In order to understand Brazilian culture, one would need to explore its roots. The best place to immerse yourself in Brazil’s roots is to visit Bahia. Part of the amazing mix of people that created the Brazilian culture comes from Africa and Bahia has maintained its African legacy for centuries. This legacy is alive in how the locals worship, in their music, cuisine and more. And the capital of Bahia, Salvador, is also considered the cultural Capital of Brazil.
What does Salvador have to offer?
Salvador is the birthplace of internationally famed Brazilian artists. Of African, European and Native Brazilian descent, joy, creativity, musicality and a rich cultural heritage are inherent to the Bahian people. Until 1763, Salvador was the seat of all Portuguese territories in the Americas.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Salvador’s Historic District boasts over 800 colonial buildings, particularly in the area known as the Pelourinho, the Portuguese word for pillory, a wooden column where slaves were punished during the slavery period.
Salvador is an example of religious harmony – Catholicism and the West African animist religion, Candomblé, are practiced side by side, and often by the same people. Religious celebrations, such as the Bonfim Procession, the New Year’s Mariners Procession and the Yemanjá Festival give visitors the chance to experience Bahia’s cultural wealth and diversity firsthand.
Carnival in Salvador is one of the most traditional and up-beat in Brazil. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to enjoy the music and lively parades, attracting up to two million people on the three main Carnival routes, Dodô, Osmar and Batatinha.
Some tips to make the most out of your visit beyond the stadiums:
1- Enjoy the sounds of Bahia
Being a hip happening beach city, Salvador has a strong nightlife, as well – which will please all tastes. There are countless bars, pubs and concert halls that will offer traditional Brazilian music, new hits from Bahia (which usually become national hits during Carnival), electronic music, pop rock and even country. Just look what suits you best and celebrate life!
Speaking of Carnival, this festivity is a local trademark; different from Rio (with its colorful parades and costumes), Carnival in Salvador has a different “feel”. People take the streets and avenues, following big, electric trucks, with bands performing on top. This local invention became known as “Electric Trios”, and usually people purchase a “Abadá” (a piece of clothing which grants right to follow the truck), though many people just follow the bands dancing along the streets.
One special offering of Salvador is the traditional drum bands that you see in Pelourinho (the old city).
2- Eat the Unexpected
Salvador harbors a very unique gastronomy, filled with spices, tastes and colors due to its strong African roots. Some of the some must-tries are: Acarajé (fried black-eyed pea and shrimp fritters), Vatapá (nut and shrimp puree) and Moqueca (fish or shrimp stew) are just some of the ideal gastronomic experiences a visitor could have in Salvador. Just find the closest “baiana” near your hotel and you are good to go (baianas dress in traditional white clothes and an assortment of these delicacies in the street).
3- Re-live part of Brazilian history
Salvador is one of Brazil’s oldest cities (it was the country’s first Capital), which means the city breathes history, from the old, narrow streets that resemble medieval Portuguese towns, to the breathtaking baroque churches, to the many museums (Solar do Unhão, which is the Museum of Modern Art is practically over the water and should not be missed).
There are markets and even a colonial fort (São Marcelo Fort), in the middle of the ocean, which was built to protect the city from pirates and other threats (and is a colonial museum just 10 minutes away by boat). Another strong part of the city’s past is the African heritage, which can be easily seen in its beautiful people (actually, Salvador is the “most African” city outside Africa). Visitors should visit some important sites like Mercado Modelo (the old city’s central market), the Lacerda Elevator (near Mercado Modelo, and one of the city’s hallmarks) and Pelourinho (the “medieval” Salvador, where all the beautiful churches are located). And, while in Pelourinho, don’t forget to visit St. Francis Church. I don’t want to spoil the surprises but I think you’ll want to thank me later.
4- Experience Candomblé and Capoeira
Candomblé emerged from as an attempt of West African slaves to maintain Yoruba rituals by pairing their gods and goddesses (known as orishas) with Catholic saints. Visitors can travel to a small community nestled in the hills of Cachoeira on the Paraguassu River, you can visit the women who still practice this Afro-Catholic religion.
This is one of many options of experiencing this rich culture, which is literally all over the place.
Capoeira finds its origin in this region. This too is a legacy of the slave trade and was used by slaves as a way defend themselves from violent practices and to maintain their cultural identity by transforming their traditional dances into a means of self protection. Today, it is a very popular practice amongst Brazilians and many other cultures throughout the world.
A Brazilian author is a good gateway to investigate all this strong ethnic history and culture. Jorge Amado, one of the most famous modern writers from Brazil and whose work has been translated into 49 languages, was born in Bahia and expresses all the beauty, the magic and the syncretism, so typical from this state, in his books. The most famous one (which also became a film) is “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”.