A GUIDE TO NORTH BRAZIL’S COLOURFUL JEWEL, SALVADOR DE BAHIA
I mentioned our onward Brazil destinations following our time at Iguazu Falls and the next city was Salvador de Bahia. You can track our Brazil Itenary on the map below.
The city of Salvador de Bahia is located in north-eastern Brazil and is the capital of the state of Bahia. It was the first town in the colony of Brazil and was founded back in 1549. Salvador was Brazil’s capital until 1763 and for three centuries it was the main port for slaves arriving from Africa. People of African descent still make up the majority of the population and their influence is evident in Salvador’s music, festivals, cuisine and religious groups.
During our visit, it was evident the old town is still packed with 17th and 19th century colonial buildings, which have turned this city into a UNESCO World Heritage site. To me it was like a bright gleaming technicolour jewel with diverse culture and traditions to match. You therefore won’t be surprised to hear that this was my favourite city in Brazil I’ve visited to date.
01 SIGHTS & SOUNDS
The Pelourinho or Salvador’s Cidade Alta (Upper Town) was the governmental and residential centre back in the city’s capital of Brazil days. It sits on an escarpment 85 metres above the shore level. At the heart of this is the area known as The Pelourinho and has some of the best examples of 17th and 18th century colonial architecture in Latin America and thus has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
African influences in Salvador de Bahia – namely the slave bells, statue of prominent slave, and African drums
We stayed in the Pelourinho and many would describe it as being quite touristy, however we found it the complete opposite on our visit. It was a beautiful mix of colours, a Latin American Culture blended with African food and vibes. In the evenings, there are dance performances and other folk events. We were there on a Tuesday when they have a street carnival in the evening. It’s friendly atmosphere and everyone joins in.
I would recommend a visit to the Casa de Benin which is devoted to the culture of the old kingdom of Benin (Southern Nigeria) from, which a lot of slaves were shipped to Bahia.
This church stands out as the most decorated as its interior is washed in gold covered wood carvings. It was built in the early 16th century and its ceiling is painted in scenes and themes associated with Virgin Mary.
Directly next to the friary church is the impressive carved facade of the Igreja da Terceira Ordem de Sao Francisco, church of the Franciscan. Both churches are worth a visit to see the baroque architecture and rich styles.
Cruzeiro de Sao Francisco
Elevador Lacerda (Elevator to Upper Town)
The upper and lower towns are linked by steep streets and a number of lifts, including the Plano Inclinado de Gonçalves (a funicular) and the Elevador Lacerda, a dramatic free-standing elevator that has become a landmark of Salvador. Built in 1930, the Art Deco elevator links Praça Cairu in the harbor area with Praça Tomé de Souza in the historic old town. From the terrace formed by the upper plaza, Praça Tomé de Souza, there is a superb view of the lower town and the harbor. On Praça Tomé de Souza are a number of 17th-century buildings, including striking white Palácio Rio Branco, one of Brazil’s most historic palaces and formerly the seat of the Bahian government.
This is a not to be missed attraction, as it is so well known in the city. During the day you will see the traditional dress of the Baianas (women wearing the traditional Bahia dress), they will ask you for a donation to have a photo with a bunch of them!
Praca Tomé de Souza
Igreja do Senhor do Bonfim
This was built around 1745-54 and is one of Bahia’s most popular churches. Many people from all over Bahia and Brazil come to this church to tie special ribbons on and around the gates and pillars of the church. The ribbons represent wishes that they make. If the wishes come true they will send letters and photographs to the church which are displayed in a side room. Some of the letters displayed are to do with limbs that have started to regain function and couples who could not conceive but now have children after praying at the church. Many festivals are also celebrated at this church from time to time including an almost carnival like procession with magnificent costumes, capoeira dancers and samba.
Praca Senhor do Bonfim
Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos
This beautiful church in the Pelhourinho was constructed in a baroque style when the king of Portugal gave the land to the Irmandade doe Homens Pretos, also translated to the Brotherhood of Black Men. Many of the workers who were constructing the church were slaves and could only afford to complete the church at night after their regular jobs were done. The building therefore took almost a century to complete after work began in 1704.
The church was for the black community consisting of slaves and freed slaves as they were not allowed to worship in the city’s other churches. There are a number of statutes of black saints inside the church and a slave cemetery at the rear of the church.
A traditional African mass is held here every Tuesday at 18:00, which is a great way to learn more about the culture of this rich community. The mass lasts about an hour or so and huge baskets full of bread baked by the community are offered at the church. It’s a fascinating insight as they have carried on the traditions from their slave heritage. We were made to feel incredibly welcome and sit beside the existing community.
