Things to Do in Northeast Brazil
Warm waves and slow tides make the picturesque shores of Ilha dos Frades—a star-shaped island accessible only by boat—one of Salvador’s most popular family destinations. Visitors can enjoy one of the tropical beaches where white sand meets turquoise blue waters, or hike to the remote waterfalls or nearby hilltops, which offer incredible views of the idyllic bay.
Ponta de Nossa Senhora is the most famous beach on the island. Travelers will find cold beers, freshly fried fish, dozens of umbrellas and public showers that make spending a day under the sun here feel like a true island escape. Paramana Beach offers access to a natural swimming pool during low tide amid a scenic backdrop of natural forest. Visitors looking to truly get away can head to Viracao beach—a deserted and wild escape where coconut plantations and rocky crags protect the quiet shores.
Travelers who approach the relatively plain exterior of Francisco Church and Convent 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 Sao 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.
Perched proudly at the end of the Barra peninsula and housed inside an ancient Portuguese fort, Barra Lighthouse (Farol da Barra) is a prime spot to view the spectacular sunsets and views across All Saints Bay (Todos os Santos).
Explore inside the lighthouse and you’ll find a small museum filled with maps, charts and artifacts – many of which were recovered from sunken European galleons that plied the seas transporting goods and slaves during the colonial days.
Admire the splendid fort (Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra), built in 1534 to defend the capital from indigenous and Dutch advances, then lie back against its old stone walls to take in the sunset over the bay.
The Carlos Costa Pinto Museum takes visitors back in time to the everyday lives of the aristocracy from Bahia’s sugarcane-producing days in the 1600s – 1800s. Carlos Costa Pinto was a descendant from one of Bahia’s old, affluent families and collected pieces from centuries past. When he passed away, his wife decided to donate his collection and inaugurated the museum in his honor in 1969.
Housed in a mansion in the upscale neighborhood of Vitória, the museum is home to pieces that demonstrate the luxurious, decadent lifestyle of Bahia’s aristocracy. This includes jewelry made of pure gold and precious stones, crystal, porcelain and nearly 1,000 pieces of silver. The museum is also home to portraits and paintings that portray these times, as well as well-preserved pieces of furniture. Outside the museum there’s a lovely green garden, with manicured lawns and hedges and a pond, surrounded by leafy tropical trees.
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.
This incredible Salvador city highlight has been beautifully restored to its original art deco wonder and as a result, has become a destination for travelers to this Brazilian town. Lacerda Elevator uses four distinct elevators to link Comercio with Cidade Alta. Visitors to this towering icon can travel 72 meters in under 30 seconds—a major improvement on the rope-and-pulley elevator first used by Jesuits on this same site back in the early 1600s.
Travelers love that Lacerda Elevator connects the low city to the high city and provides stunning picture-perfect views from its apex. Visitors can look out over the historical houses and old school churches that dot the landscape, as well as the arches of the Camara Municipal building—a 17th century structure that often plays host to local cultural events.
Mercado Modelo is a lively place stocked full of arts, crafts and touristy trinkets.
Located across the street from the restored art deco elevador lacerda (elevator) in a replica of the city’s old customs house, the market is a fun way to spend an hour or two and maybe pick up a bit of tourist tack for the folks back home.
Take a deep breath as you enter to prepare for the onslaught of vendors that’ll attempt to coax you towards their stall. It’s all pretty light-hearted so with a smile and a bit of friendly bartering, you’ll enjoy your visit here.
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.
Praia do Futuro is an urban beach popular for its good swimming and beach barracas (restaurants).
Unlike many stretches of beach along Fortaleza’s coastline, Praia do Futuro does not have a coral reef near the shore, which makes it a preferred spot for paddling. Several of the once rustic barracas have become large restaurants and entertainment venues in recent years, however, you will still find some that have remained unchanged for decades. Many of the barracas come alive on Thursday night when locals head to Praia do Futuro for a spot of crab eating and forró (Brazilian country music).
Praia do Futuro is not as busy as the other urban beaches in Fortaleza, and you are advised to catch a taxi to the area, particularly if you are visiting at night.
More Things to Do in Northeast Brazil
Genipabu is a beach village known for its large sand dunes and freshwater lagoons. There are a few different ways to explore the mounds of shifting sand, with varying degrees of adrenaline — from camel rides to sand buggies to sand-boarding (esquibunda or skibunda) down the hot dunes and into the cool water.
