Flanked by the mighty Western Ghats on the east and the majestic Arabian Sea in the west, the city of Kochi has been a significant trading zone and attractive tourist destination. One of the finest and the busiest harbours in India, the port has been visited by the Arabs, the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and the Chinese, since the ancient times. This enchantingly quaint port city exhibits the remnants of these cultures, and maintains that tradition and reputation intact, even today. It was, and still is, the commercial and industrial capital of Kerala. Of late, Kochi is also rapidly developing as the IT capital of Kerala. These beautiful cluster of islands, strategically spread across the Vembanad lake, has everything a tourist could ask for – the natural beauty and a cosmopolitan atmosphere – The primary reason why Kochi found itself a place in the National Geographic’s list of ‘50 greatest places of a lifetime.’
You need some orientation to the cluster of islands that make Kochi (formerly Cochin), before you start the trip. Ernakulam, the district, and also the urban centre on the mainland, is chock-a-bloc with residential areas and narrow roads bursting with prosperous businesses. Stop here for the museums and a hearty fill of shopping. Lying close to the mainland, but joined by bridges, are the small islands of Willingdon (mostly government offices), Fort Kochi and Mattancherry (the tourist hub), Bolgatty and Vypeen. Fort Kochi and Mattancherry have an easy, rustic charm about them, with breezy open-air cafes serving top-notch seafood, narrow history-filled streets and a burgeoning art scene.
Ernakulam might as well have been the capital of Kerala with its urban character and commercial significance. Bursting out of its narrow streets is a chaotic mix of unruly traffic, Lego-like residential areas and official buildings. This hectic transport and cosmopolitan hub serves as a good stopover for shopping and a quick dose of culture. For a more heritage- filled holiday atmosphere, head to Fort Kochi, but try and spend some time at Ernakulam to see the Kerala Folklore Museum and the Durbar Hall Art Centre, and also take in the pleasures of a walk around Marine Drive and the shoping centre at MG Road.
Fort Kochi & Mattancherry
The most captivating of Kochi’s pack of islands, Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are a heady mix of well-preserved colonial history, a lively art scene, boutique hotels, exceptional seafood and elements that are still reminiscent of Kerala’s indigenous culture. An influx of Western travellers over the years has moulded the harbour town into a haven of English- speaking, perfect-pasta-serving inhabitants, and antiques oozing from every shop. But this has served well for Indian tourists as well; it’s safe, clean, and language is not a problem at all. Equip yourself with comfortable walking shoes and a map and discover the narrow streets.
Dutch Palace, Mattancherry
Though the Portuguese built it for the Raja of Kochi, the palace eventually landed in Dutch hands and was rechristened Dutch Palace. Today, this is a museum hosting galleries and royal artefacts. The star attractions are the beautifully preserved murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranic legends in intricate detail.
Mattancherry Palace was a gift presented to the Raja of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma (1537-61), as a gesture of goodwill by the Portuguese in 1555. The Dutch renovated the palace in 1663, and hence it was renamed the Dutch Palace. The Kerala-style wood-floored mansion is now a museum with coins, murals, paintings and objects reminiscent of the lives of the rajas of the 16th century. The complex is also home to the Pazhayannur Bhagvathi Temple, dedicated to the deity who was the royal guardian.
Palace Road, Mattancherry; Timing 9-5pm, Friday closed; Entry Rs. 5
Pardesi Synagogue, Mattancherry
A graceful clock tower looming over the streets of Mattancherry signals the iconic Pardesi Synagogue. Originally built in 1568, this synagogue was partially destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662, and rebuilt two years later when the Dutch took Kochi. It features an ornate gold pulpit and elaborate hand-painted, willow-pattern floor tiles from Canton, which were added in 1762. It’s magnificently illuminated by chandeliers from Belgium and coloured glass lamps.
At the end of a narrow lane in Jew Town, the synagogue is a symbol of religious tolerance under the Kochi kings. This is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth countries. Silently observe the ornate central chandelier, Hebrew calendars and scrolls, a central pulpit and a narrow passage with paintings recording the Jew influx in Kochi. There is an upstairs balcony for women, who worshipped separately according to Orthodox rites. Shorts or sleeveless tops are not allowed inside.
