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Kerala Travel Guide

David Pettitt

The state of Kerala is located at India’s southern extremity and forms a long sliver of land bordered by Tamil Nadu to the east and Karnataka in the north with Sri Lanka and the Maldives to the south. In many ways Kerala is distinct geographically, climatically and culturally to its near neighbours and, although best known for its coastline and palm-fringed beaches, has a hilly, lush and thickly forested interior framed by the high mountains of the Western Ghats. The climate is tropical and this, in turn, has contributed to the production of tea, coffee and key Indian spices which form an important part of the Keralan identity and also attracted the first western traders to the subcontinent, including Vasco da Gama in 1498. Our Kerala travel guide highlights the very best of the region, both for the first-time visitor or seasoned traveller.

Why visit Kerala?

There are few places with the diversity of Kerala and the combination of beach, backwaters and mountain, history, wildlife and cuisine is unrivalled in southern Asia. Kerala is easy to reach, there are a number of international airports and an extensive domestic air network, roads are good and driving times tend to be shorter than many other regions in India so it is possible to see a real cross-section of the state in a relatively short time. There is an extensive range of accommodation from homestays and small hotels to heritage properties and luxury retreats and a good balance between culture and relaxation – although an emphasis can always be made on either!

Wooden boat on the palm-lined backwaters in Kerala, India

Things to see and do in Kerala

There is plenty to see and do in Kerala. Whether your interest lies in the state’s heritage, its scenery, exploring and understanding the region’s myriad of cultural traditions or simply relaxing on the beach, or even your own private houseboat, the options are almost endless. Here are a few of Kerala’s key travel highlights that you will not want to miss.

Explore historic Fort Kochi

Founded by the Portuguese, expanded by the Dutch and developed into a major spice trading centre by the British, historic Fort Kochi  is an atmospheric warren of cobbled lanes and pretty white-washed homes. Once one of India’s most important commercial cities there is history at every turn, from the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets beside the working harbour to St Francis Church, the oldest European church in India, and 450 year old Mattancherry Palace.

View of St Francis Church in Fort Kochi, Kerala

Cruise the Keralan Backwaters

Arguably the region’s best known natural feature, the Keralan Backwaters are a watery labyrinth of palm-lined canals, rice-paddies and small country towns that spread south from Kochi in a lowland riverine network. The backwaters is Kerala at its tranquil best; children play in the water, villagers work their fields and fishermen bring in their catch. The best way to experience the backwaters is by a private, authentic houseboat – a traditional mode of transport in use for centuries.

Traditional houseboat sailing on the Keralan Backwaters in India

Relax beside the palm-fringed Malabar Coast

There are few better places to relax in India than beside Kerala’s idyllic coast. Running 600kms from northern Kerala to the southern city of Trivandrum, the beaches in Kerala are nearly always sandy, lined with coconut groves and have few cliffs. Harder to reach, the coastline of northern Kerala is quieter and hotels here, such as Neeleshwar Hermitage, have an emphasis on wellness and rejuvenation. Further south, the properties around Mararikulam provide easy access to Kochi and the backwaters and have a laidback atmosphere whilst larger resorts tend to be found closer to bustling Kovalam.

White sand, palm trees and blue sea at a beach in Kerala, India

Experience the tea plantations of the Western Ghats

As you travel inland from the coast, the Western Ghats rise precipitously and form a ridge of mountains that separates Kerala from its neighbour Tamil Nadu. These hills are home to some of the finest scenery in India and shelter a number of quaint hill stations including Munnar, Sultan’s Battery and Madikeri, the main town of the Coorg region, and just across the border in Karnataka. Munnar is an excellent place to visit a tea plantation whilst Sultan’s Battery and Coorg are major coffee and spice centres.

View of lush tea hills close to Periyar Lake in Kerala, India

Visit the extraordinary Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi

Set in the heart of historic Fort Kochi, the Paradesi Synagogue is one of Kerala’s undoubted treasures. Hidden down a pretty lane, the austere white-washed walls enclose a traditional and beautiful place of worship resplendent with rare antiques, gold and silver Torah scrolls, priceless Cantonese ceramic tiles and Belgian crystal chandeliers. Dating to 1568, the synagogue was built by Jewish refugees escaping persecution in Europe. Today the Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest functioning synagogue in India and the Commonwealth.

Interior of the Paradesi Synagogue in historic Kochi, Kerala
Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis

Immerse yourself in Kerala’s unique culture

Kerala has several special cultural traditions and for many visitors the chance to involve and engage themselves is one not to be missed. The opportunity to see Kathakali, a Hindu classical dance found only in Malayalam speaking Kerala, can be arranged and if planning a visit in either August or September you may experience the exuberant festivities that accompany the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and the traditional celebrations of Onam. An Ayurvedic treatment or massage could also be taken by those interested in wellness and holistic healing. Similar to Sri Lanka, Kerala’s cuisine is centred on seafood, fresh vegetables and fruit including coconut which is especially popular.

Kathakali performers in traditional costumes in Kerala, India

Classic Keralan itineraries

To experience the very best of Kerala we have devised a number of itineraries that follow popular routes, common themes and cover the key places to visit. As a specialist tour operator, all of these itineraries are suggestions and can be completely tailored to create a unique and individual itinerary. All journeys listed below are based on two people travelling on a completely private basis and you will have your own car and driver, local guides and include international flights.

