In its earlier days it was Brazil’s main seaport and a hotspot of the sugar industry. Let’s not forget its huge slave trade, either. Today Salvador is the country’s third largest city, it sprawls in almost all directions and is another stunner that has the attention of UNESCO.
Nowhere we’d previously been whilst travelling through Brazil displayed as much African culture (or should I say Afro-Brazilian) as it did in Salvador – from the colourful baiana women dolled-up in shimmering fabrics, to Capoeira’s dancing to beating drums as the smell of dendê wafts through the humid air.
In the historic Cidade Alto (Upper Town), beautifully detailed 17th and 18th-century buildings display a palette of pastels and natural tones, colouring up the cobbled streets with scenes that urge to be photographed.
This place truly is gorgeous!
Where we stayed.
Close enough to the Pelourinho, yet far enough away from its crowds, Pousada Colonial resides in a 17th-century colonial building that’s full of colour, character and quirky decorative touches.
Our spacious room was perfectly positioned by the upstairs lounge area and terrace, often feeling like it was all ours as there weren’t too many other guests. Great spot to sit and read or get connected and do some blog work.
Take a walk some five minutes down the road and you arrive at Cafélier, a cute little cafe that has a thing for antiques. You may even be greeted by the resident moggy, often seen perched in the window.
Stepping into Cafélier feels a little like walking into your grandparents living room. There’s old stuff dotted everywhere. It isn’t until you step into the next room that it feels like a cafe. Take a few more steps and you’re greeted with a spectacular view of Baía de Todos os Santos glimmering beneath the blistering sun.
Not bad, hey?
There’s a bunch of typical cafe fare on the menu, plus your standard coffee choices. The downside – they open at a rather late 2 or 2.30pm. No such thing as a morning coffee here, I’m afraid.
Fancy some lunch?
Well, we were chomping for it as soon as we checked into our pousada and hit the streets in search of something real quick. This place got our attention, just down from Cafélier. Great name, too, that translates to Where’s the flame?
The menu of the day is displayed by the front door, and today it’s simple – Peixe frito or Moqueca de peixe. Yup, that’ll do.
This restaurant and bar is nothing more than the front room of a blue and white stucco house. A couple of small tables and one large communal one – small space, small menu, homely atmosphere.
Dishes are big enough for two, so moqueca it was, for this pair. So glad we did as it was the best one we’d eaten in Brazil. Served with rice, beans and farofa, it was quite something.
A little something sweet after all of that rich fish stew, perhaps?
These guys have been churning their artisanal ice cream since 1930 from its store in Pelourinho. Old tiles on the walls, leather bar stools, even a gum ball dispenser by the entrance. You can’t help but feel like a kid again in a place like this.
We dropped in a couple of times during our stay, to get out of that blistering heat and dive right into something cold. The selection is great, the ice cream is pretty decent, and they even do hot baked snacks as well. If you really want to cool down, go for the coco espumante – an enormous thickshake made with coconut ice cream.
There’s another outlet at Elevador Lacerda, by the top entrance.
The streets in and around Pelourinho are abuzz with people; all shuffling about gawking at the buildings and whatever is inside them. Churches, museums, galleries, gift stores – you name it.
There’s something happening everywhere you look.
One of the city’s attractions is this – Elevador Lacerda. Connecting upper Cidade Alta to lower Cidade Baixa (Comèrcio), this impressive art deco structure is basically four elevators travelling though a 72 metre shaft.
It costs a few cents to use and provides some pretty special views from its upper terrace.
So what’s down on the the lower part of town?
This is Salvador’s commercial and port area; a tight grid of city blocks wedged between the cliffs of the Upper Town and the working waterfront.
The once elegant streets are now in varying stages of decay, with stately and grand buildings that are abandoned and literally crumbling to pieces. Graffiti crawls up buildings, doors hang off hinges and many parts feel like no-go zones.
Yes, there’s a lot of commercial activity in Comèrcio – shops, banks, places to eat – but it’s as if this part of the city has been completely forgotten about; while up in touristy Cidade Alta many of the buildings gleam with restoration.
Somewhere that’s worth a poke around, for some, is Mercado Modelo. Housed in the old customs house, it’s here visitors can spend up on over-priced handicrafts and some food items. Head upstairs to one of two restaurants for a pizza fix or a little Bahian food. Be prepared to pay tourist prices.
Anyone that like to get a little sand between their toes has many options in Salvador. While some head up to Ribeira, we bussed it down to Barra.
Praia do Farol (above) is a popular city beach along a wide pedestrian-friendly promenade dotted with bars and eateries. Pay a few real and you can settle into a couple of shaded beach chairs in the sand.
For much more atmosphere, I’d say head up to Praia do Porto da Barra (below) where the beach is much more sheltered and literally laps at the golden sand.
The choice of restaurants and bars is much better here, as well, most of which are your typical Brazilian variety.
