Places to visit in Fort Kochi India
This post is about the best places to visit in Fort Kochi. Fort Kochi, or Cochin, is an important port city on the South Indian Coast and the cultural capital of Kerala. Most places to visit in Fort Kochi are closely linked to the colonial history and rich cultural heritage of this region.
Fort Kochi has always been a melting pot of cultures. It’s harbour was at the heart of the worldwide spice trade and attracted the interest of colonial powers and merchants alike. Each of them left their cultural influence behind, but at the same time, the city cherished its own Keralan traditions and customs including its unique ethnic art forms.
For me, the cities in Kerala were a bit of a disappointment. It was always the lush and green landscapes beyond that were the attraction, but the towns themselves were often an uninspiring noisy affair. Fort Kochi was the exception and I absolutely loved it.
It is a city that is is in itself a worthy destination and there are many places to visit in Fort Kochi. The relaxed atmosphere makes this a great place to spend a few days to learn more about Kerala’s culture and history.
A short history of Fort Kochi
Fort Kochi started as a small fishing village. Due to its strategic location on the Malabar Coast, colonial powers loved it. The Portugese were the first to arrive and they were also the first to build an actual fort as well as catholic churches.
After 160 years the Dutch took over and they used Cochin as the capital for the spice trade with the Dutch East India Company. Finally in 1795 Cochin became part of the British colonial empire till India’s independence in 1947.
Cochin now remains the commercial capital of Kerala. The modern part of town are the new high rise buildings of the busy business district of Ernakulam. On the other side of the river is the historic town of Fort Kochi that has kept much of its historic heritage alive.
Fort Kochi still feels more like a small village than a city. One where the colonial architecture brings color and charm to the quiet and peaceful streets. The churches, palaces and forts built by the Portugese, Dutch and British are still there together with the colonial mansions of wealthy merchants.
Places to visit in Fort Kochi
The neighbourhood of Mattancherry holds some of the most important historic places to visit in Fort Kochi. Mattancherry was at the heart of the old spice and tea trade and one of the most multicultural parts of the city. Many migrant communities made Mattancherry their home and the result was a multitude of cultures, beliefs and customs.
Mattancherry lies right next to the historic colonial center and is in my opinion the most picturesque part of town. It’s a joy to wander around the quiet streets with its pastel coloured buildings
Jewish quarter and Pardesi Synagogue
The Jewish were one of the communities that made Mattancherry their home. The Cochin jews are the oldest groups of jews in India. Jews settled in Cochin as early as the 12th century either fleeing persecution in their home country or establishing trade relations.
In 1524 the king of Kochi gifted a piece of land in Mattancherry to the Jewish community. Since then it was Jew town and a jewish cemetery as well as a synagogue were built. The Pardesi synagogue is the oldest, still active, synagogue in India.
The Mattancherry palace is also known as the Dutch palace, even though it was originally built by the Portugese as a gift to appease the king of Kochi. When the Dutch took over in 1663 they renovated the palace for the Cochin royal family while keeping its traditional Keralan style of architecture.
The Mattancherry palace is now a museum about the history of Cochin and the Cochin royal family.
Black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, ginger and other spices have been exported from Mattancherry for over 5000 years. First by land over the ancient Silk Road, later over sea by the Portugese, Dutch and the British.
Mattancherry still has a couple of spice markets. One can smell the scent of spices coming from the spice warehouses lining the streets. Most are in the wholesale business, but there are also souvenir shops selling spices in smaller quantities.
Kochi Jain temple
If you are interested in Jainism, there is a small Jain temple in Mattancherry. Although Jainism has a very small presence in Kerala, there was a sizable community in Mattancherry.
Right next to Mattancherry lies the colonial center of old Kochi. This historic neighborhood is a journey back in time when the Portugese and Dutch controlled the spice trade in Cochin.
Most buildings in this area were built by the colonial powers of their time. The Portugese left behind several churches. The Dutch a cemetery and the Hortus malabaricus. A book about the flora and fauna of the area. The Dutch influence and love for plants and flowers are still visible in the street names.
Fort Emmanuel was the first Portugese fort in Asia and named after Manuel I, the king of Portugal. The fort became the heart of the Portugese community in Cochin and they built their settlement right behind its protective walls.
The Dutch and British destroyed most of the original fort and now all that is left are some ruins of the thick fort walls and cannon bastions.
Saint Francis church
The Saint Francis church was the first church built by the Portugese. It was a wooden church at first, but later rebuilt with stone and mortar. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama who first took the sea route from Europe to india died in Cochin in 1524. He was buried in the saint Francis church for a short while before his body was moved to Lisbon.
