At India’s southwestern-most tip, along the Arabian Sea coast, is the state of Kerala. This state, which is often referred to by its affectionate nickname, God’s Own Country, is a wonderful and beautiful mix of diverse cultures and cuisines. With influences that range from southern Indian to Portuguese to Dutch, Kerala is a smorgasbord for travelers who love immersion. Hints of these cultures can be experienced in many of the places you’ll want to visit in Kerala, India.
The spices that grow in and around the mountainous hill stations in Kerala’s interior play a big role in the state’s cuisine. Also popular in the cuisine are the bananas and coconuts that grow just about everywhere. Kerala’s name actually translates to “Land of Coconuts.” Locations utilized by the Portuguese to transport spices back to their home country in the 16th century are now booming tourist destinations.
I spent twelve incredible days touring Kerala, starting in its deep south before moving to its interior and finally driving straight up the picturesque Malabar Coast to its northernmost reaches. Along the way, I had the type of beautiful, lifechanging experiences you can only get through travel. From having lunch with a roaming mountain tribe to witnessing a spectacular sunrise from the peaks outside of Munnar, Kerala changed me forever. And I’m excited to share a bit of it with you. These are the top 10 places to visit in Kerala, India.
Kerala’s capital and largest city, Thiruvananthapuram, is also one of its southernmost. Located close to India’s southern tip along the Arabian Sea, this beautiful port city is better known by its former name, Trivandrum. It’s the most populous city in India’s deep south, and also offers a wide variety of adventures for travelers who look hard enough. The city is also ancient, as it was a popular spice-trading post around 1000 BC.
Prominent sites around the city include Sri Padamanabhaswamy Temple, the richest temple in the world. Only Hindus are allowed to go inside, where over $22 billion worth of gold and jewels have been unearthed. The 16th-century temple is considered one of the 108 Holy Abodes of Vishnu and is a great example of Dravidian architecture.
Elsewhere in the city, you’ll find Attukal Bhagavathy Temple, which hosts a 10-day festival in February and March called Attukal Pongala. If getting to experience local life is a priority for you, check out Chalai Bazaar, Kerala’s busiest street market, which is a true flurry of activity. The crescent-shaped Kovalam Beach is also a must, and art enthusiasts will love the Napier Museum and Gardens.
Food-wise, Trivandrum is like one never-ending feast. One of my favorite food experiences was at Good Morning Hotel, where you must try their famous beef curry, which they serve with a delicious, flaky flatbread called parottas.
Edaneram Restaurant is a fantastic place to try the sweet and savory pazham pori and pothu curry, which is banana fry with buffalo roast curry. Have a banana leaf meal called a sadhya at Mother’s Veg Plaza, and for more upscale dining, check out Villa Maya Restaurant.
If you love spicy chicken, you must visit Kethel’s Kitchen in Chalai Bazaar, a small but extremely popular dinner spot that sells fiery baby chicken fry. Eat it with a flatbread called chapati and a fatty but flavorful gravy! Trust me, the food in Trivandrum easily makes the city one of the top places to visit in Kerala, India!
Roughly 45 minutes north of Trivandrum by car is the town of Kilimanoor. Kilimanoor is a great day trip option from the capital, as the area offers one very prominent attraction and several fantastic eateries you’ll want to experience.
I recommend heading there early in the morning so you can have a mind-blowing breakfast before you can explore. You have a couple of options, as the traditional Vazhiyorakkada Restaurant in town offers a remarkable squid thoran (squid with coconut), mouthwatering chicken liver, and amazing duck roast and fried prawns.
Just outside of Kilimanoor is a village called Chadayamangalam. There, you can try a traditional fermented rice gruel called pazhamkanji at Janartha Hotel. It’s messy, sour, and bursting with flavors, and pairs nicely with fish curry, chicken curry, and fish fry.
After you’ve had breakfast, the best thing to do is to head to the area’s main attraction, Jatayu Earth’s Center. This large and expansive nature park is easily one of the best places to visit in Kerala, India. It’s home to several activities that can keep families busy for most of the day, including a museum, an adventure center, cable car rides high above the area, a cave resort, and the largest bird sculpture on the planet!
