Called the "City of Light," Fortaleza claims that the sun shines on it 2,800 hours a year. And it's a good thing, too, as the coastline stretches far beyond the city. To the east, along the Litoral Leste or the Costa Sol Nascente (Sunrise Coast) are many fishing villages. To the west, along the Litoral Oeste or the Costa Sol Poente (Sunset Coast), there are pristine stretches of sand. The shores here are cooled by constant breezes and lapped by waters with an average temperature of 24°C (72°F). The city originally sprang up around the Forte de Schoonemborch, a Dutch fortress built in 1649. After the Portuguese defeated the Dutch, the small settlement was called Fortaleza Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Fortress of Our Lady of the Assumption). It didn't see significant growth until 1808, when its ports were opened to facilitate the export of cotton to the United Kingdom. Today Fortaleza, a large, modern state capital with more than 2 million inhabitants, is Brazil's fifth-largest city. It's also on the move, with one of the country's newest airports, a modern convention center, a huge cultural center with a planetarium, large shopping malls, several museums and theaters, and an abundance of sophisticated restaurants. At Praia de Iracema there's a revitalized beachfront area of sidewalk cafés, bars, and dance clubs. But if you wander along the shore, you're still bound to encounter fishermen unloading their catch from traditional jangadas—just as they've done for hundreds of years. Fortaleza is fairly easy to navigate on foot because its streets are laid out in a grid. Its business center lies above the Centro Histórico (Historic Center) and includes the main market, several shopping streets, and many government buildings. East of the center, urban beaches are lined with high-rise hotels and restaurants. Beyond are the port and old lighthouse, from which Praia do Futuro runs 5 km (3 miles) along Avenida Dioguinho.
In the last decade, Fortaleza's gourmet scene has caught up with neighboring Recife. Stylish seafood restaurants set on the shore now compete with upmarket churrascarias (all-you-can-eat meat barbecues). At laid-back local spots, Brazilian dishes such as feijoada (pork and black bean stew) reign supreme alongside Fortaleza's specialty, baião-de-dois (seasoned rice and black beans served with soft cheese).
Colher de Pau
Ana Maria Vilmar and her mother opened Colher de Pau over a decade ago in a small rented house in the Varjota district. The regional cuisine here has become so popular that there is now a sister spot in São Paulo. The sun-dried meat is served not only with paçoca but also with banana and baião-de-dois (rice and beans). The shellfish dishes, many prepared with regional recipes, are also standouts. Generous portions serve two or three people, and live music is performed nightly in the atmospheric country house.
In a restored colonial house about a mile from the beach, Santa Grelha is off the tourist path and specializes in exceptional grilled meat and fish. Black-suited waiters and a climatized wine cellar of more than 600 options add to the air of elegance.
A sophisticated decor with clean lines adds to the appeal of this traditional seafood restaurant. Although the bacalão (salt cod) selections are fabulous, you can't go wrong with the grilled lobster in a caper sauce or any of the flambéed dishes. The piano in the corner is there for a purpose: a musician accompanies your dinner with nice, soft music.
Coco Bambu Frutos do Mar
Lovers of seafood should look no further than this speciality spot overlooking the beach, which serves prawns in all imaginable forms. Start with the giant king prawns encrusted in coconut and served with mango chutney, and then follow that up with grilled lobster with Sicilian lemon risotto. The spacious restaurant has a number of different areas for dining, from the ample open-air terrace to an air-conditioned salon.
Most hotels are along Avenida Beira-Mar (previously known as Avenida Presidente John Kennedy). Those in the Praia de Iracema are generally less expensive than those along Praia do Mucuripe. Iracema, however, is also a more interesting area to explore, and it's full of trendy restaurants and bars.
Fortaleza is renowned for its lively nightlife, particularly along Avenida Beira-Mar and Rua dos Tabajaras in the vicinity of Praia de Iracema. The action often includes live forró, the traditional and very popular music and dance of the Northeast.
A young crowd grooves to the latest music at this trendy bar, one of many good options that surround the Cultural Centre.
With a sophisticated infrastructure and packed schedule of events and DJs, this dance club remains one of the most happening places in town. Music tends to vary between axé, electro music, and pop-rock, but check the website to confirm.
Fortaleza is one of the most important centers for crafts—especially bobbin lace—in the Northeast. Shops sell a good variety of handicrafts, and others have clothing, shoes, and jewelry along Avenida Monsenhor Tabosa in Praia de Iracema. Shopping centers both large and small house branches of the best Brazilian stores.
