Salvador, Brazil is hard to boil down into a few words – or a blog post.
Of the 12 destinations we visited on our July/August trip to Brazil, Salvador is the one that really got under our skin. As Brazil’s fourth largest city (by population) and the capital of Bahia state, Salvador is complex, chaotic, and colorful, with a larger-than-life culture that dates back 500 centuries. This city kept us on our toes and bedazzled us. We’ll never forget it.
Salvador is one of Brazil’s oldest cities, founded in 1549. From those early days, the city was an important port for the Portuguese and therefore heavily fortified. Most of the original forts have been beautifully preserved and offer breathtaking views of the beaches, city, and sea.
Of the 5 million Africans brought to the Americas for slave labor, an astonishing ONE MILLION came through the port at Salvador. This made Brazil the largest importer of enslaved human beings on the planet. And it wasn’t until 1888 that Brazil formally and finally abolished slavery, making it the last country in the Western Hemisphere to do so.
Salvador’s Carnival rivals that of Rio de Janeiro; in fact, the locals claim it’s the biggest in the world. The carnival spirit lives year-round, meaning you’ll always find music, dancing, and merriment in at least a few corners of the city.
After several days exploring the island paradise of Fernando de Noronha and the beachy town of Pipa, Salvador was quite the change. We were ready for the energy and vibrancy of a big city – and boy, did Salvador deliver. Here’s everything we loved the most about Salvador, with plenty of travel tips thrown in.
Usual note: Some of the photos are in galleries – just click on the first to see a bigger version and click through each.
The Afro-Brazilian Culture
Salvador’s Afro-Brazilian people – proud descendants of some of those million slaves – have created a culture that’s unrivaled anywhere else in Brazil, or in the world for that matter. Their influence is reflected in the food, the music, the religious practices, and the faces of the people.
The bright thread running through this unique culture is the candomblé religion, which fuses Catholicism with traditional religions from West Africa. Followers of candomblé venerate saint-like deities called orixás who often embody forces of nature such as earth, water, and the forests. Many of the orixás have dual identities with Catholic saints, a strategy that enabled the enslaved people to practice their faith without running afoul of the all-powerful Catholic church. That tradition survives today and is evident in candomblé services.
Tip: A performance of the Balé Folclórico da Bahia is a great way to immerse yourself in Salvador’s Afro-Brazilian vibe. This amazing hour-long show celebrates everything from candomblé to samba to capoeira, a uniquely Brazilian art form that combines martial arts, dance, and acrobatics. All against a stirring backdrop of pounding African rhythms, chanting, and singing.
The host theatre for the Balé Folclórico is the Teatro Miguel Santa on Rua Maciel de Baixo in the Salvador’s Pelourinho district. Performances take place at 7:00 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s a very small theatre and performances sell out fast, so your best bet is to turn up at the box office the day before to purchase tickets (the box office opens at 3:00).
The Pelourinho District
As Salvador’s main historic district, the Pelourinho (or Pelo) is ground zero for the city’s colorful and often tragic history. Derived from the Portuguese word for “pillory,” the Pelourinho is named for the whipping post that once stood in the barrio’s central plaza – used for public beatings of enslaved African people during the Portuguese colonial period. Today’s Pelo has a decidedly more upbeat and optimistic vibe. It’s chock full of beautiful and historic architecture, great restaurants, music, dancing, and art.
Tip: A good way to start your visit to the Pelo is to take the Elevador Lacerda, the landmark people mover connecting Salvador’s lower waterfront area to the upper city. Built in 1873 with an Art Deco facelift in the 1930s, the Elevador Lacerda is billed as the first urban elevator in the world. Before hopping on the elevator, visit the waterfront Mercado Modelo (it was closed for restoration the day we were there).
When you reach the top, check out the breathtaking views of Salvador’s Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay).
A Tale of Two Churches
Two must-visit churches in the Pelo district are the Church and Convent of São Francisco in Anchieta Plaza and the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People, just down from Largo do Pelourinho. Together, they tell a compelling tale of colonial grandeur, cruelty, and triumph over oppression.
