We walked out of the front door of our houses with nothing but our backpacks. And a gateway to the world opened up when we entered the gates of Fort Kochi. Every corner of Kochi has a story to tell. A guide to Kochi cannot have it all – but it does have the essential things that you could explore here.
What is the city all about?
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell
Such a befitting quote for this beautiful city of Kochi! The events that have occurred in this city over the centuries can be felt in the aura that the city radiates today. Much has been deliberated upon over Kochi – the traders who came here in search of the pepper, the Jews who made this place their home when the entire world abandoned them and a lot more. These deliberations and discussions have shaped the history of this place as it stands today.
Though the name endures it, the Fort exists no more. The area around which the Fort once existed has been the abode of people from almost every corner of the earth. Every building, every street, every corner of this city is bustling with history that Kochi once was.
Kochi, the natural harbor, lies along the Vembanad lake and the Arabian Sea. There is a cluster of islands in Kochi – a few man-made and some natural. The ocean and the lake endow the city with a sleepy, laid-back disposition which sets it apart from any other city or heritage town in India.
The past is a living thing – and definitely so in Kochi
Kerala has the busiest ports in the world and had established itself as one of the major spice trade centres since 3rd century BC. The humble pepper (aka the black gold) is the reason why the entire world landed on this port town – the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Syrians, the Jews and of course the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British who came later. Not just that, a village in Kerala is believed to be the Biblical Ophir, a port visited by the ships of King Solomon.
One thing that strikes every visitor about Kochi is the religious harmony that exists here. If the Jew Synagogue can share a wall with the palace of a Hindu King, there is no other proof that is needed to establish the fact that people from every religion lived here in peace. From the Buddhists to the Hindus, the Islams, the Jains, the Jews and the Christians – you will find all of them in Kochi even today.
As for Kochi, the city is divided into two parts. The Kochi of today can be found in the city of Ernakulam while the more rustic and the charm of the yore lie in Fort Kochi.
The story of Fort Kochi begins where the story of Kodungallur ends. Kodungallur, once a trading port, was blocked when River Periyar flooded in 1341. The traders ran helter skelter unable to dock their ships in Kodangallur until someone found a new harbor. The new harbor that was discovered had never existed before the flood. But nature has its own ways. The flood blocked one port but opened up another. The traders brimmed with joy and shifted their shops from Kodangallur to the new harbor i.e. the present Fort Kochi.
Spices have been instrumental in the way the history of the world has shaped up and Kochi was house to most of the exotic spices that the human race craved for. The Arabs had kept the spice route a secret. When the Turkish Empire rose to power, they controlled the overland trade routes between the East and the Europeans. As the goods changed hands many times, the prices were exorbitant by the time it reached Europe. Further, the Turks who controlled Constantinople had absurd conditions for letting cargoes from the East pass through their city. This enraged the Western European merchants and they decided to set sail to find their own sea route. This decision made Columbus and Vasco Da Gama legendary. They found a new sea route to the land of spices, Kerala and broke the Arab monopoly.
The ones who landed here had just one objective – they wanted to make this place their own. In the process they have left so much behind that whoever arrives here today, surrenders to the beauty of the place.
The locals of Kochi
Fish market – There is ample to do in the little hamlet of Kochi. But step out a bit. And you will find yourself in a fish market – it is a market where fish is auctioned. Just by the sea-shore, donning a hat to keep from the bright sun-rays, the auctioneer is constantly at work. And the beautiful array of the colourful boats provides a scene that is a paradise for any photography obsessed. There is nothing better that we could have begun the guide to Kochi with.
Jew Town – This town did not divide people. This town stands even today to remind people of the harmony that existed and the way people were united. Just a stone’s throw away from the Mattancherry Palace, is an area that the King had granted to the Jews as their own area. When Jews across Europe experienced brutal anti-Semitism, India welcomed them. What once flourished with trade, Hebrew culture and prayers, has now given way to tiny shops selling trinkets and a thriving spice market.
Locals in Matancherry – Mattancherry is a place where the locals of Kochi have lived ever since. You can see devotees buying garlands of flowers to offer at a nearby temple. And if luck is on your side, the walls of temple will be lit up with hundreds of oil lamps. A peep into the adjoining streets will help you get a glimpse into the life of the locals. You can see families making pappadams/ papads (rice crisps) for more than four generations now.
Dhobi Ghat – What was once believed to be a lake, is now one of the few remaining laundries in India where clothes are still washed in the traditional manner. It is believed that the dhobis (washermen) were brought from Tamil Nadu to wash the clothes of the British army. What is interesting here is to observe the unique way that is used to hang clothes.
