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The best cities in Brazil

by Martha Hales

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Wonderful, immense, vibrant Brazil is a world in one nation, with splendid natural riches, beautiful beaches and a thrilling cultural landscape. The vast majority of the population live in cities, and there are many to explore, but some have an easier, more accessible appeal than others. We have picked out a handful of our favourite Brazilian cities to give you an idea of why they make good destinations to include in your Brazil holiday.

The colourful steps in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro

One of the world's most iconic cities certainly lives up to the hype. Bordered by several glorious beaches and bracketed by a clutch of instantly recognisable peaks, the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ - the City of Marvels - deserves its nickname. The views from the top of Corcovado peak at the foot of Christ the Redeemer are superlative, taking in the huge sweep of the whole of Rio bay framed by the mountains beyond.

The view from the summit of Corcovado

The obvious draw at sea level is the beach, as much a part of this exuberant city as the monuments and grand avenues. Not only are Rio's beaches famous, but they are also a great place to get to know the people and the energy of the city. The Sunday hippy market at Ipanema beach is a brilliant place to stroll and browse when you have finished watching the beach scene and you can try some local specialities too.

Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro

For a hit of culture, head for the National Museum of Fine Arts, a fabulous gallery showcasing some great works, or take in a show at the historic Municipal Theatre next door. The National Museum of history is another fine institution which gives and overview of pre-Hispanic Brazil. The pinnacle of Rio's busy calendar of events has to be the world famous Carnaval, with its hugely popular, spectacular parades, dancing, street parties and general hedonism. It's the party to end all parties in a city that knows how to let its hair down. New Year's Eve is another exciting time to be in the city partying on the beaches until sunrise.

Woman celebrating at Rio Carnival

São Paulo

The Southern Hemisphere's most populous city may be huge, with a population topping 20 million, but it is also hugely underrated. Yes, the metropolis is a mind-bendingly giant sprawl, but many of the main attractions are in the relatively compact central city districts so you needn't venture into the farthest flung suburbs at all if you don't want to.

The cityscape of São Paulo

Sampa, as it is known to locals, has a multicultural population, a thriving cultural scene, renowned nightlife, excellent shopping and dining options that befit such an important city. For a thoroughly hedonistic night out aim for Baixa Augusta, the district where the city comes out to party. There are bars, clubs and eateries with partygoers spilling out onto the street, and whatever scene you are into you are likely to find it here.

The bright lights of São Paulo at night

Liberdade district is home to the largest population of Japanese people outside Japan, and makes a fascinating stop on your exploration of São Paulo. Sample top quality Japanese food, shop in Asian supermarkets and experience the culture within a culture at Japan House. There are a whole host of brilliant museums and gallery spaces in São Paulo, notably the MAM modern art museum, the MASP, a museum devoted to the art of the city, the football museum, the Afro-Brazilian museum and the Pinacoteca.

Brazil's Liberdade district in Sao Paulo

Salvador

The capital city in the state of Bahia is also recognised by UNESCO for its importance to World Heritage, and has an irrepressible spirit that makes it great fun to explore. The old town, known as Pelourinho, occupies a high cliff overlooking the Todos Santos bay, with a lift down to harbour level. A stroll through the old town will reveal lanes splashed with brightly coloured colonial buildings and a church seemingly on every little plaza and street corner.

The UNESCO listed streets of Pelourinho in Salvador

Salvador's streets are usually busy with local life - flamboyantly dressed ladies in local dress, outbreaks of capoeira or drumming, and regular cultural events will win your heart. This is the Brazilian city with the strongest connection to West Africa, and the Afro Brazilian cultural mix is as captivating as it is vibrant. One of the places where this African connection is most obvious is at the lively Mercado Modelo, down on the harbourfront reached by an important city landmark - the lift. A browse in the market will reveal a vast array of African ingredients and dishes sold from food stands here have a distinct African twist.

The view out over the harbour from the Mercado Modelo

Salvador's busy calendar of festivals reaches a climax in the early part of the year, with the obvious attractions of Carnaval in February, and two other important festivals in January, including the boat procession on New Years Day bringing figures of the patron saints of seafarers up to be prayed to in a ceremony at Boa Viagem church. It's an impressive procession of vessels across the mouth of the bay led by an ancient boat carrying the statues. The festival of Lavagem do Bonfim falls on the second Thursday of January when a procession winds 12km through the town to Bonfim church to clean and decorate the exterior, followed by three days of festivities.

 A priestess at the Lavagem do Bonfim celebration

Manaus

Most people are surprised to learn that there is a large city deep in the Amazon region. It is situated at the confluence of three rivers and was built on the riches of the rubber trade. Despite its remote and inaccessible location Manaus is quite a hub of culture, with a standout landmark - the Amazonas Opera House.

A cityscape of Manaus in Brazil's Amazon region

A grand renaissance style building that dominates the city centre, the Amazonas Theatre and Opera House has been a real hub of Manaus society since it was built using the finest materials from Europe including French glass and Italian marble. It's the home of the Amazonas Philharmonic orchestra who put in regular concerts. The bi-annual Opera festival runs from March to May and some of the concerts are free to attend.

The Teatro Amazonas in Manaus

Other worthwhile sights in the city include the Mercado Municipal, an iron framed masterpiece in the art nouveau style modelled on the renowned Les Halles in Paris, piled high with exotic fresh produce that tempts you to buy. Just outside Manaus the famous meeting of the waters is an 8 kilometre stretch where the dark waters of the Rio Negro meet the pale, sandy waters of the Rio Solimões, but don't yet mix, making a dramatic contrast of colours flowing side by side. 

The entrance to Manaus' Mercado Municipal

Make it happen 

Brazil's cities are as diverse as the country is large. With so many urban delights and cultural events to consider, let our expert local partners use their inside knowledge to help you create your dream Brazil itinerary. It's simple - get in touch with our Brazilian partners using our enquiry form, and they will put their expertise to good use tailoring your itinerary to your specific requirements. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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