First Trip To India? Head Straight To Kochi, Kerala!
When I first decided to do a solo trip to India, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. Now that I’ve lived in Vietnam for well over six months, I’m pretty familiar with Southeast Asia. However, I knew much less about this massive country over 1000 miles to the west. Luckily, I’m very happy to report that my four-day getaway to India went smoothly! So how did I decide where to go and what to do?
A number of resources online recommended that first-time visitors check out a medium-sized coastal city in the southern states. I narrowed my options down to Goa, Chennai, Puducherry, and Kochi. Ultimately, I decided on Kochi (also spelled ‘Cochin’) in the state of Kerala because of cheap airfare and the fact that it didn’t look overly touristy.
A few more articles (including a really helpful one by the late, great Rachel Jones from Hippie in Heels) suggested that most points of interest were concentrated in the area known as Fort Kochi, which despite its name is not actually a walled city. Nonetheless, I really liked how compact and quaint this waterfront neighborhood was. In terms of where to stay, Fort Kochi is the obvious choice.
In this post, I’ll share what you can expect to see in Kochi, which activities you can feel free to skip, and some additional tips. As you might guess, the food I had in Kochi was an unforgettable part of the experience. That’s why I’ll be writing an entirely separate post to help you navigate the outstanding culinary scene in this city! If you’re curious about that, click here [link coming soon]. Otherwise, read on to learn what you’ll encounter in this beautiful Indian city!
Highlights of Kochi
The city of Kochi is known for a number of different things: Dutch and Portuguese architecture, fishing and seafood, and picturesque beaches. This section will cover all that and more!
As mentioned above, the neighborhood of Fort Kochi is where you’ll probably spend most of your time as a visitor. Here are the highlights of this walkable historic district.
Chinese Fishing Nets
Perhaps the most famous symbol of Kochi is its Chinese fishing nets. These distinctive, crane-like fishing nets line the shores of both Fort Kochi and Vypin (the area directly to the north). Teams of fishermen use a system of counterweights to drop the nets into the water and raise them back up in hopes of catching a few unsuspecting sea creatures.
Stick around the area long enough to watch the nets being raised and/or lowered at least once. Notice the size of the catch (to me, it seemed quite small for the amount of work involved). According to Hippie in Heels, this method of fishing isn’t very efficient, so the nets are more of a tourist attraction than anything else these days. Don’t be surprised if a bunch of the fisherman are persistent in inviting you onto their docks to take pictures and videos up close (and presumably give a tip in return).
Beaches and Sunsets
Fort Kochi’s beaches are nice enough, especially when the weather is good. The water is surprisingly blue and the shores are pretty clean and well-maintained. There’s a nice waterfront walkway as well that’s open to the public.
What’s really noteworthy about Fort Kochi’s waterfront is that it is an amazing place to catch the sunset over the Arabian Sea. On my last night in the city, I witnessed one of the most jaw-dropping sunsets I’ve ever seen. It was raining pretty hard, but I think that cloud cover resulted in a vibrant display of reds, pinks, blues, oranges, and yellows unlike any I’ve seen in recent memory. Keep an eye on the weather and stay close to the waterfront during the early evening; you could be rewarded handsomely!
Churches and Cathedrals
Since Kerala has such a long history of involvement with the Dutch and Portuguese, it’s no surprise that Christianity has a strong prevalence in Kochi even today. While the city is home to basically every house of worship you can imagine, Fort Kochi has a collection of beautiful, old churches and cathedrals.
Although not the most ornate, a particularly noteworthy one is St. Francis Church, which was built in the early 1500s. Nearby this incredibly old structure is a historically significant cemetery (more on that below). Some other nice churches in the area include the Santa Cruz Cathedral and St. Peter’s & St. Paul’s Jacobite Syrian Church.
Kerala Backwaters River Cruise
If you’re interested in doing a day trip from Kochi, I recommend doing a Kerala Backwaters tour. On the outskirts of the city are a vast network of swampy rivers and streams known as the Backwaters. They are an important part of the culture and way of life in Kerala, so boat tours through them are a popular tourist attraction.
After being picked up from my homestay around 8:00 a.m., the dozen or so people on my tour were driven out to an area called Murinjupuzha (മുരിഞ്ഞുപുഴ), which took about two hours to get to with traffic. We then got into a traditional boat with our tour guide and two paddlers and set off for our long and slow journey through the surrounding rivers.
I booked my tour through my homestay, which cost 1000 INR (approx. 14 USD) for the whole day and included pick-up, drop-off, and lunch. The food they served was amazing, and it was one of my favorite meals of the trip.
In all honesty, my one complaint is that the pace of the tour was a bit slow. It was interesting that the boat was traditional (i.e. had no motor) but this meant we moved along at a snail’s pace and really didn’t actually see that much. It was relaxing for sure, but I almost wish I had brought a book or something, because I was sort of bored towards the end of the trip. However, I still recommend seeing the Backwaters if you have time. They’re a famous part of Kerala and a world apart from the busy streets of Kochi.
The district of Vypin is directly north of Fort Kochi and is easily accessible by ferry. The area offers a few additional points of interest if you’ve already seen everything mentioned above.
The south-facing waterfront of Vypin is small but significantly less touristy than its Fort Kochi counterpart. There’s a little church here with a picturesque courtyard, as well as a couple of Chinese fishing nets.
I’m a bit of a sucker for lighthouses, so I wanted to go check this one out. However, it’s too far from the Vypin Ferry Jetty to walk, so you’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk to get to it. If I remember correctly, I had to pay 120 rupees. However, I didn’t see any tuk-tuks pass by when I wanted to go back, so I had to call an Uber. If you’re willing to deal with all that, by all means go check it out during open visiting hours.