For a little break away from typical Brazilian fare, you could drop into Treś Restaurant, beneath the Village Novo Beach Suites. Yes, there’s local food on the menu, but for a burger, sandwich or buffalo wings-with-gorgonzola fix – this one may work.
An easy club sandwich (18) and plate of batata frita Gilroy (30) was good enough for us, even though those garlic and parmesan-topped fries were rather expensive.
Street food in Salvador didn’t seem as prolific as we would have hoped. We were kind of expecting to see baiana women all over the place cooking up acarajé, or selling piles of cocadas, but instead saw maybe three or four of them. Either on the Pelourinho or on Praça Terreiro de Jesus.
What’s going on, ladies?
We’d seen many acarajé being cooked all over Brazil – we ate our fair share as well – but none of them made acarajé quite like this lady. Her bean patties were flatter than normal and after she let one side cook, she scooped it out and studded the uncooked side with whole shrimp – tossing it back into the golden dendê oil to finish off.
Spending an evening on Praça Terreiro de Jesus is a fantastic way to soak up Salvador’s energy. Not only are you surrounded by utterly beautiful buildings, but there’s live music, salsa dancing, Capoeira’s and a good choice of bars and restaurants.
Street food was good enough for us, what there was of it, anyway. So we plonked ourselves down at a table, ordered a couple of cheap caipirinhas from one drinks barraca and nibbled on beef with chicken & onions, farofa, corn & peas from another.
Drinks-wise, there are plenty of places to wet your whistle in this part of Salvador. All you need to do is walk around the streets (within reason – see my note on safety below) and you’ll come across something with whatever taste you require.
One of our favourites was Zulu, a resto-bar located away from the crowds, down a much quieter Rua das Laranjeiras. Yes, they did food, but their caipirinhas were good enough for us. And a bit of a bargain, too.
Acarajé may be a street food made by baianas, but rules are broken at the tiny space just down from our pousada.
During the day it’s a small convenience store. By the afternoon there are tables out on the road with (predominantly) men hanging out drinking cerveja, puffing on cancer sticks and forking into plated acarajé.
Perfect place for a cheap dinner, methinks!
Unlike acarajé that’s served in a paper napkin, this place cuts and plates it with all the usual toppings on the side.
I’m not entirely sure whether the name of this place is Acarajé, but that’s what the makeshift sign displayed, anyway. Very friendly guy that runs it, as well.
On the same street, just down from Pousada Colonial, is this basement restaurant & wine bar that drew us in for a quiet dinner. Mind you, on a busy night something tells me Além do Cais would be far from quiet as we were told they have regular live jazzy performances.
In what used to be a flour mill, this dimly-lit space has a fab wine and cocktail list and menu that is a little different from the norm. Sadly, for us, many of the dishes were beyond our travellers budget, but we did enjoy what we ordered.
Fettuccine with sautéed shrimp, peppers, annato oil & rocket (46) is packed with goodies and the grilled rump with poivre sauce & tagliatelle (54) went down nicely.
Seek them out if you’d like to get away from the Pelourinho eateries.
The question of safety.
Is Salvador, Brazil safe?
Prior to getting to Brazil, my biggest concern was how it would be when we got to Salvador. All over the internet you read about how unsafe it is – the robberies, the muggings and the murders. I even went as far as marking on my digital map where the no-go areas were. Was I paranoid? Yep, a little.
Visiting Salvador was a little different to reading about its concerns. We felt perfectly safe and encountered nothing dodgy or concerning. All around the Pelourinho there’s a visible police presence – you see them on every block. In fact, in all the tourist areas you see them, so walking around with your camera in hand or slung over your shoulder is perfectly fine.
We took the usual precautions when we were in non-touristy areas. Yes, we had mobile phones in our pockets and minimal cash in our wallets, but we didn’t feel threatened anywhere. Were we asking for trouble? Maybe.
I can’t explore a place without a camera, so we kept ours in thick plastic bags from the supermarket – along with a bottle of water – and walked around as if it was regular shopping. In fact, this is how we carried our cameras everywhere we’ve been in Brazil. A camera bag draws attention, as does a small backpack. Plastic bags you can’t see through – not so much. When a hotelier noticed we carried our cameras in plastic bags he said – “Now you’re thinking like a Brazilian!”
At night take the usual precautions. Walk where there are other people, don’t wander down empty or dark streets, and just walk around confidently.
How we got to Salvador from Recife.
First it was a direct flight from Recife airport to Salvador (about 1.5 hrs).
To get from Salvador Airport to Pelourinho, get the First Class Bus Service – tickets R$33 pp. They do hotel stops along the way, so depending where you’re booked, you may even get dropped where you’re staying. Just let the driver know when boarding.
It’s the most economical way to get into town. Be sure to have a long sleeved top on hand as they do often cool the inside of the bus to refrigeration temperatures. It was beyond cold onboard when we rode it!