Just over 3.6 million people make their home in the capital of Pernambuco State. This vibrant metropolis 829 km (515 miles) north of Salvador has a spirit that's halfway between that of the modern cities of Brazil's south and of the traditional northeastern centers. It offers both insight on the past and a window to the future. It was in Pernambuco State, formerly a captaincy, that the most violent battles between the Dutch and the Portuguese took place. Under the Portuguese, the capital city was the nearby community of Olinda. But beginning in 1637 and during the Dutch turn at the reins (under the powerful count Maurício de Nassau), both Olinda and Recife were greatly developed. The Dutch had hoped that Brazilian sugar planters wouldn't resist their rule, but many took up arms. In 1654, after a series of battles around Recife, the Dutch finally surrendered. In the 17th century Pernambuco maintained much of the affluence of the earlier sugar age by cultivating cotton. With several rivers and offshore reefs, Recife proved to be an excellent port and began to outgrow Olinda. The city has beautiful buildings alongside the rivers that remind many visitors of Europe. Unfortunately, huge swathes of 19th-century buildings were razed to make way for modern structures. As a result, the center of the city has pockets of neocolonial splendor surrounded by gap-toothed modern giants. Today Recife is a leader in health care and has benefitted from significant government investment in recent years, resulting in a boom in infrastructure and construction industries. It's also Brazil's third-largest astronomic center—it's almost impossible to get a bad meal here. Recife is built around three rivers and connected by 49 bridges. Its name comes from the recifes (reefs) that line the coast. Because of this unique location, water and light often lend the city interesting textures. In the morning, when the tide recedes from Boa Viagem Beach, the rocks of the reefs slowly reappear. Pools of water are formed, fish flap around beachgoers, and the rock formations dry into odd colors. And if the light is just right on the Rio Capibaribe, the ancient buildings of Recife Antigo (Old Recife) are reflected off the river's surface in a watercolor display. Recife is spread out and somewhat hard to navigate. The Centro—with its mixture of high-rises, colonial churches, and markets—is always busy during the day. The crowds and the narrow streets can make finding your way around even more confusing. The Centro consists of three areas: Recife Antigo (the old city); Recife proper, with the districts of Santo Antônio and São José; and the districts of Boa Vista and Santo Amaro. The first two areas are on islands formed by the rivers Capibaribe, Beberibe, and Pina; the third is on an island created by the Canal Tacaruna. Six kilometers (4 miles) south of Centro is the upscale residential and beach district of Boa Viagem, reached by bridge across the Bacia do Pina. Praia da Boa Viagem (Boa Viagem Beach), the Copacabana of Recife, is chockablock with trendy clubs and restaurants as well as many moderately priced and expensive hotels.
An integral part of the city's culture, Recife's culinary scene has a well-earned reputation as one of the best in Brazil. Among the specialties not to miss are carne do sol (salted beef, dried in the sun for 1–2 days), tapioca pancakes (white flour made from cassava root) with fried cheese and caramelized banana, and caldeirada (seafood stew with octopus and parsley).
For those looking for an authentic taste of Bahia, this pleasant restaurant serves up golden moquecas baianas (fish cooked with onion, tomatoes, peppers, parsley, and coconut milk) and flavorful caju caipirinhas (cocktails made with cashew fruit). Service can be slow, so make sure you aren't in a hurry here.
Waiters at this popular restaurant wear the bent orange hats of Lampião, a Jesse James–like folk hero who made his way through the interior of northeastern Brazil during the early 20th century. The buffet has a wide selection of the regional specialties that Lampião might have encountered back then. The food is priced per kilogram, so the cost will depend on how hungry you are. Try the amazing escondinho (a wonderful meat and cheese dish), charque (dried beef), and carne sol (brisket).
As popular now as when it opened more than 30 years ago, this elegant, old-school restaurant serves up Portuguese classics such as bacalhau a calí—codfish cooked with olive oil, onion, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, and white wine. Save room for sugary Portuguese desserts like pastel de belém (a creamy custard tart).
Specializing in innovative yet traditional dishes, this lively restaurant has loyal locals queuing out the door for juicy portions of carne de sol (sun-dried beef) and porco vulcanico (pork fillet served with a special house sauce, beans, and manioc). The menu revolves around the grill, with a wide variety of fish as well as meat dishes generous enough to be shared. Opt for a table among the tropical plants on the breezy terrace, where colorful tablecloths and eclectic design add to the character.
Most of Recife's top hotels are between 10 and 20 minutes from the airport, across from the Boa Viagem and Pina beaches or along Piedade Beach, in the municipality of Jaboatão dos Guararapes.
