Kerala travel guide

Kerala travel guide

2 minute summary

Kerala is like opening up a lucky bag of surprises. The first thing most people pick out is the western coastline that unfurls along the Arabian Sea. With its historic past of spice traders, European colonists and, consequently, cosmopolitan communities, each bay brings a different culture, craft and cuisine. The next surprise gift is the Western Ghat Mountains in the east, with hill towns created as summer retreats by the British when the summer heat started to defeat.
For a truly invigorating experience, hike here after the monsoon when forests are bursting with life and waterfalls freshly found momentum. Falls that follow on to a wealth of rivers and lakes, making up Kerala’s wealth of wetlands, known as the backwaters. The backwaters are vibrant and vying for visitors with houseboats and homestays allowing you to explore the inland communities of coir makers, boat builders and crafts workers. Kerala is well set up for tourists, enabling you to go deeper into the backwaters, higher into the mountains, and further along the coast from the busier resorts, which can be a little like the tacky gift at the bottom of the bag. The rest, however, are all pure treats.

What we rate & what we don't

Our best & worst of Kerala vacations


Cycling North Kerala Homestays Cookery Lessons


One of the finest ways to discover Kerala. Within a few hours out of Cochin you can be cycling through spice and coconut plantations, along the banks of the River Periyar with birds and butterflies that you can only have dreamed of, following you along the route. Cycle through small villages, staying at homestays, small guesthouses and eco lodges along the way. And relax those cycling muscles en route with a traditional Ayurvedic massage.

North Kerala

Many people have no idea Kerala exists beyond Cochin and the backwaters. The former spice trading hubs of the north have beaches that are galloping past the old favourites of Kovalam in the south in terms of being bliss out zones. Check out Bekal, Kannur or Neeleshwar. It does take more effort to get there, but beauty rarely come easily, right? And it means they are a lot less touristy.


You might not think it is for you, if privacy is what you want on vacation, but it really is worth spending at least a couple of days of your trip in a homestay. Most of them are small working farms, and Keralites are warm generous hosts, making you feel at home almost instantly. By far the best way to learn about real Kerala cuisine too, with hosts using their own organic ingredients.

Cookery Lessons

Helped along by Rick Steins’ recent cookery programme on India, Kerala cookery is certainly on the up. But celebrity chefs aside, the minute you taste real local food, you will be hooked. Local people still have to wake up to the possibilities of the growth of all things gourmet, but a quick lesson with your homestay host will be unforgettable, and a useful additional source of income for them too.


Kerala from a kayak Western Ghats Fort Cochi Neighbouring states

Kerala from a kayak

Although houseboats are still the most popular way to get around the backwaters, kayak trips are the new way to go on the water, enabling to you escape the bustling channels full of tourists. In a kayak you access Kerala’s rural heart, where duck rearers, toddy tappers and fishermen welcome peaceful paddlers. Your bags are transported for you so that you can moor up, and stay at homestays or villas along the way.

Western Ghats

Few people associate Kerala with mountains, the Himalayas monopolizing the western desire for elevated landscapes. Kerala’s Western Ghats range is rapturous for most hikers and bikers, however. Named as one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots, it’s a daily festival of flora and fauna here. And no snow either in winter. A good starting point is the Raj town of Munnar, with the backdrop Anamudi, Kerala's highest peak at 2695 m.

Fort Cochi

The colonial quarter of Kochi, on the northern end of the peninsula, with the sea on one side and Lake Vembanad on the other. It is a charming area of the harbour city to chill out in, with rickshaws water taxis and ferries to get you around. Check out the shops, as well as its old Jewish quarter, Chinese fishing nets, and a wonderful collection of restaurants and hotels, from grand to boutique.

Neighbouring states

You have not ‘done’ the south of India by just going to Kerala. Consider combining your trip with a few days in neighbouring Karnataka or Tamil Nadu to get a truly three dimensional picture of what south India is. Such as the The Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri Hills or Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, not forgetting the historical hub of Mysore.


Periyar National Park Kovalam beach Kathakali dance Ayurveda spas

Periyar National Park

Although located in beautiful Western Ghats, and famous for its tiger reserve, it certainly feels as if the amount of visitors outnumbers the number of wildlife sightings. You can only hike here with an official Park guide, and the lake cruises feel a bit more like party nights on the Thames. Although still worth a trip, just don’t raise your hopes for sightings. Go for tranquil bamboo rafting option instead of the cruise, but in peak season you need to book well in advance.

