Things to Do in Northeast Brazil
Salvador’s largest and oldest market, Mercado Modelo, is housed in the reconstructed 19th-century Customs House, looking out over the harbor. Behind its lemon-yellow façade, around 200 stalls tempt shoppers with local arts, handicrafts, and souvenirs.
With its castle-like façade and sprawling complex of museums, galleries and gardens, the Ricardo Brennand Institute has fast become one of Recife’s most important cultural attractions. Inaugurated in 2002, the cultural center is the brainchild of its namesake, collector Ricardo Brennand, and is renowned for its fascinating collection of historic artifacts, including a large section devoted to Brazil’s Dutch settlers.
Highlights of the museum include the world’s largest collection of armory, dating from the 14th to the 19th century; a sizable collection of paintings by Dutch artist Frans Post; an array of
exquisite antique furniture; and a selection of rare Dutch coins.
Known for its shifting sands and freshwater lagoons, the beach village of Genipabu attracts travelers who come for adventure on the rolling dunes. The winds shifting across the sand means that the landscape of Genipabu is always changing. The sands pile up into dunes that rise and fall, creating ridges and mounds across the shores and eventually plunging into the sea.
With its jumble of colonial buildings, cobblestone lanes, and pastel-painted façades, Pelourinho (aka Pelo) is Salvador da Bahia’s oldest and most colorful neighborhood. Despite a dark past—Pelourinho was the location of Brazil’s first slave market—the historic district is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and important cultural center.
Surrounded by pink sand dunes, sandstone cliffs, and a winding river, Canoa Quebrada is a laid-back beach town blessed with a stunning natural environment. While the town has grown with the times, it hasn’t lost that mystical feel that earned its reputation as a ‘hippie town’ in the 1970s.
The beautifully restored art deco Lacerda Elevator (Elevador Lacerda links Salvador’s Comercio and Cidade Alta neighborhoods, traveling 236 feet (72 meters in under 30 seconds. The ride has become a highlight in Salvador da Bahia, offering an easy means of transportation paired with stellar views from its apex.
Built in the late 1500s, Forte de Monte Serrat was once known as Castelo de Sao Felipe and today still serves as one of the most iconic military structures in all of Brazil. Its traditional architecture, inspired by Italian traditions, originally housed three working cannons, and later was renovated to contain nine more. During times of war, soldiers were able to protect the whole of Port Salvador from Monte Serrat’s circular interior, although in the mid-1600s, Brazilian military was unable to hold off Dutch forces and ultimately had to surrender the fort.
Travelers in search of history will find the halls of whitewashed Monte Serrat steeped in military tradition. And those less interested in the nation’s past will still enjoy the picturesque views and incredible sunsets found atop this iconic fort.
Morro Branco’s seaside cliffs appear strikingly red from a distance, but when explored up close, you can see that the sand cliffs have a number of pink, cream and beige colored hues that together form their distinctive overall color. These eroded cliffs, known as the Labyrinth, have served as a filming location in several productions.
In a city that’s filled with crowds of people, bustling commercial districts and an energy that can be described as nothing short of kinetic, the quiet out-of-the-way sidewalks of Dique do Tororo provide a welcome escape. Located near the south entrance of the stadium that housed the World Cup, Dique de Torro offers travelers city skyline views, easy access to some of Salvador’s most iconic African statues and plenty of historical information about the traditions of West African slaves. Plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars line the perimeter of this man-made lake, making this an ideal spot to grab a cold beer or tuck into a warm plate of traditional Brazilian cuisine. It’s possible to cross the lake by boat and travelers warn that while the place is relatively safe during daylight hours, it’s best to avoid Dique de Tororo at night.
Warm waves and slow tides make the star-shaped Frades Island (Ilha dos Frades) one of Salvador de Bahia’s most popular destinations. Enjoy beaches that boast white sand and turquoise water, or hike to remote waterfalls and hilltops that offer panoramic views of the bay.
More Things to Do in Northeast Brazil
Travelers who approach the relatively plain exterior of São Francisco Church and Convent (Igreja e Convento de São Francisco) will be amazed by the ornate artwork, fine details and gilded ceilings upon entering this iconic colonial monument. Built in the early 1700s, the church took decades to complete. Its unique interior includes three aisles, rather than the more typical two, as well as some of the most impressive pillars, vaults and golden woodwork in the country. The classic Baroque style of São Francisco Church and Convent showcases one of the most spectacular examples of religious architecture and artwork, making it a destination for traveler seeking to experience the history, beauty and artistry of another era.
Palm-fringed sand and surf-worthy waves await sunseekers at Futuro Beach (Praia do Futuro), one of Fortaleza’s most popular family beaches. Stretching 5 miles (8 kilometers) along Fortaleza’s east coast, Futuro Beach offers ideal conditions for swimming and surfing, and is lined with lively beach bars (barracas).
Tranquil Jacumã Beach (Praia de Jacumã) is surrounded by reefs that break up incoming waves, creating a peaceful environment and a cove that is ideal for swimming. The white sand beach is lined with tall palm trees that provide shade.
Located in the small fishing village of Jacumã, it is a relatively secluded beach not inundated with tourists or beach-goers. Known for its calm waters, tropical scenery, and fresh seafood, Jacumã Beach is a refuge away from the winds and the crowds of other Brazilian beaches.
For those craving a bit more adventure than relaxation, the nearby Jacumã Lagoon is a popular stop on dune buggy tours. The lagoon is naturally formed from rainwater falling on the sand dunes. Both “aerobunda,” or zip lining across the dunes, over the water and finally into the lagoon, and “skibunda” or boarding down the sand dunes into the lagoon as well, are available here.
