Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, enchanted me with its history, colorful colonial buildings, stunning seaside setting and delicious food. I visited Bahia after spending a few months in the south of Brazil and found this part of the country quite different from that region, which is more European in character. The Northeast of Brazil is much more African in ethnicity, character and culture and certainly feels like a different country than the Brazil of São Paulo, Florianópolis, Porto Alegre or even Rio de Janeiro. Being intimately familiar with the American South, I discerned many parallels and found Salvador to be a lot like the city of New Orleans in both good ways and bad ways: the history of colonization and slavery, glorious architecture in various states of repair, delicious food, mysterious syncretic religious practices, amazing parties (especially during Carnaval), horrendous crime rates, and poor customer service. People I talk to in São Paulo usually have strong opinions about Salvador. They either love it, remarking on the city’s culture and energy, or they hate it, remarking on the city’s dirtiness and crime. I fall into the “loved it” camp, but having local friends there to show me around made the experience so much better than trying to navigate the city on my own would have been.
Below are ten of my most memorable experiences in Salvador.
While I was in Salvador, I stayed in the neighborhood of Barra, an historic area which a collection of colonial landmarks, delightful beaches and some relatively upscale apartments. At the time I visited, the streets were being worked on in preparations for visitors for the FIFA World Cup. A pleasant way to visit Barra is to start at the Morro do Cristo, a hill at the edge of the ocean with a statute of Christ, and stroll along the promenade or the beaches all the way to the Forte São Diogo. Close to the Morro do Cristo is the laid-back Praia do Farol da Barra, an enjoyable place to soak up some sun without having to fight crowds. Avenida Oceânica runs along side the beach, offering views out to the ocean. At the end of Avenida Oceânica is a really cool art-deco apartment building that looked like it was in the process of having some restoration work performed.
Opposite the apartment building is the Farol da Barra and Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra, an historic lighthouse and fortress complex dating back to 1698 and one of the most famous symbols of Salvador. A walk around the fort offers expansive views of the ocean. Going north from the lighthouse, you come another historic fort, the Forte Santa Maria, originally built in the early seventeenth century and the scene of battles between the Portuguese and the Dutch for control of Salvador.
The existing structure dates back to around 1698. The site is maintained by the Brazilian Navy and serves as the residence of the Comandante de Sinalização Náutica do Leste. For several years, the comandante serving in that post, was rumored to be gay and allowed the Fort to be used for parties and festivals for Salvador’s gay community. There is a new comandante now so the parties have stopped. Between the Forte Santa Maria and the Forte São Diogo is the Praia Porto da Barra, a crowded, popular urban beach that, in 2007, was named by an article in The Guardian as one of the top ten beaches in the world. It’s a decent beach, but one of the top ten in the world? — hardly!
One of the best ways to reach the Pelourinho, the historic heart of Salvador and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is to take the Elevador Lacerda from the Cidade Baixa, full of historic but not as well-kept buildings, up to the Cidade Alta where the Pelourinho sits. The ride costs R$.25. The elevator is restored art deco building that is one of Salvador’s most famous landmarks.
A walk through the Pelourinho is the quintessential Salvador experience. This neighborhood boasts an impressive collection of preserved, pastel colored historic buildings, some dating back to the seventeenth century. Pelourinho means pillory or whipping post in Portuguese and the central square was a place where African slaves were whipped publicly. Some believe that the square is haunted by the ghosts of these tortured slaves. But today, the Pelourinho is full of dancers practicing capoeira, Olodum drummers, hawkers, aracajé vendors and tourists from all over the world. If you’re with a Brazilian, have them place your food and drink orders because the vendors are notorious for overcharging tourists. Some other highlights of the Pelourinho are the Igreja e Convento São Francisco. The baroque interiors of this church, much of it done in wood carvings and gold leaf, are intricate, detailed, at times gaudy, and at times even a bit provocative in places (the slave artisans sometimes provided the cherubs with certain… endowments). This church definitely should be at the top of your list if you’re visiting.
The square where the Jorge Amado House, a worthwhile museum paying tribute to one of Brazil’s most famous writers, sits is one of the most colorful squares in the Pelourinho and was used as a filming location by Michael Jackson is his video for
Overall, you could spend an entire day exploring this part of Salvador, especially if you take time to visit some of the churches and historic buildings. I actually came here twice because I enjoyed it so much. The military police carefully patrol this area, but you should be careful not to wander off into adjacent areas without a good idea of where you are going.
Igreja Nosso Senhor do Bonfim
This church, built in the second half of the eighteenth century, is a favorite for visitors to Salvador. It sits on top of a hill a few kilometers north of the Pelourinho. One of the famous rituals at this church is to purchase some “fitas,” colored souvenir ribbons and tie them to the gates of the church or somewhere on your body. You are supposed to tie three knots and make three wishes. The wishes are supposed to come true when the ribbon breaks, but you must not cut it. I was told that the quality of ribbons sold in Salvador is now a synthetic material that is so strong, it takes much longer for the ribbon to break. So just make sure what you’re wishing for isn’t something you need right away. Also, I was told to be careful about making wishes having to do with love, because I might not want to same thing by the time the ribbon breaks. In this area, don’t be afraid to firmly say no to people trying to approach you with ribbons. Some of these people will try to tie them on you and then demand an exorbitant price for it.
In January, the Festa do Bomfim takes place. Women dressed in white gather at the Church of Conceição da Praia, in downtown Salvador and make an eight kilometer procession to Bomfim. Once at Bomfim, they ritually wash the square with aromatic water, while dancing and chanting in Yoruba (an African language brought by the slaves centuries ago that continues to be spoken in some parts Brazil). The church is also associated with the Candomblé deity, Oxalá, creator of mankind and syncretized with Jesus Christ.
