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.
For an extra dose of culture, check into one of these 10 Glorious Homestays in Goa.
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The abandoned city of Old Goa dates back to the 15th century, when it was founded by rulers of the Bijapur Sultanate. Their presence extended from southern Maharashtra to northern Karnataka, and it was their second capital, after Bijapur. However, all that remains of the empire today is the ruined entrance to the palace. After the Portuguese captured the city in 1510, it became their headquarters and really flourished. They 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.
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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.
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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!
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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.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
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When thinking of Goan cuisine, the ubiquitous fish curry and rice no doubt 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 Hindi 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.
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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 cashews 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 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.
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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 Gonsalves Mansion in leafy Campal, near Panjim, is known as the Home of Jazz in Goa. This elegant century-old ancestral home has hosted many fine Jazz musicians on its porch. Owner Armando Gonsalves founded Heritage Jazz to provide a platform for Jazz musicians and to promote the heritage of Goan homes. He organizes regular jazz events. Jazz Goa, a group of Goan jazz musicians, also host live jazz performances. Check out the entertainment program on the Deltin Royale casino. In addition, don't miss the Goa International Jazz Live Festival held in November every year.
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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.