Kerala is India‘s gorgeous green land known as God’s Own Country. Ranked one of the world’s most affordable winter sun destinations, Kerala offers some of the best-loved experiences in India. Read on for the most amazing things to do on a perfect Kerala backpacking itinerary.
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Where is Kerala and why visit?
Kerala is the best-known destination for backpacking in South India. With almost 372 miles (600 km) of coastline on the Arabian Sea, it has many beautiful sandy beaches.
One of the most famous things about this Indian state are the Kerala backwaters. Along with man-made canals, there are over 500 miles (900 km) of natural waterways, lakes and lagoons. For centuries, local people have sailed these backwaters to transport goods and supplies. They are now one of the best-loved tourist attractions in India. Visitors can hire a houseboat, complete with a crew and staff, to sail these serene waters on an unforgettable overnight trip.
Reserve your spot on a highly rated half-day tour to cruise the Kerala backwaters from Cochin here.
This Indian state is known for its tropical climate and lush green landscape, which is the ideal setting for some of the country’s most famous and lucrative tea plantations. Read on to discover how to explore Kerala.
How many days to spend in Kerala
Kerala is a place where slow travel is best. The pace of life here is relaxed and if you try to rush it, you will miss out on its charm. If you are short on time, it is possible to do a day trip to the Kerala backwaters via Cochin. But if you want to see the famous Munnar tea plantations and learn about the culture and traditions of Kerala, then take your time. We found that it took an average of four hours to travel between the main tourist places in Kerala, so you will need to factor this into your itinerary. I would recommend giving yourself at least two weeks to explore Kerala. Read on to find out more.
How to plan your backpacking Kerala itinerary
Most people arrive in Kerala at Cochin, otherwise known as Kochi. International visitors will land via its airport or cruise ship port, while there are good train or bus connections to other destinations in India. There are plenty of attractions here, especially in the Fort Kochi area, so it’s worth staying for a few days.
Alternatively, your first stop in Kerala may be the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, also known as Trivandrum, which also has an international airport and a major train station. This city is known for its British colonial architecture, art galleries and the striking Sree Padmanabhaswamy Hindu temple.
The best places to visit in Kerala include Munnar for the tea plantations, Alleppey for sailing the backwaters and Varkala or Kovalam for laid-back beach life.
For your Kerala itinerary, you will need to decide what you would most like to see and do and how you will travel between each place. Read on to find out more about travelling in Kerala.
Avoid the queues and pre-book a car transfer from Cochin airport directly to your hotel here.
This is the most convenient way to travel around Kerala
It’s not always easy to get around Kerala. While there are local buses, hiring a local private driver is much faster and less hassle. We reduced the costs by sharing with other travellers.
It’s worth taking a train in Kerala just for the experience. While there is an official Indian railway operator website, for non-Indian travellers the Cleartrip.com website is a much easier way to book travel tickets in Kerala.
There are different classes on Indian trains. In third class, passengers are squashed in and it may not be comfortable if you aren’t used to it. We opted for first class, which is still cheap compared with train journeys in Europe, at around £15-£20 ($20-25) for a four hour journey from Varkala to Cochin Airport.
For more information on travelling in India, download the Guide to India eBook by Rachel Jones, an American who lived in India for five years.
In first class, you are seated in four-bunk sleeper cabins, separated from the main corridor by a curtain. The seats convert to beds, with sheets and pillows provided. We got chatting with our lovely fellow passengers in the comfort of our air-conditioned cabin.
The best part about the journey is that every few minutes someone will walk along the length of the train selling food and drink, so you won’t go hungry if you forgot to bring snacks.
Read on to learn about finding the best budget accommodation in Kerala.
The most affordable and unique accommodation in Kerala
If you’re backpacking Kerala, you will be looking for affordable accommodation. In the larger cities like Cochin and Alleppey, you will find hostels, where you can grab a bed in a comfortable dorm and meet other travellers.
In the smaller towns the best budget places to stay in Kerala are homestays. These are guest houses where you have a host for the duration of your visit. The price of your stay may or may not include home-cooked meals, so it’s always worth checking this. Unusual accommodation options in Kerala include staying the night in a treehouse.
To browse and book the best hostels in Kerala, click here.
Cochin (Kochi) – 3 nights
Cochin has plenty to offer visitors, from its famous Chinese fishing nets to incredible traditional theatrical performances and shopping for perfumes and spices in the seaside Fort Kochi area. Read on to find out more including the best places to stay.
Reserve your spot on a guided walking tour of the best highlights of Fort Kochi here.
These are the most comfortable places to stay in Cochin
In Cochin, one of the best places to stay in Kerala is also great value. The Pod Cochin has countless rave reviews and for good reason. Well located close to the main tourist spots in Cochin’s Fort Kochi district, it has clean, comfortable and cool rooms. The homestay owners are kind, friendly and full of good advice. They even booked a private hire car for us and coordinated with two other guests so we could share it and keep costs down.