The concrete statue of Jatayu there stands 70 feet tall and 150 feet wide. It covers a total area of 15,000 square feet! I suggest taking the cable car up to the statue. There are also an amphitheater and a temple dedicated to Lord Rama in the area, and an imprint in the stone nearby that is said to be his footprint.
Another fantastic day trip opportunity from Trivandrum is to take an hour-long drive up to Varkala. Varkala is a relaxed, coastal resort town that’s about 43 kilometers north of the capital. If you’re driving from Kilimanoor, it’s a roughly 23-kilometer drive and should take you about 40 minutes.
This southern Indian paradise is also one of Kerala’s biggest tourism hotspots, mainly because of Varkala Beach. This wide, picturesque stretch of sand is bounded by the Arabian Sea on one side and beautiful, reddish cliffs on the other.
Atop the cliffs, you’ll find the Varkala Promenade, a bustling and touristy boardwalk that is lined with gift shops, restaurants, and cafés. There, you can buy a traditional head scarf to keep yourself nice and cool in the heat. Don’t be afraid to haggle with the vendors, who like to raise their prices randomly for tourists! Don’t miss the tasty cardamom coffee at Coffee Temple Restaurant if you need a caffeine boost!
Although Varkala is definitely one of the more touristy locations you’ll visit in Kerala, there are ways to get away from the crowds. Not far from the Varkala Promenade is Janardanaswamy Temple, which is over 2,000 years old and dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
It contains a courtyard and an inner shrine that is guarded by idols of Garuda and Hanuman. You’ll also find a banyan tree on the grounds. Worshippers hang baby dolls from its branches and pray there if they wish to be blessed with a child.
Varkala is also a great place to experience one of Kerala’s famous temple festivals. The festivals are lively, nighttime celebrations that take place within temples. They combine thousands of lights and performances by marching musicians. The centerpiece is the temple elephant, which marches the route while wearing a vibrant idol on its head. Several temples in the area host temple festivals, including Kuttikkattil Bhadrakali Devi Temple, which is where I went with my friend Vishnu.
Of course, if you’d like to stay close to the touristy areas of Varkala, you can find spots to eat along the promenade. But if you want a more authentic and immersive food experience, head further into town. There, you’ll find street food vendors set up under tents. It is here that you’ll find the locals.
I suggest finding a street vendor who offers tata dosas, which are fluffier and doughier than the dosas you’ll find in states like Karnataka and Telangana. They go extremely well with dishes like chicken thoran (chicken with coconut) and puttu, which is a steamed rice and coconut flour cake.
Try your tata dosas with a spicy omelet, which is almost like having breakfast, except the dosas are savory rather than sweet. It’s the perfect combination and is one of several reasons why Varkala is one of the best places to visit in Kerala, India!
Speaking of popular tourist destinations, there are few in Kerala more well-known than the Kerala Backwaters. The best way to reach these beautiful and serene waterways is through the coastal city of Alleppey. But Alleppey is a lot more than just a gateway to the backwaters. It’s also a delightful farming city that offers some of the best southern Indian seafood on the planet!
Before you set your sights on the backwaters, head over to Brothers Hotel, a quaint restaurant in town that offers some outstanding Kerala fare. I recommend their puttu, which contains grated coconut and brown rice flour. Try it with their phenomenal fish curry and duck curry, which are both rich and vibrant and full of flavors that will tease and tantalize your palate!
You may also want to visit New York Toddy Shop, which is a bit of a hidden gem located along a lonely road not far from the backwaters. There, you can enjoy a specialty drink called toddy, which is a fermented coconut wine. It’s not very strong, but man is it sour! Pair the toddy with southern Indian seafood dishes like stir-fried mussels, fish fry, and crab with gravy.
Of course, the main attraction in Alleppey is the Kerala Backwaters, a complex network of interconnected lakes, rivers, lagoons, and canals. The Portuguese used these waterways to transport spices on kettuvallam boats back in the 16th century, but now, the boats have been converted into floating Airbnbs called houseboats.
