Most people head to Goa for the beaches and bars, and end up overlooking the state's compelling cultural heritage. Goa was actually a Portuguese province for more than 450 years, up until 1961 when the Indian government carried out a military operation to reclaim it. This lengthy period of Portuguese occupation has left a pervasive legacy, from architecture to cuisine. These things to do in Goa focus on experiencing it, and more.
Wander Through Old Goa
The abandoned city of Old Goa is one of the top historical places to visit in India. In its 16th century heyday, when the Portuguese had their headquarters there, Old Goa was apparently so vibrant it was common for people to say, "He who has seen Goa need not see Lisbon". The Portuguese built many churches and convents, which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. The most notable ones are Se Cathedral (the seat of the Archbishop of Goa), the Basilica of Bom Jesus (which contains the mortal remains of Saint Francis Xavier), and the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Goa Magic conducts an insightful two hour Heritage Walk of Old Goa. With a little imagination, you'll get a feel for its past glory. Visiting the Archeological Museum in the convent of the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (behind Se Cathedral), and the Christian Art Museum in the restored Convent of Santa Monica, will help! For an added dose of history, see the ruined entrance to the Palace of Yusuf Adil Shah beside the Church of St Cajetan. It's the only remains that exist of the Bijapur Sultanate, whose ruler founded Old Goa in the 15th century before the Portuguese took over.
Goa Tourism's open-top Hop on Hop Off Bus departs from Panjim and provides an inexpensive way of getting to Old Goa. Tickets cost 300 rupees.
A series of epidemics, including the plague, caused the Portuguese to leave Old Goa in the late 18th century and shift their headquarters to Panjim. The area, known as Fontainhas, was developed into an affluent residential area for rulers and administrators. Today, it's renowned for its colorful old Portuguese homes, belonging to the last surviving Portuguese families of Goa. Fontainhas was declared a UNESCO Heritage Zone in 1984 and it's a wonderfully atmospheric place to spend some time. A few of the mansions have been converted to characterful hotels and guesthouses, so you can stay there as well. Other attractions include boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants. Make it Happen conducts a recommended immersive Fontainhas Heritage Walk.
Although there are plenty of old Portuguese mansions in the Latin Quarter, the most opulent and imposing ones are located in south Goa. These homes, which date back centuries, are still lived in by generations of the original owners. Some are open to the public, and they display a treasure trove of historical memorabilia. You'll find them in Chandor (the Braganza House), Loutolim (Casa Araujo Alvares) and Quepem (Palacio do Deao). It's possible to chat to the owners, who have a wealth of knowledge, too!
There are a number of forts in Goa but Reis Magos Fort is the oldest. The Sultan of Bijapur, Yusuf Adil Shah, built a military outpost there in 1493. Despite its strategic position on the Mandovi River, it wasn't able to stop the Portuguese invasion. The Portuguese developed the fort in 1551 to defend their capital at Old Goa. It was enlarged numerous times and then completely reconstructed in 1707. However, the fort was no longer required for defense after the Portuguese shifted to Panjim. It was converted into a prison in the early 1900s and functioned as such, with more than 100 freedom fighters being held there, before being abandoned in 1993. Restoration of the fort was initiated in 2008 by the late Mario Miranda, a much-loved cartoonist from Loutolim in Goa. It opened to the public in June 2012 and has a gallery displaying his works. Mario's cartoons are centered around daily life in Goa and Mumbai, and they're really entertaining.
Founded and curated by artist Subodh Kerkar, the interactive Museum of Goa opened in 2015 within the stark context of north Goa's Pilerne Industrial Estate. This unique museum aims to bring the state's history to life through a permanent exhibition of contemporary art. It also has temporary exhibition spaces, an auditorium, art and design store, cafe, sculpture garden and artists studios. Try to attend one of the numerous workshops, lectures, and performances that are held there. And, if you're interested in buying art, don't miss the annual Affordable Art Fest. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tickets cost 100 rupees for Indians and 300 rupees for foreigners. There are discounts for students.
Learn About Farming and Traditional Lifestyle in Goa
Traditionally, Goa's economy was based on agriculture rather than tourism. In order to showcase and preserve this way of life, artist and restorer Victor Hugo Gomes set up a museum called Goa Chitra, with more than 4,000 artifacts on display. Many of them are old farming tools and equipment, as well as other implements including kitchen utensils. Each is supplemented by interesting information about its use. There's also a separate section, Goa Chakra, with about 70 heritage carriages. The museum was constructed on neglected land near Benaulim, in south Goa, out of materials salvaged from 300 year-old Goan houses. A functional organic farm has also been set up next to it, so visitors can understand how some of the artifacts were used. Opening times are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, with tours conducted every hour. Tickets cost 300 rupees. Discounts are offered for students and groups.
It's even possible to stay on a farm in Goa, with the farmstay concept catching on and growing in popularity. Eco-friendly Dudhsagar Plantation Farmstay is one such place, where guests are accommodated in five rustic cottages on the lush property with a swimming pool. The farm produces everything from spices to pineapples and guided tours are conducted. Mangaal Farmstay is another property that provides guests with the opportunity to participate in activities such as vegetable growing, flower harvesting, and paddy field preparation.
When thinking of Goan cuisine, ubiquitous fish curry and rice probably comes to mind. This is undoubtedly a staple. However, there's so much more to Goan food! Distinctly diverse and non-vegetarian, it's been influenced by its Hindu origins, Muslim rule, and Portuguese colonization. Xacutti (coconut-based curry), cafreal (marinated and fried/grilled), sorpotel (stew), recheado (stuffed), and ambot tik (sour and spicy) are all types of dishes that are commonly served. And of course, not to overlook Goan chourico (sausages) and Goan pao (bread). Sadly, traditional Goan cuisine is disappearing but move away from the beaches and you'll find some authentic restaurants where you can discover what Goan food is all about. Want to learn to cook Goan food? The classes offered by Rita's Gourmet Goa in Dabolim (close to the airport) and Siolim Cooking School are recommended.
Drink Some Feni
It's almost impossible to visit Goa and not encounter feni, the unofficial state drink. This rather aromatic (some would stay stinky) spirit is produced solely in Goa out of cashew fruit or the sap from coconut palms. You're likely to turn your nose up at the cheap, commercially produced feni due to its smell. The secret is to find home-distilled feni (if staying at one of Goa's homestays or Dudhsagar Plantation Farmstay), or get it like the locals do from village distillers. Otherwise, a quality bottle of Big Boss or Cazulo is a reliable choice. Drink it with tonic water or lemonade and a slice of lime. For a memorable local experience, order the feni cocktail at Joseph Bar in Panjim's Fontainhas Latin Quarter. This tiny, hip hangout has been recently restored to its former glory. It's open in the evenings from 6-10 p.m. Alternatively, it's now possible to go straight to the source of Cazulo feni -- their cellar in the Cansaulim foothills. The cellar, which is said to the the only one in the world, opened to the public in January 2019. Get a guided tour and feni tasting session for 2,000 rupees per person, including food and alcohol. Phone 8605008185 to book.
Listen to Live Jazz
Music, especially Jazz, is an important element of Goan life. Many Goan musicians learned western styles of music under Portuguese rule, led dance bands in the 1930s and 1940s, and infused jazz and swing into Bollywood music. The elegant century-old Gonsalves Mansion in leafy Campal, near Panjim, is known as the Home of Jazz in Goa. The jazz revival began with many fine jazz musicians playing on its porch. Jazz Goa, a group of Goan jazz musicians, also host live jazz performances. Nowadays, many other venues in Goa have live jazz as well. Monday Jazz Nights at Cantare in Saligao village are legendary. You may also find live jazz jamming sessions happening there on Friday nights. There's a live jazz band every Sunday from noon until 4 p.m. at O'Mistico, opposite the Novotel hotel in Candolim. In addition, Jazz Inn in Cavelossim, and Jazz and Grills in Calangute (the new Whiskey Bar at Le Meridien hotel), often have jazz bands. Check out the entertainment program on the Deltin Royale casino as well. The annual International Jazz Day is celebrated in Goa on April 30 with special jazz concerts. Plus, there is the Goa International Jazz Live Festival, held by Jazz Circuit India in November or December every year.
Hidden away in the forest at Tambdi Surla, near Mollem National Park, is what's believed to be the oldest Hindu temple in the state. The remarkable, intricately-carved 13th century Tambdi Surla Mahadev Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It survived both Muslim and Portuguese invasion largely because of its remote inland location at the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains. The temple is well-maintained and free to enter. Nature-lovers should also hike up to little-known Tambdi Surla waterfall in neighboring Bhagwan Mahavir National Park.
Experience a Festival
Many Christian festivals are celebrated in Goa, including Christmas. A number of these festivals take place during the monsoon season. On June 24, Sao-Joao (the fertility feast of Saint John the Baptist) features men jumping into overflowing village wells to retrieve bottles of local feni alcohol. The feast of Saints Peter and Paul happens on June 29, with people sailing up river on rafts performing plays and songs. In late August, the Bonderam flag festival is held on tiny Divar Island, off the coast from Panjim. The Goa Carnival is another famous festival, which usually occurs in February each year. Shigmo is a Hindu spring festival that's Goa's version of Holi. Goa also celebrates Hindu festivals including Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali.