The Keralite port city is called Kochi. Cochin is the anglicized version of the name and they refer to the same city. Kochi consists of a number of islands and a slice of the mainland: Vypin, Vallarpadam, Bolgatty, Willingdon, Mattancherry, and Ernakulam (mainland area). Most travelers spend their time exploring Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. Willingdon Island is quiet and has a few nice hotels. Cochin International Airport is the local airport. The bus stations, the train stations, and the principal ferry port are across the water in Ernakulam on the mainland. Most of the time, you cross from one island to another either over bridges or by ferries. Water transportation is both efficient and cheap.
How to reach Kochi
Cochin international airport is at Nedumbassery, near Alua, 29km north of Ernakulam. A prepaid taxi from the airport into the main town costs around ₹800 and takes 45min or more depending on the traffic. There are bus shuttles available between the airport and Fort Cochin. These buses are modern and comfortable and run on an hourly schedule.
Kochi is served by two railway stations – Ernakulam Junction, near the center, and Ernakulam Town, 2km further north. Ernakulam Town has the main broad-gauge line and the station sees frequent services to and from Thiruvananthapuram via Kottayam, Kollam, and Varkala. In the opposite direction, trains connect Ernakulam and Thrissur, and Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Most long-distance express and mail trains depart from Ernakulam Junction, though a handful of services depart from Ernakulam Town station. There is another train station, the Cochin Harbour Terminus, on Willingdon Island. It serves the island’s luxury hotels. Some services also leave from that station. To avoid getting confused, please check the departing station when you book your ticket. The main reservation office for all trains leaving from all the stations is at the Ernakulam Junction.
For the state-run long-distance bus services, go to the KSRTC Central bus stand. It is beside the railway line east of MG Rd and north of Ernakulam Junction. Reservations for services starting from this bus station can be done twenty days in advance. The private and more expensive bus services are catered from the Kaloor Stand (rural destinations to the south and east) and the High Court Stand. The Kaloor Stand is across the bridge from Ernakulam Town railway station on the Alua Road. The buses to Kumily, for Periyar Wildlife Reserve, and north to Thrissur, Guruvayur, and Kodungallur ply from the High Court Stand that is opposite the High Court ferry jetty. The Fort Cochin bus terminus offers tourist buses, local services to Ernakulam, and the airport shuttle.
Getting around Kochi
This is the cheapest way of reaching the different parts of Kochi. Though a bit dilapidated, these ferries carry passengers and vehicles and are relaxingly slow. The most popular route for travelers is the one connecting Ernakulam’s Main Boat Jetty and Fort Cochin/Mattancherry’s Customs Jetty. Ferries for Bolgatty Island and Vypeen Island leave from Ernakulam. There are two routes for Vypeen Island – one fast, direct route and a slower service via Willingdon Island. Vehicle ferries to Vypeen Island are also available from Fort Cochin’s Government Jetty (10min walk west of Customs Jetty). Tickets should be purchased prior to embarkation. There are separate queues for ladies and men.
KSRTC has frequent services that run throughout the day between Ernakulam and Fort Cochin.
Best Time to visit Kochi
Winter (October to February) is the best time to visit Kochi. The heat is bearable and the city thrives with fun things to do. Prices are higher, of course. The summer months (March to June) can get very hot. Though, the heat is not harsh, the humidity of extremely high. Tourism is slow and the prices are cheaper. Kochi sees monsoon from July to September. Avoid this time if you are planning on visiting Kochi for the first time.
Where to stay in Kochi
Kochi has some of the best accommodation options in India. The homestays and guesthouses are excellent. They are also some of the priciest in the country. The heritage hotels and ayurvedic ashrams/wellness centers are also popular accommodation options in Kochi. Most travelers choose to stay in Fort Cochin. It is atmospheric with most attractions within walking distance. Willingdon Island has some of the best luxury hotels and resorts. If planning to visit during the Christmas and New Year time, book in advance to avoid grossly inflated prices. I have stayed at the Travelers Inn in Fort Cochin and loved it. During my flying days, I stayed at the Trident Hotel Cochin on Willingdon Island and liked it as well. It is luxurious, green, and quiet. Fort Cochin also offers some great hostels for budget travelers. Check out Zostel and Happy Camper.
Things to do in different areas of Kochi
Old Kochi/Fort Cochin and Mattancherry
Old Kochi consists of the twin districts of Fort Cochin, in the west, and Mattancherry in the east, Both these districts are extremely atmospheric and contain an extraordinary number of early colonial architecture. The heritage buildings span the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras. The waterfront with its sloping red-tiled roofs and rows of peeling, pastel-coloured warehouses look timeless.
Fort Cochin is where the Portuguese built their first walled citadel, Fort Immanuel. It was later consolidated by the Dutch East India Company with a circle of well-fortified ramparts. Though only a few fragments of the former battlements remain one can find lots of evocative European-era monuments in this area. The best way to explore Fort Cochin’s architectural splendour and see amazing views of the Chinese fishing nets is to follow the free walking tour maps provided by Kerala Tourism. These maps can be found at the guesthouses, hotels, and homestays. The walking tours point out the most significant landmarks of the area including the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, Vasco da Gama’s house, and several traders’ residences. There are quite a few exhibition spaces and small galleries in the old quarter. These hosts exhibitions during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale – an art event that draws artists and collectors from all over the country. The Biennale takes place between mid-December and March. There are quite a few lovely cafes and restaurants tucked away in the old quarter. An interesting activity to do in Fort Kochi is to watch a Kathakali dance performance. Though there are many places to watch this performance in Fort Kochi, the ‘Kerala Kathakali Centre’ is the most popular. The makeup starts around 5 PM and the performance starts around 6:00 PM. The ticket charges are INR 400 per person.
