Travel: 36 hours in Salvador

Art, good food and colourful nightlife combine to give Brazilian city Salvador a unique and lively charm

salvador

São Francisco Church and Convent

More than anywhere else in this multiethnic country, Salvador is steeped in Afro-Brazilian culture — from the worship of Yoruba deities (orixás), to the acrobatic practice of capoeira, to a cuisine tinged with deep orange dendê oil and smouldering with a stronger dose of hot peppers than the delicate-tongued rest of the country can handle.

The city’s history is rich in literature — it was the home of Jorge Amado, among others — and intertwined with colonialism and the slave trade (Salvador was Brazil’s first capital, from 1549 to 1763).

Today, its youthful energy and deep musical traditions make for a vibrant, often open-air night life. And while crime rates mean not every stretch of town can be explored at will, dirt-cheap ride-share services make it easy to get around safely.

FRIDAY

3pm: History on high

Perched high above Bay of All Saints in the Upper City, the neighborhood of Pelourinho is in the heart of the historic center, a tangle of cobblestone streets and brightly painted colonial buildings with wrought iron balconies that is as Instagrammable as it is lively.

Drum groups pound away in the streets; when they get too loud, flee to pockets of culture, like the Museu Afro-Brasileiro (entrance 6 reais, or about $1.60). Don’t miss the 27 carved-wood panels of orixás — spirits of Candomblé, the syncretic religious practice that pervades life here — by Carybé, an Argentine-turned-Soterpolitano (as locals are known).

The gilded 18th-century São Francisco Church and Convent (5 reais) will leave your jaw agape; don’t bother closing it on your way out, since across the street you will want to try a scoop of the caraíba ice cream (acerola cherry, ginger and lime) at Le Glacier Laporte. Is Pelourinho touristy? Yes. Should you be wary of pickpockets? Yes. Can you visit Salvador without wandering its streets? Not a chance.

salvador
São Francisco Church and Convent

6pm: Cafe and capoeira

Head up Ladeira do Carmo (Carmo Hill) past Carmo Church into the next neighborhood, Santo Antônio Beyond Carmo. This uncreatively named, but charming, and ever-more-hip area has ateliers, cafes and bars with live music along its main — and essentially only — drag, Rua Direita de Santo Antônio (Straight Street of Santo Antônio, no joke).

Most businesses on the west side have stunning views of the bay, so pop into any for a look and a sunset coffee — unless you are staying in an inn along this stretch, in which case you can watch from your own balcony. Just be sure you head to Forte da Capoeira around 7pm for a demonstration of capoeira, a mesmerising martial-arts-like tradition with origins in African rituals brought to Brazil during slavery and routinely outlawed into the 20th century.

salvador
Clams at Mistura Perfeita

8.30pm: Clams and cobblestones

Mouraria is a quiet, low-slung neighborhood of cobblestone streets with restaurants and bars that have been gloriously not prettied up for visitors. It is also the place locals come for lambretas, a local clam so flavorful and juicy that when the waiter at Mistura Perfeita brings out a potful with onion and cilantro (19.90 reais), it is accompanied by a glass of excess broth. The dish will serve two if you start with overstuffed crab meat pastéis, the Brazilian version of an empanada. Should you care for dessert, wandering salesmen unrelated to but tolerated by the restaurant will take care of your needs for around 5 reais.

10.30pm: Downtown samba

Bar do Espanha was a traditional corner bar run by a Spanish family in Salvador’s downtown neighborhood of Barris starting in 1920. But in 2017, when its 90-year-old owner planned to close it, two young clients arranged to buy the place. Arthur Daltro and Uiara Araújo changed its name slightly to Velho Espanha, preserving the wooden ceilings, restoring the tile floors and maintaining a simple, affordable menu of beverages and bar snacks. Weekends bring live music to the cramped interior, where you might find groups playing samba or a local (and self-explanatory) genre called samba reggae. There is no cover, and few covers, since the owners favor bands that compose their own music.

salvador
Offering flowers to Yemanja, goddess of the sea

Saturday

Noon: Must eat

Leaving Salvador without trying moqueca would be as absurd as a pizza-free trip to Naples. The local seafood stew is cooked with coconut milk and bears the orange hue of dendê oil (sometimes called red palm oil). The version served at the no-frills Donana restaurant is highly regarded: It was ranked number one in town by the Comer e Beber (Eating and Drinking) Awards, and number two in town by one of the waiters, as in “only my mom does it better”. The shrimp version is dense with the day’s catch and comes with rice, pirão (a polenta-like manioc dish) and dendê-tinted farofa (toasted manioc flour) for 108.90 reais (for two).

