Juxtaposing the old and new: the view of Recife’s harbor from the highest point in Olinda

Olinda and Recife have stories to tell.

Olinda and Recife, sited on the northeast corner of Brazil, are about as closely linked as a somewhat shabby colonial town and a modern, bustling city can be. Olinda is one of Brazil’s oldest towns, founded in 1535 by Portuguese settlers but sacked and burned by the invading Dutch about a century later. The Dutch abandoned the Olinda site and established themselves in what is now Recife, and Olinda never quite recovered – even after the Portuguese retook the area and drove out the Dutch after only about 20 years.

Recife grew to become one of Brazil’s most important port cities and the capital of Pernambuco state. Olinda settled into its current-day existence as a quaint, bohemian, and colorful town filled with beautiful colonial-era churches and buildings in various states of repair.

After exploring the towns of Niterói, Cabo Frio, and Búzios near Rio de Janeiro, we took a two-hour flight north to Recife. We were looking forward to exploring Olinda, but the city of Recife served up some cool surprises as well.

Usual note: Some of the photos are in galleries – just click on the first to see a bigger version and click through each.

Olinda: A Colonial Gem

Until the Dutch showed up in 1637, Olinda was  Brazil’s richest city and an important port for the burgeoning sugar cane indusry. A contraction of the Portuguese words O Linda, meaning The Beautiful, Olinda is strategically located on a high hill with commanding views of Recife and the harbor. The Olinda town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site with more than 20 Baroque churches, mostly built in the 18th century after the Portuguese reclaimed the town from the Dutch.

Strolling through town, we got a sense of faded glory. Olinda is one of the most colorful colonial towns we’ve visited, with street after street of brightly painted houses and a vibrant, artistic culture. And yet, the town feels shabby – as if time forgot this place and it’s slowly sinking into ruin. “Everything could use a good scrubbing” was one of my first reactions to Olinda, but somehow the rough edges add to the charm of the place. It’s a fascinating town and well worth a visit.

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The party doesn’t really get started until Midnight Man emerges! (Photo by Antônio Cruz/ABr – Agência Brasil)

Olinda’s carnaval culture is a huge part of its modern identity. Every year, the combined carnivals of Olinda and Recife rival that of Rio de Janeiro, drawing up to two million people (!) for six days of revelry in February. Hundreds of thousands of partiers converge on Olinda’s narrow, cobbled streets for the final days – a number we could hardly imagine for such a quaint, sleepy place. Olinda’s claim to fame in the carnaval world is its “Bonecas Gigantes,” giant papier-mache puppets that tower up to 3.5 meters and represent everyone from local political figures to world-famous rock stars. The most famous boneca, and the first to be created back in the 1930s, is “Homem da Meia-Noite” or Midnight Man, whose appearance marks the official kickoff of Olinda Carnaval.

The best way to get a feel for Olinda’s Carnaval (besides actually being in the thick of it) is to visit two musuems: the Museu do Mamulengo and the Casa dos Bonecos Gigantes. 

Olinda Lodging/Food
We spent our two nights in Olinda at the Pousada dos Quatro Cantos (Inn of the Four Corners), a 19th-century mansion that has operated as an inn for over 40 years. The pousada gets its name from the nearby Four Corners intersection, ground zero for Olinda’s Carnaval – and as such is filled with carnaval memorabilia. The place oozes with atmosphere, and our room was cozy and clean if a bit funky.

The pretty courtyard at the Inn of Four Corners

Our two favorite Olinda dining experiences were at Beijupirá Olinda, in its beautifully landscaped hillside location, and Oficina do Sabor, often billed as Olinda’s best restaurant. We also had a tasty Italian dinner at Don Francesco Trattoria, just a few doors down from our hotel.

The sunset view of Recife from our table at Oficina do Sabor
Recife: Steeped in Brazilian History

Recife could not be more different from Olinda. As Brazil’s fourth-largest urban area, it’s sprawling, chaotic, and not particularly geared for tourism. However, the city has plenty of charm for visitors if you know where to look (our bike adventure with La Ursa Tours solved that problem for us!).

Named for the large reefs just offshore, Recife boasts several beautiful beaches – the most popular of which is Boa Viagem. Recife has earned the nickname of Venice of Brazil for its numerous rivers, bridges, islets and peninsulas; the most interesting of these islets is Recife Antigo, the historic heart of the city. It’s here that you’ll find Marco Zero (Ground Zero), the spot where the first Portuguese explorers came ashore in the 16th century.

Recife’s Pina Beach

Our favorite Recife experiences:

Stroll Recife Antigo. This area is filled with beautifully restored colonial mansions, hotels, and museums, as well as plenty of lively bars and restaurants. Of note is Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, the oldest continuously operating Jewish congregation in the Americas – established in 1636 by Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain.

Tour the Palácio do Campo das Princesas, built in 1841 as the seat of government for Pernambuco state. Today, the Palácio still serves as the office for the governor of Pernambuco. It anchors the pretty Praça de República, bordered by two more landmark buildings: the Santa Isabel Theatre and the Palace of Justice.

Visit the Paço do Frevo, a fantastic museum/performance space devoted to the music/dance form called Frevo. An important component of Recife’s carnaval, Frevo was home-grown in Recife in the 19th century and is so intrinsic to Pernambuco’s culture that it was declared an “Intantigle Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. At the Paço do Frevo, we were lucky enough to stumble on a performance by a visiting troubador group from Portugal.

