Salvador, Brazil's coastal former capital, is a striking city 750 mi/1,200 km northeast of Rio de Janeiro. It lies on the beautiful Bay of All Saints (Bahia de Todos os Santos), the second-largest bay in the country. There is a strong African influence derived from the slaves brought to work in the sugarcane fields more than 400 years ago.
Salvador is divided into an Upper Town and a Lower Town; both are linked by the art-deco Lacerda elevator, which offers outstanding views. The Pelourinho is the largest intact colonial center in the Americas. Its twisting, narrow cobblestoned streets are lined with pastel mansions and stunning baroque churches and convents. Colorful open-air markets, an amazing array of popular and religious festivals (including Afro-Brazilian Candomble ceremonies) and fantastic beaches make this an excellent place to stay for two or three nights.
No tour of the city is complete without seeing the Igreja de Sao Francisco—although it's relatively plain on the outside (as are most Portuguese churches in Brazil), the inside is covered in gold leaf and is as ornate as it is beautiful. Also visit the Farol da Barra, a 16th-century fortified lighthouse that overlooks the Bay of All Saints and the island of Itaparica.
The Igreja do Bonfim is where believers from the northeast go to worship and pay for the promises they made in return for miracles (don't miss the Room of Miracles, where pilgrims leave wooden, silver or wax replicas of body parts in need of miraculous healing—you'll be amazed by the number of arms, legs, heads, hearts and lungs dangling from the ceiling). Dozens of other stunning colonial churches are sprinkled throughout Salvador's center and colonial district, including the Cathedral Igreja Nossa Senhora Rosario dos Pretos (built by and for slaves), Igreja do Carmo and Igreja Nossa Senhora da Conceicao.
Shopping is good at boutiques in the Barra and Pelourinho neighborhoods, as well as at shopping malls such as Barra and Iguatemi. The touristy Mercado Modelo is great for small, kitschy souvenirs. The chaotic but colorful Sao Joaquim market has interesting and authentic Afro-Brazilian artifacts.
You can see other reminders of the city's past at the Museu Carlos Costa Pinto and the Museu de Arte Sacra. The city's culture is celebrated in the Museu da Cidade (Yoruba tribal displays) and the Afro-Brazilian Museum (with good explanations about Afro-Brazilian religions). Try to attend a candomble religious ceremony at a traditional house or terreiro, and watch capoeira, an amazing combination of martial arts and African folk dance (don't take pictures of the participants unless you are willing to pay for the privilege).
Salvador also has a great Carnival celebration. Billed as the largest street party in the world, it is seven days of nonstop revelry that has grown so big it threatens to eclipse even Rio de Janeiro's Carnival.
North of Salvador are the lovely fishing villages and beaches of the Coconut Coast, including Arembepe, Imbassai and the more upscale Praia do Forte, which borders the Sapiranga Ecological Reserve. The reserve protects one of Brazil's last areas of ancient Atlantic rain forest. Itaparica, a lush island 12 mi/19 km southwest, has several nice beaches and a great view of Salvador across the bay. Every hour, the Sao Joaquim Ferry makes the 45-minute crossing. A high-speed launch also makes the trip in 15 minutes.
Note: Salvador has more than its share of poverty and crime. When you're having a soda or beer in an open bar or cafe (particularly in the Pelourinho), be prepared for beggars with cups or glasses to ask you for a drink. Crime directed at tourists can be a problem. However, both the Pelourinho and the beaches at Barra are well-supervised by special tourist police. For safety's sake, however, dress simply and take taxis after dark.
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