While often overlooked by tourists in favor of the natural Amazonian wonders on offer inland, Belém is one of Brazil’s most cultural gem cities to visit. Here are the top 10 must-see attractions to add to your bucket list.
The northern Brazilian state of Para is home to a large portion of the Amazon rainforest as well as the imposing Amazon, Tapajós, Xingu and Tocantins rivers. Belém, the state capital, is a fascinating city. From the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th centuries through the rubber boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, the city tells the story of Brazil’s history. Today, there’s a lively mix of activities, markets, restaurants, museums and gardens to discover on your trip to Belém.
The late chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain often said that the first thing he did when visiting a new city was tour its municipal market. If you want to get a real feel for a city’s habits, culture and way of life, spend time around local market sellers, and discover their wares. At Belém’s Ver-o-Peso market, Bourdain’s maxim rings truer than ever. Located on the docks of Guajará bay, the Mercado Ver-o-Peso (originally called Haver-o-Peso, which translates to “have the weight”) dates back to 1625 and is considered to be the largest open-air market in Latin America.A vast complex made up of a fish market, butcher’s market, craft stalls, fruit and veg, exotic spices and herbs, and antiques, visitors can spend hours perusing the items on sale and will want to come back for more. Head there for lunch on the weekend and grab a seat at one of the countless food kiosks. For one of the best pieces of fried fish in town, visit Box da Lúcia and order the peixe, along with a delicious bowl of pulped açai berries and a cold bottle of Tijuca beer. Alternatively, for something tourists don’t often get to see, get down to the market in the wee hours of the morning and catch the boats coming ashore, filled to the brim with the fresh seafood, as well as freshly picked açai. Work starts very early at the Ver-o-Peso (some stalls are already set up before 4am), so don’t forget to set your alarm!
Belém was one of the pivotal cities during Brazil’s rubber boom at the turn of the 19th century. At the time, the US and Europe were industrializing at a frantic pace, and rubber was a valued commodity in the manufacturing of cars and other machinery. And until the 1910s, rubber was only grown in the Amazon. Belém became the gateway to the Amazon for rubber-traders, and was one of the first Brazilian cities to be modernized. Rich European families flooded to Belém and transformed the city with ornate architecture, earning the city the nickname of the Paris of the Americas.The biggest symbol of Belém’s rubber wealth was the Theatro da Paz, a luxurious Neoclassical theater built in the 1870s. With its marble floors, dramatic frescoes and pristine chandeliers, walking around the Theatro da Paz today gives an indelible impression of what Belém was like back in its belle époque. The interior is very well-preserved, and visitors can see the golden-paved path leading directly from the entrance up to the Emperor’s Box, built specially for Pedro II of Brazil, who never once visited the theater. Guided tours are offered every weekday from 9am till 5pm, and from 9am till 12pm on weekends. Visits cost just R$6 (US $1.60), and entrance is free on Wednesdays. The theater still hosts performances, mainly operas and concerts, with tickets on sale at the box office.
A short walk from the Mercado Ver-o-Peso in Belém’s old town, with its tight streets and colonial architecture, is the Complexo Feliz Lusitania, a cluster of important historical buildings that tell the story of the city well before the rubber boom. The most striking is the Forte do Presepio, a 400-year-old fort which looks out onto Guajará bay. Today, it houses a small, fascinating museum displaying the colonization of the north of Brazil. The Feliz Lusitania is also made up of the Casa das Onze Janelas, an ornate mansion and art museum, the late Renaissance-style Museu de Arte Sacra, and the impressive Se Cathedral.
A refreshing counterpoint to the busy Mercado Ver-o-Peso is the beautiful Estação das Docas, a stylish and upmarket promenade. With bars, restaurants, ice-cream shops, boutique stores and live music, it is the entertainment hub of 21st-century Belém. Beautifully maintained and well lit, the docks are an ideal place to spend a late afternoon, watching the sun set over the bay while sipping excellent local craft beer at Amazon Beer, or sampling some of the best of northern Brazilian cuisine at Lá em Casa. The Estação das Docas is also the departure point for a number of boat tours around Guajará bay.
