Kochi, formerly and still commonly known as Cochin, is one of the west coast's largest and oldest ports. The streets behind the docks of the historic Fort Cochin and Mattancherry districts are lined with old merchant houses, godowns (warehouses), and open courtyards heaped with betel nuts, ginger, peppercorns, and tea. Throughout the second millennium this ancient city exported spices, coffee, and coir (the fiber made from coconut husks), and imported culture and religion from Europe, China, and the Middle East. Today Kochi has a synagogue, several mosques, Portuguese Catholic churches, Hindu temples, and the United Church of South India (an amalgamation of several Protestant denominations). The city is spread out over mainland, peninsula, and islands. Ernakulam, on the mainland 2 km (3 miles) from the harbor, is the commercial center and the one-time capital of the former state of Cochin. Willingdon Island, which was created by dredging the harbor, holds several luxury hotels as well as a navy base. The beautiful Bolghatty Island, north of Ernakulam, is a favorite picnic spot for locals. On it there's a government-run hotel in a colonial structure that was once used by the Dutch governor and later by the British Resident. Another local favorite is Cherai beach on Vypin Island, which is a 10-minute ferry ride from Fort Cochin. The Fort Cochin district, Kochi's historic center, is at the northern tip of the Mattancherry peninsula. Houses here often recall Tudor manors; some have been converted to hotels, others remain in the hands of the venerable tea and trading companies. South of Fort Cochin, in the Mattancherry district, is where you'll find the city's dwindling Jewish community. Their small neighborhood, called Jew Town, which is now dotted with cafés and shops selling curios and antiques, is centered on the synagogue.
Cochin Cultural Centre
Kathakali performances in the air-conditioned room of the Cochin Cultural Centre start daily at 6 pm, though you should arrive an hour before the show to see makeup being applied.
Kerala Lalita Kala Akademi Gallery
The former home of the Parishith Thampuran Museum now houses the Kerala Lalita Kala Akademi Gallery. There's not much here by way of explanation, but the traditional tile-roof building is cool and airy, and the interesting collection features contemporary works by Indian artists.
This revered arts academy is credited with the revival of traditional arts in Kerala, providing training in Kathakali, Mohiniattam, and at least 14 different native art forms. All-night Kathakali performances are staged here a few nights each year, and you're welcome to watch students in practice sessions, weekdays from 8:30 to noon and 3:30 to 5:30.
Kerala Kathakali Centre
This is a pleasant outdoor venue, where makeup starts at 5 pm and Kathakali shows follow at 6 pm daily. There is also a daily kalaripayattu (Kerala martial arts) show that starts at 4pm. Short-term courses in dance and music are offered here.
See India Foundation
The director here provides lively explanations of the Kathakali dance before every 6:45 pm show. Makeup starts at 6 pm.
As Kerala's premier city, Kochi offers the most options for dining out. Many top hotels open outdoor seafood grills in season (November to February), where you can pick from the day's catch and have it prepared as you like. Try karimeen, also known as the pearl spot, a bony but delicious fish found only in central Kerala, prepared with spices wrapped in a banana leaf. Keep an eye out for unusual Portuguese-influenced dishes and do try the eclectic Kochi Jewish cuisine. Lots of hotel restaurants feature live music, especially during peak season.
This perennial favorite of Kochi's well-to-do is shaped like a traditional wooden boat. Most tables overlook the waterfront. The menu focuses on seafood and Kerala specialties made with saltwater- and local freshwater fish grilled and cooked in traditional curries. The showpiece is an interactive kitchen where you can chat with the chef as he prepares your meal.
Sree Krishna Inn
Vegetarian meals and a pleasant, air-conditioned dining room draw in the business crowd to this handsome tile-roof building just off M. G. Road. The restaurant serves North and South Indian and Chinese dishes and snacks, as well as a large selection of ice creams.
In an out-of-the-way hotel south of Mattancherry, this plain-looking restaurant is a well-kept secret. Ignore the multicultural cuisine and go straight for a fish dish like the prawn curry or the meen pollichathu (spiced fish steamed in a banana leaf), which is so hot even Malayalees break a sweat. If you'd like it toned down, send a message to the chef when you order.
The intriguing, extensively researched menu draws on the myriad international influences on Kochi's history. Alongside traditional fare you'll find unusual dishes bearing the stamp of the Middle East, Portugal, the local Jewish community, or the days of the British Raj. Some age-old recipes have been passed on to the restaurant by local communities. The lofty, elegant dining room is windowed on all sides, and capped with a gabled wooden ceiling (resembling an upturned ship) supported by massive wood beams. Live sitar and tabla music is performed every evening. Don't miss out on the Railway Mutton Curry from the British Raj era or the Chuttulli Meen, a grilled fish cooked in spices, which is a favorite in Cochin Jewish cuisine.