The popular ones that you cannot leave without
Mattancherry Palace – Talking of the Palace – no it is neither majestic nor grand and the architecture has nothing special. It strikes as odd, isn’t it? Then you may ask why should the Palace feature in the guide to Kochi? The answer is the Kerala Mural Paintings on the walls of the Palace. And only one word can describe the Murals – stunning! You need to see it to believe it.
Synagogue – If there is an active Synagogue in Kochi, it definitely must have a Jew connection. Jews had established excellent trade relationship with Kochi. Legend has it that the first Jews arrived in Kochi during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and they were warmly received. The neighbourhood in which the Synagogue is presently located is known as the Jew town. And believe it or not, the Synagogue shares a wall with the Palace of the erstwhile King of Kochi.
Spice Market – Flanked by the coastline and the spice warehouses of the past (now converted into hotels), this stretch of road is replete with the concoction of smell from the array of spices available here. And yes, there are beautifully coloured spices on sale here – green, yellow, red and obviously the black too. The world arrived here looking for some spices. There will seldom be a guide to Kochi that would not have mentioned these spices.
Chinese fishing nets – The Chinese fishing nets have become one of the major tourist attractions in Kochi. Whether these nets were installed by the Chinese or the Portuguese has been a matter of debate. Given that parts of the nets still have Portuguese names and the Portuguese had colonies in China, it can be considered that these nets were installed in Kochi by the Portuguese. But legend has it that these nets were brought from the court of the Chinese emperor, Kublai Khan and have been in operation since then.
Kerala Folklore Museum – This museum is a venture to preserve the folklore wealth of Kerala. It is a treasure house where one can find artefacts such as masks, sculptures, stone-age utensils that are preserved. The building in itself is a piece of marvel – another place where you can view the breathtaking mural paintings.
St Francis Church – Originally named St. Bartholomew, this is the first European church that was built in India by the Portuguse. The architecture of the church is a reminder of the style used by the Portuguese in the churches in Goa as well. The Dutch reconditioned the church after taking over Kochi and converted I into their Government Church. Vasco Da Gama breathed his last in Kochi and was buried in this Church. The remains were shipped to Portugal fourteen years hence.
Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica – This is another church that stands testimony to the Portuguese influence in Kochi. But what is interesting is that this is the first structure which had the king’s permission for the use of brick and mortar. In that age, brick and mortar could only be used for erecting royal structures like palaces or temples.
For the activity junkies
Walk around the lanes in Fort Kochi and Parade Ground – You can get immersed in the narrow alleys of FORT KOCHI with walls adorned with vivid street art. The interwoven streets are lined up with tiny stores selling everything from antiques to books, ayurvedic supplies, postcards and souvenirs.
The Parade Ground is the place where the influences of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British abound. Hence, there are several buildings of historical importance around the ground. This place is always bustling, either with an event or a carnival or some display. And if nothing is happening, you will find the kids from the next block enjoy a game of football here.
Ferry ride – A guide ought to include modes of transport that are feasible for moving around in a particular city. But a ferry ride in Kochi need not be essential only if you want to move around. A small break from being on the road could provide you a glimpse into the cluster of islands around Fort Kochi.
Cycling Trip – Well! Fort Kochi can be discovered on foot. But should you be craving to view this city from a different perspective, hop on and peddle around. The Art of Bicycle Trips provides different tours around the city.
Cooking lessons – One can be smitten by the smooth flavours of Southern India. Of course there are spices aplenty that you can carry back home but how about imbibing some culinary skills too? There are many cooking classes run by few families around Fort Kochi. Not only will you learn the art, this could be your chance to get a sneak into the lives of the locals and experience Indian hospitality too.
Admirers of art – go here
Kashi Art Gallery – “A space which facilitates the discourse between art, artists, and its audience”. With an in-house café, this is one of the best places to sit and watch the world pass by. What is more interesting is that the Art Gallery is also an artist residency which becomes a platform for meeting interesting people and striking a random conversation leading to exchange of ideas.
David Hall Art Gallery – Art, performances, history, film, events – you will find them all here under one roof. Set-up in an Old Dutch bungalow that has been restored, this art gallery and performance space focuses on providing a platform to young artists.
Pepper House – Set to evolve as a multi-purpose space that will host artists and promote visual arts, this heritage warehouse is now a café, art gallery and one of the best libraries. With a collection of books in almost all languages and a collection of CDs and DVDs, this place provides the perfect ambience to laze around by the window with a book. P.S.: You cannot borrow books here.
