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Salvador city guide: How to spend a weekend in Brazil's musical and cultural epicentre

With beautiful beaches, Bahian beats and a strong African influence, Salvador is Brazil’s coastal gem. Here's what to do in 48 hours 

Georgina Wilson-Powell
Friday 04 January 2019 16:57 GMT
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Salvador sits on Brazil’s east coast, in the state of Bahia
Salvador sits on Brazil’s east coast, in the state of Bahia (Photography by Getty/iStock)

Why go now?

While Carnival might be over in Brazil for another year, Salvador is the country’s musical and cultural centre; it’s where Brazilians come to party all year round. Jazz, African beats and the local axe music (which mixes samba with reggae) drift among the cobbled streets and tiny beach bars in Brazil’s most African city.

Get your bearings

Brazil’s third biggest city, Salvador in Bahia is more a collection of tiny seaside towns and villages that string along both sides of a peninsula, which separates the Bay of All Saints from the Atlantic Ocean. Each praia or beach has its own feel, from the fishing spots and famous sands of Barra in the south to the less touristy Bomfim in the north-west. Salvador was one of the first colonial cities in the Americas and one of Portugal’s biggest slave trade centres; the city is still infused with African culture. Pelourinho, or the Old Town, sits high above the rest of the city on the west side and is the biggest draw for tourists. Find Tourist Information in Pelourinho on Rua das Laranjeiras (1).

Day one

Take a view

On the west side of the city, Salvador is split into two levels, with the Old Town or Pelourinho sitting 100m above the marina. Take Brazil’s first lift, the Elevador Lacerda, up to the top to Ladeira da Praça (2), one of the Old Town’s many colonial squares. The neo-classical Palácio Rio Branco (3) (History Museum) sits to one side and the views out to sea are dazzling.

Take a hike

Pelourinho is Salvador’s cobbled colonial highlight. The Portuguese used African slaves to build enormous cathedrals, churches and mansions. Over the centuries African culture has mixed with Bahian to create a multi-faceted religious and cultural life that’s unique to Bahia. Walk down Praca de Se (4) to discover a modern sculpture of a fallen cross in a tiny square overlooking the ocean. Keep going and you’ll come into a large square where tracksuited groups practise capoeira and tourists stop for ice cream in the shade of the historic pastel-coloured buildings.

Salvador’s Old Town features many pretty colonial buildings (Getty) (Getty Images)

Head down one of the prettiest streets in Salvador, Cruzeiro de São Francisco (5), to the enormous Sao Francisco cathedral (6) at the end. Inside this lavishly decorated 18th-century church you’ll find an entire room carved from wood and coated in gold. It took African slaves 27 years to finish it. There’s also a traditional courtyard tiled with Lisbon’s famous azulejos, the blue and white tiles. The streets around here echo with drumming groups and musicians; Salvador is arguably Brazil’s beating cultural heart and free performances seem to bubble up out of nothing.

Lunch on the run

Only a few hundred metres away from the church is one of Pelourinho’s most famous spots, the Largo do Pelourinho (7), with its beautiful cobbled street dropping away down a steep hill. At the top you’ll find Teatro SENAC (8) (sescbahia.com.br), Salvador’s hospitality and culinary school’s buffet restaurant housed within an 18th-century mansion. Stop for hearty Bahian classics like moqueca (fish stew with coconut), which all come with or without the locals’ favourite, palm oil. You can also pick up a traditional cookbook from the shop below.

Window shopping

Mercado Modelo (9) sits on the seafront under the shadow of Pelourinho, up on the hill. Wander down the cobbled streets after lunch to this famous arts and crafts market found in a pastel yellow colonial warehouse. It’s open from 9am-7pm every day except Sundays when it shuts at 2pm. Pick up leather bags, lace and trinkets galore.

Salvador is split into two levels, the upper of which is accessible by lift (Getty/iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

An aperitif

Hidden away on the top level of the Mercado Modelo is a bar with a large terrace that overlooks the Atlantic. It’s sufficiently badly signed to keep most tourists away and you can order rounds of Caipirinhas to toast the sunset for a few reals.

