I had landed at Kochi Airport in 2017 without a fixed plan and explored the city for 3-4 days. Unlike me; I stayed at a hostel in Fort Kochi and explored the touristy and offbeat parts of Kochi like Mattancherry, Jew Town, Ernakulam among others. I mostly used public transport and also went around on foot and even though the weather in November was still too hot for my liking, I ended up having a great time in this ancient city.

Read : The Goodness of Strangers in Kerala

Anecdotes, photographs and a travel guide to Kochi :

Introduction and History of Fort Kochi or Fort Cochin

Most travellers choose Kochi as the first stop to the popular tourist state of Kerala; with convenient flight connections from all big cities in India. Fort Kochi (or Cochin) has the proud distinction of being the oldest and first European settlement in India, and retains a charming and bucolic feel. This ancient town’s complex history is reflected in a medley of distinct Indo-European architectural styles. Fort Kochi boasts of a classic mixture with Portuguese, Dutch, British and traditional Kerala houses adorning the streets of Malabar’s crown jewel. It was a massive surprise for me to come across Gujarati signboards advertising mithai walas in Mattancherry!

In the present day, Kochi (or Cochin, as it was known earlier) comprises of the following areas : Mattancherry, Fort Kochi and the commercial hub of the city; Ernakulam.

Among the plethora of sights and experiences in Kochi include 

  • Mattancherry’s warehouses filled with Kerala’s much priceless spices like pepper; jostling with new age street art.
  • The timeless Jew Town, with the oldest Synagogue in the Commonwealth and antique shops selling secret finds. 
  • Fort Kochi for a Kathakali performance, choose your fresh seafood with a sunset cruise and feel good about life! 

History of Kochi or Cochin

The Portuguese came looking for pepper and arrived in Kochi in the year 1500 AD. They constructed Fort Immanuel (that signifies the fort in Fort Kochi) and St. Francis’ church; and transformed Kochi from a tiny fishing hamlet to a bustling town. The Dutch then took over and ruled Fort Kochi for more than 100 years, from 1663 until 1795. The British took over from the Dutch and only left with India’s Independence in 1947.

An intriguing fact is that Fort Kochi was a multi-ethnic society even before the Europeans arrived. According to legend – St. Thomas, The Apostle arrived in Kochi in 52 AD and gave Kochi its first Syrian Orthodox Christians. The Jews arrived in 70 AD, as a result of the First Jewish – Roman War’s siege of Jerusalem. 

Kochi was formed with a stroke of luck in 1341 AD – A flood created a safe natural port in Fort Kochi that was seen as an alternative to Muziris – which was the main harbour on the Malabar Coast. The royal family moved to Kochi from Muziris in 1405 firmly establishing it on the map.

Must Visit Sights & Experiences in Kochi 

Chinese Fishing Nets 

The Chinese fishing nets were introduced to Kochi by traders from the court of Kublai Khan, sometime between the 14th & 15th century. These humongous nets are set up on bamboo poles and require four men to control them. They remain a grand reminder of Kochi’s historic trade ties with the far East. The best time to watch them in action is from close to the Vasco da Gama Square in Fort Kochi at sunset time. Strolling around the Chinese fishing nets is free but if you want to see the fishermen in action, a tip is appreciated and they will explain the functioning.

Mattancherry Palace

Despite being built by the Portuguese in the 16th Century; Mattancherry Palace is more commonly known as the Dutch Palace. The Portuguese gifted it to the Raja of Kochi as a token of thanks for the trading rights granted to them. When the Dutch took over Fort Kochi in the year 1663, they remodelled the Mattancherry Palace in an extensive manner and the name ‘Dutch Palace’ has stuck since then. 

It looks unassuming from the outside but hides a wealth of riches in its two storey interiors! The vivid murals in some of the rooms are excellent examples of Kerala’s hardly known school of painting. The prized collection includes coronation robes of past Rajas, palanquins, Dutch maps of Old Cochin and royal family portraits, among other things.

Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town

Although Kochi’s first Jewish settlers arrived in 52 AD; the Paradesi Synagogue was built more than 1,500 years later. Nondescript from the outside, one might entirely miss the Synagogue in the jumble of buildings in Jew Town! Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest active Synagogue in the Commonwealth and the Jewish community of Cochin has the distinction of being among the oldest Jewish communities in the world. (Paradesi = foreigner)

Visitors are only allowed to click photographs of the 18th century clock tower in the outdoors. Indoor photography is strictly not allowed and that means we must gaze longer at the incredibly beautiful blue and white ceramic floor tiles. These Cantonese tiles are very unique as every tile is hand-painted, all 1100 of them! Also notice the immaculate Belgian chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Old Torah scrolls with crowns presented by the Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin are also kept in the Paradesi Synagogue.

Only a handful of Jews remain in Kochi (around five-six), as most of them migrated to Israel in the 1940s. Prayer ceremonies are held at the Paradesi Synagogue when the minyan (minimum number of 10 men required for traditional Jewish public worship) is met.

St. Francis Church 

Originally built by the Portuguese in the early 16th Century, St. Francis Church is India’s oldest European church. Vasco da Gama was buried here when he died in Kochi; although his body was later moved to Lisbon in 1538 AD.

St. Francis Church, Kochi & India’s Colonial History

Santa Cruz Basilica 

The stunningly beautiful Santa Cruz Basilica in Kochi is one of the finest examples of Roman Catholic churches in entire India. It was built by the Portuguese in the early years of the 16th Century. The architectural style of the Santa Cruz Basilica is Gothic and I recommend morning / evening time for the best light for photography.  

Hill Palace at Tripunithura

I must thank Johann for taking me to this particular place as I was not aware of Tripunithura at all. The Hill Palace of Tripunithura has now been converted into a museum. The 17th Century wooden mandapa (hall) featuring carvings of episodes from the Ramayana is a classic exhibit. The annual festival held at the Shri Poornathrayeesa Temple in October-November on the way to the Hill Palace is a grand celebration.

Spices in Kochi

Even though the cacophonous trade around spices in Kochi has reduced considerably these days, the sorting warehouses still exist and function like they have done for hundreds of years. In Kerala, pepper is still sometimes referred to as black gold and when you are visiting, it makes sense to buy some spices straight from the source! Kochi International Pepper Exchange on the Jew Town Rd in Mattancherry was the place where you could until quite recently witness the bidding of different varieties of pepper; but the bidding is now done electronically. Among other spices; there is fine quality ginger, cloves, mace, star anise, nutmeg, cardamom. 

Traditional Kerala Cuisine 

Kochi is an excellent place to try the mind-boggling variety of traditional food of Kerala. Among the recommended dishes are : Puttu served with Kadala curry – a fine rice powder mixed with grated coconut steamed in a mini cylinder served with mildly spicy chickpea stew. Idi Appam and Kerala style egg curry – String hoppers with and spice rich tomato egg curry. Appam and vegetable stew – steamed rice pancakes served with vegetable curry in coconut milk. Malabar Parotta paired with numerous meat dishes. 

Traditional feast (Sadhya), is a multi-course meal extravaganza served on a banana leaf. There’s rice, ghee, variety of stews and curries like sambar, rasam, pachadi, appalam, avial and the last course is the sweet delicacy payasam. 

Kathakali : Kerala’s Classical Art

When in Kochi, visitors have a great chance to attend Kerala’s well known classical art form – kathakali. Kathakali combines various theatrical and performance elements, and is said to have developed during the 16th century. Traditionally, Kathakali performances are held for entire nights during festivals. In Kochi, however, a number of Kathakali performances are held for tourists in the Fort Kochi area and there is a reasonable fee for the 1-2 hour show.  

Sunset Cruise 

Sunset cruise time in Kochi is when the sun casts beautiful orange hues in the sky and a mellow breeze blows. There are numerous companies offering sunset cruises and tickets can be booked at the jetty counter in Fort Kochi. 

Dutch Cemetery

It was an unplanned stop when I came across the closed Dutch Cemetery on a walk in Fort Kochi. The Dutch Cemetery was established in 1724 and is closed to visitors unless you can grab hold of the caretaker! The tombstones at the Dutch Cemetery are said to be the an authentic record of the hundreds of Europeans (both Dutch and English) who lived and died here during the colonial rule of Kochi.

