Salvador Travel Guide

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View of Salvador's Mercado Modelo and commercial district from top of the elevator

View of Salvador's Mercado Modelo and commercial district from top of the elevator

Tim Trautmann

Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos, as it was formally called by the Portuguese, is the old colonial capital of Brazil. Built on the peninsula that separates the bahia (bay) from the Atlantic Ocean, its colonial legacy and strong African influences give the city a distinct atmosphere.

Salvador is divided into an upper and lower section (cidade alta and cidade baixa).  The  enormous Lacerda elevator goes from one level to the other and gives you great views over the city.

Pelourinho, the old colonial part of the city, is part of the cidade alta.  It is also the tourist epicenter of Salvador, and for good reason: most of the neighborhood is a pedestrian district, with cobblestone streets, many churches, and brightly-painted buildings. 

Take your time walking around to discover the shops, restaurants, bars, and other attractions.  But note:although Pelourinho is very well guarded by police night and day, you should take care in some of the neighbouring areas after dark (especially the area to the right of Praça da Sé as one enters the praça, and to right of Terreiro de Jesus as one enters from Praça da Sé).
And when going out at night, it’s always a good idea not to wear or carry valuables, just the money you need, one credit card if you must, and a photocopy of your passport.


That warning aside, there are several attractions particularly worth visiting in Pelourinho:

Afro-Brazilian Museum: Located on the Terreiro de Jesus, the Museum has excellent displays explaining the many cultural connections between Bahia and Africa.  Prominent among these are the religious practices imported to Brazil with the slave trade, including candomblé, an animist tradition originating in West Africa.  A visit to the Museum before attending either a candomblé ceremony or the Balé Focloricó will help you understand both much better.  Speaking of which…

Balé Focloricó: Do NOT miss this if you are the least bit interested in dance (and if you aren’t, don’t come to Salvador, because that would just be a waste).  In what could very well be the fastest hour of your life, the Focloricó performers demonstrate a variety of local music and dance styles.  Many of the numbers represent candomblé devotional practices, but the highlights are the capoeira demonstrations, which will leave you wondering why, with these kinds of human resources, Brazil doesn’t 1) have a gold-medal-winning gymnastics team, or 2) export more male models.  The highlight of the show, however, is without a doubt the fire dance – simply beyond description.  Get tickets in advance at Teatro Miguel Santana, Rua Gregorio de Matos 49 (just next to the Largo do Pelourinho). Tel: 55.71.322.1962; www.balefocloricodabahia.com.br; w.botelho@terra.com.br.

Candomblé: While you can’t necessarily see candomblé in the Pelô, you will undoubtedly be accosted by tour company reps hawking nighttime excursions to one or another terreiro (this word refers to both a town square, as in Terreiro de Jesus, and a candomblé house of worship) to see a ceremony.  Including transportation and a guide, this will usually set you back about R60.  Many of them claim to take you to ceremonies that only happen once in a blue moon, but don’t listen: candomblé happens practically every night in some neighborhood or other, with different deities worshipped on different days of the week.  You can find out which and where at the tourism center Bahia Tursa (Rua das Laranjeiras, 12), which is in Pelô.  If tonight’s performance is further out, consider hiring a cab to drop you off and pick you up at a given time (this type of fare can and should be negotiated).  Cabs are available at the Terreiro de Jesus.

Cana Brava Records: (Rua Joao de Deus, 22): Although there are quite a few CD shops in Pelô, Cana Brava is a boon for English speakers – owner/operator Pardal, as he is known locally, is an American expatriate who fell in love with Bahia 15 years ago and never left.  Pardal can give you the low-down on the best concerts and clubs to hit during your stay in Salvador, and his associate  delights in figuring out which of their extensive collection of CDs will most perfectly fit your musical tastes.  And all of this, mercifully, in English.  Another great resource: Cana Brava’s website (www.bahia-online.net), which contains an overview of Salvadoran history, descriptions of the city’s various neighborhoods, explanations of the different dance and musical styles performed here, and an up-to-the-minute concert calendar.

There are also a clutch of clubs and pousadas (bed & breakfasts) here that make it a lively place to stay and party (see Accomodations).  Check out for example Didá (see Nightlife).

But there’s more to Salvador than the Pelô.  A few other neighborhoods that are worth the visit:

Carmo:  Just up the road from Pelô, Carmo is a much quieter residential neighborhood lined with colorful colonial houses.  The main drag, Rua Dereita de Santo Antonio, climbs up a hill from the Largo do Pelourinho, affording buildings on the west side of the street spectacular views of the bay.  Take advantage of these by sitting on the patio at Ristorante Al Carmo, which serves excellent Italian specialties.  Sipping wine over the moonlit bay while listening to silky-voiced live bossa nova is an experience you’ll remember for a long time. 

Bay views, althoug in rather simpler surroundings, are also available just next door at the Café Carmo.  The juice bar blends up a dozen kinds of fruit into delicious batidas, while the hot and cold buffet (sold by weight, known as comida a kilo) makes a great quick lunch. 

Carmo also contains a disproportionate number of charming pousadas, which tend to be a definite notch (or more) above those in Pelô in both price and quality.  Popular favorites include Pousada das Flores and Hotel Red Fish, and newcomer Pousada do Pilar is lovely.  Villa Santo Antonio is also a good choice, with breakfasts served on a sunny patio overlooking, yes, the bay. 

In the lodgings category, however, the granddaddy of them all is the Convento do Carmo, a new luxury hotel converted from a 15th-century convent.  You can appreciate the beautiful restorations (and beautiful people) over a drink at the pool bar, or if you’re in the mood for a slightly bigger splurge, shell out $300-600 for a room.

Rio Vermelho: Far from the tourist hubbub, this neighborhood vibrates with purely Salvadoran energy.  A number of the city’s best local restaurants and clubs are located here, including Casa de Mae – literally “mom’s house” in Portuguese – a FANTASTIC little place serving up Brazilian food and hot music.  Feast on homemade feijoada washed down with a dozen flavors of fruity caipiroskas, while your eyes feast on a view of the sea from the tiny dining room.  Indeed, the eating areas seem to be converted from the living room and parlor of someone’s mom’s house, so prepare to be up close and personal with the musicians, and come early to grab a seat.

At the other end of the snootiness spectrum, Casa da Bossa opened in 2006 and quickly became one of Salvador’s premier small clubs.  The line-up is consistently quality but expect to pay for it, and know your place if you’re a first-time visitor – regulars get the best tables no matter how early you come.

Both Casa de Mae and Casa da Bossa are located off the Largo Santana, a lively public square with outdoor tables and stalls selling beer and acarajé (bean fritters). 

Barra: If you crave some beach time but can’t get out of the city, Barra is a fine choice for splashing and sunning.  This is very definitely an urban beach scene, the sand crowded with preening beauties, rough-housing teenagers, and families.  The south end of the beach has a clutch of barracas (seaside huts) serving food and drink, just next to the lighthouse that marks the southernmost tip of the Salvadoran peninsula.  Stand in front of it, and you will get a practically 360-degree view of the water – the bay on one side, the ocean on the other.

Lastly, one can’t talk about Salvador without mentioning Carnaval: in Salvador, a festival to behold. Being the music centre of Brazil, the Salvador Carnaval is said to be even better than Rio's famous Carnaval. Watch out for your money and posessions if you join the throng, though!

Contributors

January 29, 2007 change by rani d. (2 points)

November 04, 2006 change by chaz_london

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