Completed in the early 17th century, the baroque Church and Convent of São Francisco is named for St. Francis of Assisi, by all accounts a humble man who lived a life of poverty as an itinerant preacher. For sure, the outside facade is beautiful but unassuming as colonial Catholic churches go (and we’ve seen a LOT of ’em). But step inside, and you’re immediately blown away by the gold. We’re talking ALMOST A TON of gold leaf (by some estimates) that adorns the elaborately carved woodwork on the pillars, vaults, walls, and ceiling.
I’m not sure St. Francis would approve.
But here’s where the story verges into mind-blowing cruelty. Like most of the other colonial Catholic churches in South America at the time, the São Francisco church was built and decorated mostly by slave labor. Not only were the enslaved Africans forced to convert to Catholicism, but – because they were viewed as “subhuman” – they were not allowed to worship inside their creation. It’s hard to imagine such inhumanity, from a CHURCH, no less.
Editorializing aside, the the Church and Convent of São Francisco is eye-poppingly gorgeous, a must for Salvador visitors. The church is open daily at 9:00 a.m., and a small entrance fee gives you access to both the sanctuary and the lovely convent cloister.
In stark contrast is the pretty blue Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People. Completed in 1709, it took an astonishing 100 years to build. Why? Because it was built by a brotherhood of enslaved and free Africans who could only work on the church in their spare time. When they weren’t busy building churches for white people, churches they were forbidden even from entering. That’s how dedicated these Afro-Brazilians were to creating their own house of worship.
About Those Colored Ribbons
They’re everywhere in Salvador: tied to handrails, surrounding fountains, festooning fences, and offered for sale by strolling Baianas. They’re called fitas or “wish ribbons,” and their history is just as colorful as they are.
The fitas honor the Senhor do Bonfim, a statue of Jesus that was brought to Brazil by a Portuguese sea captain who survived a terrible storm at sea. Salvador’s famed Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim was completed in the 18th century to house the statue. Today, the church is a Catholic cathedral much revered by Baianos (services here include many practices of candomblé, just as with the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People). Every January, the Festa do Bonfim draws hordes of pilgrims in search of healing miracles, and special rooms are filled with offerings of gratitude: plaster models of body parts, discarded canes and crutches, and photos of the healed.
But back to those fitas. Again, we see that merger of Catholic and candomblé traditions. Each color represents a different orixá, but the wording on every fita reads Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia (Remembrance of the Lord of Bonfim of Bahia). The legend goes that the fita must be knotted around your wrist three times while you make a wish, and the wish will come true only when the ribbon falls off. (I don’t think I’d have the patience for that!)
Three Must-Visit Museums
The Casa do Carnaval do Bahia. Housed in a beautifully restored 19th-century building, this fantastic museum tells the story of Salvador’s carnival – one of the biggest and liveliest on the planet. Since we’re fairly certain we’ll never experience the carnival in person, a visit to the museum is the next best thing. The story is told in a dazzling array of costumes, audio and video presentations, musical instruments, and other colorful artifacts. The Casa do Carnaval do Bahia is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Entrance fee is about $5 US, with discounts for seniors and students. More info here and here.
The Museu Náutico da Bahia (Nautical Museum of Bahia). This outstanding museum is housed in the bottom floors of Salvador’s Farol da Barra (Barra Lighthouse), itself worth a visit. The museum contains an array of valuable underwater archaeological finds, a collection of navigation instruments, ship models and miniatures, and exhibits on the geography, history, anthropology, and culture of Bahia. Once you’re done with the museum, climb to the top of the lighthouse for some of the most panoramic views Salvador has to offer. The Museu Náutico da Bahia is open every day from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Tickets are about $3 US. More info here.
The Museum of Modern Art of Bahia (Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia or MAM-BA). The Modern Art Museum is located within several historic buildings known as the Solar do Unhão on the shores of All Saints Bay. The architectural significance of the site is worth a visit in itself, with exhibits located in a small former church, manor house, sugar refinery, and slave quarters that date back to the 17th century. The MAM-BA houses works of art from some of Brazil’s most noted painters, sculptors, and folk artists. Visiting the museum was easy for us, since it sits directly across the road from our hotel. More info is available here.