Where is the ‘fort’ in Fort Kochi? – Fort Immanuel 

Fort Immanuel was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and is the Fort after which Fort Kochi was named. It was completely destroyed by the Dutch and the British. In the present day, only the remnants of a few walls can be seen on a walk from the Vasco Da Gama square in Fort Kochi.

Bolgatty Palace 

Bolgatty Palace was built in 1744 and has the distinction of being among the oldest Dutch palaces outside of The Netherlands built by the Dutch. It lies on Bolgatty Island which is accessible by ferry.

Cherai Beach

Cherai Beach is about 30 kms from Fort Kochi. The best way to reach here is via the ferry from Fort Kochi to Vypin Island and then take a short bus ride to reach Cherai Beach. The sunset at Cherai Beach is especially beautiful. 

Kochi Muziris Biennale

Every two years, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is held in Kochi. It is one of the largest art exhibitions in India; and has resulted in some fine art on display. 

Street Art 

The entire Fort Kochi area is full of vibrant street art, and is best explored on an unplanned walk in the tiny nooks and crannies. The graffiti with interesting themes and messages is refreshing and instrumental in bringing the old buildings to life. 

Old Kochi Heritage Walk

Chinese fishing nets, a Jewish synagogue, Kathakali performance, a ruined Portuguese Fort, Spice markets, India’s first European church and 17th Century Dutch homes can all be found on the Old Kochi Heritage walk.

Start walking from Vasco da Gama Square, where you can see the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets lining the shore, then stroll along the Church Road to reach St. Francis Church. Keep walking to see the signboard for the Dutch Cemetery Road, passing the cemetery on your right, and the crumbling walls of Fort Immanuel. Continue the walk to reach Bastion Street and follow the signboards to gaze at the stunning Santa Cruz Basilica.

Among the old colonial houses to be seen on the Old Kochi heritage walk for the blend of architecture are Thakur House, the Jewish Koder House (run as a heritage hotel), Pierce Leslie Bungalow, Ballard Bungalow, Bastion House built to guard the harbour on the old Dutch Fort’s Stromberg Bastion and Malabar House. Also worth a look is Bishop’s Bungalow for the Indo-Portuguese museum. All these old colonial houses are located in Fort Kochi and are accessible on the walk.

A Day in Kochi

Start the day with the Old Kochi Heritage Walk; breakfast at Kashi Art Cafe for excellent coffee and cakes. Head to Mattancherry via a rickshaw to visit the Mattancherry Palace or Dutch Palace and also the Paradesi Synagogue. Also peruse the antique shops and some of the spice shops as well. Enjoy lunch at the local favourite Paragon or Kayees Rahmatullah Café on the Gujarati road in Mattancherry. Spend the evening at Tripunithura Palace and back to Fort Kochi for dinner at the Old Harbour Hotel.

Where to eat in Kochi?

Among the best local recommendations are Paragon in Edappally, Kayees Rahmatullah Café for Biryani. In Fort Kochi, David Hall Gallery & Café, Kashi Art Cafe for coffee and café food while Brunton Boatyard, Pepper House and 1788 (restaurant at Old Harbour Hotel) are all classic fine-dine restaurants.

How to explore Kochi?

It is best to take the pleasures of Fort Kochi by walk as all the sights are accessible by foot and the distances are small. For longer distances; app based taxi services like ola, uber, cab be used. Autos and local buses are easily available too. A unique way to explore Kochi is by ferry. 

Ferry : The ferries are a cheap way to get around Kochi’s main areas considering the traffic at rush our. Regular government ferries ply from Fort Kochi and the different islands and areas are all well connected by ferries as it is the mode of transport that the locals use.

When is the best time to visit Kochi?

July to September is monsoon time and thats when Kochi is at its prettiest in the bountiful rain and greenery. November to February is commonly the most favoured time when the temperatures are bearable. Hotel prices are at their highest in the peak winter season.

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2 responses to “Exploring Kochi : A Travel Guide for Must-Visit and Offbeat Sights”

  1. Ganesh Sharma Avatar

    Nice Blog so beautiful blog and places thanx for sharing

  2. Vani Garg Avatar
    Vani Garg

    Wonderful place..

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