Salvador de Bahia,
According to Salvador's adopted son Jorge Amado, "In Salvador, magic becomes part of the every-day." From the shimmering golden light of sunset over the Baía do Todos os Santos, to the rhythmic beats that race along the streets, Salvador, while no longer Brazil's capital, remains one of its most captivating cities. A large dose of its exoticism comes down to its African heritage—at least 70% of its 2,675,000 population is classified as Afro-Brazilian—and how it has blended into Brazil's different strands, from the native Indians to the Christian colonizers. Salvadorans may tell you that you can visit a different church every day of the year, which is almost true—the city has about 300. Churches whose interiors are covered with gold leaf were financed by the riches of the Portuguese colonial era, when slaves masked their traditional religious beliefs under a thin Catholic veneer. And partly thanks to modern-day acceptance of those beliefs, Salvador has become the fount of Candomblé, a religion based on personal dialogue with the orixás, a family of African deities closely linked to nature and the Catholic saints. The influence of Salvador's African heritage on Brazilian music has also turned the city into one of the musical capitals of Brazil, resulting in a myriad of venues to enjoy live music across the city, along with international acclaim for exponents like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Daniela Mercury. Salvador's economy today is focused on telecommunications and tourism. The still-prevalent African culture draws many tourists—this is the best place in Brazil to hear African music, learn or watch African dance, and see capoeira, a martial art developed by slaves. In the district of Pelourinho, many colorful 18th- and 19th-century houses remain, part of the reason why this is the center of the tourist trade. Salvador sprawls across a peninsula surrounded by the Baía de Todos os Santos on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The city has about 50 km (31 miles) of coastline. The original city, referred to as the Centro Histórica (Historical Center), is divided into the Cidade Alta (Upper City), also called Pelourinho, and Cidade Baixa (Lower City). The Cidade Baixa is a commercial area—known as Comércio—that runs along the port and is the site of Salvador's indoor market, Mercado Modelo. You can move between the upper and lower cities on foot, via the landmark Elevador Lacerda, behind the market, or on the Plano Inclinado, a funicular lift, which connects Rua Guindaste dos Padres on Comércio with the alley behind Cathedral Basílica. From the Cidade Histórica you can travel north along the bay to the hilltop Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. You can also head south to the point, guarded by the Forte Santo Antônio da Barra, where the bay waters meet those of the Atlantic. This area on Salvador's southern tip is home to the trendy neighborhoods of Barra, Ondina, and Rio Vermelho, with many museums, theaters, shops, and restaurants. Beaches along the Atlantic coast and north of Forte Santo Antônio da Barra are among the city's cleanest. Many are illuminated at night and have bars and restaurants that stay open late.
You can easily find restaurants serving Bahian specialties in most neighborhoods. Pelourinho and Barra, full of bars and sidewalk cafés, are good places to start. There are also many good spots in bohemian Rio Vermelho and a slew of places along Orla, the beachfront drive beginning around Jardim de Alah, and surrounding the smarter residential areas of Campo Grande and Vitória. The regional cuisine leans toward seafood, but some meat dishes should be tried. And, like anywhere else in Brazil, there are churrascarias for beef lovers. One main course often serves two; ask about portions when you order. Beware that regional food is normally spicy and hot.
Tucked away above a busy street in the Pelourinho, Uauá's tasty, typically Brazilian dishes and reliable service make it one of the most popular restaurants in Salvador—and therefore one of the most crowded. Come early to avoid the rush. Don't skip the Northeastern specialities, like guisado de carneiro (minced mutton) or carne do sol com purê de macaxeira (salted beef with mandioca puree).
Delicious Bahian dishes of fresh seafood are served at this longtime favorite, where the ample portions make it great for sharing. Pata de caranguejo (vinegary crab claws) is hearty and may do more than take the edge off your appetite for the requisite moqueca de camarão (with shrimp) or moqueca de siri mole (with soft-shell crab); try the cocada for dessert, if you have room.
