A Design Lover’s Guide to Kochi, India

Stefanie Waldek

While the majority of India's visitors head to the tourist-heavy sites like the iconic Golden Triangle, bustling Mumbai, and serene Goa, art and design lovers might want to visit another destination: Kochi. The metropolis of just over two million inhabitants, which also goes by the name of Cochin, is an ancient port city in the southern state of Kerala that grew to prominence as a hub for the spice trade, connecting cultures from China to Israel, then becoming part of the Portuguese and Dutch colonial empires. But lately the cosmopolitan city is perhaps best known for its Kochi-Muziris Biennale, South Asia's largest contemporary art event, which sees more than 500,000 people visit exhibitions by dozens of artists from around the world. Though the next edition of Biennale begins in December 2020 and runs through March, the destination continues to be an art hot spot year-round, making it worthy of a trip at any time. Here are the best things to do, places to eat, and hotels for your stay in Kochi.

Lovely portrait of the Santa Cruz Basilica

The Santa Cruz Basilica in Kochi.
Photo by saiko3p. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Where to Stay

Mandalay Hall

A room at Mandalay Hall.
Image courtesy of Mandalay Hall Hotel.

Set in the Jew Town shopping district, concept hotel Mandalay Hall offers contemporary accommodations in a historic setting. The boutique hotel offers just five rooms, or “galleries,” that feature rotating installations by artists selected by the hotel's curator, Bose Krishnamachari, who is also the president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. Mandalay Hall is also home to a library, a jewelry shop, a design boutique, and the Aah restaurant. mandalayhall.com

Forte Kochi

Forte Kochi.
Photo by Gichu Tom. Image courtesy of Forte Kochi.

Experience a taste of historic Kochi with a stay at Forte Kochi, a 16th-century heritage house once owned by a wealthy Jewish family. The property has just been restored head to toe during its conversion to a hotel. It has 27 Keralan-meets-colonial-style rooms set around a tranquil pool—they’re delightfully quiet, given the hotel’s prime location on Princess Street in the historic city center. fortekochi.in

Port Muziris, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel

The lobby of Port Muziris.
Image courtesy of Marriott.

One of the newest hotels in Kochi, Port Muziris is a breath of contemporary fresh air among its more traditional neighbors, offering guests modern amenities like a rooftop infinity pool and a coffee shop. Located adjacent to the airport, about an hour from historic Fort Kochi, the property is a refuge for art lovers, with 70 custom works by 12 local designers and artists. marriott.com

Kumarakom Lake Resort

The Kumarakom Lake Resort.
Image courtesy of Kumarakom Lake Resort.

Set just over an hour outside of Kochi, this lakeside resort in the Keralan backwaters is worth the drive. Its 80 private villas were built from historic materials salvaged from traditional Keralan houses slated for demolition, offering guests a unique look into local architecture. The property also has a small fleet of houseboats that guests can charter for overnight stays on the scenic lake and its many canals. And don’t forget to book an Ayurveda treatment at the spa—the region is known for this ancient medicinal practice. kumarakomlakeresort.in

Beautiful sunset over the Chinese fishing nets in Cochin

The massive, cantilevered Chinese fishing nets on the shores of Fort Kochi have been used since the 14th century.
johnnychaos

What to Do

Architecture Walking Tour

St. Francis Church in Kochi, Kerala, India

St. Francis Church in Kochi.
Photo by Emad Aljumah. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Kochi’s multicultural history has produced an eclectic collection of historic architecture, and since the city is so easily navigable, visitors should go on a self-guided architecture walking tour. Visit the historic Mattancherry Palace, a museum housed in a 16th-century structure built by the Portuguese; the Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in India, built in 1568; and the 16th-century St. Francis Church, where explorer Vasco da Gama was originally laid to rest (though his tomb remains, his body was sent back to his native Portugal some 14 years after his death).

David Hall Gallery and Café

Set in a 17th-century Dutch bungalow, this gallery and café focuses on early-career contemporary artists from around the world, though it also shows local artists and those with ties to the region. On a recent visit, British painter Susan Beaulah, who spends months each year traveling India, was installing a show of Kochi landscapes. The gallery also hosts regular film screenings, lectures, and music performances. davidhall.in

Hop-On, Hop-Off Boat Tours of Port Muziris

A hop-on, hop-off boat tour.
Image courtesy of Stefanie Waldek.

One of the largest conservation projects in India, the Muziris Heritage Project seeks to preserve and restore dozens of historic sites across the waterways of northern Kochi, where the ancient city of Muziris once stood. It operates hop-on, hop-off boat tours of a number of the sites, from temples, synagogues, and churches to stately homes to the ruins of old fortresses. muzirisheritage.org

Pepper House

Pepper House.
Photo by Stefanie Waldek.

Located in two historic Dutch warehouses (known as godowns) on the waterfront, Pepper House is a 16,000-square-foot hub for the arts in Kochi, offering studio spaces, exhibition halls, a design shop, a library, and a café. Though it’s a main site for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, visitors can catch exhibitions by local artists, pop-up shops by craftspeople, and live performances in the courtyard throughout the year. pepperhouse.in

Where to Eat

Kashi Art Café

Photo: Stefanie Waldek

Inside the Kashi Art Café.
Photo by Stefanie Waldek.

It seems that everywhere you turn in Kochi there’s an art café waiting. While they're no longer unique to Kochi—café culture is booming across India—the original is the Kashi Art Café, which was established in 1997, pre-dating the boom after the first Muziris Biennale in 2012. Art cafés are a thoughtful and easy way for the community to engage with local artists who don't have a massive platform. At Kashi, pass through a small art gallery and you'll find a delightful courtyard eatery where locals and visitors chat over ginger lemonades and coffees among sculptures and greenery. Don’t pass up the breakfast or lunch menu if you’re hungry, and save room for the sumptuous chocolate cake. kashiartgallery.com

Malabar Junction

Located in the Malabar House Hotel, a Relais & Châteaux property, Malabar Junction serves up Indian-Mediterranean fusion cuisine in a candlelit poolside setting. Order the tasting menu to sample such dishes as handmade charcoal gnocchi and fish pollichathu, a masala served with the catch of the day and Malabari gandhakasala rice. malabarhouse.com

Ginger House

The outside of Ginger House and its courtyard.
Photo by Stefanie Waldek.

The laid-back Ginger House restaurant on the Kochi waterfront is much more than just a place to dine on local cuisine—it’s also an antique gallery, a museum, and a hotel. After dining on fresh delicacies like fish stewed in coconut milk and served with spongy appam bread, a local favorite, stay to peruse the collection, which includes a 108-foot-long traditional snake boat. museumhotel.in

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest