by Chris Moss, The Telegraph, January 7, 2020
Brazil’s most African city is a highlight of the northeast. Famed for its cuisine, carnival and capoeira dancing, Salvador is a heady coastal enclave with a Unesco-listed colonial quarter and several sultry beaches. Though not always offered as a stop on cruises down the Atlantic coast, its fusion of cultures makes it quite unlike other South American ports.
Cruise port location
The third largest in Brazil, Salvador’s port – on the northwestern edge of the city – sprawls across the eastern bank of Todos Los Santos/All Saints Bay (Bahia, the state of which Salvador is capital, is named after this bay). Three large cruise vessels can moor on the dockside (plus six cargo ships), which is right in front of the historic centre. A relatively small number of vessels make between 35-50 visits every year. Salvador is also an embarkation/disembarkation point for transatlantic voyages, including repositioning cruises at end/start of a season.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
The Mercado Modelo, a flea market inside a necolassical dockside building, is certainly within walking distance (be prepared to haggle and also for hustlers if you’re on your own). To get to the Unesco-listed Pelourinho district, you’ll need to get a taxi (10 mins) or take the Elevador Lacerda – a lift linking the upper and lower cities.
Taxis are cheap and fairly easy to find. Salvador’s centre is quite compact and walkable but there are some very steep and narrow streets; you’ll need a cab if you plan to go to Barra for the beaches. A newly constructed metro line connects the city centre and the international airport.
The Pestana Convento do Carmo, inside a convent built in 1586, is a smart property with a pool just a few minutes’ walk from the port. If you’re after a more intimate hotel, the Pousada do Boqueirão occupies a charming 18th century townhouse featuring Bahian decor, with great views over the bay thanks to its hillside location. If you plan to stay for a few days before/after a cruise, there are plenty of seaside hotels along the beaches south of the centre.
What to see and do
Salvador is built around the craggy, 230 foot-high bluff that dominates the bay, and is split into upper and lower sections. Cidade Alta (aka “Centro”) is strung along its top, linked to the less interesting Cidade Baixa (the old commercial centre) by steep, winding streets and also by the aforementioned lift. The upper city (Alta) is home to the vast majority of interesting sights.
What can I do in four hours or less?
The colonial capital from 1549-1763, Salvador is a city full of historical interest and a five-year restoration project, recently completed, has made it more photogenic than ever. Regular visitors, including Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises offer walking tours starting at the Praça Municipal, the main square dominated by the impressive Palácio do Rio Branco – the old governor’s palace which was in use until 1979. Another important public square is the beautiful Praça da Sé with its monument to Zumbi, leader of a slave revolt.
The key ecclesiastic sights are the miracle-making NS do Bonfim church, St Francis church, plus Third Order of St Francis church next door, and the Cathedral. Pelourinho is the Unesco-listed quarter, taking its name from the pillory or whipping post that used to stand here. Full of monuments as well as funky bars, it’s the main social and tourist hub. A great new museum is the Casa do Carnaval (House of Carnival), which opened in 2018 on the Praça da Sé.
Many tours make a final stop at the Mercado Modelo. Chances are you’ll be given some free time here to do a spot of shopping before heading back to the ship. Whether you ride in it or not, you can’t miss the towering Art Deco lift-shaft of the Elevador Lacerda, which connects the upper and lower cities.
Some cruise lines offer Africa-themed or culinary-focused tours, and these are well worth taking. Azamara Cruises offers percussion workshops, which involve meeting local communities, a theatre outing with dinner and evening art-themed tours, all within the four-hour timeframe. SUV tours are also routinely offered, ideal for those with limited mobility.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
You’re only likely to get eight hours here if you’re leaving the ship or during a stay prior to embarkation. In this case, allow time for a trip to the beaches. Inside the city limits, Barra is a popular beach strip, with some smart seafront hotels, cafes and bars, boutiques and restaurants.
A recommended day-trip option is Praia do Forte, north of the city. Formerly a fishing village, it’s a very pretty beach resort and home to the country's largest endangered sea turtle preservation project. Between September and March, green and hawksbill turtles build nests and lay eggs on the shore; full moon tours are available. The road north is known as the Coconut Highway, and is lovely to drive along while going in search of quiet beaches and seaside shacks selling seafood.
Eat and drink
Northeastern Brazilian cuisine is so delicious that it’s offered right across Brazil – but you’ll sample the finest expressions of it here. Classic stews include moqueca baiana (fish), caruru (okra and shrimp) vatapa (shrimp) and similar chowder-like shrimp bobó. Out on the streets, you can’t fail to catch the pungent aroma of the dendê palm oil that baianas (cooks, dressed in white) use to fry up balls of mashed black-eyed peas known as acarajé – often served with fishy filings.
Don’t leave Salvador without…
Colourful crafts are sold in the Mercado Modelo – leatherwork and lace work are usually of a high quality. Beachwear, including cangas (sarongs) and flipflops, are also good buys in Salvador.
Need to know
TAP flies from London via Lisbon, Air Europa via Madrid: 13-15 hours (usually overnight).
Salvador has some sketchy districts. Keep to the busy historical centre in the upper city if possible and avoid ATMS or backstreets after dark.
Best time to go
The cruise season is mid-November to mid-April, the austral summer, when average temperatures in Salvador are in the mid to upper twenties and rainfall lowest for the year. Carnival in Salvador is crazy – if planning a stay, book well in advance.
Museums and some restaurants close Mondays. Smaller shops close on Sundays.