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« Salvador de Bahia »… The name itself takes you under the coconut trees, to the sound of bossa nova. Bahia state’s capital, which spreads along the Bay of all Saints, must be on your list while visiting Brazil. The once first capital city of the country has a unique culture born from portuguese and african influences. I had the chance to fully explore it last winter with a really good friend who lives there. If you want to know the 10 best things to do in Salvador, this article is for you!
(Please note: in this article, I am using quite average-quality photos I took on my phone… Stick until the end of the article to know why !)
But before we kick things off: Salvador, and Brazil in general, equals music. So to get you in the mood, listen to this tune by Gilberto Gil, famous singer from Salvador 😉
Table of contents
If you had to see one place in Salvador, it would be the historical neighborhood of Pelourinho. Explosion of colors, furious rhythms of capoeira, little paved streets and majestic baroque churches… Pelourinho is the soul of Salvador. Although the quarter has a very dark history (it was once home of the New World’s first slave market), its atmosphere is no less festive nowadays. Make sure not to miss the churches of San Francisco and Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos pretos and, if you fancy it, stop by the House of Carnival. At dusk, go admire the sunset from the heights.
As a sidenote: the neighborhood is so famous that several music videos were shot here, such as this one from Michael Jackson 😉
2. Church Nosso Senhor do Bonfim
Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is the city’s main center of Catholicism. From the top of the Sagrada Colina (sacred hill), the impressive house of God peacefully looks after the inhabitants of Salvador. Many of those come and pray the « Lord of Good ending » to heal a relative – hence the nickname of church of miracles. The famous fitas do Bonfim hang on the churche’s grids. These colorful ribbons, usually tied around the wrist, are known for making wishes come true.
While you’re here, I highly recommand you finish the day in style at the nearby lighthouse of Ponto do Humaita. You’ll deeply enjoy the serene atmosphere there. Everyone seems to be in their own world: the young couple whispering by the sea, the old man gently looking after his grand kids, the rasta playing the guitar at the chapel’s door… The sunset is simply magical.
3. Itaparica and Ilha dos Frades islands
Did you ask for dream beaches? Well, my friend, you’ll be served. To escape the hustle of the city, go on a one-day trip to the islands of Itaparica and Ilha dos Frades. Located off Salvador’s coast, their crystal-clear water, lush vegetation and georgous viewpoints will take you straight to paradise. How to get there: it’s quite difficult and not recommanded to go by yourself. The best option is to book an organized tour that starts from Salvador’s Nautical Terminal, in the lower city. Don’t buy your tickets online, it’s ridiculously overpriced! We got ours directly there for only 50 real/person, (about $9!) – if I remember well, the price can be bargained. The boat will take you to both islands and the fare includes drinks, fresh snacks and even a live band on board 😉 ! Don’t be startled if they make you pay 25 more real when you get to Ilha dos Frades: it’s a preservation tax, as the island is a protected natural area.
4. Lacerda elevator
The Lacerda elevator is undoubtedly one of Salvador’s landmarks. It was built at the end of the 19th century and it connects the lower city (cidade baixa) to the upper city (cidade alta). If you’ve been to Lisbon, this will remind you of the elevator of Santa Justa, which has the same function! Back then, it was the world’s highest and most avant-garde elevator. So even if aesthetically speaking, we’re not there yet (I’m personally not digging it), the elevator is still remarkable from a technical engineering point of view. And also… who wouldn’t enjoy that view?
5. Rio Vermelho
If you asked me which neighborhood of Salvador reached my heart, I’d have to go for that one. Rio Vermelho (« red river« ) is synonymous with open-air artwork, gypsy atmosphere, little restaurants and super cozy bars. The beach is not only stunning but also sacred in the eyes of the locals, since it welcomes every year the celebrations of Yemanja, goddess of the sea who’s highly worshipped in Salvador and who draws her roots in African beliefs. Art and litterature lovers should head to the Casa do Rio Vermelho, which is where the writter Jorge Amado and his wife Zelia Gattai used to live. You’ll learn a lot about the lives of these two fascinating artists and about Bahianese culture, that greatly inspired their works.
My tip: for a moment of pure relaxation, stop by the Blue Praia Bar. Cocktails, private beach, chilled background music…it’s heaven on Earth! A picture is worth thousand words, so go check out their Instagram account:
6. Praia do Forte
« Fort’s beach » is the name given to one of the region’s most beautiful villages. It is located 50 miles North of Salvador. I highly recommand you spend a day there! This place was definately a highlight of my trip. Praia do Forte was originally a fisherman’s village, before it became the charming seaside resort and eco-tourism site it is today. Indeed, it hosts the Tamar Project, that works for the protection of sea turtles. Both locals and tourists rush to their center (see Instagram post above), that raises awareness about the protection of these marvelous animals. But Praia do Forte is also a beautiful village lined with postcard-worthy beaches and the country’s single medieval castle: the Castelo Garcia D’Avila.
If you’re not too sure about how to get there, I recommand you book an all-inclusive tour that starts from Salvador. This one covers all best activities for a fair price!
7. Forte São Diogo
São Diogo’s fort is located in the Barra quarter, which we will cover in more details in the next section. Back when Salvador was the capital of Brazil, the fort was used to prevent ennemy invasions. Today, it is home of a cultural center that’s worth the visit: the Espaço Carybé de Artes. The interactive visit displays masterpieces of the famous Argentino-Brazilian painter Carybé, who spent some of his life in Salvador.