If you are looking for a hostel in Cochin, check out the top-rated Happy Camper in Fort Kochi, which is loved for its friendly staff and well-designed rooms. Or try the nearby Zostel Kochi, which has comfortable beds and a sunny terrace. Both hostels are walking distance from all the main tourist sites and restaurants.
See the traditional Chinese fishing nets in action
One of the most fascinating things to do in Fort Kochi is to watch the contraptions the locals use to catch fresh fish and seafood. Known as Chinese fishing nets, this way of fishing is almost unique to this part of India. It was introduced by Chinese explorers who landed here in the 14th century and named the city ‘co chin’, meaning ‘like China.’
Operated by a team of fishermen, each of these Chinese fishing nets is fixed on the shore with long wooden beams holding horizontal nets over the sea. The nets are counterbalanced by large stones suspended from ropes at the other end. The structures move elegantly and slowly, as the fisherman make their catches.
Get all the insight into the Chinese fishing nets on this walking tour.
Go shopping for fragrant local perfumes and spices
Kerala is known as the ‘spice garden of India’, with everything from cloves and cardamom grown and traded internationally here since 3000 BC, so the spice shops are must visit places in Kerala. It is also an important destination for perfume lovers. The famous perfumiers behind the world’s biggest brands come to Kerala when creating their latest scents, thanks to the state’s natural supplies of rose, sandalwood and jasmine oil.
Shopping for spices and perfumes is one of the best things to do in Cochin’s Fort Kochi district. A stroll through Fort Kochi’s ‘Jew Town’ area reveals small streets with shops selling spices, incense sticks and brightly coloured perfumed powder.
If you tell the shop owners the name of the perfume brand you wear, they can match you with your perfect natural scented oil to take home.
Discover the fragrant delights of Jew Town on this engaging guided tour.
Marvel at a vibrant and colourful theatre show
One of the best things to do in Kerala is to take in a traditional show. We went to the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Cochin.
A classical Indian dance form, Kathakali is an all-male Hindu performance art that dates back to the 17th century. We were advised to arrive early in order to see the men applying their make-up, which was fascinating as we witnessed their theatrical transformation. These actors train for around seven years to perform these roles.
In our vibrant and colourful show, three men would play all of the characters – man, woman and demon – with elaborate make-up, masks and costumes. They portrayed an episode from epic Hindu legend using only intricate hand and eye movements, music, footwork and facial gestures to convey the dramatic story. Definitely a unique theatre experience and one of the most fascinating things to see in Kerala.
Book your tickets for a Kathakali performance including dinner here.
Alleppey (Alappuzha) – 1-2 nights
For the best backwaters in Kerala, head to Alleppey for the chance to spend the night travelling along the waterways on a traditional Kerala houseboat. This is one of the most famous sightseeing places in Kerala and one of the most highly-rated experiences in India. It is two hours south of Cochin by car or train.
Spend the night sailing in a houseboat
Taking an overnight trip in a Kerala houseboat isn’t cheap but it is a divine, once-in-a-lifetime experience, as you sail the network of canals, lagoons and lakes.
You will have your own crew to manage the boat and steer it along on ypur Kerala backwaters tour. They will even serve you mouthwatering feasts including freshly caught seafood. All you need to do is put your feet up and relax.
Browse a great selection of Alleppey boat accommodation here.
Expect to be charged a price of around £100 or $130 per night for a houseboat. These rates include all the food. If you haven’t booked in advance, you will need to arrive at Alleppey harbour early for the biggest choice of boats – and be prepared to negotiate.
Most of the houseboats have two double rooms, so you may want to pair up with another couple of travellers. This way, you can split the houseboat price. The Kerala backwaters houseboat rates don’t include alcoholic drinks, but you can buy these yourself before you board.
After visiting a few of the houseboats in Alleppey, we made our choice. For us, the best houseboat in Kerala was Alakapuri, a beautiful boat with just one double bedroom, which was perfect for us. Its smaller size meant that we could explore smaller backwaters that are inaccessible for most boats.
Book an overnight houseboat cruise of the Kerala backwaters from Cochin here.
It was a blissful experience to watch the local children play along the banks. At one point, we floated into an expansive lagoon where we felt like the only people in the world.
There were a couple of stops, to pick up fresh seafood for dinner and explore an island while they are cooking. Otherwise, you are cocooned in houseboat bliss until the sun rises. Tucking into your freshly prepared breakfast, enjoy the final moments as you sail back into the harbour to return to civilisation.
Don’t miss out – click here to reserve your favourite Alleppey houseboat in advance.
