Traveling to Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia: Amazing Music, Colonial Architecture and Mind-Blowing Scenery

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vacation package to BrazilTwo weeks into FIFA’s 2014 World Cup and Team USA has made it through to the next round.  It’s been a surprising start in Brazil.

The defending champion, Spain, has already been knocked out, as have England and Italy – both of whom are generally football powerhouses.  France is doing well – as are the Netherlands, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Switzerland and Costa Rica.

However, it’s the home team, Brazil, who is gearing up for another win, having already won the World Cup more times than any other country.  We’re now however going to temporarily leave the field to take a brief look behind the matches to examine two of the most interesting host cities of the World Cup: Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.



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Carnival street parties, coconut-flavored seafood dishes, colonial treasures, capoeira on the streets, caipirinhas on the beach and the Afro-Brazilian rituals of Candomblé – Salvador de Bahia has a satisfying, exotic blend of European, African and Native American cultures, which appear in the city’s fantastic music, cuisine and architecture.

Why is that?  Located in the northeastern state of Bahia on the spectacularly scenic All Saints Bay, there is much to appreciate and soak up in Brazil’s third-largest city.  Salvador is one of the oldest cities in all of South America, having been founded by the Portuguese in 1549 as the political and religious capital of the Portuguese Crown’s colonial possessions in the Americas.  As a result, much of Brazil’s wonderful patrimony resides in its former capital city.  Salvador is awash with colorful, gorgeous architecture and historic monuments – so much so that its entire historic center, which contains the city’s famed Pelourinho quarter, is an official UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses the city’s Cathedral, historic convents, colonial mansions, lovely squares and Baroque palaces.

Key to fully appreciating Salvador while on vacation is understanding its past.  The success of Portugal’s vast sugar plantations in Brazil yielded over 300 years of slavery.  Millions of West Africans were forced to Brazil as slaves, and many of them arrived in the port of Salvador.  (It should also be noted that many indigenous people were also enslaved by the European colonists in Brazil.)  Bahia’s African heritage is evident across the state.  You can see Afro-Brazilian influences in the many tasty dishes served throughout Salvador’s abundance of great restaurants, cafes and street stalls.  You can see it in the folk art and traditional dances like capoeira.  You can hear it in the marvelous musical rhythms heard in Salvador’s cafes and bars and on its street corners.  You can witness it in religious ceremonies as many locals still practice Brazilian varieties of West African religions like Candomblé.

vacation package to BrazilSalvador’s warm and exhilarating ambience is infectious.  Its unstuffy, neighborhood bars and cafes are welcoming.  Its live music is amazing – and you’ll hear drumbeats and Afro-Caribbean axé rhythms simply by walking down the street.  It should come as no surprise that some of Brazil’s most iconic musicians like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso hail from Salvador.

The city’s fantastic music and great energy make it somehow feel alive.   And we’ve all seen images on TV of Brazil’s colorful, vivacious carnival celebrations.  While many cities found along the country’s dazzling coastline enjoy non-stop, carnaval revelry in the days preceding Lent, the different styles of music and dance can vary from city to city.  Salvador’s celebrations, which are so vast they require planning throughout the year, entice visitors to its pretty squares and streets from all over the world.

vacation package to BrazilSo you may be asking, what exactly is there to visit in Salvador de Bahia?  The city has a cornucopia of fantastic cultural attractions.  Out of the many historic buildings and squares (that date on average from the 1500s to the 1700s), consider checking out the Cathedral Basilica of Salvador, the Palácio Rio Branco, the Praça Municipal square, the Rococo Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (arguably the most important church to Salvador’s locals), and the St. Francis Church and Convent (Igreja e Convento São Francisco).  The outstanding Museu de Arte Sacra is also worthy of a visit.  In the Lower Town (Cidade Baixa), we recommend visiting the Mercado Modelo, Salvador’s former Customs House and “storage” area for slaves not yet auctioned off.  Today is it a great place to buy souvenirs and local handicrafts.  The easiest way to reach the Lower Tower from the Upper Town is to take the Lacerda Elevator, whose Art Deco style has made the ride an attraction in and of itself in Salvador.

And for nature fans?  After your sightseeing in Salvador you’ll be happy to know there is plenty of relaxing, sunshiny downtime to be had in and around Salvador.  Its beautiful bay is home to some of the best beaches in Brazil including the famed Porto da Barra Beach and Flamengo Beach.

vacation packages to BrazilVisitors can select beaches whose waters are calm (for children), while surfers often head to beaches teeming with great waves.  South of the city and accessible by catamaran, the beach in the village of Morro de São Paulo (located on Tinharé Island) as well as the beaches on the remote island of Boipeba offer visitors a taste of paradise in South America.  Hikers too won’t be disappointed with Salvador’s natural offerings; Chapada Diamantina National Park, located west of Salvador, is a popular destination in Bahia for hikers in search of remarkable Brazilian scenery.



Rio de Janeiro

vacation package to BrazilRio is likely a great deal more recognizable to international tourists than Salvador.  Photos of its rare cityscape, dreamy beaches and eye-catching bay are so iconic, for many they’re almost synonymous with “Brazil.”

