Editor’s note: Kochi is the place to be right now! The Kochi Muziris Biennale—India’s global art festival—is on until April 10. So our news editor and Kochi resident Sara Varghese put together a fabulous 48-hour guide to the city. It is brimming with wonderful things to do, places to eat and more.
Over to Sara…
I’m not a lifelong resident of the city. It is where my parents live—and where I came to roost like so many others during the pandemic. Kochi is a city that I’m stumbling my way through, sometimes loving, sometimes loathing and for most times simply getting used to. My lens on the city is in equal parts touristy and equal parts “local”.
Kochi is nicknamed the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’—a nod to its stunning natural beauty, scenic backwaters, and rich variety of spices. In 1492, Christopher Columbus was trying to reach Kerala when he mistakenly landed in the Americas. But others successfully made it to the city—which has been one of the great trading hubs of the world since the 14th century. Trade with Arabs and the Chinese, colonisation by the Portuguese, Dutch and English—Kochi has been a melting pot of cultural influences. This is most apparent in the Fort Kochi area—which is what I am going to focus on for this 48-hour guide.
Where do I stay?
The Tower House: This 17th-century lighthouse turned hotel—is a Neemrana property that sits facing the Chinese fishing nets (in our lead image above). It is one of the few heritage properties in the area with prices comparable to those of budget hotels. (Starts at Rs 8,500 a night)
The Postcard Mandalay Hall: This 200-year-old former Jewish home has been revamped into a boutique hotel. It only has five rooms each of which have been created into works of art curated by Bose Krishnamachari (director of Kochi-Muziris Biennale). (Starts at Rs 35,000 a night)
Koder House: This property is right beside The Tower House and is also another heritage property dating back to 1808 that has been refurbished into a boutique hotel. The building retains its old-world charm while making enough concessions for modernity. The distinctive red-brick facade is hard to miss as one walks near the Fort Kochi beach. (Starts at Rs 11,000 a night)
The Hosteller: I’m adding a hostel option for ultra-budget travellers. The Hosteller’s property in Fort Kochi is both conveniently located and the rooms and dorms are both done up delightfully. (Rooms start at Rs 1,215 and dorms at Rs 550 a night)
PS: Since I’m a local, I may not be as knowledgeable about tourist accommodations. So I recommend checking out Architectural Digest for more options.
For this day, some of my recommendations are outside the Fort Kochi area, so it may be a good idea to rent a vehicle for the day.
Breakfast: The David Hall Art Café. This is a 17th-century Dutch colonial home that's been remodelled as an art gallery and café. It is now one of the most prominent cultural centres in the city with a gallery for contemporary art. It’s thus no surprise that it’s also one of the venues for events and exhibits affiliated to the Biennale. The café is known for its laid-back atmosphere and garden setting.
Another option: French Toast, Fort Kochi. Check out their outlet in Cochin Club for one of the prettiest cafés in town. My personal faves: The strawberry french toast and the banoffee french toast. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but I make an exception for these melt-in-your mouth delicacies. Top it up with some yum coffee.
Walking tour: After this, hit up the Kochi Heritage Project for their wonderful guided walking tours around Fort Kochi. Johann Kuruvilla is hands-down one of the best guides to the culture and history of the city. Each storytelling walk that I’ve taken with him leaves me knowing a little wiser about my own city. (Costs Rs 750-Rs 3,500 per person depending on the number of participants)
Note: You’ll have to contact Johann a few days in advance to save a spot. Just hit him up on Instagram.
Lunch: For lunch, I have two options for local food. Vellakkanthaari is Kochi’s answer to the dhabas up North. Head here for delicious seafood fare complete with the banana leaf meals.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous I suggest checking out Nettoor Toddy Shop or shaapu (if you want to pronounce it the Mallu way). Here you can pair the spicy ‘naadan’ or local food with toddy which is a mildly alcoholic brew made from the sweet sap from the coconut palm.
At either of these places I definitely recommend trying out Karimeen pollichathu which is a spicy dish made with Pearl Spot fish that is wrapped inside plantain leaves, and cooked in coconut oil.
Kayaking at Kadamakkudy: Burn off your lunch with a wonderful kayaking ride in the mangroves. Reach out to Kalypso Adventures for the sunset kayaking that starts at around 4pm and lasts 1.5 hours. You’ll have to book this a couple days in advance.
PS: If you’re feeling nibbly, enjoy some chai and snacks like pazhampori (banana fritters) at Twilight Café while you wait for the kayaking to start.
Dinner: Drive back to Fort Kochi for dinner at Old Harbour Hotel. This 300-year-old Portuguese building was restored into a beautiful hotel complete with carefully chosen artefacts and period furniture. I love the quaint place for its gorgeous outdoor seating that’s the perfect setting for candlelight dinners. Try any of their fresh-seafood based dishes and pair it with your choice of wine. While you’re there don’t forget to say hi to the cats and dogs that are the property’s prime residents:)
Breakfast: Kashi Art Café. Housed in a sprawling bungalow on Burgher street—it offers quintessential café fare. As you enter you see a small art gallery that is currently one of the venues for the Biennale. This café is hot property and their breakfast options are a good mix of Indian and Western dishes. It’s most known for a decadent chocolate cake. Fair warning: No person can finish a slice alone.
The Biennale: While it’s impossible to catch every single exhibit in a two-day trip, I suggest checking out Aspinwall House—which is one of the three main venues this year—to indulge your artsy side. At 11 am and 3 pm, they have guided tours where an art expert affiliated with the Biennale takes you around the venue for around three hours. I highly recommend it because it offers an entry point into the artwork as well as its creator.
Lunch: You will have lots to think about after the three-hour tour so I suggest you wind down with beers at Hotel Seagull—a watering hole that is a Fort Kochi institution. It still retains the charm of the 80’s that my parents’ generation fondly remembers—and is just walking distance from Aspinwall. I definitely recommend getting a pier-side table and ordering some seafood to accompany the beers. Watch cruise ships and large merchant vessels sailing, while you enjoy lunch.
Fort Kochi circle: After you’re done with the late lunch you can walk towards the main Fort Kochi circle which is right by the Fort Kochi beach. On your walk, you can see the famous Chinese fishing nets and enjoy some chai at the roadside stalls. If you’re lucky you’ll also catch some performances by local artists.
Dinner: Wrap up your day with some no-frills but delicious food at Fusion Bay. This nondescript restaurant serves some of the best local food in town and enjoys a cult following amongst its patrons. True to its name, it offers a fusion menu inspired by Syrian Christian, Jewish and Dutch-influenced dishes. Some of the standout dishes include the fish moilee, fish mappas or the seafood chattichoru—which is a thali served in a chatti (earthen pot).
The Kochi you can take home: Coffee from Indian Coffee House, chips from Varuvukada and Kasavu sarees/dupattas or mundus from Seematti. Since all three places are in town, I suggest you do all your shopping on Day 1 when you venture into the city.