Without a doubt, the colonial town of Olinda on Brazil’s northeast coast would have to be one of the most colourful places we’ve visited.
Built on hills straddling the turquoise ocean, this UNESCO listed town ought to be on anyones itinerary, should they consider travelling though this part of the country.
Home to loads of colonial dwellings, Baroque churches, chapels and convents, this was also once the beating heart of the sugarcane industry.
Today it has a thriving arts and crafts community, brimming with galleries, workshops and studios that dabble in a variety of mediums. It drips with character as well as tropical humidity, and it sure deserves at least a couple of days from anyone that chooses to visit.
Aside from the colourful facades on many of Olinda’s 17th-century houses, what stands out the most is the abundance of murals just about everywhere you look. It truly is like an open air gallery.
Is that coffee I smell?
There aren’t many cafes in town, but one that’s worth dropping into can be found in the rear of Estação 4 Cantos Galeria, inside an 18th-century townhouse. The front of the shop is an eclectic collection of handmade glassware, sculptures, paintings, jewellery and clothing – not enormous, but definitely worth a poke around.
Opening at 2 pm, the cafe at the back is semi-indoors and wraps around a small grassy courtyard, complete with fishpond. There’s a bunch of stuff on the small menu if food is what you’re here for – think bruschetta, soups, quiches and sandwiches – but coffee is good enough for us. And it was good enough for this fussy pair of coffee snobs.
Eat & Drink.
A stones-throw from the galeria is one of the more popular eateries you can find in this part of town; although it probably is more about the drinks, to be honest. Some may call it a pub, others could call it a lanchonete. One thing for sure is that the locals love to hang around here for hours – sipping on anything cold and alcoholic, chatting at the tops of their voices and nibbling on a plate of whatever’s going – way into the night.
Food-wise, there’s a bunch of pratos do casa (plates of the house) as single or double portions and petiscos (small plates) up for grabs – all of which are your typical Brazilian staples. We did the carne do sol com fritas (34) – sun-cured beef that’s pan-tossed with onions, served with fries topped with cheese powder and eaten using toothpicks. There’s always some kind of pimenta (chilli sauce) either on the table or up at the counter for a bit of a spicy kick.
He may not have substantial food on his menu, but the chirpy dude that owns Rei do Coco across the road from Igreja Santo Antônio do Carmo sure does satisfy the açaí lover on a hot day. It’s not all about açaí, either, as you can get your fill on fried snacks like croquettes and pastels; all washed down with a fresh coconut straight from the fridge.
If having lunch whilst being surrounded by original art is more your thing, then I’d probably take the few steps up off Rua Prudente de Morais and choose one of the few tables in this cafe-cum-gallery.
Most of the paintings are done by resident artist Cipriano Sánchez, and his partner Valdir Brito (at least we think it’s his partner) is the chef of the house. The menu is a business card wallet filled with hand-written cards describing each dish – about eight savoury dishes and one dessert, plus a few ice creams.
It may be a small menu, but it does have some decent choices – like cannelloni filled with broccoli, shrimp and palm heart or couscous with chicken and beef jerky.
We were both very happy with our dishes, especially the tortilla Espanhola (22) with onion and oregano. My bobo de camarāo (25) – mashed yucca with shrimp – was very delicious and beautifully golden from dendê oil.
The several nights we spent in town were based at Pousada dos Quatro Cantos – a 19th-century neoclassical mansion transformed into a very comfortable place to stay.
Guests can splash out and move into one of the suites, lux or super lux rooms fitted-out with antiques, but one of the economic double rooms was good enough for us.
Small swimming pool, beautiful terrace gardens, free wifi and breakfast included.
Oh, that breakfast! One of the best we encountered thoughout our entire Brazil travels. Many regional dishes are part of the beautiful buffet such as tapioca, rice pudding, fried cassava and angu – a polenta-like dish.
And those caramelised bananas in sugar syrup! We couldn’t get enough of those.
Walking the streets of Olinda is the only way you can get a feel of what it’s all about, despite the undulating cobbles and sometimes very steep hills. Your legs sure do get a workout, so comfy shoes are probably the way to go.
One of the steepest hills has to be the part of Rua Bispo Coutinho just below Igreja de Nossa Santa da Misericordia. It’s a killer! All is rewarded when you reach the top and take in the stunning architecture along the road. Then there’s the view over Olinda and wall of skyscrapers in Recife about 8 kilometres away.
There’s a bunch of touristy stores selling the usual tat, plus many religious figurines. Cool down with an ice cream or açaí beneath multi-coloured umbrellas, or continue along Alto da Sé to the imposing Igreja São Salvador do Mundo that looks down over the old town.