Booking a stay on a houseboat is a must when you visit Kerala. The pristine natural beauty of the area is unmatched. Booking a houseboat stay can be tricky—they range in price and quality, so do your research beforehand.
Prices can seem steep at first, but keep in mind that they cover your lodgings, food, and activities during your stay, and pay for the houseboat crew. Activities include excursions to towns, temples, and other attractions along the waterways, including churches and local markets.
Onboard, you’ll enjoy spectacular southern Indian feasts that are heavy on the seafood. You’ll also have the opportunity to fish for your dinner and take canoe rides at sunrise and sunset. It’s everything you could want and more, and makes Alleppey one of my favorite places to visit in Kerala, India.
While you can drive straight north along the Arabian Sea coast from Trivandrum to Kasaragod in the far north, it’s easy to forget that the interior of Kerala is just as breathtaking as the coastal areas. For that reason, I suggest taking a detour to the Thekkady area in the Idukki District to the northeast of Alleppey.
This area in the lush, misty mountains of the Western Ghats is brimming with incredible cultural and gastronomical opportunities. If you’re into wildlife, I highly suggest visiting Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is home to tigers, Asian elephants, and hundreds of species of birds.
To immerse yourself in the culture of the area, I suggest checking out the performance artform called Kathakali. Kathakali is a Hindu performance art and classical dance that seamlessly combines elaborate costumes, myths and legends, comedy, exaggerated facial expressions, and a unique talent called “eye dancing.” There are several theaters in the area where you can witness a performance, including Kadathanadan Kalari & Navarasa Kathakali Thekkady Theatre.
You can also experience a traditional martial arts performance called Kalaripayattu, which is also known as just Kalari. It combines hyper-athleticism, knowledge of pressure points, Ayurveda, and yoga, as well as disciplines like compassion and respect. They put on a very high-energy show that includes sword-fighting, stick fighting, and fire dancing!
Of course, the Thekkady area offers plenty of adventures. The region lies along the border with the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. It’s easy to cross the border and head down the mountains into the Tamil flatlands, where you’ll find amazing vineyards and vendors selling coconuts, bananas, and wines.
But in Thekkady itself, I recommend heading into the forested mountains, where you can prepare and enjoy a meal with the local Mannan Tribe. The tribe has lived in the mountains of the Western Ghats for centuries, and are welcoming and gracious. I joined them one afternoon and watched as they prepared roasted tapioca, local river fish, chicken curry, spinach, and a thick, sticky paste called ragi. It is by far the most special and most immersive experience I had in Thekkady.
Elsewhere, check out Kairali Chips in the town of Kumily, where you can try several varieties of banana chips. For heartier fare, stay at the Woodnote Resort and dine at their on-site restaurant, Drizzle. In the morning, try their creamy chicken curry with idiyappam and dosas, and at night, go for their beef curry with chilies, paneer curry, and butter chicken. They’re all outstanding!
The next destination on my list of places you must visit in Kerala, India is the town of Munnar. Munnar is a hill station about 5,200 feet above sea level that offers some of the most stunning scenery in all of southern India. There, you’ll find beautiful rivers, rolling tea plantations, and some of the most remarkable mountain vistas on Earth.
Stay at the Dream Catcher Resort while you’re there, as it puts you right in the thick of Munnar’s most popular attraction: its tea plantations. If you can, stay in one of their four private treehouses, which offer unparalleled views of the plantations below.
While you’re in the area, you can enjoy a meal in the nearby highland forests with locals who will prepare dishes like beef liver roast, kanthari chili prawns, mutton leg, and pumpkin payasam. But an hour away from the resort, you’ll reach Munnar Town, which is the perfect place to try street food at night.
I’ll always recommend the pani puri, which is excellent no matter where you try it, and you can also try Tamil-style dosas, chicken fry with tapioca, appam, and parottas. The homemade chocolate at MSP & Sons is also out of this world!
