While Rio de Janeiro gets all the ink (and Sao Paolo, the business), the true birthplace of what we now think of as Brazilian culture is the tropical capital of Bahia State, Salvador de Bahia. Overlooking the lovely palm-fringed islands of Todos Santos Bay, it is a wonderfully restored confection of lovely colonial architecture, exciting nightlife, fantastic music, a Carnival to rival Rio’s and a collection of beaches that may well be the best in Brazil.
This festive city’s fame, as an artistic and musical melting pot of black and Brazilian traditions, has a predictably painful history; this was once the center of Portuguese America’s slave trade. Today, Brazil’s first slave market and surrounding old quarter have been refurbished and brightly painted, and are now teeming with tourists here to enjoy Brazil’s African renaissance centered on the historic district called Pelourinho.
The whole of Salvador’s pastel-hued city center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, restored to its 16th-century glory, right down to the fine stucco work adorning the old houses.
Of course, as the third-largest city in Brazil, Salvador is much more than the historic district, though that’s where you’ll find most attractions catering to travelers. Even the old town is divided—by a 100-meter (328-foot) cliff—into Cidade Alta (Upper City) and Cidade Baixa (Lower City), speedily connected by the Elevador Lacerda (Lacerda Elevator) and cable cars.
The narrow streets reverberate with music, thanks to one of the most talented collections of buskers in the world (including famed Olodum), and are lined with restaurants and shops. There’s plenty to see as you wander through, including some of the city’s (alleged) 365 churches, most importantly Sao Francisco Church, glittering with gold gilt on its ornate baroque exterior, and filled with classic Portuguese art and adornment. The Cathedral is also worth a look, particularly for its lively squares, Praça da Sé and the Terreiro de Jesus, both packed with vendors, musicians and people.
Other attractions include the 1534 Farol da Barra, a lighthouse and fortress that’s now a museum packed with treasures recovered from sunken ships and other maritime mementos; Museo Afro-Brasilero, a fascinating museum dedicated to the African experience, culture, religion and heritage in Bahia and throughout Brazil; and the Museu de Arte Moderna, in Solar do Unhão, which is a great place to enjoy modern art and then watch a spectacular sunset over the bay.
Bahian cuisine is said to be Brazil’s best, and Salvador’s African heritage comes through in its fantastic local dishes, rich with coconut milk, dende oil, spices and seafood. Moqueca de camarao com banana (shrimp and plantain stew) and moqueca de siri-mole (crab stew) are two Bahian seafood specialties you won’t want to miss. Abara, a steamed wrap made with beans and onions; and acajare, falafel-like fritters made with black-eyed peas, are just some of the street food favorites.
After lunch, stock up on souvenirs for your jealous friends and coworkers at Mercado Modelo, a restored replica of the customs house. Local handicrafts made with wood, leather and ceramics can be of excellent quality, in particular the many instruments made popular right here. CDs from local musicians make another great gift or souvenir.
This being a Brazilian beach city, nightlife is another big draw, with African accents that come through in the music: candomble, samba, axe and more. Enjoy “the land of a thousand dances,” in its bars and clubs on your own or book a Salvador de Bahia nightlife tour.
The big city makes a convenient base to more pristine beaches, including Mangue Seco, Praia do Forte, known for its Proyecto Tamar, a sea turtle conservation center, or the island of Morro de Sao Paolo. Smaller colonial towns line the Pacific, including beautiful baroque Cachoeira.