The views are pretty nice from up top, but it’s far enough away from Fort Kochi that you won’t see any of the historic district. You’ll be able to see the ocean, the nearby village, and palm trees for miles.
The ferry from Fort Kochi to Fort Vypin only lasts a few minutes and runs all day. It also only costs 3 INR (equivalent of a nickel!) per trip. Have your camera ready to take a picture or two of the fishing nets or Fort Kochi from a unique angle.
This is the neighborhood located directly east of Fort Kochi. It’s a bit more local, but still has a couple of interesting sites worth checking out.
Mattancherry is home to a small yet lively Jewish quarter. This area is famous for its shopping, so bring a bit of cash if you’re in need of some souvenirs or gifts. Many of the shops here also house cafes, so it’s a great place for a coffee break as well.
For whatever reason, this neighborhood is also home to quite a few antique shops. That’s not the most practical thing to bring back home, but it was still interesting to browse one or two of them regardless.
Paradesi Jewish Synagogue
I didn’t expect to visit a synagogue while in India, but it ended up being really interesting! They didn’t allow photographs inside, but take my word: the interior of the temple is a beautiful mix of Indian and Jewish motifs and designs. The floor tiles, which look like Portuguese azulejos, are especially intricate.
Unfortunately, this famous palace museum was closed for a diplomatic visit on the day I was in the area, so I wasn’t able to check it out. If you’ve been, leave a comment below and let me know what’s inside!
Attractions You Can Skip
A few attractions in Kochi were a little underwhelming, and one was a straight-up disappointment. You won’t miss much if you don’t do the following three things.
This small museum might be interesting if you’re a religious studies major or researcher, but I found their collection of Christian artifacts a bit lackluster. The museum only takes a minute or two to walk through, and it’s not free. If you don’t have time to go, don’t feel bad.
This graveyard was home to Vasco da Gama’s remains before they were transported back to Lisbon a number of years after burial (can you imagine, in the 1500s?). That sounds interesting, but unfortunately the cemetery is gated and locked (and this appears to be permanent). You can peer through the iron bars to see the view below, but you won’t be able to go in and see individual tombstones up close.
Kerala Kathakali Centre
കേരള കഥകളി സെന്റർ
Kathakali is an ancient type of theater performance that comes from Kerala. It involves really intricate makeup, song and dance, a form of sign language, and stunning costumes. When I booked a ticket to see a performance at the Kerala Kathakali Center, I was excited to see what it was all about. They even allow audience members to watch the performers do their makeup before the show, which was really interesting.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. While the performance itself was good, the overall experience was completely ruined by the other members of the audience, many of whom were being shockingly rude. People were talking, getting up, and otherwise being disruptive. But the worst part was that dozens of people had phones held high to take photos and video, often with full brightness. There was even some flash photography. Since much of Kathakali is based on eye movements and facial expressions, this sea of bright, flashing lights in the audience completely distracted from the artform. I left feeling frustrated and disappointed.
The theater had a small sign in front saying, “no video recording or mobile photography,” but at no point did a staff member ever make a verbal announcement asking the audience to abide by that rule, and it was never enforced during the show.
If you’re really interested in theater and performing arts, I think you should still try to see Kathakali, but ask around to find a more local venue that won’t attract so many international tourists. Part of the problem here was that a massive European tour group comprised the majority of the audience that night, so I suspect that most of those people had no interest in seeing Kathakali and were only there because it was on their tour itinerary.
Food: So Good I Had to Write a Separate Post
Every meal I had in Kochi was an unforgettable experience. Plus, I’m sure you’re wondering if I got an upset stomach from eating local food in India! To read all about it, head on over to my Kochi food guide [coming soon!]. Below are some of the dishes I’ll dish about!
Kochi ended up being a lot more straightforward than I expected in terms of where to stay and how to get around. This last section should answer any questions you may have.
Where to Stay
My favorite part about staying here was the delicious breakfast that was served each morning (pictured above). The hosts, Antony and Rincy, were also incredibly knowledgeable and helpful; I was able to book my Backwaters boat trip directly with them. Although there are many homestay options in Fort Kochi, you don’t have to look further than Coconut Grove for a guaranteed great stay.
How to Get Around
Getting around Fort Kochi and the surrounding areas is cheap and easy. In addition to Uber, there are also an endless supply of tuk-tuks eager for your business. To cross the rivers, there are many ferry services that connect that various islands and peninsulas around Fort Kochi.
Here’s a tip: Google Maps will actually tell you how much to expect to pay for a tuk-tuk within the Fort Kochi area. Prepare to pay a bit of a premium (maybe 10 or 20 rupees above the price on Google) if you’re an international tourist, but at least you’ll know if a driver attempts to charge double or triple the price it should be. I only hired one tuk-tuk in Kochi which did have a meter, but I just agreed on the price verbally before getting in.
One final note: Cochin International Airport is surprisingly far from Fort Kochi. An Uber from one to the other will cost about 800 or 900 INR (approx. 12 or 13 USD). Give yourself about two hours and expect at least some traffic.
India: Kochi Is Just a Drop in the Bucket
If you love the vibe of countries like Thailand and Malaysia but are looking for something new, I think it’s time to start planning your getaway to Kerala! In fact, the state’s motto is “God’s Own Country,” and with such beautiful landscapes and rich history, I think it’s spot-on.
India is truly massive. You could spend a lifetime traveling within its borders and still not see everything it has to offer. I’m so glad I chose to visit Kochi first, but I can’t wait for my next chance to see another state or region of this beautiful country. Have you been to Kochi before? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Or do you have any questions about a first trip to India? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading, guys!