A Comida (The Food)
I’m sitting here eating my salad for lunch, and suddenly I’m craving an acarajé. What’s that, you ask? Probably more than any other food, acarajé is the culinary symbol of Salvador and Bahia state. So much more than street food, acarajé is marinated in Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian heritage. Each acarajé starts with a dough made from ground black-eyed peas, shaped into a ball and deep-fried in dende oil (a type of bright orange palm oil that’s a staple of Brazilian cooking). Then it’s split open and stuffed with a savory spread (usually a cashew paste with shrimp) and chopped veggies, topped by a dollop of salty dried shrimp. Served piping hot with a fiery pepper sauce, acarajé is like nothing else we’ve ever eaten.
Acarajé was an import from West Africa, brought over by enslaved people and incorporated into their candomblé rituals over the centuries. The most traditional acarajés are prepared and sold by beautifully dressed Baianas, and you’ll see their stands all over Salvador. Spend a day at the beach, and you’ll hear hawkers calling “Acarajé! Acarajé!” Try one – you won’t be sorry.
Moqueca, a type of seafood stew made with coconut milk, is a popular dish found all over Brazil. But Baianos have elevated moqueca to an art form. It’s typically served bubbling hot in an earthenware basin, and it’s alive with the aromas of dende oil, peppers, onions, coconut, and savory fish and shrimp. The best moqueca we’ve had, in all of our Brazil travels, was with our friends Ian and Nicky in Cadê Q’ Chama, a small, family-run bistro in the Pelo. SOOOO good.
Craving ice cream? Check out Sorveteria da Ribeira, a Salvador institution that’s been in operation since 1931 in the Ribeira district. With dozens of flavors to choose from, you’ll find just the sweet treat you’re craving.
Three more restaurants we loved:
Cuco Bistrô, a cozy spot near the Church of São Francisco, serving inventive takes on traditional Brazilian fare.
Mistura, a fabulous and famous seafood eatery that just happened to be in the ground floor of our hotel. Mistura was our splurge on our final night in Salvador.
Perreira, another outstanding seafood spot that sits just across the road from Porto da Barra beach.
The Gorgeous Beaches
Salvador has FANTASTIC beaches. Our favorite was Praia do Porto da Barra on the southern tip of the city, bounded by two 16th century forts. The water is wonderful for swimming and the beach is perfect for people watching.
Tip: Salvador’s beaches do get crowded, so go early. Order a couple of beers and beach chairs from the eager and helpful chap on the beach and you might get more than you bargained for. He brought us a cooler filled with ice and four, not two, beers (and yes, we were charged for all four). Total cost was about $23 US for four beers and all-day rental of two chairs and an umbrella (worth it!). Also make sure you pick beach chairs higher up from the shore (we got a little swamped by the incoming tide).
Our Lodging: We recommend CLOC Marina Residence. Our no-frills apartment was clean and comfortable, with a panoramic view of All Saints Bay (the sunsets!!).
Tour: We really enjoyed our tour with Eduardo of Civitatis Free Walking Tours. As is usual with these tours, we got a much more in-depth perspective on Salvador’s history and culture than we would have done on our own. Check out Eduardo’s Instagram page here and you might find our smiling faces!
Transportation: As elsewhere in Brazil, Uber worked like a charm in Salvador. Because we were often calling Ubers to go relatively short distances (see next section), we had to wait a bit longer than usual a couple of times.
A word about safety: Before we even stepped foot in Salvador, we were warned repeatedly by locals we’d met elsewhere that we’d be visiting one of Brazil’s most dangerous cities. “Don’t ever walk anywhere at night” and “Even during the day, don’t walk in this area” were drilled into our heads. Although we did take extra security (calling Ubers when we could have walked just a few blocks to a new location or our hotel), we never felt unsafe in Salvador. We avoided going out at night or staying out after dark, and we kept our heads on a swivel. In other words, basic situational awareness and street smarts. We had absolutely no issues.
Next: Heading Inland to Ouro Preto, Deep in Brazil’s Mining Heartland