Largo do Pelourinho
Cidade Baixa (Lower Town)
At the base of the Elevador Lacerda, Salvador’s business and commercial district stretches along the harbour front, where you can take a boat to go and visit nearby islands.
You are also quite close to the Mercado Modelo, which is a great place to go and mooch around sourcing local crafts, a labyrinth of stalls including ingredients and food flavours used in local cooking and also there are a good selection of lunch counters to grab some food.
There are also several museums in the district housed in a beautiful colonial style building. For me Salvador is all about taking it easy, looking around you at the architecture and enjoying a slow paced life compared to other Brazilian cities. The best bits are found just walking through the lower and upper town and stumbling upon pretty streets and seeing interesting everyday life scenes adorned by the friendly locals. I would also recommend a troll around the marina and Fortes areas which give more of a modern European vibe with a lot of hip new restaurants, which are located close to the Sugar Cane Factory.
All around the city, you will see these dancers. The dancing is a form of non-violent self-defence dance, which focuses on aspects of dance intermingled with martial arts.
02 WHERE TO STAY
Rather than go with the one of the many usual luxorious brands out there, we chose to stay in the heart of the Pelourinho district at The Pestana Convento do Carmen.
This is a beautiful old convent, which has been turned into a hotel, however still in keeping with all the original features. The rooms are rustic but with all the amenities you would need. There is a lovely breakfast served on the ground floor in the courtyard of the cloisters with the sounds of morning birdsong. If you don’t fancy going down to the beaches on Bahia, you can take seat with a long drink at the outdoor/indoor bar area around the cloisters where there is a fountain which now contains chlorinated water for guests to take a quick dip in.
We were upgraded to a deluxe room, containing comfy large 4 poster beds, with upholstered chairs and cotton linens.
The second clositer hosts the All Saints bar and the pestana Conventodo carmo where the Brazilian chef, Tereza Paim serves up the very best in Portuguese and Bahian food.
The hotel also has a steam room, pool housed in the old fountain area, Jacuzzi and gym should you wish to work out if climbing up and down the hills of the Pelhourinho district are not enough for you.
You can also find a well-stocked library should you wish to spend the afternoons reading and relaxing on one of the library’s grand chaise-longue.
R. do Carmo, 1
Santo Antônio Além do Carmo
Salvador, BA, 40301-330
03 WHERE TO EAT
Apart from breakfasts, lunches and snacks at the hotel, there were two stand out eateries for me…
Maria Mata Mouro Restaurant
Based in the pretty and historic Pelhourinho district, this restaurant specialises in international cuisine with a Bahian twist. It’s recommended to book a table and when you do, request to sit on the patio at the back of the restaurant with the fountains as your backing music. On certain nights there is music provided by a local guitarist. It’s a beautiful relaxing setting with plenty of options available for meat eaters, pescatarians and veggies. The pricing is a little more than what you would pay in other restaurants in the area but in my opinion it’s worth it.
Rua da Ordem Terceira, 8
Salvador – BA, 40026-260
Te: +55 71 3321-3929
Hotel Villa Bahia Restaurant
The restaurant is based in a beautiful boutique hotel again in a central location in the Pelourinho district opposite the impressive Sao Francisco church.
The restaurant has been boasted to be one of the best serving first class Bahian dishes with French-fusion influences. The ingredients are fresh and tasty with an extensive wine list. The attention to details is exquisite and the service is second to none with friendly attentive staff. Again, I would recommend booking as hotel guests do take priority. Ask for a seat at the back on the indoor/outdoor patio area.
Largo do Cruzeiro de São Francisco, 16/18
Pelourinho Salvador – BA, 40020-280
Tel: +55 71 3322-4271
MY TIPS FOR SALVADOR DE BAHIA
- If you are staying in the Pelhourinho especially make sure you don’t flash the cash and leave all valuables at home, except for the necessary items. It is pretty safe and there is police presence during the day and night
- Book all restaurants in advance either by your hotel concierge or independently as a lot of them get pretty busy.
- Be aware of the Capoeira dancers. Many of them will get you to pay to take a photo of them and will get quite aggressive if you try and take one from afar. They tend to pose for pics with tourist to make some extra cash
- Try and hire a guide, at least for a walking tour to try and get an orientation of the city and some background information
- 05. I’ve already mentioned it but the Bahianas (African ladies dressed in traditional clothes) will follow you around to have pictures for them. Make sure that you get the going rate from a trusted guide and only pay one of them and not equal amounts to them all. They should be splitting the money.
Have you ever considered Salvador de Bahia as a destination or planning on visiting? Maybe I’ve convinced you to add it to your never-ending list of travel destinations…