Ah, Rio. The marvelous city that decorates most every popular image of Brazil. The city of Copacabana and Carnaval, where Christ the Redeemer gazes out over endless white sands, backed by the towering peaks of Tijuca Rainforest. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty and romance of Rio. Unfortunately, most tourists on a Brazil vacation do exactly that. They then fly home, thinking they’ve seen the real Brazil. They haven’t.
Like the United States or Canada, there’s simply too many sides to this vast country to be summed up in one city. While Rio may bring together a magical combination of nature, culture, music, beautiful people, urban ambition, and a great beach vacation, Brazil’s puzzle is much, much bigger. It includes historic trading ports, an insatiable love of art, cultural powerhouses, relaxed beach towns, a beautiful opera house overlooking the gateway to the Amazon, and one of the world’s most fascinating planned capitals. Here are ten great Brazilian cities that you should visit aside from Rio on your Brazil vacation.
By the way, Carnaval is celebrated in just about all of them.
Salvador de Bahia
The capital of Bahia state, Salvador, was in fact the first capital of Brazil from 1549 until it passed the torch to Rio in 1808. Many say to visit Salvador is to visit the Brazil of old. In the colourful streets of the Pelourinho district, brightly painted houses lend the city a playful, celebratory appearance year-round, it’s hard not to feel transported. If you’ve been to Portugal, you’ll feel echoes of its influence here, particularly as you ride the Elevator Lacerda between the upper and lower levels of the city. Sadly, that colonial history also means a lot of Salvador’s past is steeped in the slave trade. You’ll learn about this too as you hop through the city’s museums and cultural institutions, and experience the city’s rich African influence. Salvador is considered the heart of African Brazil. Save time for the beach as well. Salvador is a city that proudly offers a little something for everyone, whether it’s historic sightseeing during the day, a relaxing swim and sunbathing, or a sizzling night of samba until dawn. Stick to the tourists areas, however. The wider city has can be a little rough.
Impossibly vast, maligned for its endless sea of grey concrete blocks, yet fiercely vibrant underneath it all, Sao Paulo is “where it all happens” in Brazil. For visitors on a Brazil vacation, that means an insatiable arts culture from fine art galleries to jaw-dropping street art, endlessly hopping nightlife, neighbourhoods that range from gritty urban spaces to rejuvenated hipster hoods to South America’s largest Japanese district, and a restaurant and street food scene sure to get you salivating. In short, Sao Paulo can be overwhelming, but it’s also just plain fun to explore. What it lacks in history or natural beauty it makes up for in ambition, energy, and its share of grit. The city’s well-developed metro and bus system makes it easy (though you’ll want to avoid rush hour in this city of over 12 million people). If you do need to escape it all, stretch your legs or rent a bike in Ibirapuera Park. The park also happens to be home to some of Brazil’s best museums, should you need to beat the heat.
Why Your Brazil Vacation Shouldn’t Skip Sao Paulo
Brazil’s capital and third largest city is an architectural wonder that urban explorers shouldn’t miss. A planned city less than 60 years old (its basic structure was completed in just four), Brasilia owes its unique architectural highlights to one man, Oscar Niemeyer. Most of his creations surround the Monumental Axis, including the National Congress. The Cathedral of Brasilia reaches to the sky with its spires like an elaborate headdress. Alvorada Palace serves as the official residence of the President of Brazil. Itamaraty Palace houses the Ministry of External Relations, while scenic waterfalls cascade from the Palace of Justice’s stern façade. There’s lots here to keep your camera busy, but you may want to book an organized day tour. Brasilia was built with individual cars in mind, and notable buildings around the Monumental Axis are particularly spread out.
Meaning “beautiful horizon,” Belo Horizonte is famous for its restaurants and small bars, which probably help its reputation as the friendliest big city in Brazil. There aren’t that many tourist attractions per se, so it’s a chance to see the “real” Brazil at work and play. Be sure to zip up to Mirante Mangabeiras to see the view that gave Belo Horizonte its name, get your history fix around Liberdade Square, and leave the city behind, enjoying nature in Americo Renne Giannetti Park. Belo Horizonte’s main attraction however lies about a 90 minute drive out of town. Inhotim is an expansive and beautiful park filled with a rotating roster of contemporary art works, many of which are interactive. You may find yourself bouncing through a giant playpen for big kids, swimming in a pool disguised as a keyboard, or listening to the sounds of the earth itself as miners go to work within far off mountains. Innovative architecture and incredible gardens make Inhotim a one-of-a-kind Brazilian art experience, but driving there can be a little confusing, and Brazilian roads (and driving habits) aren’t ideal for timid visitors. Book a spot on the bus that runs almost daily from Belo Horizonte, and splash out for a pass to use the transports that whisk visitors around the vast park.
