When it comes to cities in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is the sparkling crown jewel that seems to get all the attention. Honestly, we can see why. We have absolutely fallen in love with Rio, and it is without hesitation when we say we are not ready to leave it so soon. (Though as this post goes live we will have already said our goodbyes and will be well on our way to the Southern Amazon!)
But despite the magical energy that is Rio, Brazil boasts many other cities that are well worth exploring. One perfect example is Salvador.
Salvador was the first colonial capital of Brazil, a port city strategically located on a peninsula of the northeast coast. The Portuguese would later ‘import’ tens of thousands of slaves from Africa to Salvador to build their New World, which today has contributed to the city’s vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture. But in addition to the African rhythm that beats throughout the city, Salvador is also simply known as the ‘capital of happiness’ due to its frequent fun-loving outdoor parties and the world’s largest Carnival. These factors combined make Salvador one of the most unique and dynamic cities in Brazil, if not in all of Latin America.
We will say up front that Salvador has a certain edginess to it. After three weeks of traveling throughout Brazil and six weeks of staying in a favela in Rio, Salvador was the only place where at times we felt a bit anxious walking around, especially at night. But all in all Salvador and the surrounding region have so much to offer those visitors willing to venture to the Northeast, and by acting as you would in any large city, you likely won’t encounter any problems.
The best way to begin any visit to Salvador is by wandering the quaint cobblestone streets of the Pelourinho, otherwise known as the Historic Center. The neighborhood was the city center during Portuguese colonialism, and quite unfortunately received its name from the whipping post in its central plaza where African slaves would be publicly punished.
Despite its unfortunate past, today the Pelourinho is absolutely charming, and restoration of the neighborhood in the 1990s has resulted in a number of lovely shops, restaurants and cafes, along with cultural centers and arts schools. Walking past the city’s—and some of Brazil’s—oldest architecture was a memorable experience; we particularly enjoyed the pastel colored buildings from the 17th and 18th century, along with the Ingreja e Convento Sao Fransisco—often considered to be one of the most magnificent churches in all of Brazil.
The Afro-Brazilian Culture
Lonely Planet claims that there’s no other place in the world where descendents of African slaves have preserved their heritage as well as in Salvador. As you walk around the city, the aromatic smells of fried acaraje wafting through the air, the occasional beats of samba reggae pulsing by, it doesn’t take long to see the proof behind the statement. Here are a few things in particular not to miss:
Food: The food in Salvador is divine—some of the best we’ve tried in all of Brazil. Dishes typically feature coconut milk, palm oil, pepper, and seafood. Don’t miss acaraje (bean and shrimp critters deep-fried in palm oil) and moqueca (a rich fish or shrimp stew with coconut milk, tomatoes, spices and palm oil).
Capoeira: Developed by Afro-Brazilian slaves, Capoeira is a martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music. The impressive movements are accompanied by the clapping of hands and a berimbau, a one-string musical instrument. It’s common to see Capoeira in the Pelourinho, though expect street performers to hustle you for a tip.
Olodum: Olodum is an Afro-Brazilian cultural group that aims to combat racism, provide opportunities for marginalized youth, and fight for civil rights for Afro-Brazilians. However, the group is most famous for developing the signature sounds of samba reggae. The Olodum percussionists have gained international fame (you might have heard of them from Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’). Unfortunately there were no concerts on during our time in Salvador, but if you can, stop by Casa do Olodum and listen for the beats of the Olodum street performers in the Pelhourino.
Salvador’s perfect positioning on a peninsula means that there is plenty of beautiful coastline to enjoy both in and around the city. We particularly enjoyed walking from Rio Vermelho along Av Presidente Vargas and Av Oceanica, past the lovely beach Praia do Farol da Barra all the way to the fort and lighthouse (South America’s oldest) on the tip. There is a slew of more pristine beaches both north and south of Salvador, though we didn’t have time to see them ourselves.
Morro de Sao Paulo
Every time we mentioned Salvador to a Brazilian, they told us we had to visit Morro de Sao Paulo, too. So we did. Though it was a nauseating two-hour boat journey, the effort to arrive was well worth the reward. Morro de Sao Paulo boasts a Mediterranean-esque vibe, with lush hills, calm cerulean water and picture-perfect beaches. Few cars are allowed on the island, but wheelbarrows meet guests at the pier to help shuttle their belongings to their hotels, and the occasional horse driven carriage takes passengers from beach to beach.
The beaches on Morro de Sao Paulo are named for their numerical order; Beach One – Beach Three are closer to the pier and have a certain backpacker feel to them. Expect vendors on the beach, open-air bars, hostels and generally tons of people. We can certainly appreciate these details, but after the chaotic crowds of the World Cup, we were more interested in experiencing the secluded side of Morro de Sao Paulo. Luckily we found exactly what we were looking for as guests of the luxurious Vila dos Orixas, located on Praia do Encanto, the last piece of developed beach.
To say we were away from it all at Vila dos Orixas would be a complete understatement. When we weren’t lounging by the pool or enjoying the beachfront hammocks, we could walk and walk along the beach and through the mangroves without stumbling upon anyone, save for the occasional local on horseback. A courtesy 20-min shuttle ride could have brought us to downtown Morro de Sao Paulo, but with only a one-night stay this wasn’t necessary. We had enjoyed the fun frenzy of the World Cup, but we also immensely appreciated our piece of island paradise.
Staying at Vila dos Orixas was an experience in itself, primarily due to the unique luxury bungalow concept. A spacious, open two-level bungalow, the bottom floor contained a sitting area, bathroom and Jacuzzi, while the comfortable king size bed comprised the top level. Clean design, utter privacy, and exclusive ocean views were just a few of the details that set these bungalows above the rest.
We ate all of our meals at Vila dos Orixas, and though the menu was a bit pricy, we found the food to be quite good. (We’re still talking about their carrot cake!) The dinner staff was phenomenal and able to provide honest recommendations; however, the breakfast staff was half asleep and looked like they couldn’t be bothered with anything before noon. Luckily the fantastic energy and service of everyone else during our stay more than made up for morning grumps.
One night at Vila dos Orixas certainly wasn’t enough, but it was still definitely worth the journey from Salvador.
So now you know! If you’re headed to Brazil and you have the time in your travel itinerary, don’t miss a stop up north to Salvador and Morro de Sao Paulo. Boasting everything from Portuguese colonial architecture to vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture to scenic coastline to stunning Morro de Sao Paulo, this is one place that’s guaranteed to enrich your overall Brazilian experience.
Have you ever visited Salvador, Brazil? For which reason would you visit Salvador?
We were guests of Vila dos Orixas. We were not asked to write a positive review, and as always, all thoughts and opinions are our own.
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