2pm: Author! Author!

Jorge Amado is Salvador’s favorite literary son, his novels often doubling as portraits of 20th-century Salvador and the state of Bahia. The house he shared with his second wife, Zélia Gattai — also a writer of renown — until he died in 2001 is now a museum. A Casa do Rio Vermelho (20 reais), named after its seaside neighborhood, houses their quirky art collection, heavy on the frogs, as well as his library, letters to other famous authors and a multimedia display of famous Brazilians reading passages of his work. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands would be a good pick to prepare for your trip, either in print or Golden Globe-nominated film form.

7pm: Family dinner

The Guerra family’s restaurant and nearby bar have turned a homey little plaza in the Garcia neighborhood into an eating and drinking destination. First came Larriquerrí, serving what his son Gabriel calls “affective memory cuisine”: family recipes he and his brother, Guilherme, grew up eating from their mom’s (Rosa) kitchen.

Trouxinhas de carpaccio, bundles of thin-sliced beef stuffed with ricotta cream and topped with pesto and Parmesan, explode in your mouth with modest decadence. The apricot-and-Brazilian-cheese-filled mezzaluna pasta in Gorgonzola sauce is gloriously unsubtle. So is the atmosphere, a bit chaotic as Romildo, the father, races around, attempting to charm every guest (and succeeding). Dinner for two with wine is about 250 reais.

salvador
Salvador’s colourful streets

Sunday

9am: Market value

Unlike the touristy Mercado Modelo in the Lower City,
the waterfront Feira São Joaquim is a massive, dingy, half-renovated market where, in addition to countless fruits and meat and organs, you will also find medicinal herbs, dendê oil, infused cachaças, even cords of rope-thick tobacco. The highlight is the wide variety of religious items, like the handcrafted crowns and swords and more in a shop called Ilê Alacorô. Have breakfast before you come, unless you dare try a hearty mocotó — cow’s foot stew — at one of the waterfront restaurants.

Noon: T-shirt formal

A half-hour up the coast on the ocean side is the artsy Itapuã neighborhood, best known as the former home of Vinicius de Moraes, the famed poet and bossa nova lyricist. You can pose seated next to an amiable, potbellied statue of him in a small plaza outside his former home.

The best seafood in town is at the nearby white-tablecloth Mistura, where elegant waiters serve an upscale crowd, often somewhat jarringly dressed in Sunday T-shirts and flip-flops. The prix fixe is an astonishing feast for a bargain 129.90 reais. Pile up your plate at the appetizer buffet (sea bass tartare, oysters gratin), then watch as a string of shellfish appetisers are followed by a main course (octopus risotto, perhaps) and dessert. You are a 15-minute drive from attractive Praia do Flamengo (Flamengo Beach), if you want to laze the day away at a beachfront club like Lôro-Stella Maris.

Lodging

salvador

1. The pleasant, relatively safe neighborhood of Rio Vermelho has restaurants, night life and beaches. It is the perfect place to rent an apartment (Airbnb has several listings), with one-bedrooms mostly under $40 a night, not including fees.

2. The Palace Hotel (Orson Welles and Pablo Neruda slept here) fell out of favor in the 1980s and closed in 1997. It reopened, restored to its former Art Deco glory, in 2017 as the Fera Palace Hotel, attracting a new generation of international figures, like Malala Yousufzai. Rooms start at 353 reais; ferapalacehotel.com.br

3. Though pousadas (inns) dot Pelourinho, consider staying in Santo Antônio Além do Carmo. Pousada Das Artes is a fancifully art-filled spot with spacious (if creaky) rooms, an extensive breakfast served overlooking the bay and a pet turtle. Rooms from 220 reais; pousadadasartes.com.br

4. Pousada Do Boqueirão is run by Italian expat siblings Fernanda and Nino Cabrini and is lovely as well, unless you require a television. Full-sized rooms from 380 reais; pousadaboqueirao.com.br