While in Munnar, you’d also be remiss if you didn’t make the drive up from Surianalle Estate to Kolukkumalai in the wee hours of the morning. There, near the top of the mountain, you’ll witness one of the most magnificent sunrises on Earth. It is truly majestic and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. This sunrise alone makes Munnar one of the best places to visit in Kerala, India.
After experiencing the sunrise, head down to Kolukkumalai Tea Plantation, the highest-elevated tea plantation on the planet. There, you can tour their facility and get a taste of their black and lemon teas. You can also buy some tea to take home with you!
Back along Kerala’s Arabian sea coast, north from Alleppey, is the ancient city of Kochi. In antiquity, Kochi was an important spice trading post and was known to the Greeks, Chinese, Arabs, Jews, and Syrians. The fort that was built there in 1503, Fort Kochi, was the first European colony in India.
This important site is a prime location to see the different architectural styles in Kochi, including Dutch, Portuguese, and British. Fort Kochi is also a great spot to see the famous Chinese Fishing Nets, unique nets that hang, suspended, over the shoreline. Fort Kochi is one of the few places to see them!
To explore the more historical side of Fort Kochi, I recommend a trip to St. Francis Church, which is as old as the fort itself. It’s one of the oldest European churches in the country.
Also worth visiting in town is the local Jew Town, where you’ll find the oldest Jewish synagogue in the commonwealth nations. The area is also home to lots of craft vendors, textile stores, and souvenir shops.
Of course, you can’t fully explore Kochi without diving into its food scene. Try the earthy, mud-baked chicken at Midnight Chicken Restaurant and the prawn curry at Upper Berth Restaurant at the Coral Isle Hotel. If street food is more your jam, I recommend the crunchy beef dry fry and chicken fry at stalls in the middle of town, and the egg dosa with tomato chutney you can find at a roaming food truck in the city!
Formerly known as Tellicherry, the city of Thalassery is another of Kerala’s historical coastal cities. It’s located between the cities of Kozhikode and Kannur and is a must-visit for travelers who love diving into food and history.
Thalassery’s cuisine is dominated by biryani, a layered rice dish that you can find throughout the Indian subcontinent. The city has its own special variety of the dish, called Thalassery dum biryani.
Unlike the biryani you’ll find in Hyderabad, another city known for the dish, Thalassery’s biryani is made with short-grain rice and is light on spices. It also contains large amounts of ghee, as well as chicken, raisins, fried onions, and coriander.
Try some at Paris Hotel, which serves it alongside a dry coconut chutney and mango pickle. The flavors together make Thalassery one of the top places to visit in Kerala, India.
Other great dishes to try in town are the string hoppers and egg curry at the Bombay Hotel and the masala-coated French fries at stalls near Thalassery pier. To cool off, check out Firoz Cool Bar to try their frozen tropical fruit drink, the Cocktail.
For those who love to explore history, Tellicherry Fort is a fantastic option. It dates back to 1708, when the East India Company built it to stop locals from attacking the British. Inside its 10-meter-high walls, you’ll find barracks, a lighthouse, and secret tunnels that lead to the Arabian Sea.
Speaking of the Arabian Sea, another notable attraction in town is Muzhuppilangad Drive-In Beach, the largest of its kind in Asia. The three-mile-long beach’s sand is densely packed, so it’s stable enough to drive on. In fact, young locals like to go there to test out driving stunts by the water’s edge!
The largest city on Kerala’s North Malabar Coast is Kannur, another extremely old city that once traded with Persia and Arabia. This port city is one of the best in southern India to try Indian seafood, which restaurants and vendors buy from the local fish markets.
The fish markets and the harbor are perfect for travelers who like to be in the thick of the local hustle and bustle. Between the fish being offloaded from their boats, auctioned, sold, butchered, and finally bought by customers, the markets are a flurry of activity!
Try some of the freshly-caught fish at the city’s best accommodation, the Seashell Haris Beach Home. If you buy a fish and take it back, the cooks there will graciously fry it up for you. I recommend buying some mussels so they can prepare a phenomenal mussel fry! While you’re there, enjoy a stroll or a dip in the ocean at the gorgeous beach behind the property. You can’t beat it!
