Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram (still widely known as Trivandrum), is set on seven low hills just a couple of kilometres inland from the Arabian Sea. Despite its administrative importance – demonstrated by wide roads, multi-storey office blocks and gleaming white colonial buildings – it’s an easy-going state capital by Indian standards, with enclaves of traditional red-tiled gabled houses breaking up the bustle of its modern concrete core, and a swathe of parkland spreading north of the centre.
The best travel tips for visiting Thiruvananthapuram
Although its principal sight, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, is closed to non-Hindus, the city holds enough interest to fill a day.
Foremost among its attractions is the splendid Puttan Malika Palace, one of the state’s best museums, and a typically Keralan market, Chalai Bazaar. Both the palace and bazaar are in the oldest and most interesting part of the city, the Fort area in the south.
At the opposite, northern side of the centre, the Sri Chitra Art Gallery and Napier Museum showcase painting, crafts and sculpture in a leafy park. In addition, schools specialising in the martial art kalarippayat and the dance/theatre forms of kathakali and kudiyattam offer an insight into the Keralan obsession with physical training and skill.
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Best things to do in Thiruvananthapuram
From visiting Temples and Palaces to strolling along Chalai Bazaar, here are the best things to do in Thiruvananthapuram.
#1 Visit Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, the richest place of worship in the world
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.
This vast complex of interlocking walled courtyards, shrines and ceremonial walkways in the south of the city graced the front pages of many newspapers across the world in June 2011 after 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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#2 Look for royal heirlooms 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.
#2 Visit the CVN Kalari Sangam
Around 500m southeast of the temple in East Fort, the redbrick CVN Kalari Sangam ranks among Kerala’s top kalarippayat gymnasiums.
It was founded in 1956 by C.V. Narayanan Nair, one of the legendary figures credited for the martial art’s revival, and attracts students from across the world. Every morning except Sunday you can watch fighting exercises in the sunken kalari pit that forms the heart of the complex.
Foreigners may join courses, arranged through the head teacher, or gurukkal, although prior experience of martial arts and/or dance is a prerequisite.
#3 Shop at the Chalai Bazaar
Thiruvananthapuram’s main source of fresh produce and everyday items is the kilometre-long Chalai Bazaar. It runs east from MG Road in East Fort, from opposite the main approach to the temple. Lined with little shops selling flowers, incense, spices, bell-metal lamps and fireworks, it’s a great area for aimless browsing.
#4 Watch authentic performances at Margi School
Thiruvananthapuram has for centuries been a crucible for Keralan classical arts, and the Margi School, at the western corner of the Fort area, is one of the foremost colleges for kathakali dance drama and the more rarely performed kudiyattam theatre form.
Most visitors venture out here to watch one of the authentic kathakali or kudiyattam performances staged once each month in its small theatre, details of which are posted on the school’s website.
To reach Margi, head to the SP Fort Hospital on the western edge of Fort and then continue 200m north; the school is set back from the west side of the main road in a large red-tiled and tin-roofed building, behind the High School (the sign is in Malayalam).
#5 Explore the Napier Museum
A minute’s walk east from the north end of MG Road, opposite Kerala Tourism’s information office, brings you to the entrance to Thiruvananthapuram’s public gardens. As well as serving as a welcome refuge from the noise of the city, the park holds the city’s best museums.
Give the dusty and uninformative Natural History Museum a miss and head instead for the more engaging Napier Museum. Built at the end of the nineteenth century, it was an early experiment in what became known as the “IndoSaracenic” style. This meant tiled, gabled roofs, garish red-, black- and salmon-patterned brickwork, and a spectacular interior of stained-glass windows and loud turquoise, pink, red and yellow stripes.
Highlights of the collection include fifteenth-century Keralan woodcarvings, terrifying Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) masks, a carved temple chariot (rath) and Chola and Vijayanagar bronzes.
#6 Visit the Sri Chitra Art Gallery of Thiruvananthapuram
You pass through the main ticket booth for the city’s depressing, faded zoo to reach the Sri Chitra Art Gallery, which shows paintings from the Rajput, Mughal and Tanjore Schools, along with pieces from China, Tibet and Japan.
The meat of the collection, though, is made up of works by the celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906), a local aristocrat who achieved fame and fortune as a producer of Hindu mythological prints – forerunners of India’s quirky calendar art.
Varma’s style was much criticised by later generations for its sentimentality and strong Western influence, but in his time he was regarded as the nation’s greatest living artist.
Also on view at the Sri Chitra, in rooms to the rear of the main building, are a couple of minor Tagores, and some striking, strongly coloured Himalayan landscapes by the Russian artist-philosopher and mystic, Nicholas
Best areas to stay in Thiruvananthapuram
From the tranquil beach retreat of Kovalam to the vibrant city centre and serene residential areas like Vellayambalam, here are some of the best areas to stay in Thiruvananthapuram.
Situated approximately 16 kilometres from the city centre of Thiruvananthapuram, Kovalam boasts a diverse range of accommodations, including beachfront resorts, budget guesthouses, and homestays.
Thiruvananthapuram city centre
Thiruvananthapuram city centre, also known as Palayam, is a vibrant area that provides convenient access to major attractions. It is home to a variety of hotels, catering to different budgets and preferences, including business hotels.
Although technically located in the neighbouring district of Thiruvananthapuram, Varkala is a sought-after beach town easily accessible from the city. It’s dotted with Swish resorts and some pokey hostels.
Browse the best hotels in Thiruvananthapuram.
Best restaurants and bars
Freshly cooked dosas, idli-vada-sambhar, biryanis and other traditional snacks are available at street-side cafés across Thiruvananthapuram, but there are plenty of restaurants to choose from.
This bustling street in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram has lots of dining options from simple street food to dress-up restaurants and cafes. A little out of town, the clifftop and beachfront restaurants of Kovalam serve lots of international food with knockout sea views.
This historic hood has a lively street food scene. Seek out its sambharam (buttermilk with chilli and ginger) stalls.
How to get around
From buses to auto-rickshaws it is easy to get around Thiruvananthapuram. Here’s how to do it.
Popular ride-sharing services like Uber and Ola operate in Thiruvananthapuram and are the best way to navigate the city. Metred cabs are also readily available.
Like taxis, auto-rickshaws are easily obtainable and are useful for shorter journeys.
Thiruvananthapuram has a well-developed public bus network operated covering most areas of the city. However, it’s often easier to take a taxi or a tut-tuk.
What is the best time to visit Thiruvananthapuram?
The best time to visit Thiruvananthapuram is during the winter months, from October to February. This period experiences pleasant weather with milder temperatures and lower humidity levels, making it ideal for exploring the city and engaging in outdoor activities. The days are usually sunny, and the evenings are pleasant.
The summer months, from March to May, are hot and humid in Thiruvananthapuram, with temperatures often exceeding 35°C (95°F). Monsoon season in Thiruvananthapuram is June to September and brings heavy rainfall to the region.
How many days do you need in Thiruvananthapuram?
You need spend at least two to three days in Thiruvananthapuram to explore the city’s major sights. This is enough time to visit Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the Napier Museum and Kuthiramalika Palace as well as a day at Kovalam Beach.
Spend four to five days in Thiruvananthapuram for the opportunity to visit the Kanakakkunnu Palace, Kerala Science and Technology Museum, Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, and take a day trip to places either Ponmudi Hill Station or Varkala Beach.
How to get here
The long-distance KSRTC Thampanoor bus station is opposite the railway station in the south-east of the city, within walking distance of most of the city’s budget accommodation.
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.
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