The city of Kochi, on the southwest coast of India, is an enchanting place that's had an eclectic influence. Known as the "Gateway to Kerala," Kochi's culture and architecture will take you back in time to when the Dutch, Chinese, and Portuguese and British occupied the city. The architectural and historical sites in Fort Kochi are the biggest draws for most visitors.
For travelers that prefer to explore a city without needing to hop on a bus or take a taxi, Fort Kochi makes an ideal place as most places are reachable on foot or bicycle. The area is very accommodating for tourists, with delicious food, tons of things to do, and an array of accommodations across all budgets.
Go on a Heritage Walk of Fort Kochi
The best way to acquaint yourself with Fort Kochi and the events that have shaped it is to begin with a guided heritage walk covering the important landmarks. These include Fort Immanuel, the Dutch Cemetery, Santa Cruz Basilica, and Saint Francis Church (believed to be the oldest European church in India) built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Saint Francis is most famous for being the burial site of explorer Vasco de Gama, who died in Kochi in 1524, before his remains were taken back to Portugal.
Meander Through Mattancherry
Mattancherry is an atmospheric and multicultural old neighborhood in Fort Kochi that's full of colonial buildings. It's a delightful area to meander through, especially in the evenings when the temples are illuminated with lamps and their bells clang. The main attraction there is Mattancherry Dutch Palace, built by the Portuguese and presented to the Raja of Kochi in 1555, then renovated by the Dutch in 1663. It lacks the grandeur that you'd expect of a palace, but the understated appearance is part of its charm. Inside is a small museum and some rare art inside, including paintings of previous kings and some beautiful murals from the Hindu epics.
Shop for Spices
In the heart of Mattancherry, between Mattancherry Dutch Palace and the Pardesi Jewish Synagogue, is a quaint area known as Jew Town by the locals. It's the center of the spice trade in Kochi, and the air is filled with the heady waft of masala. These days, you won't find many Jewish people there. The local Jewish population has been outnumbered by an influx of Kashmiri shopkeepers who hawk their wares to tourists. However, the Synagogue remains in use. Its interior is resplendent with chandeliers, gold pulpit, and imported floor tiles.
Bazaar Road, which runs along the Mattancherry waterfront, also has a spice market.
Toss a Fishing Net
The iconic Chinese Fishing Nets, undoubtedly Kochi's most recognizable sight, have been there since the 14th century and are remarkably still in use today. Take a turn at the net, as the local fisherman will show you how they're operated in return for a small fee.
For a meal of some of the freshest fish you've ever eaten, head to the waterfront where the nets line the short in the late afternoon. There you can buy fresh seafood from one of the fishmongers, get it cooked at a nearby shack, and enjoy eating it as the sun sets.
People-Watch on Princess Street
Fort Kochi's main tourist strip, Princess Street, is one of the oldest streets in the city. This is the place to go for people-watching, cafes, restaurants, bookstores, tea shops, art galleries, and souvenirs. You'll also find grocery stores there, so you can to restock on any essential items. It's a lively destination for an evening walk as street vendors and hawkers line the road.
To learn about Kerala's culture, it's worth making the journey to this privately owned museum on the outskirts of Ernakulam. Opened in 2009, the Museum's three floors are packed full of interesting artifacts related to the state's heritage. Its architecture is magnificent, with the entryway made from the remnants of a temple and wooden carvings warranting a special look. Kerala art and dance forms are a focus, with stage performances taking place at 6.30 p.m. daily.
Browse the Broadway Bazaar Market
While you're in Ernakulum, for a memorable local experience drop by the bustling Broadway area where wholesale and retail vendors sell everything under the sun. The bazaar rose to prominence after the British took control of the city from the Dutch and traders moved from Mattanchery to Broadway. Return to Fort Kochi by walking along the Marine Drive promenade to the ferry terminal and getting a boat back. If you'd prefer to go on a guided tour of the area, try this bazaar walk.
Watch a Traditional Dance Performance
Kathakali is a very unusual and ancient form of dance-drama that's traditional to Kerala. The movements of the dance are subtle, yet they tell a meaningful mythological story, while the look of the performers, with red bloodshot eyes, borders on horrific. The performers are required to undergo intense training, including hours of eye exercises, when learning the art of Kathakali. Try the Cochin Cultural Center, Kerala Kathakali Center, or Greenix Village to catch a show.
Take a Cooking Lesson
Kerala is renowned for its cuisine, featuring delicious seafood and coconut flavors. The hosts at many of Kochi's popular homestays will be more than happy to give you a cooking lesson. If you're serious about learning cooking, take a look at Nimmy Paul's cooking school. She gives a variety of traditional Kerala Syrian Christian cooking classes in her home. Maria's south Indian cooking classes are also recommended.
Enjoy a Ayurveda Spa Treatment
Kerala is also known for its natural Ayurvedic medicine and there are a number of options for getting an Ayurvedic treatment in Kochi. The Fort Ayurveda spa, at the Fort House hotel in Fort Kochi, receives great reviews and offers reasonably priced traditional Ayurvedic therapies, as does Ayurville. Check out Agastya Ayurveda Massage and Wellness Center on Princess Street, or on Vypeen Island, AyurDara specializes in longer-term Ayurvedic treatments (one to three weeks) and provides accommodations.
The Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation, an enterprise of the Kerala government, conducts inexpensive cruises in the backwaters around Kochi in its luxury Sagara Rani vessel. The cruises depart throughout the day from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., although the sunset cruise is most popular. It runs from 5.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. daily.
Catch the Ferry to Vypeen Island
Join the locals in taking the ferry from Fort Kochi out to Vypeen Island, just off the coast. The island is a quiet, non-touristy place to escape the crowds and it's blessed with delightfully long beaches. Cherai beach, on the northern tip, is the main attraction. Other things to see include Munambam Fishing Harbor (the largest fishing harbor in Kochi), the lighthouse at Puthuvype beach (it's open from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily), 16th century Pallipuram Fort (part of the Muziris Heritage Project), and Kuzhuppilly beach.
The colorful Cochin Carnival evolved from Portuguese new year celebrations held in the city during colonial days. Rather than being a traditional cultural event, it's more about feasting and fun. There are competitions, games, beach sports, dirt bike races, dancing, and fireworks. The carnival concludes with the burning of a Santa effigy on New Year's Eve (yes, really) and a huge procession on New Year's Day.
Held every second year from December to March in and around Kochi, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is the biggest exhibition and contemporary arts festival in Asia. The exhibitions encompass all kinds of mediums and are held in various galleries, heritage buildings and public spaces. There's also an extensive program of talks, seminars, screenings, music, workshops and educational activities for students. The next edition of the festival will take place in 2020.