Kovalam beach

Started as a hippy hangout in the seventies, but just like Goa or Bali, flower power grew into dollar power, and overdevelopment kicked in. Overcrowded and dirty, there are a lot of vendors hassling on the beaches and it is far from the peace and love vibe they were once idolized for. Head north or further south for beach bliss to places like Kasaragod, Neeleshwar or Marari.

Kathakali dance

Although stunning and totally Kerala it has, sadly, with the influence of tourism, become rather clinical and cynical. Originating in the 17th century it uses refined gestures and ornate singing to convey the story instead of dialogue. Traditionally performed from dusk til dawn, it is now done at resort hotels in enough time for guests to drink a sundowner. Check out the less commercially exploited ritual of Theyyam instead.

Ayurveda spas

The government went on a massive marketing spree to push Kerala as an Ayurvedic destination which means that it is attached to every spa going now. Although many are accredited and highly recommended, remember that this is a real way of life for Keralites, and a highly respected and all-encompassing way of living, with people visiting Ayurvedic hospitals and consultants. Not just a girls’ day out. Check out the government star ratings of Olive Leaf and Green Leaf Ayurvedic Centres for more guidance.

Food, shopping & people

Travel like a local on your Kerala vacation

Eating & drinking in Kerala

Fresh seafood from the backwaters is always a treat. Check out Pollichathu steamed in banana leaves with local spices

Sambar is a dal based vegetarian curry. 
Payasam is a bit like rice pudding

Fresh toddy is the local alcoholic spirit, a bit like tequila

Fish moli or stew is fish at its most delish. Eat with appam bread for Michelin star-like magic
Sadya is traditional Kerala meal made from rice, vegetables and lentils served on a banana leaf. It is eaten at special family celebrations in Kerala and it always has coconut as the hero. 

People & language

The majority of Keralites describe themselves as Malayalis, a Dravidian ethnic group indigenous to Kerala. Malayalam is the main language, and the word means ‘from beyond the mountains’ because originally they were seen as the people who lived beyond the Western Ghats. Most people speak a little English and a lot of signs are in both languages, with a spillover in place names such as Kozhikode which most people still call Calicut, which was the English version.

Thank you = Nandi (pronounced: nan-ní)

Temple = Ambalam

And a regular one in Kerala….Delicious = Ruchikaram

Gifts & shopping

Ayurvedic medicine is available in pharmacies everywhere. Get a consultation for your ailments or bring some herbal happiness in a bottle back for a friend

Buy spices from Cochin market, where they have been traded for centuries. Vanilla, cardamom and cumin seeds are favourites
Have a garment made for you, such as a silk shirt or dress

Munnar is just your cup of tea if you want to buy some to bring home

Calico cloth originated in Kozhikode and can be purchased by the roll in the city

When you get home, check out Kerala Crafts,

Fast facts

Buy all your toiletries here in Kerala, avoiding airport 100 ml madness. The Ayurvedic body products are better than anything you’ll get in Boots

How much does it cost?

Fresh coconut – £0.20-0.25 

Sadya meal – £0.80-1.00

Glass fresh toddy – £0.50 at rural bar

Coir floor mat – £3-4

Hire a good quality mountain bike - £5 a day

A brief history of Kerala

It is ironic that tourists have only been seeking out the sun, sands and summits of Kerala for the last twenty years or so. Because Kerala was the first place in India to be colonized by Europeans who noted and then exploited the resources of this natural wonderland as far back as 1498 when the Portuguese discovered a sea route between Lisbon and Kozhikode. Indeed you can still see the spot where Vasco de Gama landed on Kappad beach. He went on to be named the Viceroy of India in 1524. As was the trend in these parts, the Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, French, Italians and then, finally the British, who thrived on the trade of spices and silk for generations. And tea, of course. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Bekal Beach (top box): Thejas Panarkandy] [cycling: Arun Katiyar] [north kerala: Karunakar Rayker] [homestays: Connie Ma] [cookery lessons: atl10trader] [kerala from a kayak: Kalypso Adventures] [Western Ghats: Vinoth Chandar] [Fort Cochi : Chandrika Nair] [Neighboring states: Anis Ahmad] [Periyar National Park: Esme Vos] [Kovalam beach: Ian Armstrong] [Kathakali dance : Big Dubya] [Eating and Drinking: Divya Kudua] [Gifts and Shopping: Prasad Pillai] [Coconut: Redmond]
Written by Catherine Mack
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