1,080km (670 miles) S of Mumbai

Kochi is not the capital of Kerala, but it is a great deal more charming than Trivandrum, and, blessed with a good airport and infrastructure, is for many the ideal gateway to the state. In fact, this has been the case since 1341, the year nature carved out Kochi's harbor with a massive flood, and the city became the first port of call for Arabs, Chinese, and, finally, European sea merchants, who sailed for barter into what came to be known as the "Queen of the Arabian Sea."

Lured by the promise of pepper, the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama arrived in 1500, and the Franciscan friars who accompanied the explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral established a church and set about converting the locals. By 1553, the Maharaja of Kochi had granted permission for the construction of the first European fort in India, and what had been an obscure fishing hamlet became India's first European settlement. In 1663, Kochi fell to the Dutch, and 132 years later, to the British. Each of these foreign influences left their mark, resulting in a distinctly Indo-European culture, most evident in the architecture.

Today, Kochi (or Cochin, as it was formerly known) comprises three distinct areas. Old Kochi, comprising the down-at-heel but wonderfully atmospheric Mattancherry and its more pristine neighbor, Fort Kochi, lie on one of two peninsular arms that shield the Kochi harbor, and hold the most historical interest. Opposite it, on the mainland that creates the eastern peninsula, lies modern Ernakulam. Between the two are islands, now well connected by bridges, including Willingdon Island.

Fort Kochi, the oldest European settlement in India, retains an old-world charm. Although it has now largely been given over to tourism, the town's heritage buildings and broad, peaceful streets make this the preferred place to overnight. Its battlements no longer stand, but the combination of Portuguese, Dutch, Jewish, British, and local influences is evident in the tiled, steep-roofed bungalows that line its quaint streets, and it's home to the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth. From here Mattancherry, with its wonderful warehouses filled with antiques and trinkets, is a short rickshaw drive away. Plan to spend 2 nights in Kochi, enjoying its charming atmosphere and low-key sights at a lazy, relaxed pace. Take in a Kathakali performance, dig into the delectable seafood, enjoy a romantic sunset cruise around the harbor, and, if you're at all interested in bargain-priced antiques, get ready to wade through stores packed with unexpected curiosities.