Timing 10 am – 1 pm & 3 – 5 pm, Friday & Saturday closed; Entry Rs. 5
Chinese Fishing Nets, Fort Kochi
At the tip of Fort Kochi sits the unofficial emblem of Kerala’s backwaters: cantilevered Chinese fishing nets. The enormous ladle-like nets are permanently positioned here and it takes teams of four to five fishermen to heave the heavy nets out of the water with a pulley system and make a dash for the fish. There is stiff competition from a brigade of crows close at hand. The frenetic activity here starts as early as 6am and you are allowed to help the fishermen and can also take pictures for a small tip.
Legend has it that the fishing nets were introduced into Kochi by the Chinese explorer Zheng He. It dates back to Kublai Khan’s time (mid 13th century), when trade between Malabar Coast and China was just getting started. Some others believe that the nets were brought to India by the Portuguese during the 15th century, from Macau which was once a Portuguese colony.
Artefacts from different churches of the Catholic diocese from the region are displayed here. The wheelchair-friendly museum is spread over different storeys, each denoted by a different theme: Altar, Treasures, Procession, Civil Life and Cathedral. The artistic Portuguese-influenced collection of altars, crosses, chasubles and more, dating as far back as the 16th century, are a rare and marvellous sight.
Visiting Hours: 9 am – 1 pm, 2 – 6 pm, Closed on Mondays and all Public Holidays.; Adult / Child / Foreigners Rs.10 / 5 / 25
St Francis Church
Believed to be India’s oldest European-built church, it was originally constructed in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars. The edifice that stands here today was built in the mid- 16th century to replace the original wooden structure. The highlight of the church is the dusty tombstone of explorer Vasco da Gama, who died in Kochi in 1524. He was buried here for 14 years before his remains were taken to Lisbon.
Timings: Services are held in the church only on Sundays, and entry is restricted at that time. It is open to visitors on all weekdays. Visiting Hours: 8.30 am -5 pm.
Another landmark colonial presence in the harbour town is the Dutch Cemetery at the end of River Road. It contains the dilapidated graves of Dutch traders and soldiers. Now locked to keep curious intruders at bay, you can just about peep over the gate and have a glimpse of the over 200-year-old graves.
Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica
The imposing Catholic basilica was originally built on this site in 1506, though the current building dates to 1902. Inside you’ll find artefacts from the different eras in Kochi and a striking pastel coloured interior.
Visiting Hours: 9 am – 6 pm
Southern Naval Command Maritime Museum
If you are remotely interested in sailing the seas, the spic and span Maritime Museum will keep you engrossed with exhibits on steering wheels, maps, replicas of battleships and more. It is especially enjoyable, as the upkeep of the place is excellent. Beach Road; 9.30am-12.30pm, 2.30-5.30pm, Mon closed; Indians/foreigners/children/photography ?25/75/15/100
Timings: The Museum is closed on Mondays and Public Holidays. On all other days, it is open from 09:30 AM to 12:30 PM, and again from 2:30 PM to 3:30 PM.
Kerala Folklore Museum
Here lies an incredible private collection of traditional masks, theatrical costumes, artefacts, sculptures and art, packed into an absorbing three storeys. Better than many government establishments, the museum has more than 5000 artefacts and covers three architectural styles: Malabar, Kochi and Travancore. A visit here is time well spent. Check for classical dance performances at the beautiful wood-lined theatre; these take place sporadically, depending on daily bookings.
Tripunithura Hill Palace Museum
Located 16 km southeast of Ernakulam, this museum was formerly the residence of the Kochi royal family, and is an impressive 49-building palace complex. Leave your slippers outside and huddle up with other visitors to hear the guide’s discourse on the 14 key exhibits, which are divided into ornaments, sculptures, artefacts, coins, weapons and more.
Avoid Sundays as it’s a hot spot for locals and the queues are rather long.