These are the most awesome hostels in Alleppey
A cheaper option for Kerala backwaters tours is to book a daytime group sailing trip, so you still get to experience the peaceful waters. Your hostel can organise this and there are cool places to stay close to Alleppey beach.
The sociable Zostel Alleppey is one of the best Alleppey hostels. In a fantastic beachfront location, they serve a vegetarian breakfast daily and there is a helpful concierge service. Another top-rated hostel close to the beach is Artpackers.life, which has excellent WiFi, a shared lounge and a garden.
Munnar – 1-2 nights
Known as the ‘Kashmir of South India’, Munnar is located 1,600 metres above sea level in the Western Ghats mountain range and offers spectacular views. It is one of the most popular tourist places in Kerala. It is four hours’ drive from Cochin and five hours from Alleppey.
The best budget accommodation in Munnar
The highest-rated homestays in Munnar include The Shade, which has incredible views and home-cooked Keralan food, and the Pavithra Riverview Homestay, which is a hospitable and peaceful place to relax.
If you are looking for a hostel in Munnar, try the fabulous Hostel Flutterby, which is close to a bus stop to access the Munnar tea plantations, or The Lost Hostel, which is wonderfully comfortable and sociable.
Discover the origins of the tea we drink every day
India is the second largest producer and exporter of tea in the world after China, producing famous teas including Assam and Darjeeling. Munnar is famous for its vast, vivid green tea plantations, making it one of the most unique and beautiful places to visit in Kerala.
When we visited, the hilltop station in the Munnar plantations was unfortunately closed due to overcrowding, as our visit coincided with a national holiday in India. Apparently from the hilltop station you can hike around the Munnar tea plantations, which must be incredible. Alternatively, you can book a guided bicycle tour to explore these stunning landscapes.
The Munnar tea plantations are an important source of employment for people from across the country. Here you can discover how the different types of tea are selected from the plants and how the trees protect and irrigate the land. You can also see people at work, hand-plucking the tea leaves and collecting them in their baskets.
Of course, being one of the top Kerala tourism destinations, you can stop at a shop to buy some freshly picked Indian tea leaves and powders. It’s terrific to be able to take a taste of Kerala home with you.
Thekkady – 1 night
Thekkady may be small but it is worth a one day trip in Kerala. It is a four hour drive from Munnar or Alleppey. It is the gateway to Periyar National Park, a wildlife sanctuary that is home to tigers, elephants and leopards, and the home of a jaw-dropping martial arts performance. Read on to find out more.
Be wowed by an amazing martial arts spectacle
One of the most important historical places in Kerala is Thekkady’s Mudra Cultural Centre. It is the place to see Kalaripayattu, one of the world’s most ancient fighting systems, which combines lightning-speed gymnastics with the use of wooden and sharp metallic weapons.
The audience looks down on a roofed red clay pit, a metre (3.5 feet) below ground level, designed to protect the practitioners from the elements as they perform. In the south-western corner of the hall is a ‘puttara’ or seven-tiered platform where candles are lit in honour of a guardian deity, who is worshipped before each training session or show.
A talented group of young men then perform an impressive gymnastics routine. Brandishing weapons in mock fights, they punctuate the moves with clangs and bangs.
It is a spectacular and exhilarating performance. The audience watches in dumbstruck awe, as these young men demonstrate tightly choreographed battles and even jump through hoops of fire.
It’s incredible to think these warrior moves have been practiced in Kerala for over two thousand years.
Where to stay in Thekkady
There are some lovely homestays in Thekkady. Nothing is too much trouble if you are a guest here and it’s a good opportunity to chat with the owners to get an insight into their life and for tips about the local area.
The Kairali Palace Home Stay is a popular choice, highly recommended for its helpful host and comfortable beds. It is walking distance from the national park. The Periyar Green Bed & Breakfast has rooms with balconies overlooking its peaceful garden. The hosts are happy to organise tours and prepare a vegan breakfast every morning. The Mountain View Homestay is loved for its fabulous rooftop chill-out space.
Varkala – 4-5 nights
Varkala is a laid-back, cliff-side beach resort in Kerala, around four hours south of Cochin and 1.5 hours north of Trivandrum by car or public transport. We intended to stay here for three days, but it’s so charming that we ended up staying longer. It’s a perfect stop if you’re on a Kerala backpacking trip.
Not only does Varkala have one of the best beaches in Kerala, it has a varied collection of bohemian bars and restaurants, and there are plenty of market stalls and boutiques to tempt you. It’s not too over-developed, making it one of the best holiday destinations in Kerala for a winter beach break.
This is the best boho-friendly accommodation in Varkala
If you are looking for boho-style accommodation on a budget, Varkala is the place for you. Here, there are plenty of beautiful places to stay for backpackers and yogis.