For those wishing to experience traditional rural Keralan life

This itinerary focuses on coastal Kerala, the backwaters and surrounding small country towns and villages. There are stays in two charming homestays, including a century old Keralan mansion, a two night cruise on the backwaters and few days of relaxation beside the beach in peaceful Mararikulam.

See Rural Images of Kerala for more information

Man climbing a palm to pick coconuts in Kerala, India

Culture and history from Kerala’s tea hills to the lanes of Kochi

For those interested in the history of the region this is the ultimate overland journey from Mysore in Karnataka to Kochi. Highlights include Mysore’s grand City Palace, the temple complex at Somnathpur and historic Fort Kochi. Learn about hill station life in Sultan’s Battery and Ooty and also take a memorable ride on the century-old Nilgiri Mountain Railway.

For a detailed itinerary see Spices and Sandalwood – A Journey from Mysore to Kochi

Woman in colourful saris plucking tea at an estate in Kerala, India
Photo credit: Julia Maudlin

Relaxation and rejuvenation beside the Malabar Coast

Kerala is known for its hill and coastal scenery and this itinerary combines the very best of both. Explore the coffee plantations and spice gardens of the Western Ghats, relax aboard your own private backwaters houseboat and unwind beside the Arabian Sea in coastal Mullur, close to Kovalam.

For more information see Beautiful Kerala

Two people standing on a sandy beach in Mararikulam, Kerala

Popular Kerala two-centre combinations

Due to its location and excellent links with both India and the rest of Asia, Kerala lends itself to a two-centre holiday. The options are almost endless but some of the most popular and straightforward combinations and included here in our Kerala travel guide.

Kerala and the Maldives

The fabulous island resorts of the Maldives are very close to Kerala making it easier than ever before to combine both destinations in one trip. Both IndiGo Airlines and Spice Jet fly between Kochi and Male whilst an Air India service links Trivandrum with the Maldivian capital.

Luxury accommodation overlooking turquoise seas at a resort in the Maldives

Kerala and Rajasthan

To fully experience the diversity of India, the regal forts and palaces of Rajasthan could be combined with Kerala. There are regular daily flights between northern cities such as Delhi, Jaipur

and Mumbai and we will be happy to talk through the many different options available.

View of Mehrangarh Fort in the city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, India

 

Kerala and Northern India

Northern India is home to some of India’s most iconic sites – from the majestic Taj Mahal and the Raj-era hill station of Shimla to Amritsar’s shimmering Golden Temple and the atmospheric lanes of holy Varanasi it has never been simpler to travel between the north of India and the south.

Bustling and colourful ghats in the pilgrimage city of Varanasi, northern India

Extending your stay in the south of India…

Another excellent way to extend your stay in Kerala is to combine it with some of the other regions of southern India. This part of the subcontinent is incredibly varied both in landscape and culture with the extraordinary temple architecture and barren landscapes of Tamil Nadu, in particular, providing a clear contrast to Kerala’s lush tropical scenery.

Karnataka

Explore Mysore, the region’s most regal city, visit the Jain pilgrimage site of Sravanabelagola, temples of Belur and Halebid and the exceptional ruins of the UNESCO protected remains of Hampi. Kerala borders Karnataka to the north.

Ancient remains of the Vittala Temple at Hampi in Karnataka, India

Tamil Nadu

Located to the east of Kerala, Tamil Nadu is home to some of India’s finest temple complexes. Highlights include the Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore, the instantly recognisable multi-coloured Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai and the fascinating mansions of Chettinad.

Intricate designs of a multi-coloured gopuram at the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Hyderabad and the Deccan

New flights mean it is simpler than ever before to link Hyderabad, one of southern India’s grandest cities, with the historic sites of the Deccan Plateau and the beaches of northern Kerala.

View of the Qutb Shahi tombs close to Hyderabad, India

Wildlife

Although Kerala is blessed with great natural diversity, neighbouring Karnataka is home to arguably southern India’s finest wildlife reserve – Nagarhole National Park. Home to leopard, elephant, tiger and hundreds of bird species, Nagarhole can easily be incorporated into a wider Keralan holiday.

Leopard on a jungle track in Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka, India

Useful travel information for Kerala

Our comprehensive India travel advice contains lots of helpful information on the country, however, below are answers to common questions directly related to Kerala that we are frequently asked.

When is the best time to visit Kerala?

Kerala can be visited the year-round but the very best time to visit is from September to April. The monsoon is at its peak in June, July and August and there is a second, less heavy, monsoon between mid-October and the middle of November.

How do you reach Kerala?

There are no direct flights to Kerala but there are excellent connections via Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat to Kochi and Trivandrum. British Airways have daily direct services between London and Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai.

What are the most important Keralan festivals?

There are a number of key celebrations but the most important festival in Kerala is Onam which takes place in either August or September. Diwali and Dussehra, which are celebrated nationwide, are also observed throughout the state.

What types of accommodation are there in Kerala?

The range of accommodation in Kerala is incredibly varied from small heritage properties and charming homestays to exclusive coastal retreats. Kerala is also known for its excellent wellness hotels that specialise in yoga and Ayurveda.

What are the visa requirements for India?

British Citizens require a visa for India. This must be obtained prior to your arrival in the country and the e-Tourist Visa (eTV) must be applied for online.

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