For a set price, this top-quality, all-you-can-eat Brazilian churrascaria serves a selection of meat cooked to perfection and a generous choice of sides. A flurry of white-coated waiters appear at your table to carve different options of meat straight on to your plate rodizio style, so try not to fill up on the steaming pao de quiejo (cheese balls), salads, and seafood from the accompanying buffet—and also know that the best cuts are usually bought toward the end of the meal.
The 30-dish buffet at this lunch-only spot set right on the Pelourinho provides A to Z of Bahian cuisine for the uninitiated at a set price. Start at the small museum on the ground floor, where English-speaking staff will guide you through Bahian food's African roots, before heading up to the breezy dining room to experience it in action. Superbly run by the hospitality school SENAC, the restaurant has students behind the golden moquecas and impossibly sweet desserts—as well as the excellent service. Everything is executed under the watchful eye of professors in suits. Vegetarians should make for the Kilo restaurant below.
Mar na Boca
Although this sophisticated Spanish seafood spot is located right beside the city's top art galleries, the food is reason enough alone to visit the leafy neighborhood of Vitória. Originally from Pamplona, chef Tako darts in and out of the kitchen, consulting with diners on the freshest catch of the day or which wine to select from the all-Spanish list. Superbly executed dishes such as gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and paella negra make it a top choice for businessmen and the local art crowd alike—even Salvador's answer to Dalí, Bel Borba, regularly drops by for tapas and to say hello to his evocative pieces that line the walls.
Ask locals and longtime expats alike what not to miss in Salvador and the response you get will be unanimous: Paraiso Tropical. Set in a tropical garden a short taxi ride from the historic center, this relaxed, gourmet spot treats patrons to Bahian classics with a twist. Chef Beto reinvents heavy dishes like moqueca and bobo using natural dende fruit rather than oil, combined with rare tropical fruits sourced from more than 6,000 square meters of native Mata-Atlantica forest. Go with friends and go hungry, for while the siri mole (Bahia soft-shell crab) and prawn moqueca stand out, you'll want to try everything.
Tucked away on a quiet cobbled street, this lively cantina combines good-value Italian classics with a cozy atmosphere. Owner Salvatore makes the most of fresh local seafood for signature dishes such as spaghetti ai frutti di mare and grilled seafood platter to share. Homemade pastas, tasty meat dishes, and endless indulgent desserts have turned this into a local favorite. Come Sunday, regulars spill out onto tables on the street between watching international football on the large TV and sipping Salvatore's special limoncello. The wine list is one of the most varied in town and is well priced.
The Cidade Histórico and the nearby neighborhood of Santo Antonio offer a good selection of places to stay, many of which combine a unique atmosphere with immediate access to the colonial charms of the Pelourinho. Heading south into the Vitória neighborhood along Avenida 7 de Setembro there are a number of inexpensive establishments convenient to beaches and sights. In the fashionable Barra neighborhood, many hotels are within walking distance of the beach, while Rio Vermelho is the favored choice of most Brazilians and where the city's best bars, restaurants, and nightclubs can be found, although it is a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown. High seasons are from December to March and the month of July. For Carnival, reservations must be made months in advance, and prices are substantially higher.
Pelourinho is the place to catch live music, particularly on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when musicians perform at stages dotted across the various squares, from Largo do Terreiro de Jesus to Largo do Pelourinho and up the Ladeiro do Carmo. Saturday's sunset jazz sessions held at the MAM (Museum of Modern Art) are also a must for music-lovers. For action any night of the week, head to the trendy, bohemian neighborhood of Rio Vermelho, where locals catch up over acarajé in squares like Largo da Santana before heading onto live music spots such as Padaria Bar.
Balé Folclórico de Bahia
Cited as one of the best dance experiences in Brazil, and at a great value, too, this show lasts just an hour and provides an exhilarating window into the Afro-Brazilian culture.
Rock in Rio Café
Located in the shopping-and-entertainment complex Aeroclube Plaza, the atmosphere at this music venue is more like Miami than Salvador, with a program of live bands across eight different stages.