The mix of regional specialties and Mediterranean cuisine at this small, quirky restaurant with an open side facing a garden and swimming pool, isn't as crazy as it sounds—most dishes veer closer to one side or the other. A tasty mahimahi fillet for instance, is flavored with local spices. If you're craving Western food, the pastas are excellent. Seafood is always fresh and perfectly cooked. Don't miss the chocolate-filled samosas in mango sauce, the restaurant's signature dessert. The restaurant has a large selection of Indian and foreign wines.
The lunch buffet at the Avenue Regent's multicuisine restaurant is so popular that even visiting chefs pop in for a bite when they're in town. There's a variety of South Indian, North Indian, Mexican, Thai, Burmese, and Chinese specialties, but most people come for the hot, fresh, perfectly prepared appam (a traditional rice pancake), served with a mildly spicy coconut stew.
The Fort House
Inside a budget hotel in a great location on the pier, this simple, open-air restaurant doesn't skimp on quality or authenticity. The menu is almost entirely seafood—chicken and specialty items (like lobster) must be ordered in advance. Every dish is cooked to order and presented in a clay vessel. The Prawns Kerala—fried—and the braised seerfish are terrific. If you agonize over oil, tell the chef in advance.
Don't be surprised if your waiter explains each dish to you upon presentation—this is, after all, Kerala's first Thai restaurant. The menu features plentiful seafood offerings and is reasonably authentic, though some dishes are on the sweet side. The pla rad prik includes a very soft fish, nicely flavored with basil, and the spicy classic tom yam goong soup, made with prawns, doesn't disappoint. The dining room is done up in warm woods, with silver accents on the ceiling and chairs. Beveled glass windows give you a glimpse of the sea.
Menorah, a fine tribute to Cochin's rich Jewish history, is in the former mansion of the city's best-known Jewish family, and the waitstaff will elaborate on the history and the family if you ask. Traditional Cochin-Jewish cuisine is served—try the plav, a rice and chicken dish, and the mutta roast (egg cooked with a variety of spices)—and the fine table linens and stately surroundings recall the royalty, prime ministers and dignitaries that once dined here. Sip a glass of wine while looking out onto the courtyard with a pool to complete the picture of a bygone era.
This former Dutch home is now an art gallery and café run by the Casino Group. The front room displays the work of contemporary Indian artists and works from art camps held in villages across Kerala. Beyond this is the café, open nonstop from noon to 9 pm, which extends out to the back lawn. Best known for its Italian pizza and panini, the menu changes regularly, depending on what ingredients are in season, making for interesting choices and dependable freshness.
This restaurant offers a flavor of Fort Cochin both with its food, which has accents of Dutch, Portuguese, and Jewish cultural influences, and with its location overlooking the sea. The buffet spread is varied and the à la carte options include choice dishes such as the stuffed red snapper and desserts like the Chakkara Choru (a Malabari rice pudding) and Mattanchery Sweet Spice Roll made with grated coconut and jaggery (unrefined sugar). The restaurant is tastefully decorated.
Known for its biryani, a rice dish cooked with meat and spices, the Kayees in Mattancherry is the original one and people say it's the best (there's another outlet in Ernakulam). Be prepared to wait in line during lunch hours on weekdays, and expect a more limited choice, or no food at all, if you arrive late—they run out. A variety of biryanis is on offer, both local to Kerala and other regional specialties such as Malabar style, with shrimp. Other notable dishes include the fish curry with Kerala Porotta (flatbread). Be sure to wash down your meal with Kayees' special jeera water (boiled with cumin seeds), an ayurvedic drink known to aid digestion.
This charming café, tucked away off Princess Street across the Chinese Fishing Nets at the harbor, has teapots and kettles dangling from the ceiling and tables made from tea crates. It's almost like being in a tea museum. There's an extensive menu of both Indian and Continental food, but the café is best known for its sandwiches and freshly baked cakes—in particular the one they call Death by Chocolate. The relaxed atmosphere and extensive range of teas makes this place popular with tourists and locals alike.
Popular with both locals and tourists, Seagull is Kochi's best option for a chilled beer by the sea—in fact, it's one of the few places that serves liquor. The restaurant offers a large selection of local seafood and other dishes, and though the interior is rather basic, its outdoor seating on the pier makes it the ideal place to enjoy a relaxing meal to the sound of the ocean. Thoughtfully, the Seagull has provided a separate area for locals who just come in for a drink.
