Also known as Kochi, Cochin is a buzzing, cosmopolitan city, once a major port for India's spice trade. Over the years, Arab, Chinese and European merchants all left their mark, with Portuguese and Dutch architecture sprinkled through the streets. Head along the waterfront in the evening and you'll see Chinese-style fishing nets silhouetted against the ocean on bamboo poles. Rich in culture, the city is also a launchpad for exploring Kerala's winding backwaters. These are fringed with green jungle and navigated by slow-moving houseboats.
Hostels in Cochin (Kochi) are mostly clustered around pretty Fort Cochin, within walking distance of many of the city's attractions. You can choose a renovated ancestral house, a homestay with a roof terrace for stargazing or lodgings set on an organic farm. Cochin hostels offer sociable activities like yoga workshops or evening entertainment and most have communal spaces where you can relax. Expect free Wi-Fi and friendly staff, who can help you to arrange backwater trips, bike hire and tickets for Kathakali dance shows.
Cochin has a few distinct areas to explore. Fort Kochi is a popular spot with visitors and here you can discover chic art galleries and restaurants as well as watching fishermen at work on Fort Kochi beach. The area also has historic buildings to visit, such as Portuguese-built Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica. Jew Town (named for its historical Jewish community) has the city's biggest spice market and quirky antique shops in heritage buildings. Vypeen Island is known for its long stretches of golden sand – if you're lucky, you might see dolphins at Cherai Beach.
As a hub for Keralan arts, Cochin is one of the best places to see dramatic Kathakali dance. Other attractions include the vast Hill Palace Museum (once home to the Maharajah) and Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary, a calm spot in the urban hubbub. You can see the city's diverse heritage in its places of worship, which range from the Paradesi synagogue, the oldest still in use in India (built in 1568) to colourful sculptures and walls of lanterns at the Chottanikkara Devi Temple. Stroll down Princess Street to pick up locally made souvenirs.
From Cochin International Airport, you can catch a bus into town (it takes around an hour and 45 minutes) or take a pre-paid taxi (an hour's drive). Ernakulam Town and Ernakulam Junction are Cochin's two major railway stations. Long-distance trains from all over India stop here. Within the city, there's a reliable local bus system and you'll always be able to find an auto-rickshaw.