While this laid-back spot is also recommended for coffee, crepes, and great-value lunches, it is the lime-caipirinhas made from artisanal cachaça that draw the crowds who want to enjoy cocktails while watching the sunset over the Bahia de Todos os Santos.
Rock takes to the stage in all forms at this regular hot spot in bomhemian Rio Vermelho.
One of the best choices for a cocktail in the Pelourinho, this sophisticated wood-lined bar specializes in clove-infused cachaça, served with tasty snacks and occasional live music.
Associação Cultural Bloco Carnavalesco Ilê Aiyê
This group, which started out as a Carnival Bloco, has turned itself into much more in its 34-year history. It now has its own school and promotes the study and practice of African heritage, religion, and history. To take part, call ahead to schedule a visit to the school. Contributions are appreciated.
Salvador's best-known percussion group gained international fame when it participated in Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints" tour and recordings. It is one of Salvador's most popular Carnival schools.Casa do Olodum. Olodum, Salvador's best-known percussion group, has its own venue, the Casa do Olodum, and performs live shows around town, often on Tuesdays or Sundays.
Teatro Casa do Comércio
It hosts music performances and some theatrical productions.
Teatro Castro Alves
Salvador's largest theater holds classical and popular music performances, operas, and plays.
Teatro Vila Velha
Founded in 1969, this is one of the most important cultural venues in Salvador, with workshops, music, dance, and theater. It is also the stage for Bando de Teatro Olodum.
The best shopping mall in Salvador, Shopping Barra isn't far from the historic center and has cinemas, restaurants, and local boutiques, as well as branches of the major Rio, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais retailers. Many hotels provide transportation to the mall, but you can also take the Rodoviária bus line.
Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Mauá
Of Salvador's state-run handicrafts stores, the best is the Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Mauá. Look for exquisite lace, musical instruments of African origin, weavings, and wood carvings.
The city's most famous jeweler, Bahia Preciosa allows you to peer through a window into the room where goldsmiths work.
Largo do Pelourinho
To pick up contemporary local art, art naïf, and gemstones, visit the many galleries in the Cidade Alta and around the Largo do Pelourinho: Rua do Carmo and Direito do Santo Antonio have some particularly good options.
The well-known, reputable H. Stern has several branches in Salvador, most of them in malls and major hotels.
The local branch of a major Brazilian chain, Livraria Siciliano has lots of foreign-language books and international magazines.
Atelier Bel Borba
Bahia's answer to Dalí, Bel Borba is one of the region's most famous living artists, and he's picked up a bit of international prestige as well, due to a recent installation of his in New York's Times Square. A visit to his little atelier, where you can also pick up a piece of his work, is a must.
Recognized as one of the richest examples of baroque architecture in Brazil, this 17th-century masterpiece is a must-visit. The masonry facade is made of Portuguese sandstone, brought as ballast in shipping boats; the 16th-century tiles in the sacristy came from Macau. Inside, the engravings on the altars show the evolution of architectural styles in Bahia. Hints of Asia permeate the decoration, such as the facial features and clothing of the figures in the transept altars and the intricate ivory-and-tortoise shell inlay from Goa on the Japiassu family altar, third on the right as you enter (it is attributed to a Jesuit monk from China). The altars and ceiling are layered with gold—about 10 grams per square meter.
Fundação Casa de Jorge Amado
This colonial mansion set on the Pelourinho provides a window into the life, work, and inspiration of Bahia's best beloved writer, Jorge Amado. Lovers of his literature will be lost for hours perusing through the photos, books, and old belongings, while those yet to delve into Bahia's past through the likes of "Gabriela, Cloves and Cinammon" will be left hunting for an immediate download. There is also a nice coffee shop that provides great viewing over the square. On Wednesdays there's free admission.
Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos
Built by and for slaves between 1704 and 1796, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary has finally won acclaim outside the local Afro-Brazilian community. After extensive renovation, it's worth a look at the side altars to see statues of the church's few black saints. African rhythms pervade the services and the Sunday mass is one not to miss.
