Fort Cochin (Kochi) Travel Guide – The Gateway to Kerala.
Why Go: Kerala has attracted travellers, explorers and traders from all over the world for centuries, drawn to this slice of tropical South India by spices and Fort Cochin (Kochi) is the best place to see this rich multicultural heritage and start exploring the rest of Kerala, known as “God’s own Country”
The lucrative spice trade bought first Chinese and Arabian traders to Kerala’s shores and then later the Portuguese, Dutch and British and so Fort Cochin became a cultural melting pot and one of the biggest delights is just wandering and exploring the atmospheric old streets, the mosque, the synagogue, temples and churches, the colourful houses and shops in Jew town and the picturesque Chinese fishing nets and soaking up Cochin’s colourful history.
Daily Flashpacker Budget for Cochin: 1,000 – 2,000 Rupees a day (US$ 15 – 25 )
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Top Things to do in Fort Cochin
Where’s the Fort? Fort Cochin, as the name suggests, did used to have a large fort in the area around where the Chinese fishing nets and Mattancherry Palace. Even though you can no longer actually see the Fort in Fort Cochin this is still the most interesting part to explore.
Chinese Fishing Nets – On the shore at the tip of Fort Cochin these huge spider like cantilever contraptions are the iconic emblem of Cochin. These impressive nets are a legacy from Chinese traders from 1400 and require at least 4 people to operate. The Chinese fishing nets are at their most photogenic at sunset and, even though modern fishing methods and a lack of fish here have made these nets mostly redundant, you can still see them in operation and even try it yourself (they will ask for money of course!) You can also stroll along the shore front and inspect the catch and if you are feeling hungry they will be happy to cook up your purchases.
Pardesi Synagogue and Jew Town – The small but enchantingly beautiful over 400 year old Jewish synagogue in Fort Cochin features a small exhibition of paintings describing the role the Jews played in Cochin and beautiful chandeliers and tiling. The synagogue is right in the middle of Jew town and the bustling, colourful old port area, one of the most atmospheric parts of Fort Cochin, many of the old spice warehouses are now shops catering to tourists selling spices, antiques, nick nacks, colourful shawls and handicrafts but it’s still a nice place to wander and a great place to shop for souvenirs.
Mattancherry Palace (Dutch Palace) – In the heart of Jew Town, Mattancherry Palace, is now a small but interesting museum. Mattancherry was presented as a goodwill gift from the Portuguese in 1555 to the Raja of Kochi, probably to sweeten up trading privileges. It is also known as the Dutch Palace after it was renovated by the Dutch in 1663 and the wooden palace has some interesting exhibits that help bring to life the multicultural history of Cochin but the most impressive is the intricate and well preserved Hindu murals depicting the famous epic of the Ramayana.
Watch a Kathakali Dance – Kerala’s famous traditional dance form dates back to the 17th century and is as enchanting as it is unique. The colourful, elaborate make up and costumes and incredible facial expressions provide a fascinating experience, although its probably better to opt for a touristy performance as traditionally the performance can last for many hours and can be hard to follow at first. The Kerala Kathakali Center has nightly performances where you also see the make up being applied and get a demonstration of the different, subtle but fascinating movements and facial expressions.
Kerala Folklore Museum – This museum is on the outskirts of modern Kochi city but worth the effort. The museum has been created from a huge and amazing private collection of Keralan antiquities and artefacts from Malabar, Travancore and Kochi and is housed in a towering, charming, traditional style wooden Keralan Palace which was purpose built to hold the amazing collection. They also hold performances in the upstairs room. A rickshaw to get here should cost about 150 – 200 rupees.
Cherai Beach (Vypeen Island) – A short ferry journey from Fort Cochin takes you to Vypeen Island where a sandy stretch of beach is perfect for a beach day and escape from the city. You can also stay here at the Cherai Beach Resort.
Because of the abundant supply of spices and medicinal plants Kerala is the home of Ayurveda, an ancient, natural healing science that has been practiced in India for over 5000 years. Fort Cochin is a perfect place to try a relaxing Ayurvedic massage at a spa or hotel. You can also try cooking classes and while in Kerala also make sure to see a performance of Kalarippayat – one of the oldest martial arts in the world.
Don’t miss taking a look at the grand Santa Cruz Basilica, the Dutch Cemetery and St Francis Church, which is believed to be India’s oldest European church dating back to 1503 and was once the resting place of famous Portuguese explorer Vasca da Gama.
