18 Best Things to Do in Kerala, India

Man performing Kathakali dance, Kochi, Kerala

Exotica.im / Getty Images

Kerala, a tropical state located along India's Malabar Coast, is among the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Its distinctive culture and extremely picturesque setting—which contrasts with the fast-paced modern world—make Kerala an indulgent place to go to relax in a way that's similar to other destinations like Bali and Tahiti. There's no shortage of things to do should you grow bored of your beachside slumber—attend a traditional Kathakali dance performance, cruise the backwaters on a houseboat, or take an afternoon to go tea tasting.

Not sure when to visit Kerala? This part of India has something to offer all year round, although the weather does need to be taken into account—the climate is a hot, tropical one that receives rainfall from two monsoons.

01 of 18

Get Outdoors at Eravikulam National Park

Eravikulam National Park in Kerala, India

Anup Shah / Getty Images

Munnar, Kerala 685612, India
Phone +91 4865 231 587

Eravikulam National Park is perhaps known best as being as a sacred sanctuary home of the Nilgiri Tahr, pictured above, as well as the Neelakurinji flowers, which bloom here every 12 years. With 97 square kilometers to spread out in, there's plenty of breathing room for visitors looking to go hiking and escape the hustle and bustle of India's cities. Keep in mind the park closes each February and March to allow for the Nilgiri Tahr's calving season, so plan your trip accordingly.

02 of 18

Float Down Kerala's Mighty Rivers on a Raft

River Rafting in Kerala, India

Balan Madhavan / Getty Images

Wayanad, Kerala, India

For a uniquely regional experience, head to Wayanad for the chance to float down the Pozhuthana River on a traditionally crafted bamboo raft—the bamboo is grown in the forests nearby and the river is shallow and calm in this part of Kerala. Another good place to try this is along the Periyar River or the Kabini River near Kuruva Island.

For something a little more action-packed, try your hand at whitewater river rafting in other parts of Kerala, namely Kannur, Chalipuzha, Iruvanjhipuzha, and along the Paneli River in Boothathankettu.

03 of 18

Check Out Munnar's Tea Estates and Gardens

Tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala, India

Peter Zelei Images / Getty Images

J38Q+98P, Kalpetta Bypass Rd, Gudalai, Kairali Nagar, Kalpetta, Kerala 673122, India

Thanks to Kerala's warm, humid climate, and the amount of rain it gets each year, Munnar has been a major center for commercial tea production since 1875—and you can actually visit some of the plantations where it's still being harvested today. Learn all about the tea-making process at the Tata Tea Museum, located on the Nallathanni Estate, or venture out to tour the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, which claims to be the highest elevation tea plantation in the world at an altitude of 7,000 feet above sea level.

04 of 18

Take a Scenic Train Ride Through Kerala

A train in Kerala, India

Scott Biales / Getty Images

X7RP+QFF, Xavier Arakkal Rd, Ernakulam North, Kacheripady, Kochi, Kerala 682018, India

If you have the chance to do one epic train ride during your trip to India, make it the Ernakulam-Kollam-Trivandrum route through Kerala. It's one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, offering scenic views of the Kerala countryside, and all the coconut trees, paddy fields, lakes, and backwaters that go along with it.

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05 of 18

Cruise the Backwaters on a Houseboat

South India, Kerala, Backwaters, Kettuvalum (houseboat)

Pierre Cheuva / Photononstop / Getty Images

Chungam, Alappuzha, Kerala 688011, India

A trip to Kerala is not complete without experiencing the Kerala backwaters—the lush palm-fringed landscape, diverse wildlife, and houses and villages lining them make a houseboat cruise here seem like a journey to another world. It's a tranquil endeavor, for sure, one that can even be part of a memorable romantic getaway.

For a real treat, book a hotel or homestay along the route to immerse yourself in the culture that surrounds these inland lagoons, lakes, and waterways, and to enjoy a meal with a local family while learning about their life story. Kumbalanghi Village Tours offers group tours to Kumbalanghi, an area surrounded by paddy fields on the outskirts of Kochi. Here, you'll be able to see India's first model fishery and tourism village and engage with the residents, who make their living off of agriculture and fishing.