Igreja São Domingos de Gusmão da Ordem Terceira
The baroque Church of the Third Order of St. Dominic (1731) houses a collection of carved processional saints and other sacred objects. Such sculptures often had hollow interiors and were used to smuggle gold into Portugal to avoid taxes. Asian details in the church decoration are evidence of long-ago connections with the Portugese colonies of Goa and Macau.
Igreja de São Francisco
One of the most impressive churches in Salvador, the Church of St. Francis was built in the 18th century on the site of an earlier church that was burned down during the Dutch invasion in the early 1600s. The ceiling was painted in 1774 by José Joaquim da Rocha, who founded Brazil's first art school. The ornate cedar-and-rosewood interior is covered with images of mermaids and other fanciful creatures bathed in gold leaf. Guides say that there's as much as a ton of gold here, but restoration experts maintain there's much less. At the end of Sunday morning mass, the lights are switched off so you can catch the wondrous subtlety of the gold leaf under natural light.Convento de São Francisco. With an interior gliterring in gold, this is considered one of the country's most impressive churches. Along with intricately carved wood-work, the convento has an impressive series of 37 white-and-blue tiled panels lining the walls of the cloister that tell the tale of the birth and life of St. Francis de Assisi. It is worth catching Sunday morning mass for the atmosphere alone. Largo do Cruzeiro de São Francisco s/n, 40020–280. 071/3322–6430. R$5.Ordem Terceira de São Francisco. The Ordem Terceira de São Francisco, on the north side of the complex, has an 18th-century Spanish plateresque sandstone facade—the only one in Brazil—that is carved to resemble Spanish silver altars made by beating the metal into wooden molds. 071/3321–6968.
Largo do Pelourinho
Once the "whipping post" for runaway for slaves, this square now serves as the cultural heart of Salvador's historic center, with regular live music performed in front of the colourful colonial buildings. The four public stages are named after characters in Jorge Amado novels; a museum on the acclaimed author, who lived from 1912 to 2001, borders the upper end of the square. While summer months see performances nightly, year-around Tuesdays and Sundays are the days not to miss for music in the Pelourinho. The small plaza commemorates the day in 1888 when Princesa Isabel, daughter of Dom Pedro II, signed the decree that officially ended slavery.
Terreiro de Jesus
This wide plaza lined with 17th-century houses sits in the heart of historic Salvador. Where nobles once strolled under imperial palm trees, there's a crafts fair on weekends. In the afternoons, a group of locals practice capoeira—a stylized dancelike fight with African origins—to the sound of the berimbau, a bow-shape musical instrument.
For a few centavos, ascend 236 feet in about a minute in the world's first urban elevator, which runs between Praça Visconde de Cayrú in the Lower City and the Paço Municipal in the Upper City. Built in 1872, the elevator originally ran on hydraulics. It was electrified when it was restored in the 1930s. Bahians joke that the elevator is the only way to "go up" in life. Watch out for pickpockets when the elevator's crowded.
Ilha de Itaparica
The largest of 56 islands in the Baía de Todos os Santos, Itaparica was originally settled because its ample supply of fresh mineral water was believed to have rejuvenating qualities. Its beaches are calm and shallow, thanks to the surrounding reefs, which are avidly sought by windsurfers, divers, and snorkelers. The main port of entry on the north of the island is the town of Bom Despacho, where the ferries from Salvador dock. The best beaches are near the villages of Vera Cruz, Mar Grande, and Conceição, the latter almost entirely owned by Club Med Itaparica.Instead of buses or taxis, small Volkswagen vans (called kombis) provide the most convenient local transportation around the island. You can hail vans and hop from beach to beach along the 40 km (25 miles) of BA 001, the coastal highway that connects Itaparica village on the north part of the island to the mainland via Ponte do Funil (Funnel Bridge) on the southwest side. The drive from Salvador to the island takes about four hours. Bicycle rentals are readily available in the island's towns, so you don't really need a car if you're comfortable with bicycling.Terminal Marítimo São Joaquim. Ferries to the island run daily from the Terminal Marítimo São Joaquim. Tickets cost R$3.95 during the week and R$5.20 on the weekend. The ferries run from 5 am to 11 pm and last 40 minutes. Av. Oscar Ponte 1051, São Joaquim, Salvador, 40015–270.
