With crumbling colonial charm, blue skies and fast food fresh from the sea, India's southern city is a winter wonder. Harriet O'Brien gives a guided tour

Sunshine and blue skies are almost guaranteed between mid-November and January in India's southern state of Kerala. The finest city is Cochin (the British Raj rendition of the local name, Kochi), an important harbour since the 14th century, playing host to Arab, Chinese and European traders; Vasco da Gama arrived here in 1500.

New air links make Cochin easy to reach. Once there, you'll find a reasonable choice of stylish hotels and comfortable budget accommodation, coupled with a growing selection of good restaurants, yet it does not yet pander overly to tourists.


You will have to change planes somewhere between the UK and Cochin. The most convenient links are via the Gulf. Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies daily from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow via Dubai; Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) flies from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi or Muscat; and Qatar Airways (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester via Doha. Cochin's Nedumbassery airport is a good 30km from this strung-out city. Given a reasonably clear run, Hindustan Ambassador taxis take about an hour to reach the old quarter of Fort Cochin and cost 580 rupees (about £7.50) through the pre-paid taxi booth in the arrivals hall.


The city falls into three areas: hooting, tooting Ernakulam is the modern heart on the mainland; the islands of Willingdon and Bolgatty lie in the harbour; and on the southern peninsula, oozing crumbling charm, the historic quarters of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin ­ the most appealing part of the city for visitors.

There is a tourist information centre (1) in the Old Collectorate Building on Park Avenue in Ernakulam (00 91 484 236 7334) and a small tourist office in the Tourist Amenity Centre (2) by the vehicle ferry terminal off River Road in Fort Cochin.


Chic and boutique, Malabar House (3) at 1/268 Parade Road, Fort Cochin (00 91 484 2216 6666; www.malabarhouse.com) is one of the most stylish places to stay, not just in Kerala but in the whole of India. This former Dutch colonial residence has 17 arty bedrooms, brightly painted and furnished with antiques. Double rooms cost from ¤127 (£91) including breakfast.

Fort Heritage Hotel (4), just around the corner at 1/283 Napier Street, Fort Cochin (00 91 484 221 5333; www.fortheritage.com) retains more of an air of its 17th-century Dutch origins, with huge bedrooms and bathrooms, teak floors and antique rosewood furniture. Doubles are from ¤59 (£42) including breakfast.

At the budget end, the Fort House Hotel (5), by the waterfront at 2/6A Calvathy Road, Fort Cochin (00 91 484 2217 103), is a treat. Nine rooms look on to a courtyard garden studded with terracotta figures. In a hut, a franchise tailor magics entire outfits in a day. Doubles from Rp950 (£12) with breakfast.


For harbour views and colonial nostalgia, amble through Fort Cochin. Start at the Chinese fishing nets (6), so-called because this form of fishing was introduced by the Chinese in the 14th century. Be there at high tide when the huge nets are released into the water for two minutes and hauled up, the catch handed to lines of fishmongers. Walk on along the sea wall promenade. Take the first turning left, down an alleyway, and turn right, proceeding past the Dutch Cemetery (7).

Turn left down Elphinstone Road passing Bishop's House (8), built for the Portuguese governor in 1506 and later acquired by the Bishop of Cochin. Turn left into Ridsdale Road, past the Parade Ground and make a right/left jink into Rose Street ­ Vasco House (9), thought to have been home to Vasco da Gama, is on the corner. Walk along Rose Street and left up Church Lane to come full circle back to the nets.


Stalls by the Chinese nets announce they serve "Kerala Fast Food": you buy your own fish from the fishmongers, then take it to a stall to be cooked and subsequently eaten at outdoor tables.


Head for Mattancherry on the eastern side of the peninsula, where the rajahs once lived, and visit their palace (10) (open 10am-5pm daily except Fridays, admission Rp2/3p). Confusingly, it is known as the Dutch Palace although it was built by the Portuguese in 1555 and presented to the then rajah as compensation for plundering a temple. The murals, from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, depict Hindu legends.

Behind the palace is the lovely Cochin Synagogue (11) (open 10am-5pm daily except Saturday, admission Rp2/3p). Jews settled on the south-west coast of India in the first century AD and gradually established their own kingdom. In 1524, they were driven out by Moors and fled to Cochin where they came under the protection of the rajah.


The area around the synagogue is still known as Jew Town but today Keralan and Kashmiri traders have replaced the mercantile Jews. They mainly offer antique, craft and clothing outlets. Best for very reasonably priced shirts, skirts and more is Cotton Field (12) at 4/143 Jew Town.

For sheer voyeurism drop by Fine Art Emporium (13) at 6/140 Jew Town, which sells a bizarre mix of antiques and bric-a-brac from model trains to Christian relics, including shelves of bleeding legs and hands. For books about Kerala head for Incy Bella (14) on Synagogue Lane. Then, for real local colour, wander north of Jew Town into the spice bazaar where chillis, cardamom, pepper and other local produce are traded; find peace at the Kashi Art Café (15) off Burgher Street, adjoining a modern art gallery.


You need to visit one of the larger hotels for alcohol. The smartest place to imbibe is Brunton Boatyard Hotel (16) (00 91 484 221 5461; www.cghearth.com) where you can sit in waterside gardens drinking beer or wine.


Caza Maria (17) at 6/125 Jew Town (00 91 484 222 5678) is a new if slightly eccentric restaurant with splendid, colonial-chic décor. It serves excellent Keralan cuisine with a Kashmiri twist: the likes of almond chicken and Kashmir pulao rice at Rp195/£2.50 or Fish Mollee with lime rice at Rp170/£2.20.


Founded by Franciscan monks in about 1505, the Church of St Francis (18) is India's oldest European church. Inside, you can see the first tombstone of Vasco da Gama, who died in Cochin in 1524 and was buried here for 14 years before his remains were shipped to Portugal. Sunday service in English is at 8am, and then at 9.30am in the local language, Malayalam.


Sample Portuguese-Keralan cuisine in the courtyard of a rambling, 17th-century Dutch House: family-run Addy's Restaurant (19) (00 91 484 395 5949) on Elphinstone Road near Britto School serves dishes such as Fish Chootuporachuthu (fried and served in a banana leaf) for Rp165 (£2).


To sample the bustle of the harbour take a ferry over to Ernakulam. Passenger boats leave regularly from the old customs terminal (20) off Calvathy Road and take about 15 minutes to reach the main ferry station on the mainland. Tickets cost Rp2 (3p).


For an absorbing flavour of Kerala's Hindu culture take in a Kathakali performance. Kathakali has developed from one of the oldest dance forms of the area and enacts episodes from the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The Kerala Kathakali Centre, opposite the Brunton Boatyard Hotel (16) on River Road (00 91 484 221 7552; www.kathakalicentre.com) offers shows at 6.30pm, with the audience welcome to watch the actors' make-up session, which begins at 5.30pm. Tickets cost Rp100 (£1.30).