This article has been written in collaboration with Kerala Tourism who asked me to share my thoughts on the campaign, Human by Nature. I traveled to Kerala independently and all opinions expressed here are honest and my own.
This article is about things to do in Kochi, a quaint city in the west of India and one which I explored solo and enjoyed very much. But it is as much about the sights as it is about the experience and the warmth I enjoyed while touring on my own.
India is one of my favorite countries in Asia which is why I have visited it 10 times.
That is right, I have been to India 10 times.
Why do I visit India so often?
Because it is a large country one can visit many times and have a completely different experience every time.
From the high mountains of the Himalayas to the beaches of Chennai, from the tech hubs of Hyderabad and Bangalore to the desert of Jaisalmer, or the backwaters of Kerala, India is many countries in one and, with internal flights being so affordable, it makes for a great option to have many mini-vacations in one trip.
Things to do in Kochi
Kochi is a great city to visit if you are spending some time in Kerala as I did, or even Goa, which is located nearby.
Its rich heritage, with Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese influence, makes for a unique destination in the country, and the relaxed and safer atmosphere means it is a great choice even for solo female travelers.
Kerala, in general, is one of the easiest parts of India to explore, especially for the uninitiated and its people have a lot to do with this. I found the locals to be extremely kind and welcoming.
I got quite sick with the flu and ended up having to cancel my trip to the hill stations and the spice gardens of Munnar after the backwaters and Kochi, but the staff at the hotels I was staying at, the boat and everyone I met were incredibly sympathetic and treated me like family.
Important note about Kochi and Fort Kochi: When talking about Kochi, most tourists and visitors will mostly refer to the old part of the city located in a peninsula and not to the larger, relatively modern part.
The small peninsula often referred to as Fort Kochi is the main point of interest for tourists and where all the things to do in Kochi are. Its heritage buildings have been featured in many Indian movies and are the perfect backdrop for beautiful photography.
Important note about Kochi and Cochin: Like with other cities in India such as Kolkata or Mumbay, Kochi is the Indian name of the city versus the Anglicised word for it, Cochin. I have chosen to use the vernacular to refer to the city.
So let’s take a look at the best things to do in Kochi.
Photograph the picturesque Chinese fishing nets
The Chinese fishing nets of Kochi are the most recognizable and photographed tourist attraction in the city.
These charming stationary lift fishing nets are used to catch fish while being fixed to the shore. They are very large and operated with a series of ropes that need to be pulled by various people. Little real fishing takes place on them nowadays.
With time, as the canal deepened, the nets had to be strengthened by harder wood and even metal parts instead of the original bamboo, and larger teams of workers are now required to lift them.
This technique was the most common way to fish in the area, but today, there are only eight remaining nets in Fort Kochi, some smaller ones in other parts of Kerala, and have high heritage value, not to mention their size ranks them as some the largest of their kind in the world.
The structures were originally brought by the Portuguese from their other Asian colonies such as Macau or other parts of Indochina which is why they are casually referred to as Chinese fishing nets. The origin of the name is unclear.
The nets still provide fishing revenue to workers and owners but are mostly a tourist attraction, not just for photographers but also to learn about a fishing technique now in decline.
The nets and the area around them are best seen at sunset when temperatures are more bearable and the sky turns from orange to red. You will see hundreds of street vendors in the area selling drinks, fresh-cut fruit and souvenirs. There is also fresh fish for sale but it does not come from the fishing nets.
Tip: Photographing the nets is free but if you want to jump on them or pretend to pull the ropes, a tip is customary and will be expected.
Because the nets are right by the Fort Kochi area, they make for an interesting place to start your exploration.
Go on a backwater houseboat tour
Kerala is best known for its scenic backwater canals and houseboat tours which you can board to explore the beautiful waterways as you see the day go by.
You can spend a few days on the boat, like I did, sleeping onboard and setting out to sail the canals in the morning and afternoon. If you only have one day, you can also see the backwaters on a day tour from Kochi, which is the main urban center in the area.
