I have wanted to visit Kerala since I saw a story on the house boats there on a travel story back when I was a university student. When Dawn from 5 Lost Together offered to write a guest post on this destination, I had to say yes! It’s great to see how much fun it can be to visit Kerala with kids!
Kerala, a state in the south of India, is quickly becoming a traveler’s hot spot due to its exotic port cities, lush backwater canals, carpeted tea fields and rich culture. With direct flights from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Kerala is India-lite: a more relaxed, but still exotic taste of India. It offers so much for families and we had a great time visiting Kerala with kids.
What you see in Kerala will depend on the amount of time you are visiting for. Most visitors will want to visit the most popular tourist places in Kerala including Fort Kochi, the Backwaters and the tea fields of Munnar. If you have more time on your hands, you can add on a beach destination and wildlife viewing to your list of Kerala tourist places.
Taking the kids to India might seem a bit daunting, but we are here to tell you that India can be a fantastic family destination. It isn’t the easiest country to travel in with kids, but with proper planning and preparation, the whole family will enjoy India. Our A-Z Guide to India with kids provides lots of practical advice and things to consider.
We had traveled with our kids in Southeast Asia, but were intimidated by the Indian subcontinent. The first trip we took to the area was to Sri Lanka where we got a taste of the region. Our next trip was to southern India, spending most of our time in Kerala. We now feel better prepared to tackle the north with our kids and hope to do that trip soon.
Below you will find our guide to the top 10 places to visit in Kerala and tips for planning your visit.
This will likely be your entry point to Kerala and you want to allocate a few days for picturesque Fort Kochi. Fort Kochi has been an important port for traders throughout history and the British, Dutch and Portuguese have all left their mark.
The city’s most famous attraction is the Chinese fishing nets that line Mahatma Gandhi Beach. These hulking contraptions require many men to lift and lower the nets. Our kids enjoyed watching this ancient process and the locals will often encourage tourists to have a try on the nets for a small tip.
The best way to get your bearings in Fort Kochi is to hire a rickshaw driver to take you around for an hour or two. They will stop at the major sites and probably include a stop at their friend’s shop as well. Must see sights include the Dutch Palace, Pardesi Synagogue and Santa Cruz Basilica.
Kerala is known for its warm and inviting homestays and Fort Kochi offers lots of quaint homestays and guesthouses. Staying in a homestay allows you to interact with locals on a completely different level. I learned so much about the culture and life in India at the homestays and many of our hosts became friends in our short time together. Indians love children and our kids were showered with attention at the homestays we stayed at.
Fort Kochi is the best place to see a kathakali performance, where elaborately costumed actors with extensive face paint tell dramatic stories through hand gestures and facial expressions. Kathakali reminded me of Balinese cultural shows with the style of movement and gestures. The costumes and face paint are seriously impressive and exotic.
Arrive ahead of the performance time to see the ritual of the makeup being applied. Our young kids lost interest after the first half hour, but we really enjoyed it. There is narration in English and while touristy, it was a great cultural experience.
What our kids liked even better was the Kalarippayat (Kalari) martial arts demonstrations. The athletes perform steps and postures, often with weapons that will delight the kids and adults. It was a high energy show without a dull moment. Our kids were particularly mesmerized by the feats that involved fire. After the show the athletes happily posed with spectators. This was one of our kids’ favorite things to do in Kerala. The Kalari arenas are small and you get to see the stunts up close and personal.
This is the experience that most visitors to Kerala have heard about and seen. The vast network of waterways framed by lush jungle create a mesmerizing sight.
or two on the waterways. These trips will include a crew of 2-4 and all of your meals on the boat. Many of the boats are luxurious floating hotel rooms with all the amenities you would expect on shore. However, quality does vary. Try to see your boat in person before you commit.
The waterways can be really hot and sticky and you may want to make sure your boat has air conditioning. Mosquitos can also be a nuisance in the humid, wet canals and mosquito nets over the beds are a good idea.
Spend your days taking in the small backwater villages, tasting fresh seafood and fish curries and relaxing. Depending on your kids, a day of two on board a boat could be really fun or challenging with active little ones.