Markets and fairs are the best places to look for lacework, embroidery, leather goods, hammocks, and carvings.
More than 600 artisans sell their work at this nightly fair.
For lace aficionados, a trip to the town of Aquiraz is a must. Ceará's first capital (1713–99) is today a hub for artisans who create the famous bilro (bobbin) lace. On the beach called Prainha (6½ km/4 miles east of Aquiraz) is the Centro de Rendeiras Luiza Távora. Here, seated on little stools, dedicated and patient lace makers explain how they create such items as bedspreads and tablecloths using the bilro technique.
First-class artisan work from across the region is featured at this upmarket workshop, where you can often catch the craftspeople at work. Even though the prices for wood, straw, and ceramic work may be steeper than at the Mercardo Central, the high quality more than makes up for this.
Centro Cultural Banco do Nordeste
The Centro Cultural Banco do Nordeste hosts plays, concerts, and art exhibitions.
Centro Dragão do Mar de Arte e Cultura
The large Centro Dragão do Mar de Arte e Cultura, near the Mercado Central, has several theaters and an open-air amphitheater that host live performances. There are also classrooms for courses in cinema, theater, design, and dance.
Inspired by the famous cathedral in Cologne, the Catedral Metropolitana was built between 1937 and 1963 and has a dominant Gothic look. Its two spires are 75 meters (250 feet) high, and it can accommodate 5,000 worshipers, who no doubt draw inspiration from its beautiful stained-glass windows. Don't be put off by the grimy exterior—the interiors gleam brilliant white.
Centro de Turismo
Originally a prison, this building was structurally changed in 1850 along simple, classical lines. It's now the home of the state tourism center, with handicraft stores as well as the Museu de Minerais (Mineral Museum) and the Museu de Arte e Cultura Populares (Popular Art and Culture Museum), whose displays of local crafts and sculptures are interesting.
With four floors and more than 600 stores, this is the place to find handicrafts and just about anything else. It has elevators to take you from one floor to the next, but since it's built with an open style and has ramps that curve from one floor to the next, it's just as easy to walk up.
Praça dos Leões (Praça General Tibúrcio)
Built in 1817, this square is officially named after a Ceará general who fought in Brazil's war against Paraguay. However, it's commonly referred to as the Praça de Leões because of its bronze lions, which were brought over from Paris in the early 20th century.
Theatro José de Alencar
This theater is a rather shocking example (especially if you come upon it suddenly) of the eclectic phase of Brazilian architecture, showcasing a mixture of neoclassical and art nouveau styles. The top of the theater, which looks as if it was designed by the makers of Tiffany lamps, really stands out against Ceará's perpetually blue sky. It was built in 1910 of steel and iron (many of its cast-iron sections were imported from Scotland) and was restored in 1989. It's still used for cultural events—including concerts, plays, and dance performances—and houses a library and an art gallery.
Centro Dragão do Mar de Arte e Cultura
Not far from the Mercado Central, this majestic cultural complex is an eccentric mix of curves, straight lines, and angular and flat roofs. What's inside is as diverse as the exterior. There's a planetarium as well as art museums with permanent exhibitions of Ceará's two most famous artists, Raimundo Cela and Antônio Bandeira. Another museum presents Ceará's cultural history, with exhibits of embroidery, paintings, prints, pottery, puppets, and musical instruments. When you need a break, head for the center's romantic Santa Clara Café Orgânico, which serves a variety of cocktails made with coffee as well as little meat or vegetarian pies. There are also some great bars installed in the converted colonial houses that surround the complex. The center's bookstore has English-language titles as well as souvenirs and cards.
Beach Park Acqua Center
Just 30 minutes from downtown on the idyllic Porto das Dunas Beach is this enormous water park. A 14-story-high waterslide dumps you into a pool at a speed of 105 kph (65 mph), or if you prefer slow-paced attractions, visit its museum, which has the country's largest collection of jangadas, the wooden sailing rafts used by fishermen. An open-air restaurant at the beach serves excellent seafood dishes. There is no bus from downtown, and a taxi costs around R$50.
Forte de Nossa Senhora da Assunção
Built by the Dutch in 1649, this fort was originally baptized Forte Schoonemborch. In 1655 it was seized by the Portuguese and renamed after the city's patron saint, Nossa Senhora da Assunção. It was rebuilt in 1817 and is now a military headquarters. The city took its name from this fortress (fortaleza), which still has the cell where the mother of one of Ceará's most famous writers, José de Alencar, was jailed.