Set on the bay in Cidade Baixa, this crafts market was once the holding pen for slaves between the 17th and 19th century as they arrived off the boat from Africa. Today it's a convenient place to buy handicrafts, although don't expect a great deal of variety or innovation—this is a market for tourists rather than locals. Bargaining is expected here for goods like cachaça (sugarcane liquor), cashews, pepper sauce, cigars, leather goods, hammocks, musical instruments, and semiprecious stones. Head up to the the alfresco terrace on the top-floor restaurant to enjoy a cold beer while watching the boats set off for Morro do Sao Paulo.
Museu de Arte Sacra
Housed in a former Carmelite monastery, the museum
and the adjoining Igreja de Santa Teresa (St. Theresa Church) are among
the best in Salvador. An in-house restoration team has worked miracles that
bring alive Salvador's golden age as Brazil's capital and main port, told
through thoughtfully cared-for collections of religious objects. See the silver
altar in the church, recovered from the fire that razed the original Igreja da
Sé in 1933, and the blue-and-yellow-tile sacristy replete with a bay view.
Access is recommended via Rua Santa Thereza, and there is a taxi point located
Museu Carlos Costa Pinto
A collection of more than 3,000 objects collected from around the world by the Costa Pinto family, including furniture, crystal, silver pieces, and paintings, is on display at this museum. Included in the collection are examples of gold and silver balangandãs, chains with large silver charms in the shapes of tropical fruits and fish, which were worn by slave women around the waist.
Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim
Set atop a hill as the Itapagibe Peninsula extends into the bay, Salvador's iconic Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bomfim is well worth the 8-km (5-mile) detour from the Centro Histórico and marks a crossroads between the Christian and native African religions. Its patron saint, Oxalá, is the father of all the gods and goddesses in the Candomblé mythology. Built in the 1750s, the church has many ex-votos (votive offerings) of wax, wooden, and plaster replicas of body parts, left by those praying for miraculous cures. Outside the church, street vendors sell a bizarre mixture of figurines, from St. George and the Dragon to devils and warriors. The morning mass on the first Friday of the month draws a huge congregation, most wearing white, with practitioners of Candomblé on one side and Catholics on the other.
Frequented by the artists who live in the neighborhood, the Itapuã beach offers has an eclectic atmosphere. There are food kiosks—including Acarajé da Cira, one of the best places to get acarajé (a spicy fried-bean snack). Although the coconut palms and white sands remain idyllic, it is advisable to be watchful of your belongings. Inland from Itapuã, a mystical freshwater lagoon, the Lagoa de Abaeté, and surrounding sand dunes are now a municipal park. Itapuã's dark waters are a startling contrast to the fine white sand of its shores, but it's not suitable for swimming.
Amenities: food and drink, toilets, parking. Best for: walking.
Next to the Catedral Basílica, this palatial pink building has a collection of more than 1,100 pieces relating to the city's religious or spiritual history, including pottery, sculpture, tapestry, weavings, paintings, crafts, carvings, and photographs. There's an interesting display on the meanings of Candomblé deities, with huge carved-wood panels portraying each one. The other museums that shares the building is the Museu Arqueologia e Etnologia (Archaeology and Ethnology Museum). Both have information booklets avialable in multiple languages.
Palácio Rio Branco
A neoclassic beauty constructed on the site of Brazil's first government building, dating back to 1549, the Palace reopened in 2010 after an extensive, two-year restoration. Today it stands as a cultural center, housing Salvador's Chamber of Commerce, the Cultural Foundation of the State of Bahia, and the state tourist office. On the first floor there's a small memorial mueseum depicting the last two centuries of local history. Stop by for one of the guided visits around the Palacio's elaborate chambers, led by local graduates. Get a great view of Cidade Baixa and the bay from the east balcony.
Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra
A symbol of Salvador, St. Anthony's Fort has stood guard over Salvador since 1583. The lighthouse atop the fort wasn't built until 1696, after many a ship wrecked on the coral reefs around the Baía de Todos os Santos entrance. Go in the late afternoon to climb the 22-meter tower before watching the impressive sunset with the crowds who gather on the bank below. Across the road, don't miss stopping by Dinha's barraca for acarajé, her version of the typical Bahian speciality is rumoured to be the best in town. Museu Náutico. Located inside the fort, the Museu Náutico has permanent exhibitions of old maps, navigational equipment, artillery, model vessels, and remnants of shipwrecks found by archaeologists off the Bahian coast. Largo do Farol da Barra, s/n, 40140–650. 071/3264–3296.
Porto da Barra
This popular beach in Barra draws a wide variety of sun-seekers from across the city and is a convenient option if you're staying in the hotel districts of Ondina and Rio Vermelho, where rock outcroppings make swimming dangerous and pollution is often a problem. Chairs and umbrellas are available for rent, and you can purchase food from one of the many restaurants lining the promenade.
Amenities: food and drink, lifeguards, toilets. Best for: partiers, surfing, sunset.
One of the nicest beaches along Avenida Oceánica is Praia Corsário, a long stretch packed on weekends with a younger crowd. Strong waves make it popular with surfers and bodyboarders, while swimmers should proceed with caution. There are kiosks where you can sit in the shade and enjoy seafood and ice-cold beer.
Amenities: food and drink, lifeguards, toilets. Best for: partiers, surfing.
Praia Stella Maris
One of the northermost beaches in the Salvador municipality, Praia Stella Maris's long stretch of sand is ever-popular with families in spite of the strong waves. The myriad of food-and-drink kiosks, serving delicious salty snacks and água de côco (coconut water), get busy on the weekends. The airport is located just 10 minutes away.
Amenities: food and drink, lifeguards, toilets, parking. Best for: surfing, walking.
MAM (Museum of Modern Art)
When Italian-Brazilian modernist architect Lina do Bardi set about transforming this 17th-century private fazenda overlooking the sea, she created one of the world's most picturesque modern art museums. Original white and blue Portuguese tiles lead up to the former casarão, which houses a permanent modernist/contemporary collection, while the former chapel plays host to a rotating schedule of individual shows. Walk through the sculpture garden, with works from artists like Bel Borba and Mario Cravo, before taking a break in the atmospheric basement cafe. JAM no MAM, the Saturday evening alfresco jazz shows, which correspond with the sunset, are something not to miss.
Praia do Flamengo
Clean sand, simple kiosks, and a beautiful view make this long stretch of golden sand a favorite among good-looking locals and surfers drawn to the strong waves. Buses, which run regularly from Barra and the city center, take just over an hour; the journey is well worth it if you are looking for a serious beach day.
Amenities: food and drink, toilets, lifeguards, parking. Best for: surfing, walking, swimming.
Feira de São Joaquim
A visit to this all-encompassing daily market, the largest in the state, is a headfirst dive into Bahian culture. Dress down and wander labyrinthine alleys of exotic fruits, squawking chickens, dried flamingo pink prawns, and household goods crafted from palha (straw), before heading into the undercover section, where you will find an entire lane dedicated to accessories for Candomblé practices. Join early-morning vendors for a break at the barracas that line the edges and try the local speciality of passarinha (fried cow spleen), if you dare, although a cold beer is probably the safer option.
Fundação Pierre Verger Gallery
At this gallery dedicated to the works of renowned French photographer Pierre Verger you can catch a rotating selection of his captivating black-and-white shots of Afro-Brazilian culture from the 1950s–'70s, detailing both daily and religious rituals. A much larger archive is accesible at the foundationon, which also hosts workshops and classes and is located on the outskirts of Salvador.
Forte de Santo Antonio Além do Carmo
While this fort set at the end of Rua Direita de Santo Antonio may not win prizes for its architecture, its real draw is as a center for capoeira, a type of martial arts practiced in Brazil. Classes led by different capoeria masters take place in the former cells, each with an individiual schedule, while each Saturday night they join together to put on a free demonstration for the public.