Sun, Sand and Ceará: Exploring Fortaleza, Brazil

Fortaleza is a city of 2 million inhabitants located in Brazil’s Northeast region and capital of the state of Ceará. Fortaleza and the Ceará coastline are a popular tourist destination for Brazilians and, to some extent, Europeans. Few Americans visit Fortaleza, possibly due to the greater popularity of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Iguaçu Falls and the lack of direct flights. Another reason could be Fortaleza’s lack of a marketing campaign within the US. Known as the Brazilian Miami, Fortaleza offers luxury high-rises, urban beaches, interesting museums and cultural attractions, sweltering heat and, unfortunately like other large cities in Brazil, a share of danger.

Fortaleza’s colonial history began with the construction of Fort São Tiago in 1603 and the settlement of Nova Lisboa by Pero Coelho de Souza of Portugal. The fort’s name was later changed to Fort São Sebastião. The Dutch invaded northeastern Brazil in 1637, fought the Portuguese and the natives, destroyed the fort and constructed a new one, which they named Fort Schoonenborch, in 1649. With the end of Dutch occupation of Brazil in 1654, the Portuguese renamed the fort, Fortaleza da Nossa Senhora de Assunção. A village was founded by the fort in 1726 and took its name, Fortaleza, from the fort.

The cotton industry contributed to the growth of Fortaleza in the 19th century and the city continued to grow throughout the 20th century, augmented by migrants from rural Ceará and annexation of surrounding cities.  Fortaleza is now the fifth largest city in Brazil and was a host city for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

I spent a week in Ceará in August of 2014, during which I took some trips to the resort towns of Canoa Quebrada and Jericoacoara, but I also enjoyed a few days getting to know Fortaleza. Below are some of the places that I was able to experience there.

Beira Mar

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Avenida Beira Mar runs along Fortaleza’s popular urban beaches of Meireles and Iracema. The area is filled with hotels, high-end apartments, bars and restaurants. Wander through a flea market full of interesting Cearanese handicrafts. Sample a caipirinha, an água de coco, or fresh shrimp from one of the many kiosks along the way. Hundreds of tourists crowd the promenade and beaches each evening to watch the sunset and the activity continues well into the evening. Walking on the English Bridge (actually a pier) is especially sublime on a clear night. While the Beira Mar area seems very safe, you should keep your eyes open as tourists are often unfortunately targeted by thieves.  Keep your valuables locked away in your hotel safe.

Shrimp and a Swimming Pool

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On my first night in Fortaleza, a local friend of mine took me to dinner at Neide do Camarão, a popular restaurant situated alongside some railroad tracks. As you walk in, a man stands by with trays of freshly caught shrimp. You tell the man how much you want by the kilo and then they’ll cook up the shrimp in garlic and oil for you while you take a seat inside and enjoy a bottle of Skol. The tables are situated around an Olympic sized swimming pool.  Neide do Camarão doesn’t offer fancy dining, but the food was decent and inexpensive and eating there was a unique experience.

A Historic Walk

Fortaleza has not retained nearly as many of its old buildings as Salvador, but the city still has some fine examples of historic architecture.  I spent a day walking around some of Fortaleza’s historic sites.  Below is a sample self-guided walking tour you can follow to take in some of these sites.  You can complete the walk in about 2 or 3 hours depending on how much time you want to spend at each of the stops along the way.