Tripunithura; Adult/Child/Camera/Video Rs. 20/10/20/150;
Visiting Hours : 9 am -12.30 pm and 2 pm – 4.30 pm
Running parallel to Shanmugham Road (behind Bay Pride Mall), Marine Drive is perfect for a sunset stroll. As in every seaside town, local food carts, balloon vendors and couples cosying up behind black umbrellas are an integral part of the topography. Having undergone extensive refurbishment, the clean seafront benches now invite you for some harbour gazing – especially in the evenings as vessels become mere twinkling jewels in the distance.
A good 45-minute drive to the northwest of Ernakulam brings you to Cherai Beach at Vypeen Island. It’s a long stretch, so you can bypass the line of snack shops and a package-tour feel to find an isolated spot. Swimming here is not recommended.
Though there are a handful of resorts to stay here, the quality and service is not great. The drive to the beach is marvellous, as the road is flanked by a glistening backwater lagoon.
Country Boat Ride At Ndanju Kadu (Crab Island)
The winding mangrove-filled backwaters of Poothotta River lie 24 km from Ernakulam town. Earlier uninhabited, the island village now has eight fishing families who are happy to give insights into their lives and occupation; such as coir retting, fishing and toddy tapping.
This includes as two-and-a-half hour-long country boat ride in narrow canals flanked by ludicrously green surroundings. A local snack and coffee is also included in the price.
Kodanad Elephant Camp
The 36 km ride from Ernakulam to Kodanad Elephant Camp is worth it if you are travelling with children and not planning on going to the Guruvayur camp. Five adult elephants and two babies are part of this establishment that is run by the Forest Department. The highlight here is the morning bath given to the gentle giants at the edge of the Periyar River. You can even give the mahouts a hand and click photographs (you are expected to tip). The elephants then amble back with a trail of visitors to the camp where they are fed. Arrive before 8am to witness the entire spectacle.
Visiting Hours : 8 am-5 pm; Adult/Child/Camera/Video Rs. 10/5/50/250
Breathe antiquity as you walk past the colonial buildings lining the streets of the Jew Town of Mattanchery. The antique market with its old world charm offers the discerning tourists an ideal treasure trove of antiques and curios to take back home. There are several shops and museums that exhibit as well as sell genuine antiques of immense value.
Kochi is the largest and the most visited shopping hubs in Kerala for all forms of jewellery. There are numerous exclusive showrooms in the state wooing you with all forms of authentic jewellery. Gold, silver, diamond, pearls, platinum, antique. You name it. You are sure to find them here.
Kerala Sarees / Silk Sarees
The city is also well-known for housing some of the most popular textile showrooms in India. Each stocking all forms of textile. Traditional, modern, designer, formal, casual wear and more. Most of these mega-showrooms source pieces from all over the world to cater to the enthusiasts from all over.
Thevara Folklore Museum
Certified by the Limca Books of Records’ for the best National achievement the Folklare Museum packs unique and exquisite historical objects from the window frames to the hand painted ceilings. This non-profit venture preserves the splendid folklore wealth of the state while presenting a magnificent experience of architectural beauty and traditional performing arts and heritage of southern India. On display are arts garments, puppets, musical instruments and Hindu and Christian architectural pieces. In addition to the tour of the museum, one also gets to enjoy live performances of Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Bharathanatyam and Kalaripayattu in the main venue hall, every once in a while.
In the past, plays used to be performed by the King’s own company of actors, not only in temples and courts, but in villages across the region. Kathakali emerged as an individual style of dance-drama into a “people’s theatre” from the traditional dances of the past over the last century as the result of fierce completion between the Malabar in the North and Travancore in the South, to produce the best Kathakali troupes. There are several Kathakali centres in Kochi, where the performances are held on a regular basis.
Kochi offers different types of boat, cruise drive for different budgets and timings. Local boats including fibre glass boats are available on hourly or daily basis. These boats can take you around the Kochi harbour, Chinese Fishing nets surrounding the Shipyard and other important places along the backwaters of Kochi. While vessels are available from both Marine Drive and Opp Mattanchery Palace on hourly basis, they can also be booked for conference or group trips to deep sea for a Sunset cruise.