Once the Protestant Dutch took over they destroyed most of the Roman catholic buildings from the Portugese, except the Saint Francis church and the Santa Cruz basilica. The Saint Francis church was converted into a government church and although the British allowed the Dutch to keep the church, they handed it over to the Anglican church voluntarily.
The Church now belongs to the Kochi Diocese of the church of South India and still has services on Sunday. During the week it is open for visitors.
Santa Cruz basilica
The Santa Cruz basilica was built shortly after the Saint Francis church. It became the central church for the Portugese after the pope designated it as the main cathedral for the Diocese of Cochin in 1558. The cathedral was the only other Roman catholic church spared by the Protestant Dutch who made it their arms storehouse. It was the British that eventually destroyed it.
In 1887 the Portugese Bishop of Cochin decided to rebuild the cathedral that was once so important to the Roman catholic community. This time the Pope even raised its status to basilica. It is still in use by the Diocese of Cochin.
Indo Portugese Museum
To learn more about the Portugese history of Cochin you can visit the Indo Portugese Museum. It was the initiative of the Bishop of Cochin to protect the Portugese cultural heritage in Fort Kochi. The museum is in the former Bishop’s house, another colonial architectural gem.
As a Dutch person I felt mixed about the remnants of the Dutch colonial Heritage. They came to Fort Kochi under the Dutch East Indian company to trade and expand. Probably not without a certain degree of violence and exploitation.
Many died from tropical disease and found their last resting place in the Dutch cemetery. The British kept it as a memorial and now it is sometimes maintained by the South Indian Church.
Kerala Kathakali centre
Despite the presence of different colonial powers, Keralan culture thrived in Cochin too. To learn everything about the unique art forms of Kerala you can visit the Kerala Kathakali centre. The most famous art form is Kathakali. A dance performance in traditional colorful dress and make up with folk music.
The Kerala Kathakali centre is the best place to see this ancient classical art. True Kathakali artists have undergone years of training. But Kathakali is not the only art form from Kerala. The Kathakali centre also showcases other Keralan arts where dance, music and costumes come together to result in a spectacular theatre performance.
These classical dances often have a long history in Kerala and require specific dress, musical instruments and dance moves. The underlying narrative tales often come from important Hindu epics.
Kashi Art Gallery
The Kashi Art gallery showcases local artists in its small art gallery in a beautifully restored dutch heritage home. It’s a great place to learn more about the local art scene. It also has a great cafe with salads, sandwiches, burgers and health juices.
The Kochi beach front, adjacent to Old Kochi is another popular place to visit in Fort Kochi. It’s most famous attractions are the Chinese fishing nets. I didn’t think it was the most scenic area of Fort Kochi, but still a nice place for a stroll in the evening.
Kochi Beach walkway
The beach walkway is a paved promenade along the seafront that runs from the Jawahar park past the Mahatma Gandhi beach, Fort Emmanuel, the fancy Amritara Heritage hotel to the Fort Kochi beach. It is only 1 kilometer long and makes for a nice morning or evening walk when locals are out and about too.
Chinese fishing nets
The Chinese fishing nets were introduced in Cochin by Chinese explorers in the 14th century. The Chinese nets are a rather large structure with nets hanging over the sea and ropes with counterweights to control them. You need at least six fishermen to operate them.
Although very common along the Southern China sea coast, it is unique in India where the Chinese fishing nets are only used in Cochin and Kollam. The nets look quite impressive and are now a popular tourist attraction.
There are several in action along the Fort Kochi beach walkway. The fishermen are happy to explain and show the process for a small fee.
My main reason to visit the Fort Kochi beach walkway in the evening was not only to join the locals for a nice sunset, but also to see the evening fish market. Fish vendors come in the evening to the Chinese fishing nets to sell their catch of the day. Nearby restaurants are ready to cook it for you anyway you like.
A small note needs to be made here. They obviously want you to believe the fish comes from the Chinese fishing nets, but these nets are now mostly a performance for tourists. They rarely catch more than one or two fish when lowering the nets. The ones you buy from the vendors, probably comes from further out in the sea. They are delicious nevertheless and make for a delicious evening meal.
Places to visit near Fort Kochi
The Dutch built surprisingly few buildings in Cochin. They merely took over and renovated those from the Portugese. One of the few buildings they did builty from scratch was the Bolgatty palace on Bolgatty island.
The island is a scenic and quiet place with nice views over the port. The Bolgatty palace is now an upmarket heritage hotel.
How to get there: from Ernakulam there is a connection with the mainland over the Goshree bridge. Alternatively you can take a ferry to Bolgatty island from the High Court Jetty.
