Kochi (or Cochin) has its own special place in history, because this was one of the biggest, busiest and most prosperous cities on the early spice route. It acted as an entrepôt for the spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, long pepper, turmeric, etc—which grew all along the Malabar coast (of which Kochi is a part). It also acted as a port for ships coming in from Arabia and Africa from the West, China and the Malaccas from the east. This was where it was happening back in the days of Vasco da Gama and the hectic spice trade.
This is where it’s still happening. Kochi is one of India’s major ports. It is home to an international airport; home, also, to the only Indian shipyard that is part of a city; and it is home to the headquarters of the Indian Navy’s Southern Command. More importantly for insatiable travelers, it has loads to offer: a fascinating history (of which many remnants are still to be seen), a rich cultural heritage, lots of natural beauty, and an almost-addictive local cuisine, rich in seafood and spices.
Orientation and getting around: Kochi spreads across three main areas: two islands and the mainland. The easternmost part of the city, which lies on the mainland, consists of the twin cities of Ernakulam and Kochi. This is the modern, commercial part of Kochi—there are malls here, large markets, major hotels, government and private offices, and the massive Cochin Shipyard, which dominates the seafront.
To the west of Ernakulam and mainland Kochi lies a stretch of water known as Vembanadu (or Vembanad) Lake, one of India’s largest lakes. Kochi forms Vembanadu’s link to the Arabian Sea, so this stretch of water is really part-sea, part-freshwater. A bridge (and a ferry) here connects the mainland to the nearest island to the west, Willingdon Island. Willingdon is mostly given over to the navy, and there’s little here for the tourist. Further east—and connected to Willingdon, both by bridge and ferry—is the island on which Fort Cochin sits. This is the touristic centre of Kochi, and where you’re likely to be spending much of your time.
Between Fort Cochin, Willingdon, and Ernakulam, you can travel by ferry, bus, taxi or autorickshaw—all are easily available. While taxis charge up to about Rs 3,500 for a full day’s hire, autorickshaws are a cheaper way of travelling over longish distances—we spent only Rs 70 for an hour’s drive around Fort Cochin and the Jew Town area, including waiting time.
Within Fort Cochin, walking is the best option: there are sights to see every few metres, and it’s a usually pedestrian-friendly area of quiet tree-lined lanes.
Must-sees and must-dos: Most of Kochi’s best attractions are historic, and clustered in and around Fort Cochin. The Chinese Fishing Nets, huge cantilevered nets that were originally set up by traders from the court of Kublai Khan, are the most visible sights along the sea front. A few minutes’ walk from here will bring you to St Francis’s Church, the oldest European-built Church in India—and the place where Vasco da Gama was briefly interred before his remains were taken back to Europe by his son. Near the church is the Dutch Cemetery, and nearby, the Bishop’s House, within the grounds of which is the fascinating Indo-Portuguese Museum. Further east, and towards the north, lies Kochi’s other major cathedral, the Catholic Santa Cruz Basilica, originally dating back to the 16th century, though the present building is an upstart, barely a hundred years old.
All of these areas can be covered in a single walk, with perhaps a stop for refreshments at one of the many tea- and coffee-shops on the atmospheric
Princess Street, lined with lovely old colonial buildings. While you’re in the vicinity, do make it a point to visit the Cochin Cultural Centre, which hosts a daily hour-long Kathakali performance.
Further out (and it’s advisable to take an auto or taxi), but also on the same island, is Jew Town, home to Kochi’s Paradesi Synagogue, a beautifully restored old synagogue that is worth a visit. Nearby is a large Spice Market (and lots of smaller retail shops where you can buy a range of Keralan spices, including some, like the large glossy seeds known as ‘massaging seeds’) that aren’t really known outside of Kerala). Also within close range is the Mattancherry Dutch Palace, built by the Dutch for the king of Kochi and now converted into a museum.
Further out, on the mainland, are other attractions. The Kerala Folklore and Theatre Museum, in Ernakulam, is an amazing (even if very jumbled!) storehouse of artefacts from not just Kerala, but also other parts of South India. Also in Ernakulam is the Thripunithura Hill Palace Museum—this one, sadly, was closed on the one day we had some hours free to see it, so we missed it. It was highly recommended by some of the people we met, so we’ll make it a point to include it in our itinerary the next time we’re in Kerala.
Further out from Ernakulam, you should certainly go on a cruise along the green, beautiful, and serene backwaters of Kerala: cruises range from a half-day tour to tours of a couple of days, where you live on a traditional Kerala houseboat known as a kettuvallom. Beyond the backwaters, and on the mainland, are two lovely little places for getting a closer look at Kerala’s wildlife: the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, which is one of India’s richest reserves of avifauna; and the Kodanadu Elephant Training Camp, where the Forest Department trains elephants for its work in the forests—this is an especially delightful place to see elephants (particularly the adorable calves!) at close quarters.
Eating out: If you like seafood (and more so if you like your seafood spicy!), Kochi is one of those cities that will warm the cockles of your heart. Fish, crabs, prawn, mussels and squid are among the popular items on local restaurant menus, and recipes run the gamut from the thoroughly traditional to the interestingly modern fusion meals that combine local Malabar food with Western influences. Also, since Kochi has long been a melting pot of different cultures and religions (including the Syrian Christian community, the Jews, and the Muslims), even the local cuisine isn’t completely homogenous.
For more details, read my journals on my favourite places to eat in Kochi, and some other restaurants that we dined at, but didn’t like as much.