Salvador is an assault on the senses. I realise this as I attempt a recovery from my journey on the balcony of my hotel. An aquamarine sea is framed by the island of Itaparica, All Saints Bay is like a computer-generated graphic of perfection, and the traffic din I’d passed through earlier has now given way to pounding drums and a confidently twanged Brazilian berimbau instrument. I might have stumbled onto the wrong plane and fetched up in deepest Congo.

There’s a common heritage. Salvador is where Africa collided with Brazil back in 1549 when the first Portuguese pitched up to build their brand new capital of the New World. Needing manpower to construct the city and to work on the sugar and tobacco plantations in the bay area, they started importing slaves. Roughly 10 million were brought over from Africa until slavery was abolished in 1888, and most of those came to the state of Bahia and its capital, Salvador.

It left a unique African stamp on the region, one which remains – though now the legacy of the horrors of slavery is samba, capoeira (a ritualistic half fight, half dance), Candomblé (an Afro-Brazilian religious cult) and spicy, exotic cuisine, all of which might have been designed to entertain and intrigue the visitor.

Salvador quickly became the second-richest city in the Portuguese empire after Lisbon, and remained the capital of Brazil until 1763 when the sugar and tobacco profits petered out and the capital was moved to Rio de Janeiro. Happily, its former wealth left behind a historic centre filled with some of the best examples of colonial architecture in South America, and it is now a Unesco world heritage site. A large section of the old centre, known as Pelourinho, has been restored, but the sprawling mass of heritage is so extensive it is being renovated in stages, leaving many buildings on the fringes of the restored section crumbling in the tropical climes.
The Portuguese wasted no time in sending out their first Bishop of Brazil, Dom Pedro Fernandes Sardinha. There’s a statue dedicated to him in Praça da Sé near the former Governor’s Palace. However, he suffered a
nasty end when he was shipwrecked on islands off Bahia and was eaten by Caeté Indians.

This setback didn’t stop the Portuguese from relentlessly building churches, and it’s the church of São Francisco that’s the bijoux in the ecclesiastical cluster, with enough ceiling paintings, wood carvings and lashings of gold leaf to dazzle even die-hard heritage sceptics. The lavish gold interior took 30 years to complete and is one of the finest Baroque examples in Brazil.

When you tire of Catholic churches you can switch to the equivalent home for the Candomblé, known as terreiros. There are more than a thousand of these in Salvador today, but it’s not the buildings that are interesting as much as the ceremony that goes on inside, and although these are not laid on for tourists, it’s possible to go and see one.

A kind of animistic worship, Candomblé arrived from West Africa with the slaves and has developed into quite a spectacle: the devotees dance in a circle, chanting to samba de roda percussion as they attempt to contact the orixás, or Candomblé spirits.

If they’re lucky and they’ve beamed down an orixá you can witness some dramatic eye rolling, staggering and body-wobbling. This must be the only religion where octogenarians dance in voluminous, frothy frocks until they pass out in a rave-style trance, after which they perk up and tuck into the festive food.

I was honoured enough to witness a member of the congregation being hit by the spirit in a ceremony at the Casa Branca, one of the oldest Candomblé terreiros in Brazil.

As the drumming got louder he collapsed to the floor, writhing, then whipped himself up into a lathering frenzy, pulling off a sort of hip hop number, kicking his legs like a can-can dancer while making desperate chopping movements with his arms. Ten out of 10 for originality and improvisation, I thought. It was at this point that the crowd burst into rapturous applause. Of course, as he was in a trance he was oblivious, but he kept going until the “performance” had worn thin and the crowds grew bored, at which point he was discreetly dragged off to a side room.

Food is usually served as part of the ceremony and is offered to everyone present, but whatever you do don’t eat the popcorn – it’s for throwing over the dancing devotees. What is worth eating, not throwing, is the Bahian cuisine. The coconut milk, dendé oil, nuts and strong spicy pepper are the cheeky little ingredients that give it that unique African flavour. They’re also present in Bahia’s most traditional dish, moqueca, a fish or prawn stew accompanied by rice and a gloopy mix called pirão (a mix of cassava flour and the moqueca sauce).

