Salvador was first colonized some 30 years after Brazil was discovered and became the first capital of Brazil in 1549. Today, with a population of nearly 3 million, Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, is Brazil’s third-largest city. Because life in Bahia revolves around Salvador, Brazilians frequently intermix the two, saying Bahia when they mean Salvador.
Perched atop cliffs, the tiny settlement was an ideal national capital because of its natural defenses. Salvador has since lost economic and political importance but is renowned as the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, with a mixture of black and white races descended from Africans, Europeans, and Amerindians.
The religion and mysticism that are so much a part of Bahian life are reflected in the name Salvador, which means “savior”. The peninsula on which the city was built, first discovered by Amerigo Vespucci in 1501, faces Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints’ Bay), named in honor of 1 November, the day it was discovered.
What is most striking about Salvador is the way it assaults the senses: the sight of the gold-encrusted altars and panels of its churches; the inviting scent and exotic taste of the African-influenced food; the sounds of the street vendors’ cries, the roar of traffic, the chant of fans at a soccer game (and Salvador will be a host city for the 2014 World Cup), or enthusiasts at a political rally. Most of all, the distinctive sounds and rhythm of Bahian music.
The best way to orient yourself in Salvador is to think of the town as divided into four: beaches, suburbs, and upper and lower cities. Downtown Salvador encompasses both the historical Cidade Alta (Upper City) and the newer Cidade Baixa (Lower City).
A walking tour of the Cidade Alta (Upper City) starts at Praça da Sé, opening on to Terreiro de Jesus, home to three of Salvador’s most famous churches. The largest, the Catedral Basílica, is a 17th-century Jesuit structure built largely of stone, with beautiful gold-leaf work on its main altar. Next to it are the 18th-century São Pedro dos Clérigos (St Peter’s) and the 17th-century Ordem Terceira de São Domingos (Dominican). Shops in the area sell handmade lace and leather goods, and lovely primitive paintings.
The Largo do Pelourinho (Pillory Square) is the site of Salvador’s best-preserved colonial buildings, whose colorful facades line the steep, meandering cobblestoned streets. The name recalls a time when pillories were set up here to punish slaves and criminals. Today, Pelourinho is considered by Unesco to be the most important grouping of 17th- and 18th-century colonial architecture in the Americas. Once a fashionable district, the fortunes of its inhabitants gradually declined. However, Pelourinho is charming and distinctive. Many of the buildings have been renovated in recent years and converted into pousadas or restaurants, and the area is well policed.
Museu de Arte Sacra (Museum of Sacred Art)
276 Rua do Sodré
The Museu de Arte Sacra is housed in the 17th-century church and convent of Santa Teresa. Baianos claim this is the largest collection of sacred art in Latin America. Whether or not this is the case, it is easily the most impressive of Salvador's museums, and one of the most fascinating in Brazil.
Salvador’s famous Elevador Lacerda, a massive elevator built in 1930 to link the Upper and Lower cities. From here there are excellent views of Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints’ Bay).
Straight ahead as you exit the elevator into the Lower City is the Mercado Modelo. In this three-story building you will find stalls selling all kinds of local handicrafts and souvenirs. The market is one of Salvador’s not-to-be-missed sites: although it’s undeniably touristy, it is the best place in town to purchase your souvenirs. As you stroll among the stalls, you will spot vendors of musical instruments playing their wares – such as percussion instruments, or the single-stringed berimbau – to entice you to buy. There are also good displays of capoeira. You will be pressed to give them money, but the entertainment is well worth it.
A series of interconnecting streets and roads provides a non-stop promenade along Salvador’s beaches, from the near-downtown Barra beach to the distant north-coast beaches that are considered among Brazil’s most beautiful. The city beach, Barra is famed less for its beauty than for the conviviality of its bars and sidewalk cafés. It’s where many local people stop for a beer after work, and stay late into the evening. Barra is also good for shopping. The beach is protected by the gallant old fort Santo Antônio da Barra, with a lighthouse and an oceanography museum. Piatã and Itapoã, the last beaches before the airport, are the ones considered to be among Salvador’s best.
Ilha de Itaparica is a tropical island set in the Baía de Todos os Santos, where Club Med built its first hotel in Brazil. About 19,000 people live on the island, divided mainly between fishermen and wealthy weekenders, whose beach-front mansions can often be reached only by boat. As it is a popular bolt-hole for middle-class Brazilians, hotels tend to be expensive, and the island gets very crowded during weekends and holidays.
1 Rua do Carmo, Pelourinho
tel: 71-3327 8400
Luxurious hotel in a restored 16th-century convent. One of the city’s best and most attractive.
13 Praça José de Alencar Largo do Pelourinho
tel: 71-3324 4564
The city’s catering school runs this self-service buffet restaurant, so it's an excellent place to try a wide variety of interesting and well-prepared Bahian and Brazilian dishes and maybe catch a Bahian folklore show. Your chosen food is charged by weight.
98 Rua Edgar Loureiro, Cabula
tel: 71-3384 7464
Considered by many to be the best Bahian restaurant in Salvador, especially for its signature moquecas (fish stews). Slightly off the beaten track but worth the effort if you are serious about culinary experiences.
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