Some 76 km southeast of Kochi, Kottayam is a compact, busy Keralan town strategically located between the backwaters and the mountains of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The many rubber plantations around town, introduced by British missionaries in the 1820s, have for more than a century formed the bedrock of a booming local economy, most of it controlled by landed Syrian Christians.
The best travel tips for visiting Kottayam
Author Arundhati Roy grew up in nearby Ayemenem, the magical setting for her acclaimed novel The God of Small Things and part way towards vast Vembanad Lake, where the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary spreads across a cluster of islands.
Best things to do in Kottayam
From Kottaym’s thirteenth-century churches to the magnificent Mahadeva temple at Ettumanur, here are the best things to do in Kottayam.
#1 Check out Kottayam’s churches
The presence of two thirteenth-century churches on a hill 5 km northwest of the centre (accessible by auto-rickshaw) attests to the area’s deeply rooted Christian heritage.
Two eighth-century Nestorian stone crosses with Palavi and Syriac inscriptions, on either side of the elaborately decorated altar of the Valliapalli (“big”) church, are among the earliest solid traces of Christianity in India.
The visitors’ book contains entries from as far back as the 1890s, including one each from the Ethiopian king, Haile Selassie, and a British viceroy. The apse of the nearby Cheriapalli (“small”) church is covered with lively paintings, thought to have been executed by a Portuguese artist in the sixteenth century.
#2 Take a backwaters cruise at Kumarakom
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.
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.
There’s a paved walkway for a lot of the route, but it does get tricky in parts. The best time to visit is between November and May before the sun rises.
Rough Guides tip: make sure to check the best beaches in Kerala
#3 Visit the bizarre Bay Island Driftwood Museum
Birds, or representations of them, feature prominently in the area’s most bizarre visitor attraction, the Bay Island Driftwood Museum, just off the main road, in which lumps of driftwood sculpted by the sea are displayed in an idiosyncratic gallery.
#4 See some of Kerala’s best-kept mediaeval wall paintings at Ettumanur
Another possible 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 mediaeval wall paintings.
The most spectacular depicts Nataraja (Shiva) executing a cosmic tandava dance, trampling evil in the form of a demon underfoot.
Best areas to stay in Kottayam
From the tranquil backwaters of Kumarakom to the bustling city centre of Kottayam Town, there are diverse options to suit different preferences and provide a comfortable base for exploring the city and its surroundings.
Kottayam Town has a decent range of hotels, guesthouses and budget accommodation.
Located on the banks of Vembanad Lake, Kumarakom is a serene alternative to Kottayam. It also has better hotels and homestays than Kottayam itself.
Browse the best hotels in Kottayam.
Best restaurants and bars
Whilst it might not a culinary hotspot, there are plenty of good places to eat in Kottayam, especially South Indian and Punjabi restaurants.
There are numerous cheap Indian restaurants dotted around the bazaar area in Kottayam. The city centre of Kottayam is a bustling hub with numerous restaurants near Market Junction and along road 186.
On the outskirts of Kottayam, Kumaranalloor is dotted with Kerala restaurants where you can savour local delicacies like Karimeen pollichathu (pearl spot fish) and appam with stew.
How to get around
From buses to rickshaws it is easy to get around Kottayam, though once in the city centre you’re likely be walking. Here's how to do it.
Buses are the primary means of public transportation in Kottayam and connect various parts of the city with nearby areas. Tuk-tuks are readily available throughout Kottayam and are a great way of getting from the jetty or the train station into the centre of town.
Taxis can be hailed or pre-booked if you want something more comfortable or for longer journeys.
What is the best time to visit Kottayam?
The period from December to February is generally considered to be the best time to visit Kottayam, especially if you’re planning some beach time – the skies are blue and the humidity isn’t too fierce.
Visiting in December? Make sure to read our article about visiting Kerala in December
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.
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, but especially in the hill stations and backwater areas, where it’s not uncommon to pay upwards of ₹2000 for a room in a modest guesthouse.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How many days do you need in Kottayam?
You’ll need a minimum of 2 to 3 days for your visit to Kottayam. This will give you ample time to explore the city's main attractions and take a boat ride on Vembanad Lake before heading off into the Kerala backwaters. One a third day, you can marvel at the region's biodiversity with a visit to the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary.
For a spiritual experience, the Ettumanoor Mahadeva Temple is a must-visit destination known for its exquisite architecture and religious significance. Take your time to soak in the divine ambiance and witness the rituals and customs practised at the temple. To further enrich your stay, explore the enchanting backwaters of Kottayam, where you can sail through narrow canals, witness the traditional lifestyle of the locals, and relish the tranquillity of this unique ecosystem.
How to get here
The vast majority of visitors to Kottayam will arrive by train, though buses serve the town too.
Kottayam railway station, 2km north of the centre, sees a constant flow of traffic between Thiruvananthapuram and points north, including Ernakulam/Kochi. There’s a prepaid auto-rickshaw stand outside the main entrance.
Kottayam’s KSRTC bus stand, 500m south of the centre on TB Rd (not to be confused with the private stand for local buses on MC Rd), is an important stop on routes to and from major towns in south India.
Find out the best ways to get to India.