Offbeat Secrets and Tours of Fort Cochin
Fort Cochin is a joy to explore by simply wandering around but to discover more about the history of the city and some off beat secrets slightly outside goMowgli (India’s first hop on hop off backpacker bus) also run a great off beat Cochin city tour. They take you to the both the popular spots (including the amazing but out of the way Kerala Folklore Museum) and also outside Kochi to witness a real, authentic, bustling fishing village where you can witness the fascinating comings and goings and the fish being auctioned and sold off from the boats to the markets and explore the nearby idyllic backwater villages and paddy fields, including seeing real and working Chinese fishing nets.
Visiting this fishing village was the highlight of my time in Kochi but the locals wanted me to keep it a secret and not reveal the name of the village so that it is not flooded with tourists. Find out more about the fishing village here or book an offbeat Cochin city tour with goMowgli to go and see it for yourself. You can also check out my review of goMowgli.
Where to stay in Fort Cochin
The main town of Kochi is a modern and reasonably hectic large Indian city, most visitors choose to stay in the much more serene Fort Cochin area near to the places of interest where there is plenty of accommodation for all price ranges, from sociable backpacker hostels, to family run homestays to some wonderful heritage, boutique hotels.
Save: Hostels in Fort Cochin
A handful of backpacker hostels have opened up in Fort Cochin over the last few years and offer a sociable atmosphere and a great way to meet other travellers. Try Maritime by The Hostel Crowd, Vedanta Wake Up or the cute Happy Camper Hostel.
There are also more budget guesthouses and homestays clustered around Princess Street where you can find cheap rooms from about 500 rupees – try Jojies Homestay, great because it also has a shared kitchen and lounge where you can met other guests, Tom’s Old Mansion in a nice old colonial building or Dream Catcher Homestay situated in an old Portuguese house with a sociable atmosphere and yoga and meditation classes.
Also check out The Best Backpacker Hostels in Kerala
Splurge: Hotels in Fort Cochin
Fort Cochin has a great selection of characterful, heritage hotels and is probably the best place to splash out in Kerala. Malabar House is one of the finest hotels in Kerala that blends a hip and modern design with heritage character. Brunton Boatyard is an imposing colonial building situated right on the backwaters and in the heart of Jew Town where the rooms and the pool have views over the backwaters or try The Old Harbour Hotel, another lovely heritage building in a great location but with a more intimate feel.
I’ve visited Kerala and Cochin 3 times now but when I visited as part of the Kerala Blog Express I was lucky enough to stay in luxury resorts all across Kerala! If you want to splash out then check out my recommendations of the best luxury resorts and hotels in Kerala.
Where to eat in Fort Cochin
The Jew Town area of Fort Cochin has many traveller orientated restaurants and cafes with mixed menu of all the Indian, Chinese and Western traveller favourites and you can also buy fresh seafood and street food along the shore by the Chinese fishing nets.
The government of Kerala keeps threatening to make Kerala a dry state and there are strict restrictions of the sale of alcohol meaning that it can be hard to find a drink outside the up market hotels although some places may be able to serve you a ‘special tea’ (beer hidden in a tea cup).
Some of the best restaurants in Fort Cochin are:
Ginger House – A cute, chilled out waterfront restaurant lies behind an old merchants shop packed with kitshy antiques and a huge wooden boat in the heart of Jew Town.
Fusion Bay serves great value food with good seafood and imaginative Kerala fusion dishes.
Kashi Art Café – a popular place for coffee, breakfast or lunch in the nice courtyard surrounded by art work from local artists.
Dal Roti – is a great cheap joint for a quick meal of tasty North Indian food.
XL – this slightly dingy beer bar serves reasonable priced Kingfishers and OK food.
Pepper House Cafe serves light lunches, drink and snacks in the cute courtyard setting of this waterfront heritage property. It will also soon include a gallery, art studios and event spaces.
Xandari Harbour, Old Harbour Hotel, Malabar Junction and Korder House are also great options for upmarket dinning (and serve beer and wine) in a nice, waterfront, heritage setting.
How to get to Fort Cochin
The nearest airport to Fort Cochin is Kochi Airport, about an hour’s drive away, which is well connected both domestically and internationally.
The main train station is called Ernakulam which is over in the mainland part of Kochi city and is well connected to the rest of Kerala and India. Kerala is also well served by cheap local buses, fine for short journeys however, for long overnight journey you may want to book a Volvo AC bus for more comfort.
Kerala is most famous for it’s tropical backwaters and cruising along these waterways is an essential Kerala experience that can’t be missed. Alleppey (Alappuzha), is the gateway to the backwaters but you can also arrange a backwater trip (possible as a day trip as well as overnight trips) from Fort Cochin.
Explore the rest of God’s own Country – head up to the tea plantations in the hill station of Munnar, Wayanad or Periyar National Park
Head to the beach resorts of Varkala and Kovalam.
See more in my Guide to Kerala
A Flashpacker’s Guide to Kerala