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Kerala, a lush state located in India’s far southwest, has gained fame among serious travelers in recent years. But even if you’ve never heard of it, or never had a particular interest in traveling to India, there are many reasons you might want to add it to your bucket list.

There are Kerala‘s next-level attractions, for one. Feast on fresh-caught seafood while traipsing through a colonial-era fort, laze on a houseboat as it glides through palm-lined backwaters, enjoy an Ayurvedic massage atop cliffs overlooking the Arabian Sea, or watch the sunset behind a mosque from the base of India’s own “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

The state’s got practical appeal, too. Kerala is more laid-back than India as a whole, and is small enough that you can experience its highlights within the parameters of your annual leave. Sound good? Continue reading, because it gets even better. Here are our five favorite things to see and do in Kerala.

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Chinese fishing nets in Kochi, India

Chinese fishing nets in Kochi, India | Photo: Robert Schrader

Explore historical Fort Kochi

Formerly known as Cochin (and often still referred to as such by locals and street signs alike), pedestrian-friendly Fort Kochi is where most trips to Kerala begin. Whether you watch the sun set behind the iconic Chinese fishing nets, say your prayers at famous Catholic Churches like Our Lady of Hope Church or dine on local seafood specialties like curry crab, Fort Kochi is the perfect introduction to Kerala.

Dining on Kerala houseboat

Dining on Kerala houseboat | Photo: Robert Schrader

Ride a houseboat through the backwaters

Baby, this is what you came for! Whether you book a houseboat in advance (more on how to do that in a second) or travel by bus or taxi from Fort Kochi to the port of Alappuzha (which is also known as Aleppey) and find one there, this is Kerala’s most iconic experience. Most travelers spend only a full day and night out on the backwaters, which offer a glimpse into local life in addition to gorgeous scenery and authentic local meals, but you can ask the owner of your houseboat about multi-night stays as well.

Varkala Beach, Kerala, India

Varkala Beach, Kerala, India | PHOTO: Robert Schrader

Bliss out on Varkala Beach

If you can spend longer than a few days in Kerala, you won’t have to choose between backwaters and beaches, as travelers on shorter trips do. However, if you only have a week or so, finish up in Alappuzha in a day or two, then get a taxi to Varkala, whose dramatic red cliffs are matched in beauty only by the relaxation of the Ayurvedic massages offered at its many clinics. TIP: Walk to the far northern end of the beach and head into town to mingle with locals and see the way they live!

Munnar tea fields, Kerala

Munnar tea fields, Kerala | Photo: Robert Schrader

Cool off in the lush mountains of Munnar

Speaking of Ayurveda (which is an ancient word that describes the Keralan form of homeopathy), most of the herbs used in it are grown in the mountainous region of Munnar, whose spice farms are a true delight to visit. Another major attraction of Munnar are its many tea plantations. Munnar looks close to coastal Kerala on the map, but is about three hours away by car. As a result, it makes more sense to think about staying overnight, instead of making this a day trip from Kochi, as many ambitious traveler do.

Trivandrum, Kerala | Photo: Robert Schrader

Discover underrated Trivandrum

Far fewer foreigners visit Trivandrum (which is officially known as “Thiruvananthapuram” but still often shortened for obvious reasons) than Kochi, and that’s a shame. From the Tamil-style Padmanbhaswamy Temple in the city center, to the harbor of Vizinjam, flanked on one side by an ornate mosque and on the other by a replica of Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, Trivandrum is every bit as captivating as Kochi. Another worthwhile place to stop is Kovalam Beach, which is famous for its lighthouse.

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Where to stay

One thing Kerala definitely shares in common with rest of India is high-quality accommodation for a great price. In Fort Kochi, for example, you can stay in the boutique Tissa’s Inn hotel at rates that might only buy a hostel in Europe. Though many travelers turn up at the pier in Alappuzha and find a houseboat that way, you can browse Orbitz’s selection of hotels and houseboats in the Kerala backwaters.

When to go

Kerala has two seasons—wet and dry. In order to avoid soaking monsoon rains, visit between about November and April. Prices are lowest (and crowds lightest) during the “shoulder” months on the periphery of this range, while Christmas (there are a fair amount of Christians in southern India) and the New Year holiday are among the busiest times. If you do come during the wet months, keep in mind that rain in Kerala can be more than just a nuisance.

Getting around

Indians are some of the world’s tech-savviest people, which means that Ubers are prevalent in major Kerala cities like Kochi and Trivandrum. For long journeys, budget travelers can use India’s famous (some might say infamous) train network, or long distance buses operated by the Keralan government. However, you should always ask your hotel how much a taxi would cost—they can be quite affordable, especially if you’re traveling in a group.

Is Kerala safe?

The aforementioned potential for flooding notwithstanding, Kerala is one of the safest states in India. Though traffic accidents probably occur more here than in your home city, and while the Communist Party that governs the state creates a lot of paranoid headlines in Indian media, Kerala is free of much of the crime and danger that plagues the rest of India. Notably for female travelers, sexual assault is very rare here compared to Delhi and North India, where it has recently reached epidemic levels.

The bottom line

If you haven’t already begun your search for flights to Kochi, you will soon. Whether for the tranquility of Kerala’s backwaters, the drama of its cliff-hewn beaches, to spices and tea plantations of its mountainous interior, or the cultural treasures of its charming cities, India’s best-kept secret will be on everybody’s lips before long. Can’t you just picture yourself lounging on the deck on a houseboat?

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Tagged: Asia, India

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Robert Schrader
Robert is a writer and photographer who's spent the better part of the past decade roaming the globe. Read hundreds of inspiring, informative travel articles on his blog Leave Your Daily Hell, or see the world through his eyes on Instagram, where he's @leaveyourdailyhell.

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