Things to Do in Northeast Brazil
With its castle-like façade and sprawling complex of museums, galleries and gardens, the Ricardo Brennand Institute has fast become one of Recife’s most important cultural attractions. Inaugurated in 2002, the cultural center is the brainchild of its namesake, collector Ricardo Brennand, and is renowned for its fascinating collection of historic artifacts, including a large section devoted to Brazil’s Dutch settlers.
Highlights of the museum include the world’s largest collection of armory, dating from the 14th to the 19th century; a sizable collection of paintings by Dutch artist Frans Post; an array of
exquisite antique furniture; and a selection of rare Dutch coins.
Salvador's 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.
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. Afternoon is a particularly popular time to visit, with the sunset being a highlight for many.
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.
Warm waves and slow tides make the star-shaped Frades Island (Ilha dos Frades) one of Salvador de Bahia’s most popular destinations. Enjoy beaches that boast white sand and turquoise water, or hike to remote waterfalls and hilltops that offer panoramic views of the bay.
Palm-fringed sand and surf-worthy waves await sunseekers at Futuro Beach (Praia do Futuro), one of Fortaleza’s most popular family beaches. Stretching 5 miles (8 kilometers) along Fortaleza’s east coast, Futuro Beach offers ideal conditions for swimming and surfing, and is lined with lively beach bars (barracas).
With its jumble of colonial buildings, cobblestone lanes, and pastel-painted façades, Pelourinho (aka Pelo) is Salvador da Bahia’s oldest and most colorful neighborhood. Despite a dark past—Pelourinho was the location of Brazil’s first slave market—the historic district is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and important cultural center.
Via Costeira, also known as Senador Dinarte Mariz Avenue, is a significant beachfront walkway and paved road that extends from Ponta Negra beach in Natal. It is one of the most important avenues in Natal, with two lanes in each direction and no traffic lights. It winds along the coastline and is popular with visitors for its views of the beaches.
At 12 kilometers long, it climbs through Natal’s coast up to Meio Beach. It is bordered on one side by a secluded beach full of Natal hotels, and on the other by the Dunes Park natural protected area. It connects all of the local urban beaches of Natal with the city center, with Redinha Beach connected via the Newton Navarro Bridge. The sidewalk of the road is great for walking and biking, with access to different beaches throughout the route.
Morro Branco’s red colored cliffs are an easy day trip from Fortaleza. While looking strikingly red from a distance (particularly when contrasted with the surrounding white dunes), when explored up close, you can see that the sand cliffs have a number of pink, cream and beige colored hues that together form their distinctive overall color.
The area can be explored via a warren of tracks that flow, maze-like, between the cliffs. Local guides are on hand at the Morro Branco village, to steer you through and point out the most interesting sections. You can also arrange buggy rides along the beach here or walk to the lighthouse.
Morro Branco craftsmen fill small bottles with the sand of varying tones to create a quite unique souvenir. You can buy the colored sand bottles along the beach and in the village.
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 (Elevador Lacerda) 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.
More Things to Do in Northeast Brazil
If the string of shallow coral reefs that grace Natal’s gorgeous, sandy coastline could be called a necklace, then Maracajaú Reef (Parrachos de Maracajaú) is its biggest, most beautiful jewel.
Known as Parrachos de Maracajaú, (coral reef of Maracajaú) 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.
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.
Surrounded by pink sand dunes, sandstone cliffs, and a winding river, Canoa Quebrada is a laid-back beach town blessed with a stunning natural environment. While the town has grown with the times, it hasn’t lost that mystical feel that earned its reputation as a ‘hippie town’ in the 1970s.
Travelers who approach the relatively plain exterior of São Francisco Church and Convent (Igreja e Convento de São Francisco) 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 São 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.
Tranquil Jacumã Beach (Praia de Jacumã) is surrounded by reefs that break up incoming waves, creating a peaceful environment and a cove that is ideal for swimming. The white sand beach is lined with tall palm trees that provide shade.
Located in the small fishing village of Jacumã, it is a relatively secluded beach not inundated with tourists or beach-goers. Known for its calm waters, tropical scenery, and fresh seafood, Jacumã Beach is a refuge away from the winds and the crowds of other Brazilian beaches.
For those craving a bit more adventure than relaxation, the nearby Jacumã Lagoon is a popular stop on dune buggy tours. The lagoon is naturally formed from rainwater falling on the sand dunes. Both “aerobunda,” or zip lining across the dunes, over the water and finally into the lagoon, and “skibunda” or boarding down the sand dunes into the lagoon as well, are available here.
With waterslides, jungle ziplines, and palm-fringed swimming pools, the Arraial d'Ajuda Eco Park is one of Brazil’s most popular water parks. Just moments from Bahia’s white-sand beaches, the adventure park has both water and land activities suitable for the whole family.
Considered to be one of Brazil's ten most beautiful beaches, Pipa Beach (Praia da Pipa) is in fact not one beach, but four beaches, that between them stretch for over 10km (6.2mi).
Backed by coconut palm plantations, sand dunes, cliffs and Atlantic forest, the beaches are spectacular, while the warm waters of the surrounding ocean attract native turtles and dolphins.