Dine with the locals

Amado (10) (amadobahia.com.br) is one of Salvador’s most modern restaurants. Sat on the shoreside, a short taxi ride from the Mercado Modelo, it has a romantic outside terrace that overlooks the Bahia marina. A fine dining menu offers up fabulous steaks and modern Brazilian starters (it closes early on a Sunday at 5pm).

Sao Francisco cathedral has an elaborate interior (Getty/iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Parasaoi Tropical (11) (restauranteparaisotropical.com.br) is an award-winning organic restaurant in a rustic looking house in Cabula that makes the most of Brazil’s bounty of nuts, fruits and fish. Get a garden table and try the traditional dessert, maturi pie – made with green cashew nuts, coconut and blackberries. It’s open from Tuesday to Saturday from midday to 10pm; on Sundays it closes at 5pm.

Day two

Out to brunch

Take in the Atlantic views from the roof of Fera Palace (12) (ferapalacehotel.com.br), an Art Deco hotel that opened in the 1930s and has recently been restored. It’s only a few minutes from Rua Chile – the historical centre’s main drag. The rooftop lounge is open from 10am every day.

A walk in the park

As Salvador is surrounded by sea, take a walk along the pretty promenade around Praia do Porto da Barra beach (13) – a white crescent of sand that’s safe for swimming. Hawkers sell everything from hats to ice cream and the beach is always packed with Bahians getting their daily dose of sun. You can go on from here further down the coast to the tip to discover the city’s famous lighthouse (14), which was built in 1501 (museunauticodabahia.org.br). It’s now a maritime museum that traces Portugal’s history in Brazil. Open every day except Tuesday, 9am-6pm.

Moqueca is a local speciality (Getty/iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Take a ride

Salvador’s bus system is busy but there are plenty of them and it’s a flat fee of $R3 (75p). You will need cash and some Portuguese as English isn’t widely spoken. Take the 0711 Campo Grande bus from Rua Marques de Caravelas (15) (a few minutes’ walk from the lighthouse) to Rua Da Graca (16) which is next to the Palacete das Artas.

Cultural afternoon

Start at Palacete das Artas (17) (facebook.com/PalaceteDasArtes), a small but lovely art museum installed in a 1912 mansion with a garden full of Rodin sculptures. It also has a modern space for contemporary art and a café that’s good for a pit-stop. Open from 2-7pm (weekends 1-7pm), closed on Mondays. From here you can stroll to the Solar Unhão (18) (jamnomam.com.br) or Museum of Modern Art down on All Saints Beach. This former sugar mill is open from 1-6pm every day except Mondays. It’s a perfect spot to stop and take in the sunset afterwards. The accompanying Sculpture Park clings to the cliffside as the Atlantic laps below.

Praia do Forte is one of Salvador’s most beautiful beaches (Getty/iStock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The icing on the cake

You can’t go anywhere around Salvador without ending up on a stunning beach. Around an hour north of the city is Praia do Forte (19) which is home to Brazil’s biggest sea turtle conservation project. From September to March there are full moon tours where you can see turtles hatching on the beach.

Travel essentials

Cheapest time to fly

Getting there

TAP Portugal (flytap.com) flies from Gatwick to Salvador airport (20) via Lisbon. Bespoke Brazil (bespokebrazil.com) can arrange city and regional tours and airport pick-ups. Get into the city via a metered taxi or take a bus to Pelourinho which takes around an hour and costs R$3.00 (75p).

Staying there

Find the grand colonial Villa Bahia (21) (lavillabahia.com) right in the midst of the Old Town. There are only 17 rooms grouped around a quiet garden courtyard, with a plunge pool and wonderful terrace. Doubles from R$674 (£172), B&B.

Check availability

Fiesta Bahia Hotel (22) (fiestahotel.com.br) is a mid-range hotel near the city’s new business district. It’s a high rise built a couple of decades ago with a decent pool, free wi-fi and friendly staff. Doubles from R$582 (£147), B&B.

Check availability

Laranjeiras Hostel (23) (laranjeirashostel.com.br) is a bright and breezy budget way to stay. It’s part cafe, part traveller hotspot with dorms and private rooms available. You’re slap bang in the Old Town and it’s a good place to connect with Salvador’s more alternative side. Private doubles from R$70 (£18), room only.

Check availability

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