Another Bahian specialty is acarajé, a heavy, solid dumpling fried in dendé oil and served as a street snack with a sloppy sauce called vatapá, dried shrimp and salad. The bohemian part of town, Rio Vermelho, has some of the best acarajé around and is also notorious as the place the “Acarajé wars” broke out. Happily no food was thrown, but some pretty hot words were exchanged when Bahian cook Dinha’s patch was encroached by arch rival Regina. In the end, the Governor of Bahia intervened and Regina was forced to back off a few metres and set up her stall across the road.

Salvador is Brazil’s third-largest city with 2.5 million inhabitants, and is the capital of Bahia, a state the size of France. It’s a noisy, teeming city but with a contradictory laid-back feel. Although tourism is important  – Salvador is the third most visited city by overseas tourists in Brazil after Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – the manufacturing industry is key to the local economy. The Petrobras oil refinery at São Francisco do Conde, to the south of the bay area, is the second largest in Brazil. It feeds a substantial petrochemicals industry; Bahia supplies 50 per cent of Brazil’s petrochemicals. Braskem, Politeno, Polibrasil, Monsanto and Dow Chemicals are all based on the Camaçari industrial complex, 70km north of Salvador. Camaçari also houses one of the biggest and most modern Ford car plant outside the US. And just up the road at Dias D Avila is Caraiba metals, Brazil’s only copper processing plant.

But with an estimated US$5.2 billion (£2.84 billion) in private investment being ploughed into new hotels and resorts in Bahia between now and 2012, and a jump in visitor numbers to Salvador predicted from 2.3 million in 2005 to almost 3 million in 2010, it looks as if tourism and leisure will continue to compete strongly with manufacturing.

Almost half a million visitors come to Salvador during carnival week alone, making it the biggest street festival in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. And it’s where the Brazilian devotion to partying becomes a religion in itself. Rich and poor, old and young mingle to the alluring Afro-Bahian beats. In fact they mingle so successfully the event seems to degenerate into a massive game of kiss-chase.  But they also come to sample some of the best music in Brazil where Carlinhos Brown, Olodum, Ivete Sangalo, Chiclete com Banana, Daniela Mercury and Margareth Menezes, among many others, have put Salvador on the map.
If you come to Salvador hoping to find a party vibe after the carnival it’s not hard. There’s a Bahian song “Beijo Na Boca”, or “kiss on the mouth”, that proclaims that every day is a party in Bahia. And the party music will certainly be blaring out in Pelourinho every Tuesday and Sunday night at the free shows held in the main squares. Wander the streets and you can sample pagode, axé, samba de roda and frevo baiano as it competes for air space. But there’s not much competition with Olodum’s energetic output – they can blow your flip flops off at 20 paces. As the original innovators of samba reggae, they shot to world fame when they recorded with Paul Simon then made a video with Michael Jackson, and it’s worth buying a ticket.

Bahians have a reputation for being on the lazy side; there’s a local saying that it takes nine months to leave the womb, so why hurry now? But when it comes to capoeira they soon pick up speed. A graceful martial art, capoeira has its roots in Africa but developed in Brazil throughout 19th century as a street fight. Made illegal by 1888, it reappeared in the 1920s as a stylised “game” with no physical contact, so bleeding teeth were replaced by energetic air punching. Just follow the twang of the berimbau and Angolan chanting – you can be sure to find some in Terreiro de Jesus in Pelourinho or the Mercado Modelo at the bottom of Salvador’s famous landmark, the Art Deco Lacerda elevator.

Last but not least, don’t forget the beach where amigos sit and share a beer, engulfed by axé and pagode as capoeiristas practise their moves, flick-flacking into the waves. And if the noise is too much, you could always finish your drink and take a stroll along the 50km of back-to-back city beaches.



Sofitel Salvador

Rua Passagarda S/N Itapua, Itapuã
tel +55 71 33748500,
Located near the airport and best city beaches with swimming pool, nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and sauna.
Rooms from $195/£107 to $505/£276.

Pestana Bahia
Rua Fonte do Boi 216, Rio Vermelho
tel +55 71 2103 8000,
In Rio Vermelho, ideal for a choice of bars and restaurants. Rooms have sea views, pool, gym, free bus to private beach close by. Rooms from $110/£60 to $457/£250 for presidential suite.