You will depart in the morning, drive to the houseboat and then explore the canals before stopping for lunch only to continue in the afternoon. The tours stop a few times to go onshore and otherwise float slowly in the shallow waters.
These are our recommended tours of the backwaters:
- Half-day Houseboat tour of the backwaters.
- Full day tour of the backwaters on a houseboat followed by a guided visit to the Chinese fishing nets.
- 2 day tour with overnight in a houseboat.
Explore Fort Kochi
No matter how much I walked around I just could not locate the fort despite the map kept on insisting I was in Fort Kochi. So what is Fort Kochi?
When I first arrived in Fort Kochi I was expecting to see a prominent fort. Instead, what is left of the fort is just a smaller circular bastion that is now the Sub-Collector’s Office and some of the lower parts of the outer walls of the fort, some of the canons and other vestiges, so don’t go there expecting a fortress.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the old part of Kochi is called Fort Kochi and is where all the Dutch, Portuguese and British heritage remains, and it is where most of the things to do in Kochi on this article are located, so it is more a part of the city than a fort per se.
The fort itself was built in the beginning of the 16th century when the Portuguese explorers first arrived in Kochi and started as a defensive bastion called Fort Immanuel.
The strategic point was given to the Portuguese king by the Maharajah of Kochi after he helped him at war and this became the first European enclave in the country and the capital of Portuguese India until it shifted to Goa in 1530.
Take a stroll along the shore from the Chinese fishing nets all the way around the original walls of the bastion following the coast for a scenic walk.
It might be better to join a guided tour of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry area if you are interested in the history and don’t have time to plan the trip.
Visit the Mattancherry or Dutch Palace
This beautiful colonial palace in the area of the same name is a museum and heritage house worth a visit.
Designed in Kerala’s style as a gift by the Portuguese to the Maharajah of Kochi, it was later expanded by the Dutch, hence its name.
Today, the palace is a museum filled with artifacts from the time and portraits of the Maharajah of Kochi and his family.
Magnificent murals cover several of the walls and depict scenes from the Ramayana, similar to the ones found in palaces in other parts of India such as Udaipur, Jaipur or Jodhpur. These murals are the main attraction to the palace.
The palace is included in the tentative list of UNESCO sites in India pending confirmation.
Join a guided tour of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry area.
Watch a Kathakali performance
This Keralan folkloric dance, theater and classical Indian musical performance is rare to find outside of the state but can be enjoyed in Kochi.
I saw a part of a Kathakali performance one evening while on the Oberoi Vrinda boat and very much enjoyed it. It is so unique and such an element of the local culture that I highly recommend attending one.
Full performances can take hours and show legends and stories without a single word being uttered. Instead, the performers use facial expressions, gestures of the hands and feet and music to explain what is happening, making this a one-of-a-kind cultural experience.
Watch a short part of the performance I saw below.
Pay attention to the makeup, the outfits and the headpieces, all part of the legend and performance. Note that, traditionally and similar to olden day Shakespeare, all the performers are male and play male and female characters.
Some of the shows will include a small introduction where you will learn what each expression means and will be able to see it in action later.
Book a Kathali performance and dinner.
See St. Francis Church
This is one of the oldest churches in India and it is where Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was buried when he died in 1924 in his third visit to India. He is no longer buried there as his remains were later brought back to Portugal.
The church was originally built by Portuguese Franciscan friars and dedicated to St. Bartholomew. When the Dutch took over Fort Kochi, they converted it into a Protestant church. Later on, the British turned it into an Anglican church dedicated to St. Francis.
The church is one of the few parts of Fort Kochi that date from the Portuguese period.
St. Francis Church is sometimes open to visitors but was closed when I visited. You can nonetheless see its peculiar structure and garden from the outside.
Join a guided tour of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry area for a bit more history and background on each site.