As an alternative, spend a few hours touring the waterways on a punt-powered boat. This option is much better for the environment and may be easier to manage with young children. Spend the rest of your time relaxing and soaking up the peaceful village life at a home stay or guesthouse. Another great eco-alternative with older children is kayaking through the Backwaters.
The main access point for the Backwaters is Alleppey, 60 km south of Kochi. However, if you want a quieter location to see the Backwaters, Kerala offers 900 km of waterways throughout the state. We stayed in a homestay in a quiet, sleepy village practically untouched by tourism.
The Western Ghats will be a welcome change from the humidity of the coast. Munnar is the place to go to explore the tea fields that carpet the hills throughout this region. The best way to see the area is to hire a driver and car for the day and drive through the tea plantations. You will want to stop constantly to take in the vista views around every corner.
The Tea Museum is worth a visit to learn about how tea is harvested and processed and our kids actually paid attention to the film explaining the history of the region.
We did a guided trek up one of the mountains and were rewarded with spectacular views over the mountains and tea fields. A visit to Top Station along the border of Tamil Nadu is another great thing to do here. Eravikulam National Park is the place to go to see the Nilgiri tahr (mountain goat). If your kids need a break from sight seeing, our kids loved the newly opened Cowboy Park amusement park at Matupetty Dam.
The road from Kochi may only be 130 km, but it takes about 5 hours to make your way to Munnar. Plan to spend a few days enjoying the area and drinking copious amounts of local tea.
India has an extensive and well known rail network and is something you should definitely experience. Our kids loved the open-air carriages and sleeping bunks that folded down. Yes, the trains are a bit grimy, but that is part of the experience.
For short trips, you can buy a ticket at the station. However, if you are planning a ride that lasts a few hours, you may want to book in advance. Some routes are incredibly busy and sell out quickly. We used a travel agent to book our longer train rides, which was slightly more expensive, but well worth it.
Traveling short distances in sleeper class (the cheapest) is a great way to see local life. Confusingly, sleeper class is not for sleeping, but will be open-air carriages with hard seats.
We received lots of attention on board the trains and there were always friendly people striking up conversations with us. One of my favorite memories of our time in Kerala was on a train where we were befriended by a large family. They bought us chai, squeezed us in next to them and we even kept in touch and met up with them later in our trip.
There are lots of beautiful hotels in Kerala with great amenities. However, make sure you stay in a homestay at least once on your trip. Homestays operate like bed and breakfasts and will feel like a real home. You will be welcomed by your host family and shown amazing hospitality and friendship. You will have your own room with your own bathroom, ensuring privacy.
Homestays are a wonderful opportunity to truly connect and learn about the local people. We stayed in a homestay over an important festival and our host included us in the elaborate meal she prepared with their friends and family. This is an experience we never would have had if we had stayed exclusively in hotels. A great memory I have is of our kids watching our host prepare poppadums and other foods in a traditional Indian kitchen.
I could go on all day about why homestays are so great. One of the best reasons to stay in a homestay is that you are supporting small, family businesses. These businesses allow families to send their kids to college, buy some luxury goods and be self sufficient.
Homestays often include meals in the price and allow you to sample local foods in the region. Since the host usually serves you a standard meal, you are forced to try dishes you might not normally pick. This did prove to be difficult for our kids to find foods they liked when we were staying at homestays.
Indian food is delicious and Kerala is no exception. In Kerala you will find southern Indian food which includes more coconut, local fruits and seafood. It is fiery nevertheless and I will be honest that our kids struggled with eating while we were in India. My husband and I loved the home cooked foods we were served in our homestays. For the kids, even the “toned down” dishes were too spicy for them and they ate a lot of chapatti and white rice.
This is where staying in a hotel and choosing your restaurants would be easier when traveling with children in Kerala. In the touristy areas, you can find Western foods and our kids were happy for chips and fried chicken. Even in Indian restaurants, they will usually have a Chinese section of the menu with non-spicy options. Our kids liked the Manchurian dishes which were sweet, as opposed to spicy.
For the adults, there are so many great things to eat in southern India. Dosa, a thin crepe served with a lentil soup mixture and coconut chutney is great at breakfast or any time of day. If you want a thali, in Kerala it will often be called simply a meal and will include a variety of curries on a stainless plate or banana leaf. Don’t forget to try other southern classics like pottu and appam.