Museu da Cachaça
It's a toss-up for whether coffee or cachaça is Brazil's national drink. This museum just west of Fortaleza offers tastings of the latter after you tour the plant and learn about the history of this liquor made from sugarcane juice that has been fermented and distilled; most notably, cachaça is the primary ingredient for the caipirinha, widely considered as Brazil's national cocktail. In the tavern you can see a 98,736-gallon wooden barrel, the largest in the world. The museum is located inside the I-Park, which has a variety of fun activities, from paddleboats to a climbing wall.
Museu do Ceará
Housed in the former Assembléia Provincial (Provincial Assembly Building), this museum's exhibits are devoted to the history and anthropology of Ceará State.
Palácio da Luz
What was originally the home of the Portuguese crown's representative, Antônio de Castro Viana, was built by Indian laborers. In 1814 it became the property of the imperial government and served as the residence of the provincial president. The next important occupant was painter Raimundo Cefa. It now houses a display of his work and has been designated a historic landmark.
Also called the Praça dos Mártires, this landmark square dates from the 19th century. In 1824 many soldiers were executed here in the war for independence from the Portuguese crown. It has a central fountain and is full of century-old trees and statues of Greek deities. Look for the ancient baobab tree.
Hidden behind dunes, the stunning Canoa Quebrada Beach was "discovered" in the 1970s by French doctors working in the area. The spectacular scenery includes not only dunes but also jangadas, red cliffs, and groves of palm trees. Carved into a cliff is the symbol of Canoa: a crescent moon with a star in the middle. Although it was originally settled by Italian hippies, the village itself has moved on with the times and now has good roads, several comfortable pousadas, and bars and restaurants.
Amenities: food and drink; parking; toilets; water sports. Best for: swimming; walking; surfing; windsurfing.
The white-sand dunes at this beach are so high that people actually ski down them. The water is calm and clean. In the nearby village of Aquiraz, you'll find both fishermen and lace makers (lace is sold at the Centro de Rendeiras). There's also a lookout at Morro do Enxerga Tudo. Buses depart from Fortaleza for this beach several times daily on the route to Aquiraz.
Amenities: food and drink; parking; toilets. Best for: solitude; swimming.
The ocean is always calm at this beach, which is surrounded by coconut trees, lagoons, and sand dunes. During low tide the reefs surface, and you can see small fish and shells in the rocks. When the tide comes in and the natural pools form, you can grab your mask and go snorkeling. In a 5-km (3-mile) stretch between Flexeiras and Mundaú—another almost-deserted beach—there are several fishing villages and a working lighthouse. A river joins the ocean at Mundaú, forming a large S on the sand; on one side is a line of coconut trees and on the other, fishermen with their jangadas—the scene conveys the very essence of Ceará. Flexeiras is about a 90-minute drive from Fortaleza. As yet there are no luxury resorts here, but there are several simple, clean pousadas.
Amenities: food and drink; parking; toilets. Best for: solitude; snorkeling; swimming.
Porto das Dunas
Tourists and locals alike flock to this beach to enjoy the many water sports (including surfing) and gawk at the lovely sand dunes. South of Fortaleza in the municipality of Aquiraz, Porto das Dunas also has a golf course overlooking the beach. You can get here on the jardineira bus from the Centro or along Avenida Beira-Mar.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; toilets. Best for: water sports; surfing; windsurfing.
Kite-surfers and surfers who want optimum conditions but lack the time to travel to Jericoacora should head to this little beach town up the coast from Fortaleza. The recent construction of the Porto de Pecém has upgraded the infrastructure of this little fisherman's village, although local fisherman still grill their daily catches directly on the seashore. The vibe here is very much geared toward relaxing. In August, the village hosts the Festival of Escargot, where local restaurants set up stands on the main street and serve snails and wine. You can stay overnight in one of the few simple yet comfortable pousadas, or rent your own beach house.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; toilets; water sports. Best for: surfing; windsurfing; kite-surfing.
Praia do Futuro
Hands-down the city's best beach for swimming, this long curve of golden sand lines the only part of Fortaleza's sea regularly clean enough to take a dip. Framing the beach are mega-barracas, sophisticated beach huts that have restaurants, bathrooms, bars, and even swimming pools with slides for kids. The regular waves attract local surfers. If returning after dark, it is best to take a taxi.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: partiers; walking; swimming; surfing.