Aspinwall House – Another heritage house, this building was the business centre of one of the companies that traded in different products from Kerala. It has now been converted into a cultural hub, especially during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Festivals and events
Kochi-Muziris Biennale – It is an international exhibition of the contemporary art hosted in Kochi on the lines of the Venice Biennale. There are exhibitions, talks, seminars, screening, music, workshops – the entire city buzzes with art with many spaces acting as artist’s residence and art galleries. The street art found everywhere in the lanes of Kochi is the mark left on the city after every year’s event.
Kathakali – A form of classical Indian dance, it represents five forms of fine art – literature, music, painting, acting and dancing. Adorned with intricate make-up and elaborate costumes, the Kathakali artists perform using immense concentration, defined hand gestures and facial expressions. A guide to Kochi would be incomplete without including a visit to witness the Kathakali performance.
Kalaripayattu – The 3000 years old mother of all martial arts is performed using the sword, shield, spears and bows. This form of art draws inspiration from the raw power of the majestic animal forms like lion, tiger, elephant, snake, etc. The finesse displayed by the artists is a proof of the hard work and commitment needed to perfect the art.
Sip and chomp – they have it all here
Sri Krishna Café – If you are expecting a candle-lit fine dining experience, this is not the place to be in. A simple restaurant serving vegetarian South Indian meals, this can be a good place to satiate your hunger without burning a hole in the pocket.
Kayees Biryani – If you have been in India for a while, you know biryani. Like language, even the famed Biryani differs from one region to another in India. This place is a paradise for the Thalasherry (North Kerala) style of Biryani. Ensure you reach here before 1pm – because as soon as the pan is uncovered, the biryani gets over. Very few places serve this style of biryani – hence, this is a must include in the guide to Kochi.
Hotel Saravana Bhawan – Ask any native of South India about the Saravana Bhawan, you will see them drool. Situated on Banerjee Road in Ernakulam, this place whips an array of authentic South Indian vegetarian meals. Oh yeah! Don’t get confused. Indians use the word ‘hotel’ interchangeably for lodges as well as places that are JUST RESTAURANTS.
Dal Roti – A good place for some North Indian food, the owner is friendly and will explain the menu if the need arises. Dive into the delicious range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. No alcohol.
Fusion Bay – This place has tried to demonstrate what Kochi truly is through its flavours. The food is an interesting fusion of cultures – the best of India is served with a hint of the west. Looks like the pots of various cultures melted away in this place.
Masala Fort – Located in Fort Kochi, the flight of stairs will lead you to a quaint little space that overlooks the street below. The hostess will guide you through and suggest the best combinations of bread/ rice and curry for you. A must visit if you are craving some good food in a cute ambience.
Dhe Puttu – Puttu is the all time favourite dish of the locals of Kerala. And this place serves variation of it with biryani puttu and noodles puttu as well. A must visit for some authentic Kerala food with some twist.
Kashi café – When food, art and conversation merge, magic is created. And Kashi café is the best place to visit if one wants to experience the magic. This place serves some of the best coffee and some western breakfast and lunch specials.
David Hall Café – What is special about this place is not the food so much but the ambience. The art gallery and the Dutch Palace make it worth a visit. If you get hungry, do munch on some pizzas. Craving for some dessert – go for pizza again – dessert pizza!
All the places for you to live in
Kochi has developed into a place which travellers love to visit. And Fort Kochi has strived to develop amenities that could provide all the comfort that travellers seek. There are ample guest houses – so many that there could be only one guide to Kochi listing only the guest houses. The hostel bug has caught up and the hostels here have live up to the expectations.
The backpacker-friendly hostels
Happy Camper – Situated on the same street as St Francis Church, the yellow house with a quaint café in the portico is one of the dream hostels of a backpacker. Spacious rooms, comfortable beds, yummy breakfast and friendly people – it has all the essential comforts that a traveler seeks. This place deserves some brownie points for being spotlessly clean and a common seating area on the terrace overlooking the streets below. They have private rooms too.
Maritime Hostel – Another nice place in Kochi, this place garners some great reviews for a place where travellers meet people and make new friends. They serve some really good breakfast in the morning and have private rooms too. Tip: You need to produce your passport to get an entry to this hostel.
Vedanta Wake up – Vedanta runs a chain of hostels across South India. Be assured to meet some great travellers and friendly staff here.
Some homely feel at the home stays
Before hostels became traveler’s favourite, it was the home stays that people liked. Home stays allows one to experience the local hospitality, some great home cooked meal, quick and personalized tips about the city ad homely atmosphere. Home stays are like home away from home.
Immanuel Home stay – Run by a couple who will do anything to make their guests feel at home, this home stay is one of the most preferred options in Fort Kochi. Enjoy the Indian hospitality with some great food cooked personally by the hosts for their guests.
Rampart Home stay – This home stay has dorms as well as private rooms to accommodate different kind of travellers. Rampart home stay garners some rave reviews about the cleanliness, the classy bathrooms and the amazing manager, Binu.