Within day-trip distance of Salvador, the silken sands and palm-lined shores of Praia do Forte are renowned for their biodiversity. Set around a high reef, the coast is dotted with tide pools and rocky coves—a natural haven for marine life, with calm, shallow waters perfect for families with young kids.
Fortaleza is blessed with many spectacular beaches, and Cumbuco Beach--on the Sunset Coastline--ranks among the best. A popular spot for kitesurfing, sand boarding and buggy tours, Cumbuco (both the beach and neighboring fishing village is distinguished by its rolling dunes and long expanses of white sand lined with coconut trees.
This large pool of fresh water grants a place to rest and refresh from the sun, wind, sand and adventure of the Natal beaches. Though nearly five meters deep at its center, it is shallow around the edges, making it a popular place with all types of swimmers. Its stunningly clear waters make this a scenic place to kayak, paddle board, and fish.
Surrounded by the towering sand dunes of the area, it is accessible only by a small trail or on a dune buggy over the sands. Once you arrive, there are several areas to relax, including restaurants and bars serving local dishes and fresh seafood. If adventure is more your style, the local aerobunda (zip lining over the dunes with a dip in the lagoon) or skibunda (sliding down the sand on a wooden board) are both a few of the activities available that will get your heart pumping. Snorkeling among the lagoon’s small fish is another option.
With waterslides, jungle ziplines, and palm-fringed swimming pools, the Arraial d'Ajuda Eco Park is one of Brazil’s most popular water parks. Just moments from Bahia’s white-sand beaches, the adventure park has both water and land activities suitable for the whole family.
If the string of shallow coral reefs that grace Natal’s sandy coastline could be called a necklace, then Maracajaú Reef is its biggest, most beautiful jewel. This reef formation full of coral, iridescent fish, and other marine life covers over 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares and is about 4 miles (7 kilometers offshore from Maracajaú Beach.
When the Portuguese Navy captain Theodozio Rodrigues de Faria and his crew survived a brutal storm at sea, the international explorer vowed to honor the saint who saved his life once he arrived on the shores of his destination. Today, the gilded halls of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim Church (Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim), home to a replica image of an original Portuguese statue of Christ, still stand as homage to one captain’s survival.
Travelers venture to the top of Sacred Knoll in search of similar modern miracles, making it a point of pilgrimage for visitors from across the globe. Services at Nosso Senhor do Bonfim blend old world Catholic traditions with the worshiping practices of West African slaves, making for a memorable and uniquely Brazilian Sunday morning.
Strategically located at the sharp end of Salvador’s peninsula, the Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra is a historic military structure and lighthouse. The fort, with its recognizable black-and-white-striped lighthouse is one of Salvador’s iconic landmarks. Built in 1549, the fort is the oldest military structure in Brazil and is an example of traditional 16th-century Portuguese military architecture.
The interior of the fort has been transformed into a maritime museum, with intricate models of Portuguese ships from the days of exploration, centuries-old navigating instruments, antique maps and other pieces of history. The museum also houses exhibits on the Portuguese colony’s brutal slave trade, which brought millions across the Atlantic from West Africa.
A highlight of visiting the fort is climbing to the top of the lighthouse, which boasts panoramic views of Salvador and its beautiful coastline. The fort’s geographic location also makes it the ideal place to watch the sunset over the ocean. Every evening, locals and tourists alike gather on the lawn outside the fort to watch the sky light up as the sun dips below the horizon.
Ponta Negra, one of Natal’s most popular and accessible beaches, stretches for 1.8 miles (3 kilometers along the shore. The lively south end of the beach is lined with restaurants, bars, hotels, and pousadas, while the northern end features a pedestrian-only boardwalk and a few resorts, lending it a more low-key vibe.
Pipa Beach (Praia da Pipa is not one single beach, but four, collectively stretching for more than 6 miles (10 kilometers. Backed by coconut palm plantations, sand dunes, cliffs, and Atlantic forest, these stretches of sand are considered some of the most spectacular in Brazil. The warm waters are home to dolphins and sea turtles.
Designed by French architect George Mounier and allegedly inspired by the grand cathedral in Cologne, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Forteza is the third largest cathedral in Brazil. Construction on the Gothic-Roman style structure began in 1939, but it wouldn’t be fully completed until late in 1978, nearly 40 years later.
Upon entering the Metropolitan Cathedral, built to seat 5,000 worshippers, visitors encounter the Chapel of St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of the Brazilian state of Ceará to the left of the nave. On the right is another small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, the Patron Saint of Fortaleza. The cathedral’s central alter was brought over from Verona.
One interesting feature that sets the Metropolitan Cathedral apart from other such structures is its crypt. The Crypt of the Adolescents was inaugurated in 1962 with six alters devoted to saints who died in their teenage years, and the depiction of Jesus in the crypt alter shows him as an adolescent as well.
Don’t let the concrete masonry on the cathedral’s exterior turn you off. The stained glass windows on the inside are stunning and well worth the visit.
Set in a mansion in the upscale neighborhood of Vitória, the Carlos Costa Pinto Museum (Museu Carlos Costa Pinto) illuminates the luxurious, decadent lifestyle of Salvador da Bahia’s sugarcane aristocracy. Exhibits focus on the history of colonial and imperial Bahio from the 17th to 19th century, with permanent installations and a rotating selection of cultural activities.
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