Visit Paradesi Synagogue
This is the oldest functioning Synagogue in India and was originally founded by Spanish and Dutch Jews. There used to be several other synagogues in Kochi but this is the only one still in operation.
The word paradesi literally means foreign and it refers to the fact that the first devotees were actually foreign traders. The Dutch colonizers destroyed the synagogue in the 17th century but it was later rebuilt. The main building and clocktower underwent conservation efforts in 2006.
One of the unique features of this synagogue is its many colorful hanging lamps that look as if they were there exhibited for sale. They were installed in the 19th century and come from Belgium.
The synagogue is open from Sunday to Thursday 10am to 12pm and 3pm to 5pm.
Book a Jewish heritage walking tour to get more out of your trip.
The above 3h walking tour includes all the main sites in Fort Kochi, Mattancherry (including the palace), St. Francis church as well as the fishing nets.
Experience Kerala’s Human by Nature atmosphere
No doubt one of the best reasons to visit Kochi and Kerala is their people. Locals are warm, they are diverse and they have a wealth of heritage and culture to share.
I experienced their warmth through my trip, especially since I was traveling alone and had the chance to interact with many locals. No matter if you are on a houseboat in the backwaters, or at a cafe in Kochi, you will feel their openness.
One of the best ways to connect with the locals is at the many cafes in Kochi. Just take a seat, order a drink and chat with the team or with fellow travelers.
Go on a sunset boat tour
One of the most pleasant and peaceful ways to enjoy Fort Kochi’s shore and sunsets is from the quietness of a sunset boat tour.
The tour will venture out from Kochi Harbor where you will pass through the Marine Drive, Chinese fishing nets, and Bolgatty Island. The sunset spot is the gorgeous Kochi Lagoon which opens out into the Arabian Sea.
You can book your sunset boat cruise of Kochi here.
Visit Athirappilly waterfall on a day tour
If you are staying in Kochi for a longer time, you might want to take some more day trips, for example to visit waterfalls. Kerala is known for its lush nature, waterways and hills and there are many waterfalls you can visit.
Athirappailly is the largest waterfall in Kerala and is an impressive place to see, especially at the end of the rainy season when it runs full.
The waterfall is wide and water gushes down from many points, in a formation that looks similar to Niagara Falls or Victoria Falls.
Athirappilly is a popular day trip for the locals and it has also been featured in some movies. The trip is not just interesting for the waterfall but also because it will give you the chance to cross through beautiful nature.
Go on a tour to the hill stations
Kerala is known for the backwaters, for Kochi and for the hill stations, cooler than the coast and covered in spices and tea plantations.
These hill stations were the British choice destination to escape the hot summer months and, like in other parts of Asia, they were leveraged as agricultural plantations, primarily for tea and other spices, similar to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.
There are many hill stations in the state but a couple of cities stand out as local favorites, one of them is Munnar a great weekend escape 1,600m above sea level but surrounded by even higher peaks.
When in Munnar, you can visit tea plantations and a museum, learn about how the herb is prepared, see pepper and other spices in the wild and even spot wildlife, particularly birds. There are also many waterfalls in the area. Munnar makes for a great day trip from Kochi.
Book a day tour of Munnar.
Have dinner at Brunton Boatyard Hotel
This former boatyard used to be the birthplace of many fine boats including some for the British Empire that were used in WWII. Today, the once-abandoned building has been transformed into a heritage hotel by CGH Earth Experience Hotels.
You can stay at the hotel for a real dose of colonial feel, or come here for dinner at History to savor fine-dining fusion Indian dishes from this part of the country with a touch of everyone who lived in Fort Kochi.
The lush lawns, long corridors and black and white design of the former boatyard reminded me of Singapore, of the Raffles Hotel and the many colonial shophouses in Singapore’s Chinatown. Ask the staff for the chef’s recommendations and don’t miss the chance to try the local curries.
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