Pólo Pina, the calçadão in the Pina district, is a popular area near the beach for nighttime activities. Along the streets off Rua Herculano Bandeira you can find close to two-dozen bars and restaurants. Between Rua do Apolo and Rua do Bom Jesus (or Rua dos Judeus) in Recife Antigo, people gather in a seemingly endless variety of bars, cafés, and nightclubs.
Repeatedly selected as Recife's best beach bar, O Biruta is a great spot to watch the moon rise over the beach while enjoying a refreshing cocktail. There's live samba music every Saturday.
Chilled draft beer, tasty snacks, and excellent service make Boteco one of the most popular bars in town.
In the heart of a bohemian neighborhood, Depois takes up three floors of an old building. Hits from the 1960s to the '90s keep the crowd glued to the dance floor.
Galeria Joana D'Arc
A favorite hangout for local gay men and lesbians, Galeria Joana D'Arc is a cluster of small cafés and bars, among them Café Poire, Anjo Solto, Barnabé, and Oriente Médio.
A club with a London pub look, Downtown is a good place to be on Saturday night when local bands play. The club is especially popular with teenagers and twentysomethings.
Teatro Santa Isabel
Built in 1850, lovely Teatro Santa Isabel looks splendid after a major restoration. The neoclassical theater is the setting for operas, plays, and classical concerts, as well as the home of the Recife Symphony Orchestra.
Opened in 2012 in a beautifully restored belle-epoque mansion in Recife Antigo, this huge arts space includes three exhibitions rooms, a theater, a coffee shop, dance studios, and a roof-terrace with wonderful views over the city.
Shopping Center Recife
The enormous Shopping Center Recife is the place to go if you are looking for a shopping fix. There are more than 450 stores, along with a 10-screen cinema and a food court. The center is not far from Boa Viagem Beach.
Mercado de São José
In the city's most traditional market, vendors sell handicrafts, clothing, produce, and herbs. It's housed in a beautiful cast-iron structure that was imported from France in the 19th century.
Centro de Artesenato de Pernambuco
Opened in 2012, this shop occupies an entire warehouse and contains the work of more than 15,000 regional artisans. It is a wonderful place to pick up local souvenirs, from ceramics to original prints. Prices are reasonable and there is a nice buffet restaurant and auditorium in the adjoining warehouses.
Catedral de São Pedro dos Clérigos
The facade of this cathedral, which was built in 1728, showcases fine wooden sculptures and a splendid trompe-l'oeil ceiling. The square surrounding the cathedral is lined with many restaurants, shops, and bars, and is a hangout for local artists, who often read their poetry or perform music, particularly on Tuesday evenings.
Forte das Cinco Pontas
Originally constructed from mud in 1630, the "Fort of Five Points" was rebuilt in 1677 with stone and mortar; even though it now has only four sides, the fort has retained its original name. One of the last buildings built duing the era of Dutch dominance, this military fort now houses the Museu da Cidade, where an array of maps and photos illustrates Recife's history.
Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco
Built in 1606, this church has beautiful Portuguese tile work, while the adjoining Capela Dourada (Golden Chapel), constructed in 1697, is an outstanding example of Brazilian baroque architecture. The complex also contains a convent—the Convento Franciscano de Santo Antônio—and a museum displaying sacred art.
Museu do Homem do Nordeste
Offering rich insight into the history and cultural influences of Brazil's North-East, this museum's collection ranges from utensils crafted by indigenous tribes and artifacts from European colonizers, to religious items from African slaves and ceramics by artists such as Mestre Vitalino and Mestre Zê. For those interested in learning more about this region of Brazil, the Museu do Homem do Nordeste is essential.
Praça da República
The city's original cultural and political meeting point of the 17th century, this historic square was given a new lease of life by landscape architect Burle Marx in the 1930s, and now features rows of Imperial palms and a hundred-year-old Baobab tree among the elaborate 19th- and 20th-century architecture. Highlights include the Teatro Santa Isabel (St. Isabel Theater, 1850); the Palácio do Campo das Princesas, also known as the Palácio do Governo (Government House, 1841); and the Palácio da Justiça (Court House, 1930).
Most of Old Recife's colonial-era public buildings and houses have been restored. The area between Rua do Bom Jesus and Rua do Apolo is full of shops, cafés, and bars, making it the hub of downtown life both day and night; on weekends there's live maracatu music and dancing, and a handicrafts fair is held every Sunday from 2 to 8 on Rua do Bom Jesus.
Casa da Cultura
The old cells of this former 19th-century prison have been transformed into shops that sell works from Pernambuco's artisans, including clay figurines, wood sculptures, carpets, leather goods, and items made from woven straw. One of the cells has been kept in its original form to give visitors an idea of how the prisoners there lived.
Igreja e Convento do Carmo
This historic baroque-style church and convent are constructed of wood and white gold. The main altar has a life-size statue of Our Lady of Carmel.
Museu do Estado de Pernambuco
The state historical museum, in a mansion once owned by a baron, seems more like a home filled with beautiful antiques than a museum. Among the 14,000 objects on display, there is a grand piano, a dining-room table set with 18th-century china, an ornate 19th-century crib, and many beautiful paintings.
Oficina Cerâmica Francisco Brennand
In the old São José sugar refinery, this museum houses more than 2,000 ceramic pieces by the great (and prolific) Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand. Having studied in France, he was influenced by Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, among others, and his works also include paintings, drawings, and engravings. About 15 km (9 miles) from Recife Antigo, the museum's location amid forests and fountains is almost as appealing as its displays.
Arquivo Judaico de Pernambuco
Located on the site of the America's first synagogue, this excellent museum offers detailed insight into the history and culture of the city, as well as the evolution of the Jewish experience in Brazil. All that remains of the original sanctuary, built in 1641, are the walls and the ground, which can be viewed through glass floor panels. Some guides speak English, and the informative signs are bilingual.
Coconut palms line Recife's most popular beach, the 9-km-long (4-mile-long) Praia da Boa Viagem. A steady Atlantic breeze tames the hot sun, and reef formations create pools of warm water that are perfect for swimming. Sailors and fishermen beach their jangadas (handcrafted log rafts with beautiful sails), and vendors sell coconut drinks from kiosks. Avenida Boa Viagem separates a row of hotels and apartments from the beach, which is lined by a wide blue calçadão (sidewalk) that's perfect for running, bike rides, or evening promenades. On weekend afternoons there's a handicrafts fair in Praça da Boa Viagem. Surfing and swimming beyond the reef are not recommended because of the presence of sharks.
Amenities: food and drink, lifeguards, parking (fee). Best for: partiers, walking, sunrises.
Cabo de Santo Agostinho
Some of Pernambuco's finest beaches are clustered around the small town of Cabo de Santo Agostinho, 35 km south of the city. The town's namesake beach, Cabo de Santo Agostinho, is better for soaking up the view of the cliffs and surrounding colonial houses rather than sun-bathing, as there is very little sand to sit on. Buses to and from Recife depart regularly and cost R$2.
Amenities: food and drink; toilets. Best for : sunsets.
Surrounded by palm trees and favored by local surfers, beautiful Gaibu has become one of the area's most happening hangout spots. Volleyball competitions, fishing, and surfing are all practiced along the shore, while at the end of the beach, you can visit the ruins of the Fort of San Francisco Xavier. Some parts of the beach are not recommended for swimming.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards. Best for: partiers; surfing.
Ilha de Itamaracá
This island is set off the coast of the historic city of Igarassu and has a number of beautiful beaches with calm waters for swimming, as well as a protected area for manatees. The best beach is Forte Orange, next to Coroa do Avião; it has a historic fort that kids love to explore. Buses to Igarassu and Ilha de Itamaracá leave from the center of Recife, at the Cais de Santa Rita in front of the Fórum Thomas de Aquino.
Amenities: food and drink; toilets. Best for: walking; swimming.
South of Recife on the road past Porto das Galinha lies serene Maracaípe beach. The excellent waves and happening Quiosques (beach bars) have made this a popular weekend spot with younger crowds.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; toilets; water sports. Best for: partiers; surfers; windsurfing.
Porto de Galinhas
Once considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil, this historic port has lost a considerable dose of its original charm because of the increasingly heavy influx of tourists drawn to the beach's transparent natural swimming pools. If you don't mind sharing the beauty, there is a good variety of accommodation options and restaurants, as well as jangadas (small boats) for hire. The beach, which follows the curve of a bay lined with coconut palms and cashew trees, gets crowded on weekends year-round. You shouldn't expect to spot any chickens—Porto das Galinhas (Port of Chickens) earned its name as a hub of illegal slave trading after abolition, when slaves from Africa would arrive hidden under guinea-fowl crates, and traders would be alerted that the "chickens had arrived."
Amenities: food and drink; lifguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets; water sports. Best for: partiers; snorkeling; sunrise; surfing.
Situated 109 km (68 miles) south of Recife, this beach region shares the same calm, warm waters and natural pools as Porto das Galinhas, yet lacks the crowds. The postcard-perfect Praia dos Carneiros is regularly elected as one of Brazil's best. Its brilliantly clear emerald waters are home to shoals of tropical fish, and the beach huts there serve fresh coconut water and seafood snacks.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); toilets. Best for: solitude; snorkelling; swimming; sunrises.