The Nest Home stay – Run by a couple, this place serves some amazing breakfast. They also provide cooking lessons and can organize tours for their guests upon request.
Maison Casero Home stay – The rooms here have spacious big terrace. Lovely family, great breakfast, clean and comfortable rooms – everything that you expect in a good home stay is available here.
Vasco House – This is not just a home stay – it is a heritage home stay, the house where the famous sailor Vasco Da Gama once lived. Furnished with some antiques, the rooms are spacious and have beautiful décor. The common rooms also fit the heritage theme with the armchairs and the books. The hosts and the wonderful food is something that adds the charm to this place.
Le Linda Home stay – A home away from home, Linda does everything to make the guests feel at home. She is an amazing cook and also provides cooking lessons.
Fort Muziris – Good rooms with a good balcony and great food – isn’t that all you need when you are on a holiday? The idea of this place is to provide an authentic experience of Kerala, its raw vibrancy and the history.
Hotel Fort House – This is a family run hotel. Some people who have stayed here find it cosy, serene, charming and some others say that it is ‘A beauty’. The bedrooms open into lush courtyard making your mornings very beautiful. A must explore place to stay in Kochi.
Enjoy the royal touch in the heritage homes
Considering the rich history that Kochi has, a guide to Kochi cannot afford to miss out on the gorgeous bungalows, houses of the affluent and the royals and the various other heritage homes which have been converted into hotels now.
Cochin Ballard Bungalow – This bungalow is owned by the Cochin Diocese which was governed by the Portuguese. Financial difficulties tided over them due to which the residence has been converted into a hotel which is open for all. The furniture and décor – everything here has a heritage touch to it.
Cochin Heritage Home – A Kerala style house with large rooms, veranda and breakfast is served on the porch. The rooms downstairs are more spacious but the ones upstairs have the porch for the view.
Koder House – This place is a landmark in itself. This is a house where the Koders, one of the Jew families of Kochi, once lived. Some members of the family still live in the Jew Street in Kochi. It is believed to have reconstructed over a Portuguese mansion. Further, it is also believed to have structured and gabled in Europe and shipped to Kochi. Quite some history to live in, isn’t it?
What do you need to take home from Kochi?
Spices – Definitely some of them! They are so good and colourful here. The aromas from the streets in Kochi are going to haunt you for some time. So might as well have some in your bag and take a whiff when you are home. Use them as medicines, taste enhancers, preservatives, or just room fresheners – the choice is yours!
Leela Coffee – The Western Ghats and the Malabar Coast is known for some great coffee. Leela coffee in Ernakulam is a cave-like shop from where you can buy coffee beans or if you prefer them powdered, they would do it for you.
Fabindia – Not just in Kochi, Fabindia is a favourite store for many in most of the cities in India. Nice pastel coloured cotton fabrics crafted into some elegant semi-ethnic wear are elegant, comfortable and the most practical clothing for Indian climate. A must visit place if you love Kurtas, skirts, scarf, and sarees. They have ethnic wear for men too.
Antique shops – Kochi is lined with some shops selling antiques – especially the shops in Jew town. What explains the hordes of antique shops existing in Kochi is that when the traders came, they left some precious material back either in exchange for spices or to lighten their sail. The authenticity of the antiques cannot be verified. Nevertheless, some of these make up for good souvenirs and a stroll here makes for good walk.
Anokhi – Conservation and development are the ideals of Anokhi. They have some of the best fabric here. The prints and the texture of the cloth will make this purchase a memorable one. Since it is based out of Jaipur, do check out their block printed and tied-and-dyed fabric.
Kochi Books – A good bookstore with some amazing collection of travel books and books on local history. Do check their online store too!
Idiom Book sellers – This place is a book lovers paradise. They have books – new and used. You could also buy and send them home to spare yourself lugging around the weight during your travel. A nice place to spend a day in Kochi!
Going around Kochi should be more fun with this local’s guide to Kochi. However, travel gets better when you observe the details and understand the way of living of the people in a locality. This is where we at goMowgli can help you. Not just places, we tell you the whats and answer your whys. May be these are the stories that gives the travellers a different perspective. May be these stories help them understand a bit of this vast country.
If you are planning a trip to Kochi, you can spend a day with us (you can book the tour here). We take you to the offbeat locations without compromising on the must-visits. Not just that, we also take travellers across Kerala. Check our Hop on Hop off travel options wherein you can travel across Kerala in a single pass without going through the hassle of booking your bus/ train/ cab from one place to another.
And if you have been to Kochi and have some suggestions that we have missed, do leave a comment. We promise to include them in our guide to Kochi.