My tip: make sure to align the end your visit with the beginning of dusk! A beautiful lightshow is then projected on the fort’s walls: with the sun setting on the sea as a background, the sight is breathtaking. Then, have a drink at the Mirante Forte São Diogo, by the fort. It ain’t the cheapest bar, but the cocktails and the views are definately worth the money! Loved seeing everyone applauding the second when the sun disappears behind the horizon.
8. Farol da Barra
The neighbordhood of Barra is home to the city’s most famous beaches. Frankly speaking, I found the neighborhood too crowded to actually enjoy it, but it still is a must-see in Salvador. It’s quite interesting from a historical point of view, as three colonial forts are located there – including the Barra’s lighthouse (« Farol da Barra »), that features the Marine Museum. The ligthouse is also famous for its perfect orientation to admire the sunset. When it comes to beaches, I’d suggest you head towards the Farol da Barra beach, which is much more peaceful than Porto da Barra beach. Well, unless you want to mingle with the crowd of locals blasting funk music and fuming the beach with smoke of barbecue – which is another kind of experience haha! Good to note that the Farol da Barra beach is also the perfect surfing spot!
For a unique way of enjoying the sunset, you can go on a catamaran cruise. Click here for more info.
9. Mercado Modelo
Mercado Modelo is the ideal place to shop for souvenirs – so you can show off back home: « Here, I brought you a little something from my last holiday in Brazil ». In this huge indoor market, you’ll find local specialities, handcrafts and pieces of clothing. Keep in mind, though, that it’s full of tourist traps – stay alert and always bargain prices! For your lunch break, make your way to the restaurant on the second floor: from that terrace, the view on the Bay of All Saints is priceless!
10. Local specialties!
Your trip isn’t complete as long as you haven’t tried the typical dishes of Bahia’s region! The amazingly tasty local ingredients are perfectly handled in this african-influenced cuisine. As I’m more accustomed to European and Asian tastes, this was a great discovery. Bahia food really is equal to its people: colorful, rich and generous! Make sure to try:
– Acarajé: bean-paste balls fried in palm oil (very common there). Often served with chili sauce and dried shrimps.
– Moqueca: fish or shrimp stew with tomato, onions, garlic and coriander, served in a terracotta plate – see picture.
– Feijoada baiana: the bahianese version of the famous national dish: the feijoada. Made of black beans, rice and pork.
– Vatapa: dish made of fish, coconut milk and peanut.
Don’t miss on these other must-try foods if this is your first time in Brazil: açai (purple berries from the Amazon forest, generally served in a sort of ice-cream form with toppings – freaking delicious and also super healthy) and pão de queijo (small buns made of tapioca flour and filled with cheese… watch out, you won’t be able to stop).
What about the carnival?
Would be a shame not to mention carnival, right? After all, Salvador’s carnival is the second biggest in Brazil after Rio’s! If you want to attend it (probably not in 2021, due to covid, but in the future 😉 ), plan to go at the end January or February (the exact date changes every year). Salvador’s carnival is an outpouring of joy and one of the greatest folk festival on Earth! Get ready to dance to the beat of axe, THE typical Afro-brazilian rythm. Also: notice that Yemanja’s celebrations, previously mentionned, take place on February 2nd. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
Solo female travel in Brazil
When I announced to my relatives I was going solo to Brazil, I often got the same comment: « Are you not afraid? ». Well, first of all, I wasn’t exactly travelling « solo », since I was staying at my brazilian friend’s family. But most importantly: once I was there, I was fully aware of the potential danger and I rigourously followed the advice of my friend, her family and friends. But if you don’t have a whole army of locals on your back, here are some tips for you:
1. Don’t show off your valuable stuff in public. Here’s why I hardly ever used my DSLR camera: I almost never brought it with me! Don’t count your money in public. Same thing goes with jewels: leave them at home 😉
2. Always plan your itineraries in advance so you don’t need to venture randomly. Some neighborhoods and favelas must be avoided. On the same note, don’t look lost. If you need to ask for a direction or check it on your phone, do it in a shop instead of going in circles on the street.
3. Learn some local phrases to get away with awkward situations, like refusing to buy something from street vendors, who can be quite pushy (also, « free » souvenirs are never free hehe).
4. In terms of transports: the only times I wasn’t in my friend’s car, I used Uber. It’s pretty common there. My friend is used to sending someone a text with her itinerary and the car’s details, so they can follow her ride. There’s a subway, although poorly connected, but be aware of pickpockets.
5. It sounds obvious, but avoid going out at night. Especially by yourself! It felt very strange to discover that after a certain hour, cars are allowed to run the light so you don’t have to pull over in a risky zone…
6. More generally, don’t get too paranoid! You must stay alert, sure, as there aren’t many girls travelling solo in Brazil. But don’t forget to enjoy your trip! Brazilians are one of the cheeriest and warmest people I’ve met. I was often taken for a Bahianese, with my tanned skin and curly hair, and it got me a bunch of super friendly conversations with locals!
Looks like you’re all set! Get your hats, swimming suits and havaianas ready – Salvador is only waiting for you!
To wrap this up, I’d like to say a huge thank you to one of my greatest friends, Caroline, for welcoming me with open arms in her extraordinary country. Muito obrigada, querida!