Natal has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past decade. The capital of Rio Grande do Norte has become an important industrial center, yet no industry has had more effect on the economy than tourism. The past few administrations have invested heavily in the infrastructure and promotion, effectively placing it on the map as one of the prime tourism destinations in Brazil. Although it has little in the way of historical or cultural attractions, the city's main asset is its location along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in Brazil. In fact, Natal's foundation and much of its history have been all about location. In 1598 the Portuguese began construction of the Fortaleza dos Reis Magos in present-day Natal. Its location was strategic for two reasons. First, it was at the mouth of the Rio Potengi. Second, it was near the easternmost point of the continent and therefore was closest to Europe and Africa. On December 25, 1599, the city was founded and named Natal, Portuguese for "Christmas." Because of its valuable location, Natal was a target for the Dutch, who ultimately seized control of the city in 1633 and renamed it New Amsterdam. The Portuguese repossessed Natal after the Dutch abandoned the city in 1654. Yet it was never a major colonial center for the Portuguese. The city had to wait nearly three centuries to regain importance, again due to its location. In World War II the United States built several military bases in and around the city that they deemed "the springboard to victory"—its position at the far-eastern point of the continent made it ideal for launching aerial attacks into Europe. While bustling Ponta Negra and the sprawling nearby holiday resorts may conjure up summer destinations in Southern Europe, the towns and beaches that lie to the north and south of the city are distinctly Brazilian. Few tourists stay in the city itself, and many do not even visit, and instead head straight to Ponta Negra, a considerably developed beach area 10 km (6 miles) south of the city center.
Peixada da Comadre
If you were wondering where locals go for the town's best fish, this is it. Recipes here have been passed down from the owners' mother, and dishes like the tasty fried fish fillets are easily large enough for two.
During the high season (July and December–mid-March), make a reservation, or you'll be among the many waiting outside, salivating from smells of fresh tomato sauce and garlic. The restaurant's popularity is a result of reasonable prices, proximity to the Ponta Negra Beach, and skillful preparation of pasta and seafood dishes. Particularly recommended is the tagliolini allo scoglio (pasta with lobster, shrimp, and mussels).
Choose from more than 40 delicious regional specialties at this immensely popular buffet restaurant. Tourists and town residents eat together at communal wood tables, which fit the typical rustic decor of the sertão. To top off your meal, consider ordering the cartola, a popular dessert made of caramelized banana, cheese, and cinnamon.
Natal has a fairly active nightlife, supported by nearly year-round tourists. Some of the most frequented bars and clubs are in Praia dos Artistas. Other popular spots are scattered downtown and in Ponta Negra. Every Thursday the Centro de Turismo hosts a live forró band as part of the long-running "Forró com Turista" program, which is aimed at acquainting tourists with this important piece of local culture. Natal has a reputation for being one of the country's most prominent places for sex-tourism. Recently police have made an active effort to crack down heavily on underage prostitution, but it is a side to the city that tourists should be aware of, particularly at night.
Inspired by London's rock and roll scene, Downtown has live rock music Thursday through Saturday.
A bar with character, Taverna Pub is in the basement of a stylized medieval castle. It's popular with locals in their twenties and tourists who stay in the partnering hostel upstairs (Lua Cheia).
This two-story mansion is the place to be on weekends, when live local bands and DJs take to the floor. There is also a spacious area for chilling during breaks from the dance floor.
A great choice for romantic drinks, this tucked-away spot opens only on Friday nights, when DJs spin tracks from the '80s and the caipirinhas flow. Below the bar is a good sushi restuarant that serves satisfied customers from Tuesday to Sunday.
Centro de Turismo
The best place to go for local crafts and artwork is the Centro de Turismo, where little shops are housed within the cells of a former prison.
Of the many malls and shopping centers in Natal, the largest and most worthwhile is Natal Shopping.
The most convenient shopping mall for those staying in Ponta Negra, Praia Shopping offers a 3-D cinema and a food hall, alongside all the classic brands.
Museu Câmara Cascudo
This well-conceived museum, named after one of Brazil's greatest folklorists, showcases exhibits from a variety of disciplines: archaeology, paleontology, mineralogy, ethnography, and popular culture. A highlight is the collection of dinosaur fossils.
This beach has been endowed with great natural beauty, yet does not usually have many visitors. On the left side of the beach, the barrier reef creates an area of clear, calm waters ideal for bathing, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The right side of the beach is best for surfing, and the middle best avoided due to occassional currents. In the background are some impressive dunes, covered with palm trees and other vegetation. The modest infrastructure consists of just a few small pousadas and restaurants.
Amenities : food and drink; toilets; lifeguards; parking. Best for: swimming; snorkeling; solitude.
Massive dunes have made this one of the best-known beaches in the country. The area is most commonly explored on thrilling, day-trips across the dune by buggy, stopping off at three lakes and two further parks along the way. You have two choices: com emocão (literally, "with emotion"), which rivals any roller-coaster, or sem emocão (without emotion), a little calmer but still fairly hair-raising. Buggy operators, who usually find you before you find them, charge around R$75 per person. You can also explore the dunes on camels imported from southern Spain. Other activities include half-hour boat rides and sky-boarding (also called sky-surfing)—which is basically snowboarding down the dunes. The beach is attractive, although it gets very crowded during high season. Because Genipabu is close to Natal, it's primarily a day-trip destination. There are a few small pousadas and restaurants near the beach, but the town shuts down at night. Buses leave from the Rodoviário Velho every half hour or so for the 45-minute trip.
Amenities: food and drink; toilets. Best for: walking.
The principal draw at Maracajaú is the large coral reef 6 km (4 miles) off the coast. Teeming with marine life, the sizable reef offers the best snorkeling in the Natal area, and the natural pools are some of Brazil's most beautiful. Visitors can catch a van from Natal, followed by a small boat or catamaran across to the reefs.
Pirangi do Norte
This long white-sand beach is an extremely popular summer vacation destination for residents of Natal. Boat rides to nearby coral reefs and beaches run frequently. Near the beach is the world's largest cashew tree, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Its circumference measures 500 meters (1,650 feet), and it's as big as roughly 70 normal cashew trees. The entrance fee is R$4, and includes free cashew nuts and a cashew juice. There is a small market nearby for souvenirs. Amenities: food and drink; parking; toilets. Best for: walking; water sports.
Nearly all tourism development has focused on or around this beach in the past decade, with both negative and positive repercussions. It has a multitude of pousadas, restaurants, and shops, and even a few large resorts at the northern end. The beach itself, around 2½ km (1½ miles) long, can no longer be called pristine, but is still attractive and reasonably clean. If you seek a connection with nature, you would be best advised to head to one of the city's outer beaches during the day and venture to Ponta Negra for the nightlife, which ranges from buzzy to seedy. Ponta Negra's distinguishing feature is the Morro da Careca (Bald Man's Hill), a 120-meter (390-foot) dune at the southern end. You can catch a taxi or a bus (look for buses marked "ponta negra") at various stops along the Via Costeira south of Natal. Buses run fairly frequently. From Ponta Negra to downtown Natal, look for buses marked "centro" or "cidade alta."
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); toilets. Best for: partiers.
Forte dos Reis Magos
Natal owes its existence to this impressive five-sided fort. It was built by the Portuguese in 1598, one year before the founding of Natal, and controlled by the Dutch between 1633 and 1654. Visitors can see the old quarters, the chapel, and rusted cannons.