Centuries of India’s trade history have washed up on the shores of Kochi (formerly Cochin), Kerala’s famous coastal city and commercial centre. A heady mix of architecture, scenic backwaters, islands, old spice markets and more, it’s easy to see why the port city, was hailed as the Queen of the Arabian Sea. While old traditions hold steadfast – Chinese fishing nets, the Jewish synagogue and Dutch palaces–the city also has a vibrant subculture of funky cafes, art festivals and adventure. As you land at Kochi airport, don’t forget to capture a picture as it is among the earliest greenfield airports in India.
Best time to visit: Located just 10 degrees north of the equator, Kochi experiences hot and humid climate, most of the year. The best time to visit Kochi is between October and February when the weather is pleasant, and the moderate-to-high level of humidity is absent. The Southwest monsoon causes heavy showers between June and September, though the rains are ideally suited for Ayurveda therapy.
How to reach
By Air: Kochi's nearest airport is Cochin International Airport, located 20km away at Nedumbassery. IndiGo operates over 150 non-stop weekly flight to all other key locations across Indian and abroad.
By Train: There are two main railway stations in Kochi, Ernakulam Junction and Ernakulam Town through various long-distance trains, connecting the city to rest of the country.
By Bus: Kochi is well-connected to almost all parts of southern India through the state-run Kerala Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus services.
Getting around: Kochi has a vast network of buses by KSTRC and private operators, running within the city. Cabs and taxis are also available as local modes of transportation.
If you love a good biryani, nothing beats Kayees’ biryani. An institution that’s been around for 50 odd years gets there early as the mutton biryani gets sold out fast. Stop by on Friday for fish biryani or on Tuesday for prawn biryani. East Indies at The Eighth Bastion, Fort Kochi: Sample Dutch trade-route inspired colonial fare that features dishes from Sumatra, Sri Lanka and South Africa in its satays, rendang (caramelised curry), shiitake bisque and lamprais (yes, lump rice), frikkadel (a traditional Afrikaans meatball dish) and sambal (spicy relish).
People swear by the limited-edition First-Class Railway Mutton Curry, a slow-cooked delicacy usually booked in advance, besides classics like Anglo-Indian cutlets, Syrian Christian Duck Moilee, Vindaloo, Jewish Chuttulli Meen and idiyappam (string hoppers).
This gourmet restaurant is a melting pot of Mediterranean and Malabari flavours using locally sourced ingredients and organic products. The thalis—veg, non-veg and seafood, perfectly capture the essence of Kerala.
Watch ships go by from a museum-shop with a restaurant, tucked behind an old warehouse. The place celebrates ginger in its menu with ginger prawns, ginger lassi, ginger tea and milkshakes, even a ginger ice-cream beside traditional Kerala fare.
If seafood and items like Saudi Masala Charcoal Grill, kallappam or Malabar fish curry and rice get your juices going, make a beeline for Nawras. Set in a blue building with Arabic and Moroccan highlights, their open kitchen has a tasty seafood platter that serves two.
Named after its setting, a kettuvallom or traditional rice boat, the place carries off its rustic décor with élan, churning out beautiful and fresh seafood. Ask for the white snapper in banana leaf, soft-shelled crab in tartar sauce or tiger prawns tossed in coconut oil; you won’t regret it.
If you’re satisfied with all the fish, and south Indian flavours tickling your palate and yearn for familiar north Indian tastes, try their Kati Rolls, stuffed parathas and Mughlai parathas.
Scoring zero on hygiene and ambience, but big on flavours and toddy smells, Kerala’s kallu shaps are dingy holes often given a miss by visitors. Yet, locals vouch for Mullapanthal’s kappa meen (tapioca with fish), prawn fry, rabbit and karimeen polichathu, served on a banana leaf. Toddy shops are not recommended for children, families and the well-heeled, but this one has a family-friendly vibe.
Local markets and stores: Souvenir shoppers go crazy in Kochi seeing the array of handcrafted items made of bamboo, wood, coir, shell and beads. Visit the spice markets for fresh spices and put on your best bargaining hat before venturing into antique shops to buy carved figurines, masks, lamps and exquisite metalware. Besides institutions like Crafters which is home to the world’s largest brass vessel, boutiques like Indian Industries on Princess Street and Heritage Arts in Jew’s Town hold a treasure of traditional curios, crafts, silver jewellery and artefacts.
Shopping Malls: The city is flush with malls with Lulu and Oberon in Ernakulam, being just two that you should visit. Wowing you with big labels and massive shopping space, discover why masses converge for fashion, footwear, electronics, perfumes, watches, books or meals at the food court – under one roof.
Kairali: Located on MG Road, Kairali is the Government Handicraft Emporium that stocks the best of Kerala’s famous handicrafts like Kathakali masks, boats and the Aranmula mirror. Everything from recycled paper made of elephant poo to eco-friendly clothing to swank up your wardrobe is available here.
