring the city and its attractions.
During this time, you can enjoy visiting popular landmarks such as Fort Kochi, the iconic Chinese Fishing Nets, Mattancherry Palace, and St. Francis Church. The weather is conducive to exploring the vibrant streets, experiencing the local culture, and indulging in the diverse culinary scene that Kochi has to offer.
It's important to note that Kochi experiences a tropical climate throughout the year, with high humidity and occasional rainfall. The monsoon season, which occurs from June to September, brings heavy rains to the region. While the monsoon can create a lush and green atmosphere, it may limit outdoor activities and sightseeing opportunities due to the rainfall.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How many days do you need in Kochi?
Aim to spend at least two to three days in Kochi. Allocate the first day to exploring the historic district of Fort Kochi, wander through the atmospheric lanes and admiring the gorgeous coastline.
Additionally, explore the Mattancherry neighborhood, where you can visit the intriguing Mattancherry Palace, also known as the Dutch Palace, showcasing beautiful murals and artifacts depicting the history of the region.
On the second day, you can delve further into Kochi's history and culture. Take a ferry ride to visit the Bolgatty Palace, a former Dutch mansion now converted into a heritage hotel, offering glimpses of the colonial era.
Explore the area around the Jewish Synagogue, which comes to life with spice markets and antique shops. In the evening, indulge in some fresh seafood.
If you have an additional day, consider exploring the nearby backwaters of Kochi. Take a day trip to the scenic village of Alleppey (Alappuzha) and embark on a mesmerizing houseboat cruise through the backwaters.
This experience allows you to witness the tranquil beauty of Kerala's interconnected canals, paddy fields, and coconut groves.
How to get here
Kochi’s international airport, one of India’s most modern and efficient – is at Nedumbassery, near Alwaye (aka Alua), 29 km north of Ernakulam.
Modern, comfortable a/c airbuses also cover the route more or less hourly, running to Fort Cochin.
There are two main railway stations: Ernakulam Junction, near the centre; and Ernakulam Town, 2 km further north. The Cochin Harbour Terminus, on Willingdon Island, serves the island’s luxury hotels.
Ernakulam Town lies on Kerala’s main broad-gauge line and sees frequent services to and from Thiruvananthapuram via Kottayam, Kollam and Varkala. In the opposite direction, trains connect Ernakulam and Thrissur, and Chennai across the Ghats in Tamil Nadu.
The KSRTC Central bus stand, beside the railway line east of MG Rd and north of Ernakulam Junction, is for state-run long-distance services.
There are also two stands for pricier private services: The Fort Cochin bus terminus serves tourist buses, local services to Ernakulam and the airport bus.
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