Here’s a video clip from the minstrel show. The group, Desertuna, is from the Académica da Universidade da Beira Interior in Portugal. This musical tradition, tuna, has a very interesting and long history.

Recife Lodging/Food
After almost two weeks in lodgings that ranged from quaint to downright uncomfortable (hello Buzios), we were ready for a few more creature comforts. The modern Bugan Recife Hotel Boa Viagem fit the bill for our two nights in Recife, conveniently located in the beachside Boa Viagem neighborhood. And bonus – it’s less than a 10-minute drive to the airport.

We enjoyed our lunch at Chica Pitanga, a “kilo” buffet restaurant in Boa Viagem. (“Kilo” or “quilo” restaurants are a Brazilian institution – you’re charged by the kilo for what you select from the buffet.) Also good: Tasquinha do Tio, a traditional Portuguese seafood house. Another good lunch stop was Bargaço, an upscale seafood place.

Other Tips

  • Getting around: Uber once again did not fail us, working flawlessly in both Olinda and Recife.
  • Our best Olinda/Recife decision: Hiring Roderick, owner of La Ursa Tours, for a two-day combo bike/walking tour. On our first day in Olinda, Roderick took us on an extensive walking tour of all of the historic sites, and
    Taking a break with Roderick during the bike tour

    then we met up with him again in Recife two days later to tour the city by bike. A native of Recife, Roderick is fluent in English and very passionate about his home. The combo tour meant he was able to tie together the threads of history that link Olinda and Recife in a very compelling, memorable way. We recommend Roderick highly!

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Olinda and Recife were our jumping off point for other areas we wanted to visit in northeastern Brazil. Stay tuned to our blog to find out more, and visit us on Instagram for more photos!

Coming Up: Magical Ihla Fernando de Noronha

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19 Comments

  1. This area is definitely on our radar for our Brazil trip next year, as long as the logistics work out. We’ve read so much about Olinda and it sounds fantastic…this post and your summary simply adds to all that we’ve heard. Great stuff.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      You two would really like Olinda and Recife, I think! And it’s a great landing spot for getting to Fernando de Noronha, a fabulous island about 200 miles off the coast (and subject of our next post). Are you thinking of going there??

  2. Still love this part of Brazil. Olinda’s rough around the edges but colourful streets were great to explore. We were also surprised at how much we liked Recife despite being such a large city. Looking forward to Fernando de Noronha since we weren’t lucky enough to get there. Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We had the same reaction to Recife – we didn’t expect to like it as much as we did! The bike tour really helped. I can’t wait to post about Noronha – I think it was my favorite place on the whole trip! Thanks, Maggie 🙂

  3. Another wonderful tour, guys! You chose two beautiful cities to visit, and I enjoyed tagging along with you on your adventures. Mike and I would definitely need a guide to do what you do, but Roderick sounds like a perfect “friend” to show you around. Gorgeous photos, and as always, a very enjoyable post!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, you two! The right tour guide can really make a difference. After two days with Roderick, we found we had a lot in common (idealogy, that is) and we really became friends. But we did do a fair amount of exploring on our own. Uber is such a great tool for that in Brazil – it’s so fast, easy, and economical.

  4. Oh these towns just look right up my alley. I love the colorful buildings and the carnival museum looks delightfully appealing. What a beautiful corner of the country to follow along with you 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Meg! Glad you enjoyed the post. Have a great day!

  5. Visiting both Olinda and Recife offered a good contrast between the old and the new, the small and the big in terms of history and size, respectively. It’s a shame that Olinda’s tumultuous history has affected it to this day, but it still retains much of the vibrant colors to draw people in! Lots of things to do and see in this quadrant of Brazil, a part that I didn’t know much about, but would be curious to check out some day!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca! A study in contrasts, for sure. But both cities have hidden treasures for visitors. We’re really glad we got to experience this part of Brazil.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Hannah! Have a great day 🙂

  6. The first time I learned about Olinda was from Monkey’s Tale’s blog post about it, so to see this old colonial town again through your photos was such a treat! Some of the buildings do look like they could use a good scrubbing, though. Speaking of boneca, interestingly the word we use in Indonesian is boneka, clearly a loanword from Portuguese. When you say Recife felt like it was not geared for tourism, it really should given how many interesting things it has to offer!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, we’ve been following Monkey’s Tale around Brazil for a little while now! We got lots of great tips from their blog when planning this trip. Portuguese does seem to be really pervasive and influential on a lot of world languages. I was surprised to see how many African countries speak it. And how interesting that even Indonesian has some Portuguese derivatives. I guess it just shows how successful Portugal was a global empire at one point (for better or for worse). Thanks, Bama!

  7. I’m not sure I’d be so interested in Recife, but Olinda for sure looks very appealing – the best of shabby chic, but not during Carnaval 😳
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ugh, sorry I’m just now responding! Agree, we would not enjoy Olinda during Carnaval (but we’re not big crowd people). Shabby chic is a good way to describe it!

  8. From your descriptions and photos, it looks like I’d enjoy Olinda more than Recife. I’m saving all your fascinating Brazilian destinations to our Google Maps POI of those countries. And, well done on finding an enthusiastic and awesome local guide again! It makes all the difference.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Liesbet – sorry I’m just responding. Both cities have their charms and their detractions. Looking forward to your impressions of Brazil as an overlander. You’ll see a lot that we didn’t get to see, I’m sure! Yes, a good guide makes all the difference.

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