Formerly known as Cochin, Kochi is a major sea port on the west coast of India, in the state of Kerala. The city’s coastal location resulted in it becoming an important spice trading centre and by the 14th century Kochi was known as the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’. The city was occupied by the Portuguese in 1503 and remained the capital of Portuguese India until 1530 when Goa was selected instead.
Kochi’s strategic location has welcomed many visitors of differing nationalities over the past six centuries, and this diversity is evident in everything from cuisine and nightlife, to architecture and even religion.
Although primarily a commercial hub, modern-day Kochi – as with much of Kerala – is also a tourist hot spot and the city’s population of over one million swells significantly with foreign visitors who flock to the state’s beaches and tourist attractions. Also known as the Gateway to South India, Kochi provides a convenient starting point for further Indian travel.
There are numerous sights and attractions in and around Kochi, but most visitors flock straight to Fort Kochi. This ‘tourist enclave’ is on a peninsula, southwest of mainland Kochi, and often referred to as Old Kochi. On Fort Kochi beach you’ll find the photogenic Chinese Fishing Nets (Cheena Vala); huge cantilevered contraptions which are operated from the shore by a team of up to six fishermen and were believed to have been first introduced by Chinese traders in the 14th century.
Other landmarks in Fort Kochi include St Francis Church, a national monument which was once the burial place of Vasco da Gama; the Portuguese explorer who founded Portuguese India. Nearby is Santa Cruz Basilica, a 16th century gothic-style Portuguese church which was destroyed by the British in 1795 before being rebuilt in 1887. Visit Princess Street for a lovely walk; the narrow stone alleys are lined with Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial architecture. Fort Kochi is also home to Kochi’s version of Wall Street – the International Pepper Exchange in Jewtown – where you can learn ancient spice trading practices.
Inland from Kochi are the backwaters which separate Ernakulam on the mainland from Fort Kochi. The backwaters are dotted with many islands and boat ride is an unforgettable experience. Bolgatty Island’s Dutch Palace is now instead a five-star hotel complete with golf course, marina and panoramic views, while Vypin Island is known for its fishing villages and coconut palm-lined Cherai Beach..
Kochi has welcomed Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch, Russians and Japanese over the centuries and this diversity has manifested itself in the cuisine. Streetside Arabic restaurants are popular and serve shawarma and roasted chicken, while Americanised fast food chains are also present across Kochi.
As a coastal city, seafood is the local speciality. A typically Kochiite experience is to buy fresh fish caught from the Chinese Fishing Nets at Fort Kochi beach, and take it straight to one of the nearby food stalls where you can have it cooked in front of you. The choice is yours but Fish Molly (coconut milk curry), Alleppey Fish Curry (curry with tomato sauce and fish tamarind) and Fish Peera (chunks of fish toasted with grated coconuts with fish tamarind sauce) are recommended. Kochi’s expansive backwaters also ensure that freshwater fish is widely available, and one of Kochi’s most well-known dishes is Meen Molagitta Curry (smoked freshwater fish with chilli and coconut milk).
Nightlife in Kochi is excellent and the city is dotted with bars with the most high-end ones to be found around Fort Kochi. As per Kerala laws, all bars and pubs will be closed on the first and second day of every month – known as ‘dry days’. Curiously this does not apply to nightclubs which are a recent phenomenon in Kochi. Ask around and consult current guidebooks for suggestions.
Seventy kilometres south of Kochi is Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey. The very heart of Kochi’s backwaters, Alappuzha is an incredible maze of natural lagoons, rivers and canals and is known locally as the Venice of the East. Enjoy a houseboat cruise along the channels, and relax as you watch the world and its wildlife go by. Every year the villagers hold Snake Boat Race in which traditional snake boats, each manned by over a hundred people, compete for the Nehru Trophy. The race is extremely popular with locals and makes for a fascinating excursion.