Solo travellers may want to head straight for the fabulous and friendly Lost Hostel. In a perfect location close to Varkala beach, this stylish hostel is a special place where the managers will go out of their way to make you feel welcome.
There are blissful beach resorts and hotels in Varkala. Just south of the main Varkala beach is the indie-style Cliff Stories. This highly-rated resort has an on-site restaurant, a garden with a terrace and barbecue, and even its own private beach area.
If you’re looking for a romantic hideaway, the Maadathil Cottages resort is a 20-minute walk north of the main Varkala beach area. Its cute cottages with wooden floorboards and four-poster beds, are set in gorgeous gardens where you can enjoy a tranquil break.
The Mint Inside beach hotel is in a peaceful location to the north of Varkala beach, with stunning sea views. Beautifully styled with modern furnishings, it feels safe and friendly, even for solo travellers. Closer to the main Varkala beach area is InDa hotel, which is set in wonderful gardens with boho touches including fairy lights and an incredibly cool and laid-back atmosphere. Mad about Coco is one of the top hotels in Varkala. Close to the mean beach with its restaurants, bars and shops, it is cosy, colourful and artistically decorated. It also offers on-site yoga classes.
These are the top things to do in Varkala
There are plenty of things to do in Varkala, from yoga classes to cooking classes and Ayurvedic massages. Otherwise, you can simply sit in a cafe and people-watch as you let the day unfold without a care in the world.
On the main Varkala beach you can watch the fishermen bring in their seafood catch of the day, as the sun sets beautifully over the horizon.
It’s lovely to wander along the coastline to see the neighbouring black sand beach to the north. If you explore the clifftops to the south, you can stumble across things like this beautiful mermaid sculpture.
Here is where you can be blessed at a temple
Varkala’s temples are some of the most memorable places to see in Kerala. There are a number of colourful and intricate temples close to this beach resort, where religious rituals take place every day.
Visitors must respect the rules, which include covering your knees and shoulders, and removing your shoes.
The temple I enjoyed visiting the most is not the most ornate, but it is where we received our first blessing. Sivagiri is a hilltop pilgrimage centre, a short motorbike ride from the beach resort.
It is one of the most important places in Kerala, as it houses the tomb of the famed social reformer Narayana Guru. He believed in social inclusion and his concept was ‘One Caste, One Religion, One God’. I found the experience very moving, as this Guru clearly inspired a great many people, thousands of whom come to pay their respects every year.
How to get to Kerala, India
You can book a flight directly or via Mumbai to Kerala’s Cochin International Airport or Trivandrum International Airport. If you are travelling south from Goa to Kerala, the distance is 338 miles (544 km). The journey takes around 15 hours by overnight train from Madgaon Railway Station in Goa to Ernakulam Junction near Cochin.
If you are a foreign national travelling to India, you will need a valid passport and visa. You can find information on applying for an Indian visa on the official website here.
It can be frustrating to apply online for the visa but it is worth it. I recommend locating your nearest Indian Visa Application Center (IVAC), as you may also need to visit to complete the visa application in person. You may need to take specially-sized photos so bring some coins just in case for the photobooth.
In the first instance, make sure you consult your country’s official information sources for the latest advice on travelling to India.
This is the best time to go to Kerala
The peak tourist season is the best time to visit Kerala and runs from September to March. At this time of year, the weather conditions are most pleasant with temperatures ranging from 18°C to 29°C.
If you want to travel to Kerala at a quieter time, you can visit during the off-season from April to May, though it can be more humid. Some people even like to go to Kerala during the monsoon season from June to August.
Whichever time of year you visit, you need to be prepared that it may rain occasionally. This is essential for maintaining the region’s gorgeous green landscape that it is known and loved for.
I would advise consulting your country’s official travel advice before visiting Kerala and make sure you have spoken with your doctor about any vaccines you may need.
How to make the most of your Kerala backpacking trip
You never know what to expect in India, including who you will make friends with, and that’s part of the magic. The local people in our experience were all friendly, helpful, polite and kind. They were happy to open up and talk about their daily lives.
On our Kerala backpacking tour we met homestay owners, local kids, drivers, fellow European travellers and local bar managers.
One of my most heart-warming memories of our stay in Varkala is when I was spontaneously invited to a wedding.
I was standing next to a house, which was decorated with extravagant lights. A man inside spotted me and beckoned me over. With a warm smile, he explained that his brother was getting married and asked me if we’d like to invited me in to dine with them.
It was a very special moment and encapsulated the openness and generosity of the people in Kerala. You can be sure you will receive a warm welcome while you are backpacking in Kerala and you’ll have an unforgettable trip.
For the full lowdown on travelling in India, check out Hippie in Heels’ Guide to India eBook by Rachel Jones.
Click here to buy the book now and prepare for your trip.
Next up, check out my comprehensive guide to solo travel in Goa.