13 Culturally-Rich Things to Do in Salvador
Have you ever traveled out of the country to a city and it felt like home? That's the feeling I got during my trip to Salvador. Salvador is in the northeastern region of Brazil and is the capital of the state of Bahia. It is the third largest city in the country. During the transatlantic slave trade, millions of Africans were shipped to Brazil to work on sugar plantations, many of whom were sent to Bahia. To date, Brazil has the highest Black population outside of Africa. It was remarkable to witness the preservation and promotion of African culture in Bahia. I saw so many people who could be my aunties, uncles, and cousins and I LOVED it!
Here are 13 things you should do to get a flavor of Salvador's culturally-rich heritage, categorized by neighborhood:
Salvador is divided into two parts: Cidade Alta (Upper City) and Cidade Baixa (Lower City). Pelourinho, also known as 'Pelo’, is a vibrant, old colonial neighborhood situated within the Upper City. Pelo is the epicenter of Brazilian culture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1) Soak up the Afro-Brazilian History & Culture
In the 1500s, while under Portuguese colonial rule, Pelo became the city center. It is the home of the first slave market in South America. Pelourinho, which means pillory in Portuguese, was named for the monstrous whipping post in the central plaza where African slaves were publicly beat. Despite this unfortunate past, the richness of the African culture lives on. You can see Afro-cultural manifestations in everything -- from clothing, to music, to food. While visiting Pelo, you will certainly see Baianas (women of Bahia) proudly wearing their Baiana de Acarajé traditional dress, consisting of a long and flowy white voluminous skirt, white lace details, bright tropical jewelry, and head scarves. Bahia is the birthplace of capoeira, a martial arts form disguised as a dance created by African slaves. It became an effective means of attack and defense for their survival. I was mesmerized by the elegance and power of capoeiristas who were practicing in the historic square.
2) Take a Capoeira and/or Samba Class
While I was in Brazil, I was determined to take a caporeira and a samba class. While walking around Pelo, we stumbled upon the Associação de Capoeira Mestre Bimba. There we met our instructor, Yasmin, who was also a law student. Her father owns the Academy, and she has been practicing capoeira since she was a little girl. Since we traveled around the beginning of the New Year, most of the students were still on vacation, so we lucked out and had the studio to ourselves! Yasmin was a thorough instructor. We started the class with a short stretching routine and then immediately went into drills. We covered the basic elements of capoeira and ended the class with a routine. By the end of our capoeira lesson we were drenched in sweat and exhausted, but we pushed through to the samba lesson, which Yasmin also taught.
Samba is a dance of Afro-brazilian origin. There are various styles of samba; we learned the Samba de Raiz (popular in Bahia) and Samba de Escola de Samba (popular in Rio de Janeiro & São Paulo). It was a fun, unforgettable time!
3) Explore Churches
Pelo has the highest concentration of baroque architecture in the Americas. I was enamored by the beauty of the intricate details of the 17th and 18th century churches.
4) Marvel at the Colorful Buildings of Pelo
Pelo is most known for it's iconic colorful buildings and hilly cobblestone streets. It's was also the set of Michael Jackson's 'They Don't Care About Us' video.
5) Support Local Business Vendors
Some of my favorite moments in Pelo were talking to the local vendors. One vendor was giving away samples of his coconut and lime juice. The drink was so refreshing and just what our bodies needed from walking around in the summer heat. After tasting the sample, we definitely needed to get a cup. My friend Phenesse was talking to the vendor in Portuguese, who then asked her if he could record her saying a message in English about the nutritious benefits of his drink and encourage others to grab a free sample. We thought he was recording it for his personal reference, but low and behold, he plays it on a loud speaker on his cart for the public to hear! It was the most hilarious thing! He switched back and forth from the Portuguese version of the announcement. We watched in amazement as swarms of people stopped by his cart for a sample and to buy some.
Meeting local artist Jorge, was another highlight of our Pelo experience. Jorge taught himself English by watching movies and was really excited to talk to us. We had a long and interesting conversation about a range of random topics -- from his favorite movies to everyday life in Brazil. I bought a few pieces of his incredible artwork.
6) Ride the Elevador Lacerda
The historic art deco Elevador Lacerda connects people to the upper and lower parts of Salvador through four elevators. For an entrance fee of R$0.25, you will travel 72m in 30 seconds. The panoramic view of the city and ocean from up top is stunning!
7) Visit the Mercado Modelo
If you want a more centralized place to buy souvenirs, visit the Mercado Modelo on the harbor. It is in Cidade Baixa right off of the Elevador Lacerda. This large market has a variety of vendors selling crafts and authentic bahian items.
8) Experience "Blessed Tuesdays" in Pelo
Tuesday nights in Pelo are referred to as "Blessed Tuesdays", where in true Brazilian fashion, a party begins after the 6pm service at the Church of São Francisco. Vendors selling beers and caipiriñhas set up shop at the main square of Terreiro de Jesus, while crowds follow and dance with Afro-Bloco (street band) groups in the streets, and samba-reggae bands play live in the plazas. I vividly remember the soulful rhythms of the drums and the electrifying energy of the crowds.
Dois de Julho
Dois de Julho is a historic neighborhood located about 15 minutes away from Pelo.
9) Catch a Sunset & Live Music at the Museu de Arte Moderna
The Museu de Arte Moderna of Bahia (Museum of Modern Art) is a former sugar mill turned museum that features contemporary artwork by Brazilian artists. The museum is on the Bay of All Saints and is one of the best places to watch the sunset in Salvador. On most Saturday evenings in the summer, they have JAM no MAM, where live jazz music is performed in front of the museum from 6pm until sunset. Jam no MAM is the place to be for chill vibes with music and an incredible setting.
10) Check out Street Art
The MAM is surrounded by some incredible street art. You can see the influence of Brazil's diverse background and history reflected in the art.
Rio Vermelho (Red River)
Rio Vermelho is a trendy neighborhood with bohemian beach vibes located in southern zone of Salvador.
11) Attend a Free Concert
Rio Vermelho is most known for its Yemanjá festival on February 2nd, a pre-carnival warm-up party that honors the goddess of the sea. The rest of the year, you can attend free concerts with artisan markets at Largo da Mariquita.
12) Eat Acarajé
Acarajé is a traditional Bahian dish that consists of deep-fried "bread" made from mashed black-eyed peas cooked in palm oil. They are typically filled with shrimp and salad. You can find Acarajé all throughout Salvador, and of course the stands with the longer lines are your best bet.
Anywhere in Salvador
13) Go to the Beach
Salvador's coastline expands twenty-kilometers. You can not leave Salvador without experiencing it's beaches. I'm planning on writing a guide to Salvador's beaches soon. Stay tuned!
The vibrancy and color of Bahian life goes unmatched! I'm already plotting on my next visit to explore the city a little deeper!
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