Pipa first became popular with surfers in the 80s and its fame spread, causing the little beach town of the same name to grow accordingly. Pipa town is now the place to party and traditional Brazilian music (as well as non-traditional!) is a nightly feature here. The town is also good for shopping.
Pipa is surrounded by natural beauty and there are plenty of adventure activities available here to help you experience it first-hand.
This large pool of fresh water grants a place to rest and refresh from the sun, wind, sand and adventure of the Natal beaches. Though nearly five meters deep at its center, it is shallow around the edges, making it a popular place with all types of swimmers. Its stunningly clear waters make this a scenic place to kayak, paddle board, and fish.
Surrounded by the towering sand dunes of the area, it is accessible only by a small trail or on a dune buggy over the sands. Once you arrive, there are several areas to relax, including restaurants and bars serving local dishes and fresh seafood. If adventure is more your style, the local aerobunda (zip lining over the dunes with a dip in the lagoon) or skibunda (sliding down the sand on a wooden board) are both a few of the activities available that will get your heart pumping. Snorkeling among the lagoon’s small fish is another option.
Fortaleza is blessed with many spectacular beaches and Cumbuco Beach is no exception. Just 45 minutes drive from the city and attached to a small fishing village, the beach is distinguished by its rolling white sand dunes and empty stretches of sand lined with coconut trees.
Cumbuco Beach is a popular spot for kite surfing, sand boarding and buggy tours - the latter involving a hair-raising ride over the bumps and inclines that will leave you giddy and white-knuckled and most likely eager for more!
There are more sedate activities available including horse riding and boat rides, although the most popular activity is of course soaking up the sun on the beach.
The beach fills up with locals on weekends but there is little to do in the Cumbuco at night – you’ll need to return to the city if you want to party.
When the Portuguese Navy captain Theodozio Rodrigues de Faria and his crew survived a brutal storm at sea, the international explorer vowed to honor the saint who saved his life once he arrived on the shores of his destination. Today, the gilded halls of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim Church (Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim), home to a replica image of an original Portuguese statue of Christ, still stand as homage to one captain’s survival.
Travelers venture to the top of Sacred Knoll in search of similar modern miracles, making it a point of pilgrimage for visitors from across the globe. Services at Nosso Senhor do Bonfim blend old world Catholic traditions with the worshiping practices of West African slaves, making for a memorable and uniquely Brazilian Sunday morning.
Like many northeastern Brazilian cities, Fortaleza is famous for its handicrafts, particularly its embroidered white lace textiles. One of the best places in the city to pick up locally made gifts and souvenirs is at the Fortaleza Central Market (Mercado Central de Fortaleza).
The market got its start as a meat, fruit and vegetable market housed in a small wooden building in 1809. In 1931 the government prohibited the sale of meat and produce within the market, so the industry was forced to shift to crafts. The market as it stands today was built in 1998 to include better facilities and more space for vendors.
The four floor market, located in city center, houses dozens of shops on each floor selling textiles, woven hammocks, paintings, clay sculptures, leather bags, palm baskets, T-shirts and other items. Visitors who want to take home a taste of their travels can also pick up local cashews and bottles of cachaça, the traditional Brazilian spirit made from sugarcane juice.
Within day-trip distance of Salvador, the silken sands and palm-lined shores of Praia do Forte are renowned for their biodiversity. Set around a high reef, the coast is dotted with tide pools and rocky coves—a natural haven for marine life, with calm, shallow waters perfect for families with young kids.
Strategically located at the sharp end of Salvador’s peninsula, the Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra is a historic military structure and lighthouse. The fort, with its recognizable black-and-white-striped lighthouse is one of Salvador’s iconic landmarks. Built in 1549, the fort is the oldest military structure in Brazil and is an example of traditional 16th-century Portuguese military architecture.
The interior of the fort has been transformed into a maritime museum, with intricate models of Portuguese ships from the days of exploration, centuries-old navigating instruments, antique maps and other pieces of history. The museum also houses exhibits on the Portuguese colony’s brutal slave trade, which brought millions across the Atlantic from West Africa.
A highlight of visiting the fort is climbing to the top of the lighthouse, which boasts panoramic views of Salvador and its beautiful coastline. The fort’s geographic location also makes it the ideal place to watch the sunset over the ocean. Every evening, locals and tourists alike gather on the lawn outside the fort to watch the sky light up as the sun dips below the horizon.
Designed by French architect George Mounier and allegedly inspired by the grand cathedral in Cologne, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Forteza is the third largest cathedral in Brazil. Construction on the Gothic-Roman style structure began in 1939, but it wouldn’t be fully completed until late in 1978, nearly 40 years later.
Upon entering the Metropolitan Cathedral, built to seat 5,000 worshippers, visitors encounter the Chapel of St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of the Brazilian state of Ceará to the left of the nave. On the right is another small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, the Patron Saint of Fortaleza. The cathedral’s central alter was brought over from Verona.
One interesting feature that sets the Metropolitan Cathedral apart from other such structures is its crypt. The Crypt of the Adolescents was inaugurated in 1962 with six alters devoted to saints who died in their teenage years, and the depiction of Jesus in the crypt alter shows him as an adolescent as well.
Don’t let the concrete masonry on the cathedral’s exterior turn you off. The stained glass windows on the inside are stunning and well worth the visit.
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