After backpacking around Northern India for several weeks, we were ready for a change of pace. Luckily for us, Fort Kochi was our next stop, offering a refreshingly offbeat range of places to visit and things to do that stood in stark contrast to the Hindu temples, desert forts, and seas of humanity we had accustomed ourselves to in India so far.
Coming from Mumbai (via Mangalore), the change in culture from north to south was palpable and immediate. Suddenly, breathing room between people and things was reintroduced into our lives, locals seemed more interested in their own goings-on rather than soliciting to us, and the pace of life seems to slow to a crawl.
It was also hard to ignore the fact that we now found ourselves on an island, set apart culturally, historically, and economically from mainland Cochin. Arriving on a boat from Ernakulum certainly heightened the feeling of crossing into something new and exotic.
While the names Kochi and Cochin are often used interchangeably, Most Indians seem to refer to the greater metro area (including Ernakulum on the mainland) as Cochin and the historical area (the northern tip of Vypeen Island) as Fort Kochi. Yet, technically, Kochi (or Cochin) refers to the 18 northern-most square miles encompassing a small group of islands. Confused yet? Welcome to India!
Fort Kochi was everything we hoped it would be — culturally endowed and colonial, yet shabby, local, and thoroughly Indian.
Some day, the historic center of Fort Kochi may very well receive UNESCO status, bringing funding and new opportunities to this unique pocket of India. In the meantime, travelers will appreciate a greater feeling of authenticity and manageable tourist numbers.
Undoubtedly, there are far more things to do in and around Fort Kochi than we’ll focus on here. In this post, We’ll list our favorite Fort Kochi places to visit, including unique experiences and where to eat.
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(Psst…don’t miss our Fort Kochi lodging recommendations at the end of this post!)
Our 7 Favorite Things to Do in Fort Kochi
1. See the Famous Chinese Fishing Nets of Fort Kochi in Action
While there is no shortage of historical and cultural attractions on the island, Fort Kochi’s top place to visit might just be the city’s section of shoreline known for its enormous Chinese fishing nets.
Widely used and still fully functional today, local fishermen employ these cantilever monstrosities to roundup the daily catch.
The mechanical nets appear to work surprisingly well, especially being that you never actually have to leave the shore!
Join the locals at sunset and head down to the beach near Vasco da Gama Square to catch all the action.
2. Catch a Kathakali Dance Performance
Dating from the 17th century in Kerala State, Kathakali combines dance and gesture, live music, costume, and make-up to retell ancient Hindu stories.
We were blown away by the level of precision employed in everything from the carefully choreographed moves to the careful application of makeup.
The Kerala Kathakali Centre in Fort Kochi where we caught the performance is one of the most famous and respected Kathakali studios in the world.
If you’re going to see a Kathakali dance show anywhere, it’s hard to beat this revered venue in the birthplace of the art form.
3. Visit Fort Kochi’s Historic Portuguese Churches
Fort Kochi is also home to one of the largest concentrations of Christian churches in the entire country, owing to the city’s history as being the center of power of old Portuguese India.
Below is St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in all of India, dating back to 1503.
…at least that’s what it looked like in 2009, according to Wikipedia. St. Francis had apparently aged considerably by the time we got to it in 2012…and YES, this is the same church, just three short years later:
St. Francis church has again been revitalized! The cycle of rebirth in action, baby.
A common story that you’ll hear a lot in these parts is that Vasco Da Gama is buried here. Not true! He was buried here, but his body was dug up and moved to Lisbon 14 years later.
Next stop on our favorite Fort Kochi places to visit, a lovely church in a better state of repair, Jeevamatha Catholic Latin Church. Indeed, there may be hope for these old landmarks yet.
There are dozens of churches in Kochi, but Jeevamatha Church seems to be one of the more popular ones with local Catholics. It’s worth noting that Jeevamatha is located in the Jew Town district of the island, which is covered below.
Something that may not necessarily shine through in this post is how incredibly strange and out of place these churches seemed to us in India, a country where only about 2% of the population subscribes to Christian beliefs. Granted, in India that translates to roughly 25 million Christians, but you just don’t see structures like this very often.
After nearly three months of exploring Buddhist and Confucianist temples in China and Hindu temples and Muslim mosques in India, we found ourselves unprepared for how surreal our encounter with churches in Fort Kochi would be — somehow both familiar and disorienting at the same time.
This last Fort Kochi church puts an excellent capstone on that sentiment.