If you are in Kerala for more than a week, I would suggest adding a beach destination to your itinerary. The Malabar coast experiences two rainy seasons during the year. We visited at the tail end of the monsoon and it didn’t impact our trip at all. Rain, if it does come, only lasts for an hour. The added benefit is the area is very green at this time of year.
Just south of Kochi and the Backwaters, Varkala is my pick for a beautiful beach with dramatic cliffs along the coast. This is a backpacker focused area with some smaller resorts and lots of yoga and surfing. The sea can be quite rough here depending on what season it is, so you will need to be careful with kids.
I recommend choosing a place with a pool to allow the kids to swim no matter how rough the sea is. We loved super chilled Varkala with its cliff top restaurants and shops. Watching the sunset go down each evening while enjoying a blend of Indian and western foods, made both us and the kids happy.
Other good beach options are Kovalam in the south and Kannur in the north. Kannur is 5 hours north of Kochi by train and definitely feels off the beaten path.
India is home to some magnificent wildlife and the lush terrain of Kerala offers up some great wildlife viewing opportunities. Staying close to Kochi, Periyar National Park is the logical choice. This can be combined with a trip inland to Munnar. However, I wouldn’t recommend it. We found the price of entry expensive, hardly saw any wildlife and they restrict children under 12 from many of the excursions.
Instead, if you have time head north-east to Wayanad. This rural area is home to the largest group of Asian elephants in the world and we were lucky enough to see a beautiful one on safari. Wayanad is pure and untouched. The forests and mountains of the region are great for treks if you are traveling with older children.
We were lucky enough to be in Kerala during the very important Onam celebrations. Onam is a Hindu harvest festival celebrated in the south in August-September. During the weeks leading up to Onam, homes and public spaces are decorated with beautiful designs and patterns made out of flowers. There are boat races, tiger parades, martial arts performances and so much more.
The celebrations culminate in Onam Sadya where a feast is prepared of up to 30 important dishes. We felt so blessed to have been welcomed into our homestay hosts’ kitchen to share this important meal with them.
Check the calendar when you plan your visit and if there is a special celebration or festival happening, plan to incorporate that into your trip. Culturally, it adds such great depth to your visit when you can see these elaborate rituals and celebrations.
Kerala is a great destination on any budget. There are luxurious and lavish hotels and guesthouses catering to couples and families that have a high level of service and western style amenities. These hotels are excellent value as you get luxury at mid-range prices. There are also lots of budget options available as India has a very low cost of living.
Our budget was $120 AUD/day for our family of 5. This included our accommodation, all meals, transport and any activities or excursions we did. We stayed in small homestays, often eating at the homestays and avoided tourist restaurants and expensive excursions.
You may have heard about how crazy Indian roads are and it is completely true. Even in the more laid back south, we found the chaos on the roads a bit scary. There are three ways I would recommend getting between cities.
The first is to hire a car and driver for your entire trip. This is very common in South Asia and reasonably priced. We paid $45 AUD/day to have a 5 seater Innova with driver.
You will want to specify that the car has working seatbelts and air conditioning, the driver speaks English and you want to request a safe driver. We really emphasized this with the travel agent we booked with after having one too many taxi drivers that thought they were race car drivers.
The daily rate includes the driver’s food and nightly accommodation. Of course you will want to provide the driver with a substantial tip (at least 15%) if you were happy with his services, as the drivers themselves don’t make a lot. Alternatively, you can hire a car and driver for just a trip between two points.
The second is to take at least one train journey in Kerala. As I mentioned above, riding an Indian train is a cultural experience in itself. Even if it is just for a couple of hours, give it a try. In Kerala, the main train line runs north-south.
The third way to get around is by using the local buses. We did this a few times and, although they are not terribly comfortable, the extensive network makes getting anywhere fairly easy. The caveat is that it will take a really long time. Plan on averaging 20 km/hr. There are no freeways in Kerala and the roads are so clogged up with traffic that it is impossible to get anywhere quickly.
We absolutely loved our time in Kerala and found it to be a great destination with kids. Between the colonial Fort Kochi, the lush Backwaters, the green tea fields and rich culture of the region there was so much to love. Kerala provides a great introduction to India. It is still exotic and culturally rich whilst not being as overwhelming as the North.