While they don’t have the soaring peaks of Rio’s Tijuca Rainforest behind them, the beaches of north eastern Brazil are absolutely stunning. There are several cities that deserve your consideration on your Brazil vacation, but Recife offers perhaps the ideal blend of beautiful sands, a fascinating history, and ideal positioning for excursions and side trips. Recife’s star beach is Boa Viagem, located between its namesake avenue and the ocean. The city also includes a beautiful old town, with colourful architecture that might remind you of Salvador’s Pelourinho. Recife is a bit grittier however, so take care exploring and try to stay where there are people around. It’s a fantastic base for day trips, including the historic colonial city Olinda. You’re also just a 45 minutes flight from Fernando de Noronha. This Atlantic archipelago is one of Brazil’s natural treasures, with a maritime national park and strict visitor caps to preserve its beauty and ecosystem.
Fortaleza is another big, colourful beach destination in north eastern Brazil. Its historic centre is smaller than Recife’s, but it’s surrounded by, many would argue, even more beautiful beaches, including Futuro, Iracema, and Cumbuco. Some are better for swimming than others, and there can be safety concerns at the less populated spots, so do your research, use common sense, and stick with your fellow travellers. Don’t let this reality discourage you either. Fortaleza is one of Brazil’s most popular destinations for domestic tourists, and in a country with so many worthy competitors, that’s a pretty good endorsement! As the cultural hub of northern Brazil, you’ll also find some great attractions away from the beach including the Ceara Museum and Dragao do Mar Centre of Art and Culture. You can easily fly to Fernando de Noronha from here as well, and reach the beautiful and popular fishing village of Jericoacoara. Numerous 4×4 and bus services bring visitors here from Fortaleza.
Truth be told, you’re probably not going to spend long in Manaus itself on your trip to Brazil, but if you’re heading to the Amazon, you’ll probably pass through anyway, so this city in the rainforest is worth a quick stop. The city’s most beloved building is its colourful opera house, Teatro Amazonas. Built on the wealth generated by rubber, this magnificent building offers tours in English, and even free shows if you check the schedule. Be sure to take a boat out to the Meeting of Waters, where the black waters of the Rio Negro run alongside the pale Amazon for several kilometres without ever mixing.
Florianopolis is one of Brazil’s undisputed treasures. Split between the mainland and Santa Catarina Island, it boasts a collection of jaw-dropping beaches, a year-round idyllic climate, and is generally considered much safer than most Brazilian cities, making it a good option for visitors who might be nervous about the beach cities of the north east. Florianopolis is a modern city best used as a springboard for exploring the rest of Santa Catarina Island, so it doesn’t hold a candle to say, Recife or Salvador for cultural attractions. But if you’re looking to get beyond Rio in a city with well-developed tourist infrastructure, relatively little crime, and some of South America’s most glorious beaches, Florianopolis is a great stop to add to your Brazil vacation.
Curitiba will appeal to a specific kind of visitor to Brazil – the kind wanting to get an optimist’s eyeful of what the country’s future could be. Renowned worldwide for its environmental initiatives, innovative and efficient public transit system, and eclectic architecture combining Brazilian, European, and futuristic visions, Curitiba is a Brazil envied by much of the country. While urban planners look to it for inspiration, urban explorers flock to it for top notch restaurants, a lively bar and club scene, and varied shopping options, including Brazil’s only glass covered, 24-hour shopping street. There’s a small historic district as well, and just in case Curitiba needed any more cred as a design hub, the eye-shaped Oscar Niemeyer Museum stands atop a 65 foot pillar surrounded by water – because it can.
Tucked away in Brazil’s far south, Porto Alegre is one of the country’s best cities for culture vultures. Historic districts such as Cidade Baixa come alive after dark, welcoming all who wish to enjoy the good vibes. Escape to Parque Farroupilha when you need some fresh air, or take in the colourful, organized chaos of the Public Market. Porto Alegre is arguably Brazil’s most European city, and the Portuguese influence here is alive and well, particularly in the local cuisine. The locals are also masters of the famed churrascaria, or Brazilian barbecue. Need to get out of town? Visit the mountain resort village of Gramado. A wonderfully weird photographer’s delight, this shameless tourist town feels like a mash-up of Europe and Disneyland, and if you believe TripAdvisor, it’s Brazil’s second most popular destination behind Rio!