The streets surrounding the synagogue in Mattancherry are crammed with stores that sell curios, and Fort Cochin's Princess Street has sprouted several small shops worth a browse. For saris, jewelry, handicrafts, and souvenirs, head to M. G. Road in Ernakulam. Be suspicious of the word "antique" in all stores, and bargain hard.
Indian Arts and Curios
This is one of Kerala's oldest and most-reliable curio shops.
Local hotels often get their antiques here. The store is crammed with stone and wood carvings, pillars, and doors as well as such portable items as painted tiles, navigational equipment, and wooden boxes.Crafter's also has a café upstairs.
A fixed-price government shop, Kairali has a good selection of local handicrafts and curios. It's closed on Sunday.
Run by the state's Handicrafts Cooperative Society, Surabhi has an impressive selection of local products.
A branch of the chic Bangalore boutique, Cinnamon stocks stylish ethnic and modern housewares, silk scarves and purses, jewelry, and Indo-Western designer clothing. The store is closed Sunday.
Cochin's upscale ladies buy the latest designer fineries at this pricey boutique.
A mind-blowing selection of saris (including Kerala saris), lehangas (long skirts with fitted blouses), and the like are on offer here, as well as Indian and Western clothes for men and children. There are also branches in Trivandrum and Calicut.
Jewelry, carpets, cushion covers, bronze figurines, and wooden boxes are sold at this gallery.
This is an expensive all-in-one shop with goods from all over India. You can find brocade work, marble inlay boxes, and Kashmiri carpets, plus local handicrafts and precious and semiprecious jewelry.
Whether you're looking for a little information on Kerala or a little something to while away the hours, stop by Idiom Books, a small bookshop opposite the synagogue, or its branch in Fort Cochin. You can find an intriguing collection of recent Western and Indian fiction, as well as books on history, culture, cooking, and religion.
Built by the Portuguese in the mid-16th century as a gift for the Rajas of Cochin, this structure was extended by the Dutch when they took control of the area. The rajas, in turn, added some of India's best mythological murals—the entire story of the Ramayana is told on the walls in a series of bedchambers, which also have inviting window seats. In the ladies' ground-floor chamber, you can see a colorful, mildly erotic depiction of Lord Krishna with his female devotees. The coronation hall near the entrance holds portraits and some of the rajas' artifacts, including a fantastic palanquin covered in red wool. The palace has rare, traditional Kerala flooring, which looks like polished black marble but is actually a mix of burned coconut shells, charcoal, lime, plant juices, and egg whites.
The first migration of Jews to Kerala is thought to have taken place in the 6th century BC, followed by a much larger wave in the 1st century AD, when Jews fleeing Roman persecution in Jerusalem settled at Cranganore (on the coast about 26 km [16 miles] north of Kochi). In the 4th century, the local king promised the Jews perpetual protection, and the colony flourished, serving as a haven for Jews from the Middle East and, in later centuries, Europe. When the Portuguese leader Afonso de Albuquerque discovered the Jews near Cochin in the 16th century, however, he destroyed their community, having received permission from his king to "exterminate them one by one." Muslim anti-Semitism flared up as well. The Jews rebuilt in Mattancherry but were able to live without fear only after the less-belligerent Dutch took control in 1663.
Chinese Fishing Nets
The precarious-looking bamboo and wood structures hovering like cranes over the waterfront are Kochi's famous Chinese fishing nets. Although they've become identified with the city, they're used throughout central Kerala. Thought to have been introduced by Chinese traders in the 14th century, the nets and their catch are easily accessible from Fort Cochin's Vasco da Gama Square. You can watch the fishermen haul up the nets around 6 am, 11 am, and 4 pm. They're particularly striking at sunset or at any time when viewed from the deck of a boat.
St. Francis Church
The Portuguese flag first appeared in Fort Cochin in 1500, and Vasco da Gama arrived in 1502. The following year, Afonso de Albuquerque came with half a dozen ships full of settlers—he built the fort, and five friars in the crowd built India's first European church, St. Francis, in 1510. Da Gama returned in 1524 as Portuguese viceroy of the Indies, died that same year, and was buried in this church. You can still visit his gravestone, but his remains were shipped back to Lisbon in 1538.The church's history reflects the European struggle for colonial turf in India. It was a Catholic church until 1664, when it became a Dutch Reform church; it later became Anglican (1804–1947) and is now part of the Church of South India. Inside are beautifully engraved Dutch and Portuguese tombstones and the doep boek, a register of baptisms and marriages between 1751 and 1894; you can view a photographic reproduction—the original is too fragile.
Santa Cruz Cathedral
The interior of this cathedral is colorfully painted with scenes and decorations that some find gaudy and others perceive as gorgeous. The cathedral's history dates from the 16th century, but the current structure was completed in 1904.