Ribeira is an old neighborhood, located close to Bomfim Church, once a desirable part of the city where Salvador’s elite lived. Much of the neighborhood is run-down, but with buildings that could potentially be restored to their former glory. Some of the bright spots of Ribeira remain including the Sorveteria da Ribeira, a popular ice cream shop opened by an Italian immigrant in 1931. It is a great place to try ice cream made from numerous exotic Brazilian fruits like cupuaçu, pitanga or cajá. Near the sorveteria is a marina where you can take a short boat ride across the water to an old abandoned train station.
Jazz Night at Solar do Unhão
The Solar do Unhão is a complex of historic buildings facing the water in the Cidade Baixa. Some of the historic buildings date back to the eighteenth century and served as a sugar mill and quay for shipments. Part of the building houses the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia and there is a pleasant, romantic restaurant with serene views and refreshing breezes from the ocean. Sunset is a particularly idyllic time to visit. Every Saturday night at 6 PM, the Solar do Unhão hosts a jazz concert on the knoll facing the water. I happened to be there for the concert and found it very enjoyable. I traveled here with a local are we parked on the nearby highway and paid our “protection money” to some youths nearby. However, if you’re not going with locals, I would highly suggest taking a taxi.
Feijoada in a favela
For lunch one day, my friend took me to have “feijoada in a favela,” at a restaurant tucked away in Salvador’s Garcia neighborhood called Recanto da Tia Celia. While my friend called the neighborhood a “favela,” it didn’t appear to be dangerous at all, just not particularly wealthy. The restaurant is actually a favorite of celebrities such as Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Elite Squad). Feijoada is a traditional Brazilian stew made with beans and pig parts (all sorts of parts, including tripe and feet) and often served with sides of kale, rice and slices of orange. Bahian feijoada differs from the typical feijoada in that it uses cow parts rather than pig parts and brown beans (carioquinh) rather than the black beans as used in feijoada carioca. The Bahian feijoada dish, served every day in the afternoon, was hearty and delicious as promised. The feijoada costs R$30 for two people. If you’re interested in venturing out here the address of the restaurant is Rua Padre Domingos de Brito, 25. If you’re not with locals, take a cab for sure.
Lagoa do Abaeté
The Lagoa do Abaeté is a protected natural area relatively close to the Salvador airport, encompassing a murky black lake amid sand dunes, tufts of grass and palm trees. It is not a strikingly beautiful place, but enjoyable for a stroll and to witness Candomblé rituals being performed. Abaeté is actually an indigenous word for “terror” or “horror.” My friend told me that nobody swims in the water, although it appears that it would be shallow enough to wade through from one side to the other. I didn’t bother to test it. The lake has a sacred status with followers of Candomblé. I came out here one mid afternoon with my friend and walked around the dunes and noticed wild horses wandering around. Eventually we saw two women approaching the lake with large bags of goods, as if there were about to have a picnic. I watched them take food out of the bag, pause for prayer and then toss the food into the water. My friend told me that the women were probably making an offering to the feminine Candomblé deity Oxum, who is associated with fresh water, wealth, prosperity, beauty and love. The women were probably making the offering to Oxum in order to resolve a problem of love.
One of the outstanding dishes of Bahian cuisine that I tried while in Salvador was moqueca, a dish made from salt water, coconut milk, dendê (palm) oil, seafood, garlic, coriander, tomatoes, onions and who knows what else. It is a lot like some of the curries and dishes I had in Thailand and Cambodia, and similarly, the stew is eaten with rice, which tempers some of the spiciness. Brazilians freak out about how spicy moqueca is, but I didn’t find it as spicy as proclaimed, although I have a good tolerance for spicy food. It is also true that some people’s stomachs cannot handle the dendê oil, which is a staple of Bahian cuisine, very well. My friends and I had our moqueca at Ki-Mukeka on Avenida Amaralina in the Pituba neighborhood. I highly recommend it.
Shopping Barra/Shopping Salvador
While in Salvador, I visited two large, swanky shopping malls: Shopping Barra and Shopping Salvador. Coming to these modern places is quite a contrast from the historic and often shabby streets of Salvador. These places are apparently well-secured and teeming with well-heeled Salvador residents. Shopping Salvador is almost like an airplane hangar large enough for a jumbo jet. Visiting these malls will not be the most authentic cultural experience you will have in Bahia, but they are great places to escape from the heat and humidity!
No, I didn’t get arrested, but one of the more unique experiences I had in Salvador was getting to attend a court hearing with one of my lawyer friends (pictured above). The court hearing took place in a rather rough part of Salvador and while I didn’t understand enough Portuguese to really understand everything that was going on at the hearing, it seemed fairly similar to proceedings in the United States. Even though, I am “on vacation” from the practice of law, it was interesting to learn about the Brazilian legal system. Many of the joys and frustrations that lawyers deal with in Brazil are the same as what lawyers deal with in the United States.
Overall, Salvador is at the top of places that I would recommend people visit in Brazil. It is unfortunate that it is has such a bad reputation for crime and I even have friends who have had property stolen while visiting. Nevertheless, I would not let these incidents deter you from experiencing this magnificent place in Brazil. If you come with an open mind, do some research and take normal safety precautions, it is likely that your visit will be as enjoyable as it was for me.
Here are some other travelers’ impressions of Salvador with great advice for potential visitors.
- Brazil Travel – Salvador, Bahia
- Salvador, Brazil Travel Guide
- Brazil, Salvador Part 1
- destination: Salvador da Bahia by Brazil Travel Blog
Have you been to Salvador? Please share some of your memorable experiences or advice for future visitors.