Many people visiting Brazil make a beeline for the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. In doing so, they fly over Brazil’s fourth largest city, and one of the most culturally fascinating regions in the country. Recife and the northeastern corner of Brazil are a world apart from Rio, São Paulo and the rest of southern Brazil. The climate is hotter, and much of the food and music can only be authentically consumed in the region itself. It is also a hub of Brazilian political agitation (the northeast, of which Recife is a de facto capital, was the only region to vote against the right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, in the last election). Visitors today will find a city that seems at first glance unlovable: One of the most famous songs about the city — and an example of a Recife music genre called manguebeat, or mangrove beat — is called “Rivers, Bridges and Overpasses” (“Rios, Pontes e Overdrives”), and that’s what Recife’s center looks like, to a large extent. But farther south are the teal waters of Boa Viagem beach, and north is the charmingly colorful pocket community of Olinda. Just a few days in the area will have visitors appreciating a different kind of Brazil.
(Note: Although the fires from the Amazon region have led to smoky skies in São Paulo in southeastern Brazil, no smoke or fires have been reported in Recife, which is 2,000 miles from the fires in the Amazon Basin.)
1) 12 p.m. Downtown lunch
This is a city that loves to lunch — a good excuse to get out of the intense midday sun. In a cobblestone alleyway running alongside the São Pedro square of central Recife, the tiny, mint-green São Pedro Restaurant offers a Parisian sidewalk setting amid the hustle and bustle of weekday Recife. The menu consists of four or five rotating items, among them: delicious caldo do mar, or seafood soup, which is tomato-based and packed with rock clams, shrimp and fish; and arroz de carangueijo, or crab rice, a paella-like skillet dramatically adorned with crab claws. A bottle of Portuguese vinho verde suits the setting perfectly. Lunch for two without wine, 70 reais, or about $17.
2) 2 p.m. Artisanal browsing
Head over to Marco Zero — the central axis from which the rest of Recife sprawls out, and the center of cultural preservation for the city. There is plenty to do there, so split it up between today and tomorrow by starting with the Centro de Artesanato de Pernambuco, an introduction to local artisan offerings, from clay kitchenware to Carnaval iconography, some of which is available for purchase. Then, if you need a jolt, grab an espresso at the local northeastern grinder Cafe São Braz across the plaza.
3) 4 p.m. Sunset on the Capivara
Skip Friday rush hour and taxi over to the dock for a one-and-a-half-hour sunset cruise of historic downtown Recife and its many bridges from the vantage point of the Capibaribe (Capivara) River. From the open-air catamaran, look for the ceramic statues of the Sculpture Park of Francisco Brennand, with works by one of the most famous artists from Recife lining the jetty across from Marco Zero. Catamaran Tours operates a 4 p.m. departure that catches the sunset on the way back. Check the schedule ahead of time. Cost: 60 reais per adult.
4) 7:30 p.m. Northeast feast
The best way to embrace the scope of northeastern cuisine is at Parraxaxá, in the Boa Viagem neighborhood, where a traditional Brazilian per-kilo buffet turns into a cornucopia of otherwise difficult to find local foods worth trying, such as stewed goat with dried coconut and pumpkin, carne-de-sol steak (a kind of brisket) covered in queijo coalho (a local cheese), and fruit juices made from gritty cajá and milky cashew fruit. It’s also the perfect place to load up on the leafy greens you might crave post-travel. Dinner for two, 80 reais.
5) 9 a.m. Zero marks the spot
Head back to Marco Zero for a deeper dive into the city’s culture. For a glimpse of the region’s drought-stricken hinterlands, walk over to the Museum Cais do Sertão (entry, 10 reais), where typical hinterland home life is depicted in a family-friendly exhibition, and where listening booths allow you to hear the sounds of Pernambuco state’s rich musical history. Sample chewy cashew brittle from the vendor carts around the square outside.
6) Noon. Made in the shade
Featuring a shady courtyard of fruit trees and an artisan beer list, Cá-Já is a new hot spot, run by a young chef whose food emphasizes fresh vegetables. A house-grown roasted vegetable bowl, frog-meat won tons in umami broth, and a small plant pot full of chocolate are some of the dishes to be had, often beneath a blanket of fresh herbs. Reservations suggested. Lunch for two, 100 reais.
7) 3 p.m. Olinda, the beautiful
What Recife lacks in aesthetic character is more than made up for by its suburb Olinda, whose historic center, a UNESCO site and one of the best preserved colonial centers in Brazil, is 20 minutes north of Recife. Colorful, winding stone streets, terra-cotta rooftops and swaying palms make Olinda a photographer’s dream; feel free to get lost. A good starting point is the first church of Brazil, the Sé Cathedral, at the top of a hill called Alto da Sé; besides being the center of Olinda, it offers a glorious view across the expanse of the Olinda-Recife area. Around February, Olinda transforms into a feverishly packed Carnaval party town; it is one of the top destinations for Carnaval celebrations in the world. To get an off-season taste, pop into the Casa dos Bonecos Gigantes (House of the Giant Puppets), where some of the traditional papier-mâché puppets that stiffly swing through the crowds during Carnaval are stored (entry 15 reais). Shoppers will devour tropical sundresses and other handmade finds at the female-owned atelier Período Fértil, and canvases by local artists at Sobrado 7. Keep a pep in your step with a coffee at Estaçao Cafe, a fresh coconut water from one of the vendors at Alto da Sé, or something a bit stronger (like local cachaça) at the funky Bodega da Véio.