Kochi Books: Feel like curling up with a book and realise you forgot your Kindle? Drop by at the famous Idiom Booksellers or Kochi Books on Princess Street; the latter is a li’l gem. Bibliophile and friendly owner Vimal Kumar will help you find exactly what you need, besides maps, rare collectables or CDs.
Though Cochin has a bustling café scene, it is not known for its nightlife. Ava Lounge at Radisson Blue Kochi is a rare exception, it has some terrific cocktails and stays open till as late as 3 am. For music, movies and mocha (in that order), head to Café Papaya at Palarivattom in Ernakulam to catch live music and DJs. While most people will describe Kashi Art Gallery and Café in Fort Kochi as cool and arty, it’s a great hangout for coffee, conversation and people watching. The art on display adds to its charm.
Vasco Home Stay, Fort A heritage B&B on Rose Street, in the heart of Fort Kochi that gives you the unique opportunity to step into Vasco da Gama’s shoes! Stay in a 500-year-old home that carries the legacy of the great Portuguese explorer who lived in this very building once upon a time. The location is ideal to explore significant landmarks, stores and cafes in the area beside the beach and Chinese fishing nets.
Brunton Boatyard, Fort Often mistaken for an old heritage building, the resort wears CGH Earth’s stamp of exclusivity and style. A Victorian-era shipbuilding yard refurbished into a period-style resort, offers wistful waterscapes with the endless flow of ships, ferries and fishing boats from its rooms. The kind staff place earplugs in your room to mute out fog horns around the busy harbour! A clean pool, sunset cruises from its private pier, Ayurvedic treatments, yoga in a grassy courtyard and restaurants curating flavours that influenced the land through trade, history and communities, puts it among the best places to stay in Kochi.
Koder House, Tower Road Built in 1808, this three-storeyed, wine coloured building by the beach, is listed on INTACH’s heritage sites and once belonged to an illustrious Jewish family who was caretakers of the old synagogue. Run as a boutique hotel today, Koder has hosted Presidents, Prime Ministers and other distinguished dignitaries. Rooms are lavishing with beautiful, polished four-posters and colonial furniture and a convenient pool for a relaxing dip.
Old Harbour Hotel, Fort Steeped in the sense of nostalgia with wood flooring, high ceilings and vintage furniture, this is an elegant hotel that doesn’t disappoint. Relish pan-fried prawns and delicious meals in the pleasant garden dining setting, take a stroll to nearby attractions, cool off in the pool and finally, kick back the covers to rest with the soft scent of jasmine lingering around your bed.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale: Since 2012, every two years, Kochi experiences a massive art attack called the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a fabulous platform and a confluence of artists from across the world at various informal public spaces exploring a chosen theme. The city transforms into an open-air gallery and canvas ready for the explosion of art across several events and venues as varied as warehouses, old factories and seaside boulders in Kochi.
Cycle tours: If you don’t have a yen for walking, try pedalling around Kochi on a bicycle. Kerala Bicycle Trips and Art of Bicycle Trips offer various options from 3-hour long guided tours around the city, canoe ride across the backwaters to great bicycle tours providing a slice of Kerala.
Rickshaw Run: Another option is to enrol for the Rickshaw Run, a 3000-km offbeat adventure across the country covered over a fortnight in customised autorickshaws. Organised by The Adventurists, there are many takers for this costly madcap adventure. Kochi is the parking spot for these autos that are anything but black and yellow. Pimped up with neon shades by artists, they even have funny names like Bananas in Pyjamas, Curry on Tukkin’ and Naan Point Five on the Rickshaw Scale!
Marine Drive: Ask any local to name his or her favourite hangout and Marine Drive will be the answer. There is no place to ‘drive’ here as it’s a pedestrian zone and perhaps Kochi’s most talked about promenade where everyone loves to linger, shop and dine.
David Hall Gallery Café: Another great place with a dollop of Dutch history going back to 1695. Once the residence of the Dutch Governor, Hendrick Drakestein, (who initiated the research for the Hortus Malabaricus, a tome on the region’s flora) it has been reimagined into an art gallery with a cosy café by CGH Earth. People love its garden ambience and hop by to satiate their craving for wood-fired pizzas – apparently the best in town.
Allepey and Kumarakom: Just an hour’s drive takes you to backwater country of Allepey and Kumarakom (2hr) for lazy houseboat rides on Vembanad lake, capturing riverine lifestyle through a network of canals and waterways. Detox and rejuvenate your body, mind and soul with an authentic Ayurvedic treatment or a traditional massage.
Munnar: If time isn’t a constraint, you can also plan an extended trip from Kochi to Munnar, which is one of the most popular hill stations in the region.
Forget the highway, take the national waterway between Kochi and Ernakulam on a ferry as the locals do. Hang out at one of the many cafés dotting Fort Kochi. The ivy-covered Teapot Café is one such place creating a happy storm in a teacup. It’s a quirky place with a kaleidoscope of suspended kettles and teapots and tea chest tables, different posters, and décor inspired by all things related to tea! Savour 15 kinds of brew, nibble on Indian and European snacks, while coffee plays second fiddle.