Twelve Brazilian cities will host games at next year’s World Cup. Wendy Douglas gives the inside track on what to do, where to hang out and what to eat while you’re not watching the beautiful game.
Rio de Janeiro
Without doubt, Rio is Brazil’s most famous city and tourist destination. carnaval, sugarloaf Mountain, christ the redeemer keeping watch over the city, the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, favelas, miniscule swimwear (on men and women) and football: Rio’s got them all, and a lively nightlife too. the tourist attractions are amazing and you can enjoy the contrast of a very modern metropolis set amid a remarkable natural landscape.
HIGHLIGHTS: it’s all about the sandy beach for Rio’s locals, and you can watch people from all walks of life in their natural habitat while getting a tan and sipping a beer. Copacabana and ipanema are the big two, but steer clear of Copacabana and head for Ipanema instead. Posto 9 (the ninth lifeguard tower on the beach) has trendy liberal credentials and plenty of beautiful people. For the best views of Rio and guanabara Bay there’s really only one way to do it: catch the funicular train up the Corcovado Mountain where you can hang out with JC.
‘Beautiful horizon’: what more do you need as an incentive to pay this stunning city a visit? it might be a sprawling metropolis with the sixth-largest population in Brazil but it’s one that’s consistently ranked as providing the best quality of life in Latin America. Must be something to do with the wide avenues, countless parks and squares, cultural events, markets and the dramatic presence of the Serra Do Curral mountain ridge that surrounds it. check out the Pampulha district, designed by the renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer where you can see the city’s modernist style in full, striking effect in the undulating form of the Church of St Francis of Assisi.
HIGHLIGHTS: Inhotim Centre of Contemporary Art can be found just 60km from Belo Horizonte. This spectacular open-air art gallery houses dozens of works set amid 3,000 acres of lush gardens. Pieces can be found in reflecting pools, on top of a mountain and hidden in the forest.
It’s an awe-inspiring experience for art lovers. At Mercado Central you can indulge in some retail therapy at this bustling market, home to more than 400 shops, restaurant and bars. Foodies will love the extensive choice of local specialty cheeses and herbs on offer.
At first glance Recife, with its long, sandy beaches bordered by encroaching modern skyscrapers, is reminiscent of Benidorm with an extra dose of the tropical. But take a closer look and you’ll find not sports bars and greasy spoons, but a city rich in culture and history. Often described as ‘the Brazilian Venice’ because of its system of canals and bridges built by Dutch colonisers in the 1600s, this capital of Northeast Brazil has a vibrant nightlife and fantastic carnival where visitors can experience frevo, the city’s traditional music and dance style. For a quieter stay, make your base in the peaceful and historic town of Olinda. It’s only six kilometres from Recife’s city centre so – don’t worry – you’re not too far from all the action.
HIGHLIGHTS: While the famous Boa Viagem beach is right there in the city, it’s worth making the 70km trip out to the ever-popular Porto de Galinhas to enjoy warm, clear water and a gentle breeze as well as a relaxing swim in the extraordinary tidal pools. Leite Restaurant, back in Recife on the banks of the Capibaribe River, was established in 1882 and is a truly historic eatery that has served some seriously big names, including Orson Welles and Jean-Paul Sartre. Order the giant shrimp grilled in butter followed by the regional desert, cartola, a banana topped with a slice of cheese and baked with sugar and cinnamon. Give it a go, it’s better than it sounds.
The name may be Portuguese for ‘Christmas’ but the popular tourist destination is more popularly known as ‘Sun City’ thanks to its toasty climate, with an annual average temperature of 28C and, on average, 300 days of blissful sunshine each year. Despite its abundance of beaches and sand dunes Natal has only built the infrastructure to support the growing tourist industry in the last 20 years. The most famous beach is Ponta Negra where you’ll find plenty of bars, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs. At the far south of the beach is the famous Morro do Careca (‘bald hill’) dune while at the north is the Via Costeira, a coastal road that connects Ponta Negra with several other of the local beaches.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Dunes of Genipabu are stunning to look at, but we’re more interested in the fun to be had messing about on them. Hire a buggy with a driver who’ll take you on a white-knuckle ride. Make sure you ask for a ride ‘with emotion’ if you want the full experience. Book the Grand Taj Mahal suite at the five-star Ocean Palace Beach Resort and Bungalows on the Via Costeira. As well as spacious, modern accommodation you’ll have an impressive decked balcony overlooking the ocean complete with its own pool.
This popular city is the capital of the state of Ceará. Despite being one of the smallest states in Brazil it has one of the longest coastlines and Fortaleza is home to some of the country’s prettiest beaches. It’s no surprise then that most of the fun to be had is found around the coast. Check out the traditional shacks serving fresh seafood on Praia do Futuro, the bars and clubs on Iracema beach or for a taste of old Brazil pitch your umbrella on Mucuripe beach where you can watch local fishermen head out to sea in their handmade wooden boats.
HIGHLIGHTS: Try Beach Park, Brazil’s largest water theme park with super-fast slides set across 35,000 sq km. Show off your fearless nature on the ‘Insano’ – a 14-storey high slide that’s also the tallest waterslide in the world. You’ll reach 105 kmph on the five-second drop. Not into death slides? Take in a bit of religious history with a visit to the Fortaleza Cathedral. Built in Gothic-Roman style, it took 40 years to complete and is the third biggest in Brazil.
If you’re looking to party hard then forget Rio and head north to Salvador where having a good time is just part of the culture. The city is split between the historic seafront below and the modern municipality above, but the two are connected by a 72m Art-Deco elevator – the first public elevator in the world. It was on the outskirts of the city, on the sugar cane plantations, that the samba grew from the ancient African beats of the slaves who worked there and music still infuses the city today. But there are no hipster clubs or that kind of scene here. The best parties are out in the street and everyone’s invited.