8) 7 p.m. Sunset and seafood
Once your calves are burning from the up and down of Olinda’s cobblestone hills, duck through the leafy entrance and take a glass elevator down to the treehouse-like Beijupirá, where local ingredients take a sophisticated turn. Try unusual cocktails made from hard-to-find fruit, like an acerola — or tart Brazilian cherry — caipirinha, before tucking into grilled fish and mango coated in sesame seeds. In mild weather, call several days ahead to reserve one of the few tables on the veranda overlooking Recife. Dinner for two, 160 reais.
9) 10 p.m. People-watching
Back in Recife, head to Bar Central in Recife’s historic district, where rickety sidewalk tables are set out in front of a compact block of bars. There you’ll find cold beer and casually divine people-watching, especially on weekend nights.
10) 10:30 a.m. Beach and bike
Join the crowds enjoying their Sunday morning in the sunshine of Boa Viagem beach. Between the waves and the occasional sharks (really), many locals just enjoy the turquoise horizon from their beach chairs. Pick-up basketball, bike rentals, beach volleyball and tennis are all options for those wanting to burn off the weekend.
11) 1:30 p.m. Oysters and beer
At Entre Amigos Praia, you can enjoy chic, oceanfront Miami vibes and fresh oysters from the region, scooped from a tank and served raw along with ice-cold beer. You might also want to convince your group to go in on a whole fish stuffed with plantains and shrimp-dotted farofa — Brazilian bread crumbs made from yucca. Lunch for two, 160 reais.
12) 4:30 p.m. Drum practice
That rhythm you’ve been hearing all across Recife is called maracatu, a traditional Afro-Brazilian musical form from northeastern Brazil, developed by slaves working the region’s sugar cane fields as a way of retaining their connection to Africa. The sound is intense and disarming, and during Carnaval it is one of the key rhythms heard across Recife. The best way to feel its thunder is to catch an open rehearsal of one of the many maracatu groups, such as the Sunday afternoon rehearsal of Maracatu Ògún Onilê in old Recife. It’s a good idea to read up on the origins and meaning of maracatu before visiting to better appreciate the distinct costumes and instruments, such as the alfaia drum, the agbê beaded gourd, and the gonguê cowbell. The rhythms can be considered sacred, so be discreet and mindful. It is a good idea to ask permission before taking photos or video of any maracatu group.
Theoretically, it would be nice to stay in a quaint inn near the center of Old Recife, but unfortunately, hotels in the center of town are generally either beautiful, but too dilapidated to be functional, or functional, but in a dodgy area. The Pina and Boa Viagem neighborhoods, an eight-minute drive south of town, offer the easiest solution. There, high-rise hotels aimed at the corporate set are chock-a-block, and what they lack in character they make up for in abundant breakfast buffets, beachfront views and strong air-conditioning.
For instance, Transamerica Prestige Beach Class International, which sounds like a Mad Libs of synonyms for “luxury,” is one of the most comfortable lodgings in Recife. It is just across the bridge from central Recife in the Pina neighborhood. At 35 floors, it is one of the tallest hotels along the coast; while imposing, it provides unencumbered views and is closer to Old Recife than the Boa Viagem neighborhood. A lap pool, gym and private balconies help compensate for the otherwise sterile setting. A complimentary breakfast buffet offers fresh juices, Brazilian cheese bread called pão de queijo, and an omelet and tapioca station. (Avenida Boa Viagem 420; transamerica.com.br/nossos-hoteis/transamerica-prestige-beachclass; from about 300 reais).
Boa Viagem, right next to Pina, is the best neighborhood to find safe independent lodging options similar to high-rise hotels, but without breakfast. Apartments with a beach view range from $25 to $70 on Airbnb.
If you are committed to the Brazilian pousada, or bed-and-breakfast, concept, your best bet is to stay not in Recife but in Olinda, about 20 minutes by car to the north, where colonial homes have been fixed up and splashed with bright colors, making for uniquely memorable ambiences. The Pousada dos Quatro Cantos, with its lush gardens, canopy beds and distinctive decorations, is a fail-safe choice in the heart of Olinda. (Rua Prudente de Moraes 441; pousada4cantos.com.br/en-gb; from about 250 reais).
52 PLACES AND MUCH, MUCH MORE Follow our 52 Places traveler, Sebastian Modak, on Instagram as he travels the world, and discover more Travel coverage by following us on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our Travel Dispatch newsletter: Each week you’ll receive tips on traveling smarter, stories on hot destinations and access to photos from all over the world.