The inside guide to Salvador, the cradle of Brazil's Afro-Brazilian heritage

Explore the Brazilian city and discover vibrant flavours, martial arts and an African heritage that lives on in rituals and rhythms.

 Boats moored near Farol da Barra.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Doug Loynes
Published 10 Dec 2021, 15:54 GMT

If Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia is the birthplace of the country’s vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture, then the city of Salvador is its epicentre. This was one of the first and largest slave ports in the Americas, and the African influence is everywhere, be it in the fresh and spicy flavours of the local food or in in the rhythms and beats of its drums. Music is Salvador’s lifeblood, a proud expression of its peoples’ heritage, and although the drums fell silent during the pandemic, restrictions are being lifted and the city’s blocos (street bands) are making up for lost time. With preparations well underway for February’s Carnival, the music has returned to Brazil’s most exciting city.

Head first to the city’s historic centre, Pelourinho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where pastel-coloured buildings offer a picture-perfect backdrop for the demonstrations of capoeira — an Afro-Brazilian martial art — that play out in its squares throughout the day. Largo Terreiro de Jesus is a popular haunt for capoeiristas; drift too close to one of their public performances and you might be drafted in for a couple of rounds. If you’re keen on trying it yourself, learn a few basic moves — and a thing or two about capoeira’s rich cultural history — with an evening workshop at the Mestre Bimba Foundation.

 Exhibition at the Afro Brazil Museum.

 Exhibition at the Afro Brazil Museum.

Photograph by Alamy

Pelourinho is also home to several of Salvador’s flagship museums. The Afro Brazil Museum is pick of the bunch, delving into the various African rituals and traditions that birthed Bahian culture. Meanwhile, Carnival House pays homage to Brazil’s most famous festival through a series of themed immersive exhibitions that will drop you right into the thick of action and leave you reaching for some samba sticks.

Thankfully, you won’t have to look far to find them; Escola Olodum is a drum school just around the corner that offers percussion and dance classes in the musical tradition of samba-reggae, a style unique to Salvador that emerged as a celebration of Black identity in 1970s Brazil. Expect to hear them, and Salavdor’s other blocos, beating out the soundtrack to a visit from dawn until the early hours.

Wander among the arts and crafts shops en route to Largo do Cruzeiro de São Francisco, a historic town square where you can take in more Salvador’s distinct baroque architecture, including the magnificent São Francisco Church and Convent. Step inside and admire the dazzling gilded interior — you’ll see immediately why it’s dubbed ‘a igreja dourada’ (‘the golden church’).

São Francisco Church and Convent.

São Francisco Church and Convent.

Photograph by Alamy

Don’t leave Pelourinho without a stop at O Cravinho Bar. Given its location — perched at the edge of Largo Terreiro de Jesus, one of Salvador’s most-visited squares — some might write it off as just a tourist trap, but locals swear that O Cravinho serves up the best cachaça (Brazil’s national drink: a sugarcane spirit) in the state. Go for its trademark infusion of cachaça with cloves and cinnamon for a fiery taste of Bahia.

Bahians are spoiled for choice when it comes to beaches, and Salvador boasts a few of its own. By day, the Praia do Porto da Barra buzzes with the energy while the beaches in the south west of the city are quieter, but less picturesque. Just before dusk, make sure to join the whole of Salvador as it descends upon Praia do Farol da Barra to watch the sun dip below the Atlantic at the Farol da Barra, a lighthouse that also houses the Nautical Musuem of Bahia.

After sunset, make for the Bohemian waterfront town of Rio Vermelho. It’s here you’ll find popular al fresco dining spot Largo da Dinha. It’s known locally as Acarajé da Dinha because of its reputation for cooking up some of Bahia’s best acarajé, the state’s signature snack. Made from mashed black-eyed beans and onions, these crispy fritters are rich in both flavour and tradition: the women who sell them are instantly recognisable by their colourful turbans. Follow it up with moqueca, a delicious fish stew cooked with coconut milk and the day’s catch.

For a more refined dining experience, consider Armado, a contemporary Brazilian seafood with superb views across the Bay of All Saints, or Restaurante Origem, whose seasonal tasting menu is a tour de force of Bahian cuisine, with each course expertly paired with wines from across South America.

Capoeira, which has its roots  in Afro-Brazilian culture.

Capoeira, which has its roots in Afro-Brazilian culture.

Photograph by Getty Images

Kehindê Boa Morte’s favourite music spots

Kehindê is a musician and conductor for Ilê Aiyê, Brazil’s first Afro bloco and an important voice in the fight against racism in Brazil. Ilê Aiyê performs axé music, an exciting mix of several traditional Afro-Brazilian rhythms.

Senzala do Barro Pret
This space isn't where Ilê Aiyê was formed, but it’s where it grew into one of the greatest cultural expressions of Salvador’s Carnival. It’s an important symbol of our story and our resistance. Come with your friends to listen to the special sounds of axé.

García is a neighbourhood that comes alive at the weekends. It’s hard to narrow it down to just one bar. Small groups perform in the venues, but the parties spill out onto the street. People from all ages come here to enjoy partido alto (‘high party’; a distinctive rhythm) and samba.

Casa de Òsùmàrè
For a more spiritual experience, visit a terreiro do Candomblé like Casa de Òsùmàrè to discover more about Candomblé, a system of religious beliefs which originated in Africa but took shape in Brazil. It’s the rhythms of these ceremonies that inspired Ilê Aiyê. 

Top tip
The atmospheric town of Pelourinho is a highlight of any trip to Salvador, and the safest and most rewarding way to explore it is on a walking tour. Salvador by Foot offers free tours with an English-speaking guide.

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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