Architecturally rich and culturally diverse, Brazil’s first capital city has it all. From old colonial buildings to eccentric markets, stunning natural features to the world’s first outdoor lift, as well as museums, churches and galleries, Salvador’s best sights will have you raring to get started.
In 1549, when the Portuguese landed on Brazil’s coast, they built the city of Salvador da Bahia on the shore of the Bay of All Saints. Their impressive European architecture has survived the centuries, and the resulting streets, squares and churches of the historical centre are now a UNESCO World Heritage site, known as the Pelourinho, which means pillory, after the place where slaves were publicly flogged.
One of the most important things about Salvador is the incredible position it occupies on Brazil’s coast. It sits pretty much halfway down the country on the Baía de Todos os Santos, or Bay of All Saints. Larger than Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, it is the largest in the country and a crucial factor in how the city came to be, and to remain, a trading and transport hub. Salvador’s situation also means that it is one of the few places in Brazil where viewers can watch the sun set in the west.
Unable to worship at their masters’ churches, Brazil’s slaves built their own finishing the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos in the 18th century. With two bell towers and painted in pale blue and white, it is an architecturally fine building that still thrives and functions today. Services are a mix of Catholicism and Candomblé, and visitors are usually welcome to observe. It has neoclassical altars inside and a small graveyard for slaves out the back.
Built by Jesuits on the site of their very first church in what is now Salvador, the city’s cathedral is a vast 17th century building on the Terreiro de Jesus square. It is statuesque but unassuming on the outside but glittering with gold inside, and is the venue for frequent concerts and events, as well as church services.
Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is perhaps the most famous of all of Salvador’s hundreds of churches. It has come to represent the co-existence of the two predominant religions in the area: Catholicism and Candomblé, which originated in West Africa. The annual Lavagem do Bonfim is a widely celebrated and not-to-be missed festival involving a procession through town before women wash the steps of the church.
Salvador is a city on two levels. To connect the high and low parts of the city, a lift was built in 1873. The now Art Deco Lacerda Elevator bridges an 85-metre escarpment, taking the public up and down in thirty seconds, hundreds of times a day and giving breathtaking views of the bay and the city.
There is no better place to pick up souvenirs than at Salvador’s Mercado Modelo. With hundreds of stalls selling all things Bahian and other locally made products, it has an excellent selection of food and booze, clothes, shoes, jewellery, art and woodwork, as well as a selection of traditional Brazilian restaurants and bars.
São Joaquim is a grid of narrow alleys stuffed full of everything you might ever need. It is a proper locals’ market, so don’t be surprised by the live animals for sale and the many strange Brazilian fruits, spices and dried foods. The set-up, plus the sacks of pink salted shrimp, make for striking photos.
Since 1698, Salvador’s black and white lighthouse has guided ships safely in and out of the Bay of All Saints from its promontory on the city’s southern tip. It is part of the Santo Antônio fort along with the Nautical Museum, which is a popular tourist stop, and people come daily to climb the lighthouse and watch it being turned on and off in the morning and evening.
Out in the bay and easily visible from the upper city and the Elevador Lacerda, is the large cylindrical São Marcelo fort. It was described by novelist Jorge Amado as “the belly button of Bahia” and has been a crucial defensive point for the Portuguese since the 17th century. Sadly these days it is no longer open to the public, but is worth a peek from up high.
Praia Porto da Barra is widely considered to be Salvador’s best little beach. The crescent of golden sand fills up at weekends and on holidays with merry beachgoers claiming a patch and wading out into the calm waters of the bay. It also offers a prime sunset-watching spot.
Every visitor to Salvador should take a leisurely stroll along the Farol da Barra beach. Like a smaller Ipanema, it is wide and clean with gently crashing waves and plenty of opportunities for people-watching. At Carnival and New Year’s Eve it is at the heart of the city’s celebrations.
Rio Vermelho, or Red River, is Salvador’s answer to a hipster neighbourhood. The city’s young and bohemian hang out out at night in the area, filling the squares, listening to music and threading in and out of restaurants. There are a couple of multi-arts bar-clubs, like Galpão Cheio de Assunto and Commons Studio Bar, and plenty of thrift shops too.
Salvador’s Museum of Modern Art is right on the water’s edge in a large old, colonial manor house. It houses up to five exhibitions inside, has its own sculpture garden in the grounds and a school. A highlight of the place is the weekly Jam no MAM live concert outside every Saturday evening.
Weaving together many of the strands of Salvador’s history and culture, the regular show of Bahian folklore is an unlikely night to remember. The performers use costume, music and dance to play out local tales and demonstrate capoeira on stage. It takes place in a small theatre in the Pelourinho and often brings audiences to their feet.
The Palacete das Artes is also informally known as Salvador’s Rodin museum. The gallery has four of the French sculptor’s pieces, among its other works, and connections to the Musée Rodin in Paris. As well as the fine 1912 building the art is showcased in, there is a stylish new minimalist café in the grounds.
Jorge Amado is one of Brazil’s most beloved and accomplished writers. As he was born in Bahia and lived in Salvador, there are two institutions in his name in the city, both of which are open to the public. Fundação Casa de Jorge Amado has exhibits of the writer’s work, a shop and a café. A Casa do Rio Vermelho is the house where Amado and his wife, Zélia Gattai, lived.
Built in 1549, the Rio Branco Palace in the cidade alta is one of Brazil’s oldest palaces. It is one of the city’s architectural wonders, having been tinkered with and altered extensively over the years. As the former home of the state government, it houses medals and memorabilia from the governors of Bahia. Tours of up to 30 people can be arranged via its webpage.
Pierre Verger (1902-1996) was a French photographer who made Salvador his home and the focus of much of his work. He became fascinated with African culture and particularly with the Candomblé religion. The small foundation dedicated to him gives a good overview of his life and shows the exquisite photos he took.
Salvador’s Casa do Comérico is a state-run cultural centre with a cinema, theatre and restaurant. As well enjoying the performances held within, it is worth a visit to admire the extraordinary building that was constructed for the purpose. It is a futuristic red and black stack of seemingly interlocking sections, overflowing with plants and greenery high up above the street.