06 of 18

Relax With an Ayurvedic Treatment or Tea Tasting

Young woman getting a Kizhi treatment

Visage / Getty Images

15 Steel Rd, Berea, Durban, 4001, South Africa
Phone +27 31 303 7200

Ayurveda, an ancient Indian healing tradition that's over 5,000 years old, combines lifestyle practices with yoga and healthy eating. Many Ayurvedic spas and resorts are located in Kerala due to its warm climate and the abundant supply of medicinal plants. A trip to a healing center can involve a week's stay and detox (called panchakarma), where the liver is purged and the body becomes renewed. Alternatively, book any one of their offered treatments, like an oil massage or Shirodhara, a relaxing treatment that involves dripping warm oil onto the forehead that's used to treat insomnia, tinnitus, neurological disorders, and psoriasis.

Tea production is also a big business in Kerala, and the state holds some of the top tea plantations in India in Munnar and Wayanad. Stay in typical atmospheric accommodations on a serene tea plantation—you can even book a treehouse—then, check out the surrounding hills with daily hikes topped off with tea tastings. Stop by the Tea Museum at the Kanan Devan Hills Nallathanni Estate in Munnar to get a peek inside the history of tea production in the region.

07 of 18

Enroll in a Cooking Lesson

Kerala cuisine, served on a banana leaf.

David Sanger / Getty Images

Kerala, India

Kerala is renowned for its delicious cuisine, featuring regional delicacies like seafood and coconuts. And sure, simply feasting on this Indian fare is delightful, but learning how to cook it is rewarding and gives you a skill you can bring back home. Enroll in a cooking class or even plan your trip around it by booking a two or three-day residency program that involves cooking courses and Ayurvedic treatments. You can also go casual for a more intimate experience and learn how to cook with a local family.

08 of 18

Catch a Kathakali Performance

Kathakali performer

Kimberley Coole / Getty Images

KB Jacob Rd, Fort Kochi, Kochi, Kerala 682001, India
Phone +91 484 235 6366

Kathakali is a very unusual and ancient form of dance-drama that's traditional to Kerala, and you won't get to see performers dressed up like this every day. The elaborate costumes and subtle dance movements tell a meaningful Hindu mythological story. Performers undergo intense training, including hours of eye exercises, when learning the art of Kathakali. Stop by the Cochin Cultural Center or the Kerala Kathakali Center to see a performance, or arrange a private tour of Kochi that culminates with a Kathakali dance performance.

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09 of 18

Catch a Theyyam Ritual in Action

Theyyam performer

Kerala Tourism

Kannur, Kerala, India

The small town of Kannur, once an ancient trading port in northern Kerala, boasts secluded beaches, elaborate handloom weaving crafts, and mysteriously masked theyyam rituals. This practice encompasses dance, music, and mime art to bring to life the rich stories of the state of Kerala. The theyyam art form actually has a season, too, running from November until May. Kerala Tourism provides a comprehensive calendar of theyyam events or you can try taking an overnight guided theyyam tour from Kannur.

10 of 18

Watch the Martial Art Form of Kalaripayattu

Kerala martial arts display

Kerala Tourism

Kumily Thekkady Rd, Thekkady, Kumily, Kerala 685509, India
Phone +91 99617 40868

Kalaripayattu is an ancient martial art form practiced in Kerala—featuring strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry, and even healing methods, its roots can be traced back to 2000 B.C. Attend a 60-minute fighting demonstration that includes the lighting of traditional lamps, a flower offering to a deity, and a brief introduction of the sport. With the incorporation of about 27 different weapons, there's no shortage of excitement. Catch a performance at the Kadathanadan Kalari Centre in Thekkady or book a group tour from Kochi.

11 of 18

Watch a Snake Boat Race

Snake boat race in Kerala

Jagdish Agarwal / Getty Images

Kerala, India

Every year during the monsoon season, Kerala comes alive with colorful snake boat races, where 140-foot-long canoe-like boats holding 110 rowers each get together to race along the inland waterways. Villages have their own snake boats, each featuring varying sizes and styles. Both the building of the boats and the celebratory event itself are unique parts of a culture that joins the community with the water. Today, snake boat races can be compared to an Olympic event, complete with leagues and scheduled tournaments.

12 of 18

Try Some Toddy

Toddy tapping in Kerala

TripSavvy / Sharell Cook

Kerala, India

Toddy, or palm wine, Kerala's Indigenous alcoholic drink, is made from the sap of palm trees, collected from a coconut palm by a tapper who climbs the tree and drains it into a container. When fermented, this sweet nectar, turns slightly tart and has a bit of a kick. Toddy (traditionally called kallu) is served in small thatched shops, usually with wooden benches, all over Kerala. Inside, you'll find tasty local cuisine dished up alongside the toddy, and, as they say, "the hotter the food, the more you need to drink."