On one of Belém’s many gorgeous and sunny days, visit the stunning Mangal das Garças, a botanical garden and small zoo, located in the southwest of the city. Its lush green grounds are filled with exotic birds and massive iguanas (who love sunbathing by the lake). The park is free to enter, but if you pay an entrance fee of R$15 (US $3.68), you will also have access to the butterfly house, aviaries and the lighthouse. While you’re there, make the most of your trip and grab a late lunch at the nearby Mormaço Bar, a stilt house bar sitting over the water, serving excellent local food and drink.
If you haven’t had your fill of wildlife after visiting Mangal das Garças, make sure to check out the Museu Emilio Goeldi, an excellent zoo and museum in the upmarket neighborhood of Nazare. You’ll see a wide range of animal species, including giant otters, anteaters and jaguars. The entire animal population at the Museu Emilio Goeldi were rescued from either deforestation or illegal trafficking, and are cared for daily by vets and biologists.
If you’ve spent any time in Brazil before, you’ll know all about cachaça – the delicious national spirit made from sugarcane juice and the star of the show in the famous caipirinha cocktail. Likewise, if you’ve heard anything about cuisine in the north of Brazil, you may have heard of jambu, the flowering herb that causes a tingling and numbing sensation in the mouth when consumed. What you probably haven’t heard of is cachaça de jambu, which is a variant of the famous spirit made with the herb and is a local specialty of the state of Para.The story goes that jambu cachaça was invented by Leo Porto, the proud owner of the Meu Garoto bar in downtown Belém. The establishment itself is a joy for cachaça lovers and admirers of the classic Brazilian boteco-style bar. With a welcoming atmosphere, 1980s pop videos playing on the screens, and a wall full of different varieties of infused cachaça, including the famous jambu, you could spend the entire night in Meu Garoto – just don’t plan on driving home afterwards.
Food from the state of Para is among the best in the whole continent. With an incredible array of saltwater and freshwater fish and the most exotic ingredients, which are near impossible to find elsewhere in the country (but which are staples in the north), those in the know take Paraense cuisine very seriously. While the standard of food all around Belém is high – cheap diners will sell excellent pieces of pirarucu fish, or bowls of deep, rich manitoba stew – if you want a truly once-in-a-lifetime gastronomic experience, book yourself a table for dinner at Remanso do Bosque, Belém’s top restaurant.Run by the Castanho brothers, the food at Remanso do Bosque is truly spectacular. There are a wide range of creative and exciting starters and desserts which use Amazonian ingredients to put twists on haute cuisine classics. And for the main courses, while there are several options on the menu, the only dish you should choose is the grilled filhote, a massive freshwater fish sometimes known as the goliath catfish. Prepared simply on the barbecue, the buttery, meaty filhote falls apart with the simple touch of a fork, and it may well be the best piece of fish you’ve ever tasted.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Belém in October, you’ll witness the city’s incredible religious festival known as Cirio de Nazare, often referred to by locals as “the biggest party you’ve never heard about”. Cirio typically consists of a large procession from the old town out to the impressive Nazare Basilica, carrying a statue of Our Lady of Nazareth which was found near the church in the 1700s and was believed to have performed miracles. The entire city comes to a standstill with block parties and parades.
For a fun-filled short day trip, grab a boat from the south of the city across the Guama river to Ilha do Combú, a lovely island covered in natural forest and known locally as the land of cacao and açai. Ask your speedboat driver to drop you off at Dona Nena, a charming chocolate factory where you can learn about the production of chocolate, which is done on-site from the cacao picked on the island. There are plenty of delicious products to take home, as well as free samples. The boats to Combú leave from Princesa Isabel docks, in what is a somewhat sketchy part of town. The docks themselves are perfectly safe, often with a steady stream of locals and tourists making the trip across the river but it is advisable to take a taxi to and from the docks.