1) Mercado Central

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The Mercado Central is a good place to start and end your walk as many of the city busses stop here.The existence of a Fortaleza central market goes back to 1809, but in 1931 the city prohibited the sale of meat, fruits and vegetables inside the market building, so the vendors turned to the sale of handicrafts.  Admittedly, the market is very touristy, with a range of goods from quality artisan handicrafts to t-shirts and flip-flop shops and cashew and candy stalls. However, one of the more interesting things about the market it is architecture, the curvy walkways and design that appears to have been built in the mid-20th century but it was actually constructed more recently– in 1997.  In front of the Mercado Central is the

2. Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora de Assunção

Unfortunately, I am not able to provide a firsthand account of a visit inside this historic fortress, which gives Fortaleza its name.  I only had a look at the outside.  However, if you’re interested in the history of the region, this spot may be worth a look.  Since 1942, the fortress has served as a regional headquarters of the Brazilian Army. From the fort, walk to the west along Rua Dr. João Moreira to the

3. Passeio Público

Passeio Público

Passeio Público

This charming small park, also known as the Praça dos Martires, is filled with green benches and gnarled hundred-year-old trees.  Beautifully restored historic buildings line the surrounding streets.  One of my Fortaleza-born friends told me that this area was once quite seedy and frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers.  Today, it is great place for an afternoon stroll or moments of relaxation in the shade.  From here, keep walking west along Rua Dr. João Moreira until you reach the corner of Rua Senador Pompeu, where you will find the

4. Centro de Turismo do Ceará

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Situated in the walls of a former prison dating back to the nineteenth century, the tourist center offers another chance to browse local handicrafts and souvenirs, admire the architecture of the building and the center’s exhibits, snack on cashews or ice cream or obtain information about Fortaleza.  From here, walk south along Rua Senador Pompeu, make a right on Rua São Paulo, walk one block and turn left on Rua General Sampaio, which you will follow two blocks by an open square and the

5. Jose de Alencar Theatre

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My favorite historic building in Fortaleza by far is the Theatro José de Alencar, definitely worth a visit. The building was built in 1910 with ornate art-nouveau stained glass windows, cast-iron railings and lamps.  The theatre takes its name from Fortaleza’s literary son, José de Alencar. From the theatre, re-trace your steps north along Rua General Sampaio, turn right on Rua São Paulo and walk east four blocks until you reach Rua Floriano Peixoto, there you will find the

6. Museu do Ceara

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This museum, housed in the rooms of a neoclassical mansion dating back to the mid-19th century, allows the visitor to literally walk through the history of Ceará with some truly intriguing exhibits, furniture and art-work from the state.  From the museum, make a right on Rua São Paulo, go two blocks and then turn left on Avenida Conde d’Eu.  Follow the avenue two blocks and on your right, you will see the spires of the

7. Metropolitan Cathedral

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Constructed between 1939 and 1978, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Fortaleza was designed by architect George Maunier in the eclectic style, combining elements of gothic and romanesque. The cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Fortaleza. The interior is white and simple in design, but illuminated by colorful stained-glass windows.  Next to the cathedral is the market where you began the walk.

Praia do Futuro

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One of the more popular urban beaches in Fortaleza is the Praia do Futuro, a 8 km expanse of sand.  The beach is lined with barracas (beachside restaurants that offer chairs, food and drinks), one of the most popular of which is Crocobeach.  The waves at Praia do Futuro are incredibly intense, which makes it a popular surfing location. Novice swimmers should be very cautious before entering the water.

Places to Eat

Other than Neide do Camarão, here are a few other restaurant recommendations in Fortaleza:

  • Vignoli – Pizzaria in Meireles.  Really good pizza, but a little expensive.
  • Coco Bambu – Trendy tropical themed restaurant. Enjoyed it, although it is actually a chain.
  • Barney’s Ice Cream – 1950s American style ice cream shop

Trips to the Ceará coastline

Fortaleza is a great place to spend a couple days before heading out to explore the Ceará coastline.  Fortaleza-based tour companies offer several journeys to the east, including Morro Branco and Canoa Quebrada and to the west including the incredible Jericoacoara.

***

A couple big attractions I missed on my trip to Fortaleza were the Dragão do Mar cultural center and the Beach Park water park.  Also, I would have liked to have more time to explore the surrounding beaches. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed my time in Fortaleza and would definitely consider a return trip.

Have you visited Fortaleza? What was your experience like?

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