With its natural deep water harbour Cochin was already a centre for India’s spice trade before the Portuguese founded the first European settlement here in 1500. The Portuguese were driven out by the Dutch, who, in turn, were displaced by the British. Together with the trading Arabs and Chinese, each has left their own influences on Cochin. The city is built on a series of islands but it is Fort Cochin and Mattancherry with their narrow streets and winding lanes, colonial architecture and heritage hotels that are likely to occupy most of your time. The area is conducive to leisurely exploration on foot, people watching with a cold drink in hand and sticking your head into old warehouses full of aromatic spices or antiques.
Take a wander along to the waterfront to find the huge cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that have become an iconic image of Cochin. Although the catch is limited these days they are a sight not to be missed as teams of fisherman work the ropes to pull in the nets and sell the fish directly to on the harbour side. Just a short step away is St Francis church. A simple building, it is the oldest Christian church in India and Vasco da Gama was buried here (though his remains were later removed to Portugal, the tombstone is still here). Other sites of interest include the 16th century Paradesi Synagogue and Mattancherry or Dutch Palace which has some wonderful murals depicting scenes from Hindu legends. In the evening, catch a performance of Kathakali traditional dance-drama at a local theatre.
If you find this old world atmosphere a little too genteel, simply hop on a public ferry to Ernakulum, the commercial hub of the city and dip into the hustle and bustle of the local markets.