Rio is a city that has dramatically been shaped by its nature.  Possessing so many memorable natural wonders, Rio’s population gradually filed in and settled among the spectacular backdrop, nestled between mountains and sea – along its shores and on its hillsides.  For its geography alone, Rio is a must.  Add to that a laidback attitude, a great culinary scene, friendly locals – and an unbelievable presence of spirited celebrations, music and nightlife.

What’s the story?  While not the capital of Brazil, Brazil’s second largest city sure has had a heck of a lot of experience as a capital city.  Long before the Portuguese appeared in Brazil, battled with the French for control of the area, and founded Rio in the 16th century, various indigenous tribes were already living in the paradisal lands around Guanabara Bay.  (Those that did not die from disease were then killed off, enslaved or forced to assimilate.)  As the city grew, so did its port, and by the mid-18th century Portugal’s monarchs decided to move their colonial capital in Brazil from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro.

Not long afterwards (in a highly unusual colonial twist!), when Napoleon’s invading troops made for Portugal, its monarchs made their escape to their wealthiest colony: Brazil.  The capital of their Kingdom of Portugal was moved from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and many of Lisbon’s noble families followed.  Not long after, Brazil gained independence in 1825, and Rio became the capital of the short-lived Empire of Brazil and then of the First Brazilian Republic.  It remained the capital of Brazil until 1960, and even today it is still the capital of the State of Rio de Janeiro.  During its history, thousands of slaves from Africa also ended up in Rio de Janeiro, as did European colonists – and later European immigrants.  Therefore, the city’s colorful cultural make-up is a blend of European, African and Native American cultures.  For example, the origin of carnival is European and Catholic, but Brazil’s tradition of celebrating carnival turned into something unique because of the characteristic, African rhythms and dances that make the country’s carnaval so very Brazilian.

vacation package to BrazilWhat is there to see and do in Rio?  Rio is one of those cities where one never runs out of things to do.  During the day – if you’re not sightseeing, you’re lounging on one of its famous beaches, hanging out in one of its pretty parks, shopping in one of its many boutiques or unwinding in one of its cafes.  In the evening, Rio eagerly bursts into party mode.

Tourists flock (and rightly so) to visit Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar), which marks the city’s dramatic entrance into Guanabara Bay.  The backdrop of the mountain rising out of the bay and framed by beaches is an image of Rio known round the world.  Another is of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, whose soaring height offers visitors a breathtaking panorama of Rio from atop the forested, “hunchbacked” Corcovado Mountain in Tijuca National Park.

Rio is a paradise for sports fans wanting to fill their vacations with swimming, climbing, hiking, surfing, rappelling, sea kayaking, hang gliding, golfing, biking and scuba diving.  And one cannot separate Rio from its amazing beaches.  The most popular ones include Copacabana, Ipanema and Arpoador.  If you have the time and want something more remote, head to the picture-perfect Lopes Mendes beach on the nearby Ilha Grande (Big Island).

vacation package to BrazilHow about Rio’s cultural activities?  Don’t make the mistake of writing off Rio as just a beach party town.  It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage City with great architecture, interesting museums and a thriving music scene.  Most of Rio’s historic architecture lies in its walkable Downtown “Centro” area.  It is there that you will find many of Rio’s best museums, historic churches and monuments, pedestrian avenues and colonial buildings.

Worthy museums to consider visiting in the downtown area include the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (Fine Arts Museum), the Museu Histórico Nacional, and the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR).  Important historical, architectural sights to check out in Rio’s Centro neighborhood include the Candelária Church (Nossa Senhora de Candelária); the 275-year-old Paço Imperial (Imperial Palace), located in Praça XV square; the magnificent São Francisco da Penitencia Church; and the beautiful Teatro Municipal, which lies on the edge of Cinelândia Square.

The city’s South Zone is home to its most iconic neighborhoods and beaches like Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana.  Cultural attractions of interest there include the Museu da República, the Historical Museum of the Army and Copacabana Fort, and the outstanding Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden).

One of Rio’s cultural giants is its music.  It has developed from the city’s multicultural background, and it’s a key component in the city’s fabled nightlife.  While on vacation in Rio, you’ll hear all kinds: choro, capoeira rhythms, pop rock, bossa nova, funk Carioca and of course – samba!  Rio’s samba schools are legendary, and they rule the city’s carnival celebrations.  Most of Rio’s famed samba schools are located in its North Zone, as are most of its hillside favelas.  Rio’s Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí is the parade setting where the city’s many neighborhood samba schools perform during carnival, decked out in colorful, elaborate costumes.

vacation package to BrazilRio’s carnival is often dubbed the biggest party in the world, and we’re inclined to agree.  However, a close runner-up would have to be Rio’s famous New Year’s Eve celebration: réveillon.

Every December 31, millions of spectators donning white clothes head to Copacabana Beach for one of the world’s best fireworks shows.  A city at ease with crowds and content with celebrations, Rio is a pro at hosting events.

In addition to this year’s World Cup, Rio has been selected to host the 2016 Olympic Games – the first South American city to ever host the games.  On Sunday, July 13 it will host the final match of the 2014 World Cup.  We can’t tell you who will win, but we can tell you it will be played in Rio’s epic Maracanã Stadium.

We hoped you’ve enjoyed reading about Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.  For information on our vacation packages to Brazil, please kindly click here.

Safe travels – and go Team USA!


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