Marine drive walkway
For tourists, there are few reasons to head over the water from Fort Kochi to modern Ernakulam. Ernakulam is your average polluted and chaotic Indian city. The Marine drive is trying to change this.
The three kilometer walkway is now a very popular hangout place. Locals and an increasing number of tourists flock here in the evenings for beautiful views of the sunset over the backwaters.
The walkway runs from the Jankar jetty in the north to the Ernakulam jetty in the south. It is also lined with new shopping malls, fast food joints. Other landmarks are three new bridges with Keralan themes such as the chinese fishing net bridge and kettuvallam bridge.
How to get there: You can take a ferry from Fort Kochi to the Ernakulam boat jetty
The beaches in and around Fort Kochi are not the most beautiful beaches in Kerala. For that, I can recommend either Varkala or Kovalam. However, Cherai beach, 25 kilometers from Cochin, does offer a nice stretch of idyllic sandy beach perfect for swimming. It’s location on Vypin island near the backwaters is also quite scenic
How to get there: Getting to Cherai beach takes a bit of time, but it is a scenic journey and a nice day trip from Fort Kochi. First one needs to take the ferry from the Fort Kochi Vypin Jetty. The ferry only takes 10 minutes and you have nice views on the chinese fishing nets. From the bus station there are frequent buses to Cherai beach. The bus journey takes about one hour.
Most people head to Alleppey to see the famous backwaters in Kerala, but Cochin also has a number of scenic backwater areas around the city. As a result there are a number of tours available.
One of the best ways to explore the backwaters around Cochin is on a sunset cruise or a canoe tour. The sunset cruises mostly stay on the waters near Fort Kochi. Canoe tours take the quiet waterways further south.
What I liked most about my backwater tour from Cochin was that it was less touristic and more tranquil than the one I had in Alleppey. It was the perfect mix between the larger canals where you could sometimes see one of the larger houseboats as well as the smaller canals where only the canoes could go.
Actually most boats that we passed by were other canoes with locals that were either fishing or on their way to some place. These waterways were still used mostly as a network of transportation for the people living in the area.
Beware: Some of the backwater tours offered in Fort Kochi will actually bring you to Alleppey for the day. Always check with the tour agency whether this is the case.
Fort Kochi travel tips
Places to sleep in Fort Kochi
Up market: There is no shortage of upmarket heritage hotels and luxurious resorts in Fort Kochi and therefore Fort Kochi is a great place to treat yourself on a nice place to stay. You can sleep for example in a former boat yard at Brunton Boatyard or in a former dutch palace at the Bolgatty Palace hotel. If you prefer a hotel with a pool you can choose Fragrant Nature or Forte Kochi. You also can’t really go wrong with the famous international brands such as the Kochi Marriott hotel and the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty.
Mid range: For budget travellers I can recommend one of the many homestays. In Fort Kochi I stayed in Mother Tree B&B and I had a very pleasant stay here with Shyam and his family. Other homestays with good reviews are Kevin homestay, Dream catcher homestay and Aaron’s homestay. Some offer cooking classes or yoga lessons as well.
Places to eat in Fort Kochi
Fort Kochi is a culinary destination too and a great place to try Keralan cuisine. Food in Kerala is influenced by its abundance of coconut grooves and spice plantations. Some essential ingredients in a lot of dishes are coconut milk, curry leaves, mustard seeds, tamarind, black pepper, cinnamon and turmeric.
Kerala is great for vegetarians. A true veggie feast is a sadya. A complete meal with sometimes more than 20 different curries, pickles, snacks and desserts. It’s served with rice on a banana leaf.
The best places for cheap Keralan food are unfortunately in Ernakulam. Fort Kochi is focused more on fine dining experiences. For a Keralan thali you can try the up market Malabar junction. There are lots of excellent seafood restaurants too such as Fusion Bay and the Fort House restaurant.
More international menus are available at the Kashi Art cafe and David Hall Gallery cafe
When to visit Fort Kochi
The best time to visit Fort Kochi is between October and March. In October temperatures cool down and you might have a chance to join the festivities for Dussehra and Diwali. India’s biggest festivals.
Temperatures remain pleasant till March. In April and May it becomes extremely hot. In June it is the start of the monsoon that lasts till September and will see lots of rainfall. Floods are not uncommon in Kerala during this period.
How to get there
Cochin has good train and bus connections with other places in Kerala and beyond. The most convenient way to reach Cochin is by train to Ernakulam. From there one needs to take the ferry to the historic area of Fort Kochi.
You can check train time tables and book your tickets online directly through the Indian railways (IRCTC). Unfortunately this is not always a straightforward process. For a small extra fee you can use 12goAsia or Makemytrip.
For more practical information about travel in Kerala I can recommend my Kerala travel guide
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