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. Certain areas of the dunes are accessible only by certified dune buggy drivers, who will ask if you want your ride “with emotion” or without, to determine the level of desired thrills. Sand boarding into the lagoons’ fresh water is a great way to beat the heat. No matter the method of adventure you choose, the unique landscape and natural beauty of both the sand and water at Genipabu is worth seeing.
Travelers agree that the impressive sports structure is worth checking out. A positive police presence has increased security, making it relatively safe and easy to move around the sports Mecca. While there are few places of interest beyond the gates of Fonte Nova, guided tours—which include a behind-the-scenes look at the locker rooms and playing field where some of the world’s top soccer players have already stepped foot—make it worth a visit for soccer fans and sports fanatics alike.
South of the city, Ponta Negra is one of Natal’s most accessible beaches and fills up with locals on the weekends. It’s a popular spot year-round and has seen a fair amount of development along its 3km (1.8mi) stretch. Its northern end has a pedestrian-only boardwalk and a few large resorts and tends to be a lot less lively than the rest of the beach, which is chock-full of restaurants, bars, pousadas, surfers and travelers.
Apart from taking its fair share of the natural beauty that seems to be a given along Natal’s coastline, Ponta Negra’s most impressive natural attraction is an enormous sand dune - the Morro da Careca - whose 120m (390ft) slopes sheer directly into the sea. These days, its sandy slopes can only be appreciated from the beach due to increased erosion and damage to the surrounding rainforest.
Star-shaped Forte de Reis Magos (Three Wise Men Fort) predates the founding of Natal by nearly two years. The Portuguese began building the fort on January 6, 1598, the same day they celebrated Epiphany, hence the name and shape of the fort.
Natal, named after the Portuguese word for ‘Christmas’, was founded 23 months later on December 25, 1599.
Religious considerations aside, the decision to build the fort at the mouth of the Potengi River was purely a strategic one. Located on a sand bar that is covered at high-tide and positioned at Brazil’s easternmost point, Forte de Reis Magos was ideally placed to defend the continent from European and African advances.
The whitewashed and turreted fort walls were built to last and inside you’ll find a chapel, a well, cannons and soldiers' quarters. If you don’t come for the history, come for the views.
If the string of shallow coral reefs that grace Natal’s gorgeous, sandy coastline could be called a necklace, then Maracajaú Reef is its biggest, most beautiful jewel.
Known as Parrachos de Maracajaú, (coral reef of Maracajau) this complex reef formation full of coral, iridescent fish and other marine life, covers over 3.5 acres (15 sq km) and is about 7km (4mi) offshore from Maracajaú beach.
It is possible to dive in the area but, if you time your visit with the low tide, its natural pools are shallow enough for some fabulous snorkelling – possibly Brazil’s best. Floating in the warm, clear water above a coral garden as dozens of fish dart around you is a memorable way to spend the afternoon.
Most people visit Maracajaú on a tour. A boat will take you from the beach out to the floating platforms - a jumping off point to the reef but also a handy rest stop should you wish to come up for the occasional breather.
The Museo Afro-Brasileiro is one of the few museums of its type in Brazil exclusively dedicated to African cultural heritage and its influence on contemporary Brazilian culture.
The museum’s collection of African artifacts ranges from maps (depicting the original slave trade routes), masks, jewelry and clothing to musical instruments, traditional games and pottery.
The candomblé exhibit is particularly fascinating as it explains the roots, icons and rituals of this colorful religion. Don’t miss the impressive wooden tablets sculpted by noted Bahian artist Carybé that depict the candomblé orixás of Bahia with their weapons and liturgical animal. Make sure you ask for an English translation booklet at the entrance.
One of the most important cultural centers in Recife, the Francisco Brennand Ceramic Workshop attracts tourists, locals, artists and amateurs alike. This impressive sculpture gallery and garden honor the works one of Brazil’s renowned ceramic artists, Francisco Brennand. Founded by the artist himself, Brennand created the workshop on a large piece of land located within the bustling city of Recife to showcase his life’s work, as well as create a workshop for sculpture and ceramic artists. The expansive grounds are dotted with galleries, outdoor sculptures, and ponds amid a tropical landscape. Visitors can roam freely on the winding paths, in and out of the breezy buildings and workspaces and admire Brennand’s famously exotic, sensual and mysterious sculptures. Highlights include an ornate ceramic gazebo, intricate ceramic tiles, a sundial and sculptures incorporated into fountains and ponds.
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