Another fantastic spot to eat in the Kannur area include Hotel Jaya, where you can try a chicken-and-egg biryani with rich, tropical flavors. Also check out the Malayattor Hotel, where you can try mussels, mackerel, and fish curry. And if you want to enjoy an alcoholic beverage, take a quick day trip to the nearby Union Territory of Mahé, where you’ll find bars and alcohol shops on every corner!
To get a taste of the local culture, I suggest visiting Sree Subrahmanya Swami Temple, one of the Kannur area’s most sacred sites. You can find it in the town of Payyanur just outside the city. You can’t go inside if you’re not Hindu, but you can still visit their pond and feed the fish there!
For a deeper dive into the local religion, I recommend witnessing a Theyyam ritual. Theyyam is an ancient form of ritual worship that only takes place in a handful of areas in the Kolattunadu region of Kerala. The ritual also only takes place between the months of November and February.
The ritual involves elaborate storytelling, colorful costumes, and fire dancing. It’s intense and quite eerie to watch, as the ritual begins well before sunrise while it’s still pitch dark outside. But it’s also fascinating. Some of the traditions and customs involved date back to the Neolithic period. It is believed that the ritual gives the worshippers a direct channel to God.
The only way to find a Theyyam ritual is to have an “in,” so I again recommend staying at the Seashell Haris Beach Home. There, your hosts can arrange for you to experience a ritual and accompany you there. It’s one of the most deeply immersive things you can witness in India, making Kannur one of the best places to visit in Kerala, India.
No road trip along the North Malabar Coast is complete without visiting the historic port city of Kozhikode. The city’s origins date back over 2,000 years. Arab merchants who traded with the city knew it by the name Qāliqūt, a variation of several names the city has had in its history. Kozhikode was known as the City of Spices because of its standing as a major spice trading post.
As Kerala’s third-largest city, Kozhikode boasts nearly everything travelers crave. If you’re into shopping, there’s no better location than Koyenco Bazar along S.M. Street, where you can buy sweets, souvenirs, snacks, and jewelry. I also recommend getting a relaxing haircut and head massage at nearby Blade Barbershop.
Attraction-wise, Kozhikode is an embarrassment of riches. From the Mishkal Mosque to Kappad Beach, there are plenty of things to see. Kozhikode Beach is another beautiful location visit during the day. Don’t forget to double back and return to try the street food there at night.
I recommend the green pea masala sold by the vendor there. Then, drive further down the beach to The Shap Family Restaurant, where you can try a rice-less cassava biryani, a briny sardine curry, and a decadent and unique take on falooda.
Like Thalassery and Hyderabad, Kozhikode is also known for its own type of biryani. You should try it at Kuttichira Biriyani Centre near Kozhikode Beach. Their Calicut Biryani is made up of short-grain rice, crispy onions, coriander, ginger, cashews, garlic, onions, tomatoes, and chilies. You can have it topped with fish, chicken, or buffalo. I truly believe it’s one of the best biryanis in the world!
Don’t miss out on the mackerel biryani, fried kingfish, and masala-covered squid thoran at Modern Restaurant. Another can’t-miss eatery is Rahmath Restaurant. There, you can try a mashed and stuffed plantain dish called unnakaya with mussel biryani and mutton chaps. If you’re looking for snacks, visit the Bombay Hotel to try everything from vada to banana fry to carrot cake!
There’s enough to do in Kozhikode to make your head spin, but it’s also what makes it one of my top 10 places to visit in Kerala, India! It is a must-visit city and I recommend spending at least a couple of days there to experience it all.
After you have visited Kerala, it’s easy to see why locals and tourists alike refer to it as God’s Own Country. The people are so warm and friendly and happy to share their food and culture with foreigners. It makes for an incredible experience when you travel from city to city and find kind, wonderful people everywhere you go. When you add in the unique culture, scenic wonders, and sheer variety in the cuisine, you may find yourself never wanting to leave! Book a trip to Kerala today to experience its magic for yourself!
I have to thank my good friends Vishnu and Ebbin for graciously taking time out of their busy schedules to show me their beautiful state! This trip would not have been possible without them!
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