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13 of 18

Explore Historic Fort Kochi

Chinese fishing nets in Kochi

Chris Caldicott / Getty Images

Fort Kochi, Kochi, Kerala, India

Known as the "Gateway to Kerala," Kochi is an enchanting city with an eclectic influence, and Arabian, British, Dutch, Chinese, and Portuguese cultures all have left their mark here. The architecture and historical sites in Fort Kochi draw most of the visitors to the area. Explore Fort Kochi and its Chinese fishing nets, Jewish Synagogue, and Mattancherry palaces by foot or bicycle, or book a three-hour walking tour of the site. Hotels and homestays that suit all types of budgets can also be found in Kochi.

14 of 18

Discover the Ancient Port City of Muziris

Cheraman Juma Masjid mosque in Kodungallur, Kerala

Dinodia Photo / Getty Images

Kodungallur - Shornur Rd, Arakulam, Kodungallur, Kerala 680664, India
Phone +91 480 280 3170

Multi-cultural Muziris, located about an hour north of Kochi, was historically one of the most important trading ports in Kerala. Businesses thrived here for more than 1,000 years prior to a flood that caused severe damage to the city. The Muzuris area encompasses Kodungallur and Paravoor and is full of old churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. The first mosque in India, Cheraman Juma Masjid, is a fascinating place to visit. Book a tour or wander the streets on your own to experience ancient Indian culture.

15 of 18

Attend a Temple Festival

Thrissur Pooram elephant festival

Kerala Tourism

Kerala, India

Kerala temple festivals, which highlight India's most prized animal, the elephant, pay tribute to the presiding local god or goddess. Watch large processions of bejeweled elephants, drummers, musicians, and colorful floats carrying gods and goddesses around the harvest season in March and April. The largest festivals take place in the Thrissur and Palakkad districts in northern and central Kerala, although many small temples throughout the state do offer small-scale festivities if you're not one for noisy crowds.

16 of 18

Chill at the Beach

Varkala Beach in Kerala

Cultura / Getty Images

Varkala Beach, Kerala, India

The beaches in Kerala are crowd-free and undeveloped, making them more desirable than beaches in other touristy areas of India. Some boast lighthouses and facilities, while others can only be accessed by boat. Varkala beach, a favorite of travelers, has a spectacular cliff setting and is lined in beach shacks and shops. Stay up high on the cliff and take in the view, or if you're looking for action, head to Kovalam beach near the capital city of Trivandrum—do note, however, that this beach is among the busiest in the state.

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17 of 18

Spot Wildlife and Enjoy Impressive Waterfalls

Periyar National Park, Kerala

Christer Fredriksson / Getty Images

Kerala, India
Phone +91 4869 224 571

Periyar National Park, one of Kerala's most magnificent attractions, lies on the banks of a large artificial lake. Complete with hilly forests and a plethora of wildlife, it's the most popular national park in southern India. Unlike other national parks in southern India, Periyar stays open during monsoon season and offers a wide range of eco-tourism activities so you can really experience nature—book a stay during this slow time for an unforgettable and budget-worthy trip.

Two amazing Kerala waterfalls are located within a 55-kilometer drive of the Cochin airport: Athirappally and Vazhachal. Athirappally Falls, the bigger of the two, cascades from a height of 80 feet and resembles Niagara Falls during monsoon season. Note that heavy rains can cause travel disruptions during this season, making the best time to visit between September and October. Nearby, you'll find Vazhachal Falls. While the drop on this waterfall is not as spectacular, it's every bit as majestic as Athirappally Falls and a great place for a picnic. While swimming and bathing are prohibited underneath both of the falls, at Athirappally, you can take a careful dip upriver before the falls plunge.

18 of 18

Admire Mural Paintings

India, Kerala, Krishnapuram Palace

Aldo Pavan / Getty Images

5G25+4C9, Oachira Rd, near Krishnapuram, Kayamkulam, Kerala 690533, India
Phone +91 479 244 1133

The colorful mural paintings seen on the walls of temples, churches, and palaces in Kerala all date back to the ninth century. The oldest of these murals lies in the rock-cut cave temple of Thirunandikkara (now in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu), where only sketchy outlines remain.

The largest mural panel in the state, coming in at 49 square meters, is at Krishnapuram Palace near Kayamkulam. Extensive murals depicting scenes from Hindu epics are preserved at Mattancherry Palace in Kochi, while the murals of the Shiva Temple in Ettumanoor provide insight into the earliest forms of Dravidian mural art. Other famous mural paintings can be found at the Padmanabha temple in Trivandrum and Vadakkumnatha temple in Thrissur.

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18 Best Things to Do in Kerala, India