Oliver Bennett visits Salvador da Bahia and discovers why it is creeping up on Rio as a rival tourist destination

Salvador da Bahia in north-eastern Brazil is becoming increasingly popular. With cultural and culinary attractions as well as the usual beach and bar diversions, there is lots to do and see. But just being there is a big part of the buzz, for Salvador is one of those cities with a street energy that is palpable. Imagine New York before it was cleaned up, and you're partly there.

Salvador da Bahia in north-eastern Brazil is becoming increasingly popular. With cultural and culinary attractions as well as the usual beach and bar diversions, there is lots to do and see. But just being there is a big part of the buzz, for Salvador is one of those cities with a street energy that is palpable. Imagine New York before it was cleaned up, and you're partly there.

Rio de Janeiro is still the first city for visitors to Brazil. But Salvador is creeping up on it fast, and many believe it to be the "soul of Brazil", having a vivid African culture that is quite distinct from Rio's. There are also many excursions within striking distance in the regional state of Bahia, from beaches to trekking, and small towns full of Portuguese Baroque churches.

The city has suffered from poor air links, but from this spring, many more British tourists will have the chance to visit as flights to the region are picking up, including a direct charter to the airport at Salvador, which goes on to a new resort development in upstate Bahia, called Costa do Sauipe. The city will remain one part of a Brazilian itinerary, but visitors should try to put at least two or three days aside for it.

Why go? Salvador was Brazil's first capital - the hub of a thriving slave trade in the 17th century - and it occupies a dramatic setting on the glittering Bay of Saints. It has two main tourist districts: coastal Barra, where the beach-life is, and the old town, the Pelourinho or "Pelo"; an exquisite district rich in Portuguese colonial architecture. Ten years ago it was dangerous but has been cleaned up by Antonio Carlos Magalhaes - a kind of hardcore version of New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

It is now the top tourist area in Salvador, with its cobbled streets, museums and Baroque churches. At night music pumps out of bars and small stages set up on the street.

Increasingly, tourists go to Salvador to take part in capoeira, the spectacular Afro-Brazilian martial art that involves kicking one's legs like windmills in time to the twang of the berimbau, a rudimentary stringed instrument made from a coconut shell. There are several places to slip a disc learning capoeira; the most famous is the academia Mestre Bimba.

Or just watch at some of the major places - although you must be prepared to give the capoeiristas a dollar or two, particularly if you want a photograph. There is always a show outside the Mercado Modelo artesans' market by the harbour.

The music in Salvador is brilliant, particularly during the carnival. The Afro blocos - vast groups of percussionists rather like Rio's samba crews - drum themselves and visitors into a trance. It is loud. But any time of year will offer musical entertainment, for this is Brazil's top city of music: among its alumni are Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa.

Salvador has several great side-trips. Praia do Forte is a favourite: a beach resort an hour or two north which has restaurants, a few pousadas and a turtle reserve. Then there is Cachoeira, a little town two hours inland from Salvador. Not only is it a charming place where cowboys gallop home along unlit, cobbled streets; it is also a historic town worthy of its Unesco listing. The best place to stay is in a peaceful convent with a courtyard.

There is also the beach-rich island of Morro de Sao Paulo, a couple of hours across the water. If you can handle the catamaran across the Atlantic, you will find a delightful playground for Brazilians and backpackers, where the seafood is fresh and the parties hot.

Why now? Fly into Salvador today, and you will be in the midst of a huge, pullulating mass of people. The city has one of Brazil's biggest carnivals, a throbbing extravaganza which runs through next week. Whereas Rio's carnival is slick and samba-oriented, Salvador's is earthier and the cognoscenti tend to prefer it.

Salvador is famous for its cultural carnival groups, the most famous of which is Oludum. Throughout the year it performs on the Largo de Pelhourinho, usually on Sunday and Tuesday nights. With lots of percussion, the sound will either move you or drive you mental.

The mission To go to the key cultural city of Afro-Brazilian culture, where mysticism and music combine into a flavoursome mix. Even if you feel sedate, Salvador has a mass of things to do: churches, cathedrals and museums. The Museum of Sacred Art (rua Sodre 276) and the Museum of Afro-Brazilian history on the Praca da Se are two great museums that are shelters from the heat and hustle.

Remember this Locals call Salvador "Bahia" - try not to get confused. Also, while Salvador is vibrant and spicy; it also has poverty and street crime. But don't let paranoia make you pass up an opportunity to see an afoxe or drumming workshop, or from trying local delicacies from a street stall.

Read the novels of Jorge Amado - he is a kind of Dickens of Salvador. His best-known book is Dona Flor and Her Two Sisters, which became a film.

Candomble is a syncretic religion: Bahia's version of voodoo and a cross between the colonial Catholicism and the West African animism brought over on the slave ships. Remarkably, it is growing and in Bahia gift shops one can find the oxiras, or deities, particularly the goddess of the sea, Yemanja. Many tourists go to Candomble ceremonies. These are long and involve trance-like states. Some find this voyeuristic; others are quite happy with it.

Finally, the airport at Salvador is staffed by people whose aim is not to help but to hinder. The queue at passport control is long and the wait excruciating. Resist hitting them, grit your teeth and think of the beach that awaits.

Eating out Bahian cuisine is considered among the best in South America. It is the most true to the West African kitchen, and the smell of palm oil is everywhere. The street food is excellent, including acaraje, a bean fritter that is cut open and filled with spices, shrimps and peppers. This is also the stuff inside the vatapa - a polenta-like substance made from coconut. It is usually served by women dressed in white robes, which adds a fantastic visual touch.

You should also try a mocqueca - a seafood dish somewhat like a bouillabaisse. Usually served in a bowl for two, it is rich and pungent. One of the top restaurants for Bahian cuisine is Tempero da Dada in Rua Frei Vicente (321 5883), where the owner has become a bit of a local celebrity. She even sells a recipe book, albeit only in Portuguese, and despite her fame, the restaurant is good value.

Other places in Pelo include SENAC in Largo do Pelhourinho, which is a good introduction to the local food - it offers a buffet including a couple of dozen regional dishes. Casa do Benin, Padre Agusthino Gomes 17 is another a famous spot in Pelourinho.

Where to stay There are a lot of pousadas in Pelourhino, and this is where most tourists will stay. One of the best known is the Hotel Pelourhino at Rua Alfredo de Brito 20 (tel: 00 55 71 321 4653), where Jorge Amada wrote the novel Suor. Pousada da Praca Hotel at Rua Rui Barbosa 5 ( tel: 00 55 71 321 0642) is another Pelourhino hotel/hangout. Pelo hotels can be noisy. If you prefer to stay by the beach, try the Pousada Village do Porto at Av Princesa Isabel 314 (tel: 00 55 71 264 5840) by the Praia do Porto da Barra.

Getting there Journey Latin America has links to the major carriers and is the biggest of the independent tour operators to Brazil (tel: 020-8747 8315; net: www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). From May, Airtours (tel: 01706 240033) will fly direct to Salvador every week. Varig (tel: 0845 6037601) has a daily service from Heathrow to Salvador via Sao Paulo. From March, British Airways (tel: 0845 773 3377) will fly daily Sao Paulo, where you can connect to Salvador with TAM. Unijet (tel: 08705 336336) will fly to Recife, up the coast from Salvador, from August.

The Brazil Tourist Office in the UK is at 32 Green Street, London W1Y 4AT (tel: 020-7629 6909; net: www.brazil.org.uk).