With its Hindu temple-inspired spires, Santa Cruz Basilica borders on the realm of the truly surreal.
4. Explore Artsy & Enigmatic Jew Town
Next on our list of things to do in Fort Kochi is visiting Jew Town. And, yep, that’s the actual name of this neighborhood. I’m not making this up.
If you’re looking for something completely different from the norm in India, Jew Town’s your ticket. It’s colorful, artsy, and downright quirky.
Stroll the streets of Jew Town and peek into the various art galleries, gift shops, and funky cafes dotting the neighborhood. This neighborhood is a treasure trove of fascinating history and unique photo ops, not to mention home to 500-year-old Mattancherry Palace, making Jew Town a must on your list of Fort Kochi places to visit.
Taking in an art gallery/ gift shop/ cafe, drinking some sort of ginger juice concoction, and chewing on cinnamon sticks. Now, how many places in the world can you do all of that at once? I can’t think of any. Maybe only in Jew Town, India.
In addition to its artsy vibe, Jew Town is home to some of the most pensive-looking (stoned?) goats we’ve ever seen. Needless to say, I clutched my munchies just a little tighter walking by this one.
5. Choose Your Lunch & Chat Up Fish Mongers at Fort Kochi’s Fish Market
Along with the teeter-totter fishing nets and monuments to conquests-past, Fort Kochi is famous for its fish market!
You can’t visit Fort Kochi’s fish stalls without talking up the local fishmongers, perusing each stall’s surprisingly unique selection, and picking out something tasty for lunch.
I told the gentleman, above, I wanted something fairly meaty (not too boney), but not too expensive — oh, and with a nice, fresh taste. Enough to feed two, please. He showed us this beauty (above), which quickly became…
After purchasing the fish from the waterfront fresh fish stalls, you take your new flippery friend to one of a handful of small nearby restaurants that will then grill it up for a nominal fee, evening adding in a couple of sides like fries and rice.
All told, our delicious lunch cost US$8 including the price of the fish, grilling said fish, rice and fries, and two sodas.
6. Join the Locals for a Sunset Walk Along the Beach
There’s no better place to visit in Fort Kochi at sunset than the area along the beach near Vasco da Gama Square. In addition to some stunning sunsets during our stay, the promenade is a great place to people watch and partake in a daily life ritual with local residents.
Obviously, the photo I snapped, above, wasn’t taken around sunset, but you get the gist. Guess, I was too fixated on the fishing nets and actually enjoying the evening. Can’t say I have any regrets about that.
7. Treat Your Tastebuds to a South Indian Thali
While we’re on the topic of Indian food…I just realized I haven’t professed my love for thalis in a while. Have I told you lately…that I love you…Thali?
Traveling through India, thalis make the madness just a bit less maddening. Fortunately, in Fort Kochi, you don’t have to worry so much about that. And, you still get your thali!
Cheap, fast and DELICIOUS, a thali is a variety of small plates served on a tray with flatbread (naan, roti, chapati), generally around lunchtime, but you can get a thali for dinner too.
The one, above, is waiting to be devoured at a restaurant called Dal Roti — a no-frills joint with a friendly and gregarious host, and one of the best places to visit in Fort Kochi to get your thali fix. As is common in India, Dal Roti is a veg-only restaurant, and this is a veg-only thali. Delicious and filling, nonetheless.
You can also get meat thalis throughout India (we had quite a few in Rajasthan!). Now, excuse me while I inhale Lori’s portion while she’s momentarily distracted by candy.
Where to Stay in Fort Kochi
Fort Kochi’s got more lodging options than you can shake a Chinese fishing net at. Here are our top choices for places to stay in Fort Kochi, all highly-rated, centrally-located, and loaded with character and a sense of place, just like we like ’em.
The Fort Bungalow
Our Top Pick! Rated 9.1/10 on Booking.com. Click here for details.
A lush oasis in the heart of Fort Kochi. Rated 9.5/10 on Booking.com. Click here for details.
A quirky property with friendly hosts. Rated 9.1/10 on Booking.com. Click here for details.
Secret Garden Boutique Hotel
A mid-range boutique option steps away from the sights. Rated 9.2/10 on Booking.com. Click here for details.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Fort Kochi is among the safest destinations for travelers in India. With that said, stuff happens — floods, bus accidents, broken ankles, malaria, etc.
Don’t risk it. Get good international travel insurance so you can sleep easy and enjoy your trip to India! We use and recommend World Nomads.