Salvador’s old city is brimming with colonial architecture and promises a rich cultural experience down every turn. Take in the best of the historic Pelourinho district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Salvador with Culture Trip’s top 10 exciting things to see and do.
Igreja de São Francisco
Gilded interiors of this church and convent are awe-inspiring, to say the least. The Portuguese-Baroque architecture and detailing are among the best examples in all of Brazil, making this stop well worth the time. The intricate artwork and gold-covered ceilings demand you slow down and look up for a good while during your visit.
This martial art has strong roots in Bahia, but its popularity as a sport has grown to include practitioners all over the world. Check out a live capoeira jogo or game in the historic square, and watch as the two capoeiristas dance in a dizzying array of kicks, spins, and feints to live traditional music. It’s a mesmerizing experience that offers an important look into Afro-Brazilian history.
Ride the elevator
Hop on the Elevador Lacerda and experience the two divisions of Salvador: the upper and lower city. Built in 1873, the elevator is 236 feet (72 meters) high. At the top, don’t forget to snap a pic of Baía de Todos os Santos, or All Saints’ Bay, where you’ll have a great panoramic view.
After taking the Elevador Lacerda down to the lower city, make your way to the Mercado Modelo on the harbor. Wander the aisles of this large market to pick up any souvenir for which you’re willing to bargain. The historic yellow building houses all kinds of vendors and is a must-see in the Pelourinho district.
Speaking of souvenirs, the traditional Fita de Bonfim is a popular item to take home from Salvador. These ribbons come in various colors to signify different wishes, and they are usually wrapped around the wearer’s wrist and left there until they wear all the way through. You’ll see plenty of these ribbons throughout the city, tied on church fences and the wrists of Bahians. Get yours and make your three wishes before you leave the city.
The Pelourinho district comes alive at night, with live music and dancing practically spilling out into the streets. Hop into whatever samba bar suits your taste and be prepared to join in the fun. Ask a local for a little help with the first steps and the rhythm, and then relax into the music. Samba is all about letting go, so enjoy yourself, and indulge in a caipirinha or two – it doesn’t hurt to loosen up.
Peruse the local art scene
Bahia and Salvador are fertile grounds for African-inspired art, so hop into some local shops, art galleries, and museums to see what strikes your fancy. The Pelourinho area is great for perusing textiles as well, so don’t limit yourself to what hangs on a wall. Chat with the artists if you can to see what inspires their art, and you’ll likely get a great story about the Afro-Brazilian culture.
After a day of sightseeing, take a break at Praça Municipal, which is also known as Praça Tomé de Souza, the heart of colonial Brazil for over 200 years, giving weight to the idea of a historic center. In the plaza, you’ll also find the Palácio do Rio Branco, which was originally designed to be the governor’s palace. The Palácio was hit hard over the years by makeovers, construction, and even bombardments, which is part of the reason for its mix of architectural styles. It’s been a palace and a prison in the past, but today, it houses Bahia’s Ministry of Culture.
Bahian cuisine is renowned throughout Brazil for being some of the best. It has some deep African ties, and you should check out at least one street food stand during your stay. Traditional foods include acarajé, a fried bean snack often topped with shrimp. Some stands are so popular that you may need to wait in line; however, it’s worth it.
To get a true feel for the culture of Bahia, head to this little museum by the docks. A woman wearing traditional Baiana clothes and her winning smile will likely be the person greeting you. The Museu de Arte da Bahia, or Bahia Art Museum, is the oldest museum in Bahia and is an important linchpin of preserving the state’s heritage. It has a substantial collection of paintings by local and foreign artists and also hosts seminars and special cultural events throughout the year.