HIGHLIGHTS: Old former sugar mill Solar do Unhão overlooks the beautiful All Saints Bay that houses not only a modern art museum but the brilliant Saturday afternoon jam session. It provides a wicked vibe, amazing music and a spectacular setting with captivating people. Why not take your hangover to the city’s historical centre of Pelourinho, to soak up some vibes of a different kind in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the oldest city in Brazil there are colourful colonial buildings and churches reflecting the blend of African, European and Amerindian cultures that all thrived here.
Perhaps you’re thinking Rio is the capital of Brazil? Wrong: since 1960 this futuristic city has taken on that role. Construction on the city of Brasília, in the centre of the country, didn’t start until 1956 but it has already become a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the avant-garde nature of the architecture. The move from the coast symbolised the country’s change from colonial state to independent nation and in the Three Powers Square among the city’s wide avenues are the seats of Brazil’s Executive and Legislative Power and the Supreme Federal Court.
HIGHLIGHTS: Find some green space in among the modern buildings and seek out the huge City Park. It’s slightly bigger than New York’s Central Park and where city dwellers go to jog, cycle, skate, sunbathe and have barbecues. Talking of food, more adventurous eaters should book a table at the beautiful Patu Anu, a hideout in the Lago Norte zone. The restaurant mixes international recipes with local ingredients. Anyone fancy alligator with a tropical cherry Coke to wash it down?
Pack plenty of Factor 50 if you stop off at this sweltering city as temperatures often reach over 40C in the summer. Cuiabá is the geographical centre of South America and sits where three ecosystems meet: the savannahs of the Cerrado, the wetlands of the Pantanal and the Amazon. Most of the fun is to be had exploring these natural phenomena and you won’t miss much by leaving the city behind. Strap on a backpack, stock up on water and get your adventure face on.
HIGHLIGHTS: Wildlife spotting in the Transpantaneira is a must. Drive out along the Transpantaneira road to a lodge from where you can do a guided hike and a spotlight drive after sunset. If you’re lucky you’ll get to hang out with creatures of the night like capybaras, tarantulas and jaguars. At Zumzum Bar Disco get involved with some slightly different night owls. It’s a fun gay club in Cuiabá where you’ll find live music, drag queens and go-go boys ruling after dark.
The largest city in Brazil with over 11 million inhabitants, São Paulo is also the financial and business centre of the country. With a skyline to challenge Manhattan, the city could initially be mistaken as a soulless metropolis, but take a closer look and you’ll find a city buzzing with cultural life. With around 100 ethnic groups making their home in São Paulo, one of the best things about the city is the abundance and diversity of top-quality restaurants. It’s a foodie’s paradise.
HIGHLIGHTS: D.O.M. is the sixth-best place to eat in the world, according to Restaurant Magazine in April. Chef Alex Atala uses distinctly Brazilian ingredients like the Jambu herb from the Amazon region. On chewing, it sends an electrical sensation through your body. Yes please! Virada Cultural is a round-the-clock cultural event which takes place every year at the beginning of May. It’s basically a 24-hour non-stop party that takes over the streets and historic buildings of downtown São Paulo with theatre, dance, movies, DJs, exhibitions, live bands and circus and street artists there’s something for everyone.
The tourist information for Curitiba reads like brainwashing propaganda for some kind of alternative utopia. There’s lots of talk of the people and the urban areas coexisting in harmonious organisation, of urban planning that has helped to avoid uncontrolled growth. Images of robotic, vacantly smiling automatons walking in single file from controlled work to approved recreational activities spring to mind. But be assured there’s more to the city than that. There’s a thriving cultural scene and the population is a diverse mix of German, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian heritage.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Ópera de Arame is unlike anything you’ll have seen before, set as it is over water in the Pedreiras Park. Constructed from metal tubes and glass with a gorgeous domed ceiling, it almost doesn’t matter what’s being performed. And why not take the Serra Verde Express, an unforgettable train ride to the coastal town of Morretes through the breathtaking Atlantic Rainforest.
Porto Alegre is the capital of Rio Grande do Sul and has benefited from large-scale immigration from Portugal, Italy, Germany and Poland. It might be a metropolitan centre but the city lies at the convergence of six rivers that form an enormous lagoon. Across the area’s 497 sq km there are more than one million trees, making it an intensely lush and beautiful place to visit. Located as it is in the very South of Brazil the locals refer to themselves as gauchos and they share many traditions and folklore with their Argentine neighbours.
HIGHLIGHTS: Watch the sunset, a five-minute wander over the Guaiba River but worth the effort. If you go up to level five of the old Gasômetro power station, now a cultural space, you can take in a wider view. Taste traditional Gaucho barbecue at Na Brasa with beef, chicken, pork, lamb and wild boar on offer. It’s slim pickings for vegetarians.
Most visitors use the capital city of the Amazon state as a jumping-off point ahead of a trek into the jungle. But Manaus has its own natural phenomenon to show off about in the confluence of the rivers Negro and Solimões. The two rivers run side by side for over 18km. Hop on a ferry or tour boat to take a closer look at this strange anomaly before heading out to one of the romantic floating restaurants on Lake Janauari.
HIGHLIGHTS: Take your time and scope the city to find a reputable tour operator who can organise your expedition into the Amazon for a Jungle Trek. Amazon Tree Climbing is another highly recommended option. Just make sure you don’t look down; it’s quite a way to the bottom.