Just near it is Caixa D’Agua, an unusual looking water tower built in 1934. Pay a few reais and you can take a glass elevator to the top for some pretty smashing views up and down the coast.
As the afternoons near sundown, Alto da Sé transforms into an open-air food market that runs right into the night. Families, teenagers and tourists all mill about creating a buzz as the vendors do their best to lure you in to try whatever they’re offering.
Loads of tapioqueiras sell an assortment of savoury and sweet tapiocas, or you could try the acarajé or skewers of meat.
For my first ever acarajé, I sample the one served up at Barraca das Morenas Marelene Axé. They’re basically black eye pea fritters that have been slowly fried in golden dendê oil. A slit is cut into it, then it gets filled with caruru (thick stew of okra, nuts, dried shrimp and other bits) and then vatupá (a thick concoction of coconut, beans, spices etc). To finish it gets topped with some kind of salsa as well as tiny whole shrimp.
Eating it is a bit of a messy exercise and the taste is rich, salty, a little oily and completely stodgy.
Tapiocas are just as prevalent at the night food market, and the only challenging part is choosing which one. It was the puppy dog eyes we received from Dona Maria when walking past her barraca that made us turn around and sample her food. I bet she does that to everyone!
Her menu is as extensive as the next person and she’s pretty heavy handed with the fillings. They were so good that we returned a couple of nights later.
Coconut, coalho cheese and condensed milk, anyone? Or how about banana and Nutella?
Yep, they’re pretty good.
A few of the barracas also do char-grilled skewers of calabresa sausage, chicken and beef; so if a cheap dinner is on the cards – this is the place to come.
If meat isn’t an option, then maybe cheese is? We couldn’t go past Mira Lhait, a jovial woman full of energy and up for a dance whenever the mood strikes. Check this link to see it on my Instagram feed and you’ll see for yourself.
As for that cheese, the one they use is coalho, which is similar to haloumi. It grills beautifully, although Mira didn’t char it enough for me. So while she wandered off somewhere, I sat down and gave my skewer of cheese a little more heat.
Olinda comes alive late in the day and well into the night. This is when you see many bars and restaurants open their shutters and doors from a day of slumber, transforming quiet streets into lively and vibrant places. The choice of bars isn’t endless, so let me make a few suggestions on where you can wet your whistle.
There’s always Bar do Peneira which I mentioned earlier, a corner locale that can party until the wee hours over different nights of the week.
For some of the cheapest drinks in town, I’d say head up to the row of drinks barracas next to the Observatory at Alto do Sé. See above photo. These guys specialise in caipirinhas and variations of them; mixing them up with exotic fruits and even condensed milk. There’s nowhere to sit other than the wall on the edge of the terrace or the few plinths beneath the trees. Perfect location, though, as there’s all the street food adjacent to the barracas.
Cheap drinks and cheap street food equals a great night out!
If you want to hang with the locals – or should I say get cosy with them? – then a drink or two at Bodega de Véio needs to make the agenda. This tight little space is a popular haunt with local writers, journalists, artists and other boho types – sipping on something cold whilst chatting and nibbling on shaved prosciutto, croquettes and other small plates of goodies.
The appeal of this place is the way it looks, as it’s really a tiny grocery store that so happens to sell booze and charcuterie. Along with hundreds of grocery items which line its walls – including broom heads, violins, talcum powder and carpenters plums.
In the Upper Town are a couple of places that open their doors at night and pack them in with the younger locals. Na Ladeira Bar e Comedoria takes corner position in a townhouse, with a few tables on the pavement and a lot more upstairs via the spiral staircase.
If food is needed, these guys have you covered with a menu that’s a little different from the norm.
A couple of doors away is A Venda de Seu Biu, a funked up traditional bodega with pumping beats, plenty to drink and even a bite to enjoy while people watching from one of the beer keg tables on the pavement.
How we got to Olinda (via Recife) from Praia de Pipa.
Got a regular taxi from Pipa down the coast to João Pessoa (3 hrs R$200), where we stayed at CLH Suites João Pessoa in Tambaú for the night. Not the most exciting city so there’ll be no mention of it here.
Following morning got a cab to the bus station (R$30). Buses to Recife leave every half hour, the trip takes about 2 hrs and costs R$35 pp).
The bus terminates at the Termainal Integrado de Passageiros (west of town in Recife) where you then get the metro train from the same terminal to Central Recife. The metro takes about 30 mins and costs R$1.60 pp. Then it was a taxi from Central to Olinda R$30.