Mattancherry was the hub of the Malabar’s spice trade. Thus, it was the home to its wealthiest Jewish and Jain merchants. This is also an old district full of red-tiled riverfront wharves and houses. However, unlike Fort Cochin, many of Mattancherry’s old grand buildings have fallen into disrepair. The famous Jew Town is located here. Situated at the heart of Mattanchery, it is a busy street between the Dutch Palace and the Paradesi Synagogue. According to the local lore, the King of Kochi gave a piece of land to the Jew traders who came to Kochi for trade. Only a few Jews remain in the Jew Town today with most having emigrated en masse to Israel in the 1940s. Their furniture and other heirlooms ended up in the antique shops for which the area is renowned. Apart from these antiques, one can shop for sculptures, handmade toys, embroidered garments, essential oils, and chandeliers in many other shops along the street. The Dutch Palace is a must-visit for history buffs. Built in 1545 by the Portuguese as a gift to a Keralan king, the palace has been converted into a museum. It contains beautiful friezes, royal artefacts, weapons, and dress.
The highlight of Ernakulam for travelers is the Kerala Folklore Museum. Housed in a multi-storey laterite building encrusted with traditional wood- and tile-work, this museum has a bedazzling collection of antiques includes dance-drama masks and costumes, ritual paraphernalia, musical instruments, pieces of temple architecture, 3000-year-old burial urns, cooking utensils, portraits, and ancestral photographs amassed by founder and avid antique collector, George Thaliyath. The museum has a stunning theatre on the top floor. It is decorated with Kerala temple murals and dark wooden pillars. The Folklore Museum is a pricey but luxurious place to watch Kathakali performances.
Things to do around Kochi
This is one of the most popular day trips from Kochi. Known for coir-production, rope making, toddy tapping, and crab farming, these villages are scattered along the lagoons and canals. Easily reachable from Kochi, one of the best ways to explore the region is with KTDC. Many other local tour operators also offer this day trip. You also have the option of spending the day canoeing along the backwaters.
Thripunitra or the Hill Palace
Known for the colonial-style Hill Palace turned museum, Thripunitra is only 12 km southeast of Ernakulam. It is a short bus or auto-rickshaw ride from the bus stand south of Jos Junction on MG Road.
Cherai beach in Vypin Island in Kochi is a great spot to catch some waves and spend a relaxing day. You have to take a ferry from Fort Kochi to Vypin Island. At Vypin Island, you can take a public bus to the Cherai beach. The drive from Vypin Island to Cherai beach takes around an hour. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi or an Uber to drive you to Cherai Beach. It is a two hours ride from Fort Kochi.
How to spend two days in Kochi
Morning – Start your day with breakfast at the famous Kashi Art Cafe, which has a Zen-like garden and rotating exhibitions of contemporary art. From here, walk onto Princess Street to explore the St Francis Church. It is India’s oldest European church. Built by Portuguese Franciscan friars back in 1503, this church has the tombstone of great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea and who died in Kochi in 1524. After the church stroll to the Indo-Portuguese Museum on the Bishop Kureethara Road. Housed in the 16th-century Bishop’s House, it has an impressive collection of precious teakwood altarpieces, vestments, and silver processional crosses.
Afternoon – Head back towards the waterfront for lunch. Bargain and buy the catch of the day from the fishermen lining the waterfront. Take it to one of the shacks on Tower Road to have it cooked according to your choice. Finish off your lunch with some local sugarcane-lime juice or sweet masala tea. Post lunch, stroll over to see the giant cantilevered Chinese fishing nets or cheena vala (as the locals call them)work. These nets are reminiscent of the 14th-century court of Kublai Khan. It is also a perfect spot to catch a sunset or shoot wonderful sunset photos of the nets silhouetted against a golden sky. Tips are expected if you want to pose on the nets or ask the working fishermen to pose for your photos.
Evening – End the evening of Day 1 with a Kathakali performance at either the Kerala Kathakali Center or the Greenix Village in Fort Kochi. Arrive early to watch the performers apply their elaborate make-up. Head off to one of the Fort Kochi bars for a few beers and some local spicy snacks. My favourite is the XL near Princess Street in Fort Kochi.
Morning – After a relaxing breakfast, head over to Mattancherry and Jew Town, Kochi’s old bazaar district, and former spice trade center. Explore the Dutch museum (Mattancherry Palace) and be amazed by its stunning architectural blend of local and colonial styles. Complete with a sloping roof and ornate wood-carved ceilings, the highlight of the museum is extraordinarily well-preserved Hindu murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranic epics.
Afternoon – After lunch, either at the pretty Ginger House in Jew Town or the Shri Ganesha Restaurant in Mattancherry (if you are on a budget), walk over to Pardesi Synagogue. It is the oldest of its kind in India. Built in 1568, this synagogue was partially destroyed when the Portuguese attacked the Jewish population in 1662. The Dutch however restored it back to its former glory in 1664. The interiors are lavish with antique crystal chandeliers, coloured glass lanterns, and hand-painted Chinese tiles. Dress modestly as it is a place of worship and photography is not permitted inside.
Evening – End your second day at the Pepper House Cafe for an early dinner. Alternatively, opt for the Old Harbour Hotel for a romantic dinner and live Carnatic music.
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