Where to go in Kerala
Make the most of your time
When you are working out where to go in Kerala, it helps to think of it like a well-stocked spice rack. Some are just basics and musts for every recipe. Such as the backwaters of Alleppey, or the old town at Fort Cochi. Others must only be used fresh and thrown in at the last minute, like a hiking trip up to the waterfalls of the Western Ghats, as soon as the monsoon has ended, when everything is aromatic and deliciously verdant. Ginger is revitalizing and awakens the palette, just like the Ayurvedic way of life that underpins much of Keralite’s wellbeing. And pepper, the most famous of all, represents the stimulating multi-cultural influences dotted all over this vibrant outward looking region of India. Just don’t put them all in at once, but savour them slowly, following a good recipe for responsible tourism.
Although often called the Venice of the East, it feels a bit more like Holland, with the coast opening up into myriad waterways weaving through flat expanses of rich farmland, most of it below sea level. There are houseboats to stay on, homestays or boutique hotels to explore and beaches such as Marari nearby. Gateway to Kerala’s famous ‘backwaters’ it is also accessible by train.
A bit like a really good quality trail mix, with fruit, nuts, and lots of unexpected goodies thrown in, Kasargod is a charming melange of surprises. From cultural flavours of Theyyam, a moving ritual form of worship which is practised here to coastal forts from various periods of history, this remote spot in the north is something special. And with delicious natural ingredients of beaches and backwaters to boot.
A vibrant fort and port city of great historic importance, with ginger, pepper and coconut flowing out of here for centuries. Each sums up the qualities of the city well. Ginger represents its zingy nightlife, carnival and festival scene, coconut its tropical climate and beaches at Cherai and Fort Cochi and pepper, the stimulating cultural and arts spaces which are dotted around this cosmopolitan and multi-racial city.
Now a bustling city, its first famous international visitor was Vasco da Gama who landed on the remote and peaceful beach of Kappad in 1498. Hub of the Malabar region, it’s one big cultural carnival here, with opportunities to visit ancient spice markets, see traditional boat making and catch some kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art still practiced throughout the city. The main beach is busy, but great for people watching at sunset and dolphin watching at sunrise.
A famous Kerala backwater spot which is 500 acres of land reclaimed from Vembanad Lake, and engineered by an English farmer back in 1847. Extremely luscious, catch it just after monsoon for a Pantone-like plethora of green. Hardly surprising that it is teeming with birdlife. Who wouldn’t stop here on a migratory mission? Bring binoculars for the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. The nearby Silent Valley is a trekker’s delight.
Perfect for visiting Periyar National Park, with backdrop of the misty mountains of Kurushumala, there are wonderful homestays with hiking opportunities straight out the front door. Also known as the Spice Garden of India, it is shopping heaven. And after you go bamboo rafting here, you will wish you could pack one of these in your suitcase too. You can also visit the Mannan tribes from here.
One of Kerala’s hill stations, or high altitude towns created by colonists to escape the summer heat. This is more than a hill, however, boasting South India’s highest peak, Anamudi, at 2,695 m. It is the gateway to the Ghats, and the place to hike in Kerala although still a well-kept secret on the worldwide ramblers’ radar, with treks into high altitude grasslands and, in delightful contrast, montaine rainforest.
A visual feast. Not only do you have the backdrop of the Western Ghat Mountains it is also home to a tiger reserve and a massive lake where wild elephants come to play and be admired doing so. Tiger sightings are rare, but there are monkeys, wild pigs, deer, Indian wild dogs, and what feels like a carnival of birds. It is also crawling with that less rare species, the tourist, especially on the cruises. Take a guided eco trail or go bamboo rafting to escape the stampedes.
Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary
Just 14 kms from Kothamangalam, this bird sanctuary is 25 km 2 so you can spend the whole day hiking through this forest in the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains. It is home to most of the endemics of the Western Ghats with delights such as the Malabar Parakeet, Wayanad Laughing Thrush and the Malabar Grey Hornbill . And out here you are in veritable cuckoo land.
Along with Kumily, this is a popular place to stay when visiting Periyar National Park, there are wonderful places to stay here, from homestays to plantation resorts, and plenty of hiking on the doorstep. As well as the smell of the rainforest, take a tour of the area’s plantations to imbibe the spices for which Kerala is so famous. The Red Frog spice shop is a must.
Mahatma Gandhi called this, Kerala’s capital city, the "Evergreen city of India" with its seven hillsides overlooking a soothing palm covered coast. Now a busy business hub, mixed with surfers and shoppers, this marine metropolis is still brimming with history. Check out Sree Anantha Padmanabha Temple, one of the oldest in India, stunning Napier Museum and Kuthiramalika Palace . Laurie Baker’s India Coffee House at Thampanoor a great stop too.
It is very unusual to find beaches with cliffs in Kerala,and these ones do the picture postcard trick. The main beach of Papanasam is 3kms from the main town, which is just inland, and accessible by train. The 2,000-year old Janardana Swami Temple, just close to the beach, is considered to have holy waters which wash away sins, and also an important Ayurveda treatment centre. Indeed, Varkala is a healing sort of place.
10 day cycling itinerary
Kochi ► Thattekkad ► Adimali ► Munnar ► Suryanelli ► Periyar National Park ► Vagamon ► Thodupuzha ► Kumarakom ► Alleppey ► Kochi
14 day cultural tour
Kochi ► Munnar ► Thekkady ► Alleppey ► Kumarakom ► Kollam ► Varkala ► Trivandrum ► Kochi ►
10 days classic Kerala 3
Kochi ► Munnar ► Alleppey ► Periyar ► Marari ► Kochi
Driving times in Kerala
The following times give you a rough idea of the driving times between the main attractions in Kerala.
- Kochi - Munnar: 4 hours by car
- Kochi to Periyar National Park: 5 hours by car
- Alleppey to Periyar National Park: 4 hours by car
- Kochi to Kozhikode 5 hours by car
- Alleppey – Kozhikode 5 hours by train