Visitors to Salvador, the enchanting capital of Bahia on Brazil’s east coast, often recount leaving the city with the beat of bongo drums ringing in their ears. It’s no exaggeration to say that music – particularly music with an African heritage – encapsulates the very heart and soul of the city.
But there is more to Salvador than meets the ear. This is also a city teeming with stunning architecture and beautiful cobblestone streets. Much of the action takes place in the historic neighbourhood of Pelourinho, but inevitably its residents gravitate to the beach whenever the opportunity arises – and in a laidback town with stunning weather for much of the year, there are plenty.
Below you’ll find our list of seven unique things to do in what is, unquestionably, one of the jewels in Brazil’s glistening crown. If you’re lucky enough to visit, we hope you’ll manage to experience just a handful of them.
1. Chapada Diamantina
A five-hour bus trip west of Salvador, the Chapada Diamantina National Park is home to dramatic waterfalls, mysterious caves and magnificent vistas. Nestled alongside a mountain range, it has long been a popular oasis for spiritual types to come and marvel at the trippy rock formations and celestial atmosphere. Among the highlights is the Morro do Pai Inácio, one of Brazil’s most spectacular and accessible waterfalls, and the Blue Well (or Poço Azul), a flooded cave in which explorers recently discovered the bones of about forty different species of animals, most of them extinct.
2. Dance Samba
Just as tango was born in Buenos Aires in neighbouring Argentina, the origins of samba are in Bahia. And if you spend any length of time in the region, you’re certain to see the famous dance style being performed, either in the street or elsewhere. If you fancy giving it a go yourself, there’s no end of options in Salvador. You could head to a nightspot specialising in samba beats, or join in one of the numerous outdoor performances that take place around the city. Or, if you’d like a more formal learning environment, there’s a number of samba schools offering both group and private lessons.
3. Hit the Beach
If you really want to go native in Salvador – or indeed anywhere in Brazil – then you need to hit the beach. And happily, the coastlines in this region are some of the finest anywhere on the South American continent. Nestled in the north of Salvador, in the Linha Verde zone, is a concentration of stunning, sandy beaches with calm, turquoise waters offering beautiful conditions to sunbathe and swim. Among them, Imbassai beach, situated 39 miles from Salvador’s city centre, is perhaps the finest – though we’d heartily suggest checking out at least a few, just to decide for yourself.
4. Lavagem do Bonfim
You could call Lavagem do Bonfim a street party – but that would barely do it justice. An 8-kilometer procession through the lower part of Salvador, this is a truly magical event that encapsulates the very heart of Brazil in every sense, blending both the sacred and the secular. The latter is evident in the significant religious overtones, including Bahian women washing the steps of Bonfim Church along with strong associations with the African-influenced faith of Candomblé. But you don’t need to be a believer to enjoy yourself, as there’s also plenty of earthly entertainment to enjoy, including live music, colourful costumes and booze in abundance.
5. Balé Folclórico da Bahia
For a night of performance art, there’s not much to compare with this remarkable 32-strong troupe who together represent the only professional folk dance company in Brazil. Based in Salvador, they host regular shows in the city, each designed to highlight the region’s cultural heritage of Bahian folkloric dances within a contemporary theatrical vision. The collective have also performed globally, including in Europe and across 88 US cities, but where better to watch them than on their home turf?
6. Ride the Elevator
As elevators go, it might just be one of the most famous in the world. Nestled in Salvador’s historic centre, the Lacerda Elevator is how many of its residents and visitors alike navigate the upper and lower levels of the city. Built in 1873, it has two 70-metre towers and carries more than 900,000 people every month. But while for locals it is merely the quickest way to get to work and an excuse to bury themselves behind a newspaper for a few minutes, tourists are far more likely to enjoy the panoramic views afforded from its windows. Worth every one of the 80 cents charged for a single journey.
7. Museum of Modern Art of Bahia
Situated in a beautiful 17th century colonial mansion, the Museum of Modern Art of Bahis is one of the region’s most popular cultural venues, attracting some 200,000 visitors a year. It showcases a vast range of contemporary Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian art from famous artists with links to Bahia’s past, including like Tarsila do Amaral, Portinari, Di Cavalcanti and Carybé. As well as the artwork on display, the museum also holds a variety of events, such as jazz sessions and free courses in printmaking, painting and drawing. Entry is free for all.