A Casa Das Portas Velhas
(no official five-star rating but top rating according to Bahia Tursa)
Largo da Palma 6, Santana
tel +55 71 3324 8400,
In central Salvador where the film based on Jorge Amado’s novel “Dona Flor and Her Two husbands” was set. Tranquil and comfortable rooms in a renovated colonial house.
Rooms from $219/120 to $548/£300.

Catussaba Resort Hotel
(no official five-star rating but top rating according to Bahia Tursa)
Rua Alameda da Praia, Itapuã,
tel +55 71 3374 8000,
Near the airport and best city beaches, this is an elegant resort-style hotel with beautiful gardens. Rooms from $134/£73 to $471/£258 for presidential suite.


Blue Tree Towers

Rua Monte Conselho 505, Rio Vermelho
tel +55 71 3330 2233,
Located in Rio Vermelho, ideal for a choice of bars and restaurants. Rooms have sea views, pool and tennis court on the roof with a stunning sea view. Rooms from $101/£55 to $399/£218 for the premium suite.

Vila Galé Bahia
Rua Morro Escravo Miguel 320, Ondina
tel +55 71 3263 8888,
Located in Ondina overlooking the sea. Rooms have sea views and the swimming pool is set on a terrace in a dramatic setting. Also sauna, gym. Rooms from $176/£96 to $268/£147.

Sol Victória Marina
Avenue Sete de Setembro 2068, Vitória
tel +55 71 3336 7736,
Located in Vitoria, the elegant avenue where the former colonial barons had mansions overlooking the entrance to All Saints Bay. Rooms have sea views. Swimming pool plus cable car down the cliff to a swimming and water sports jetty. Rooms from $81/£44 to $369/£202 for the presidential suite.


Hotel Catharina Paraguaçu

Rua João Gomes 128, Rio Vermelho,
tel +55 71 3334
Next to the square with the best Acarajé in town, this is a small colonial style hotel with a pretty courtyard. Rooms from $61/£33 to $75/£41.

Pousadas are guesthouses but the top of the range variety can be a more personal option than a large hotel. They are full of character and often more true to the Brazilian style.

Pousada Redfish
Ladeira do Boqueirão 1, Santo Antonio
tel +55 71 3243 8473,
On the borders of Pelourinho, this colonial house has been renovated to perfection with large spacious rooms, some of which have both a sea view and view of the historic centre. There’s also an art gallery. Rooms from $97/£53 to $146/£80.

Pousada Boqueiro
Rua Direita do Santo Antonio 48, Santo Antonio, tel +55 71 3241
On the borders of Pelourinho, this pousada is two colonial houses that have been converted with love and impeccable style. Rooms from $73/£40 to $113/£62.

Note: during carnival most hotels and pousadas offer minimum stays of three to seven nights with inflated package prices.


Paraíso Tropical
Rua Feira de Santana 354, Praça Carlos Batalha, Rio Vermelho
tel +55 71 3335 0557
Traditional Bahian food. Fresh fruit is their specialty, grown on the restaurant’s own farm.

Avenida Lafayete Coutinho 1010, Pier D, Bahia Marina, Comércio
tel +55 71 3322 4554
Trendy meals where local celebs may pop up.

Trapiche Adelaide
Praça Tupinambá 2, Avenida
Contorno, Comércio, tel +55 71 3326 2211
Perfect for business lunches, with bay views.

Boi Preto
Av. Otavio Mangabeira, Boca do Rio
tel +55 71 3371 1429
Quality Churrasco buffet to make a change from Bahian sea food.

Sorriso da Dadá
Rua Frei Vicente 5, Pelourinho
tel +55 71 3321 9642
Dadá has cooked for Hilary Clinton. You can listen to Olodum free on Tuesday nights as the restaurant is next door to their venue.

Av. Otavio Mangabeira 4655, Boca do Rio tel +55 71 3231 3036
Dessert at this Bahian restaurant is a must, especially the home-made ice cream.

Caco Zanchi
Ladeira da Barra 2914, Barra
tel +55 71 3337 2805
Ideal for a romantic dinner: grab the table overlooking the bay and St Anthony’s church.

Getting there

London-Salvador Served by Varig ( from Heathrow with a plane change in Sao Paulo. First class return £5,895, business £2,601, economy £661.

New York-Salvador First class varies $9,292 to $8,200; business class varies $8,066 to $4,987; full coach $4,912 to $1,832; apex fare $778-low season; $923-high; recent sale $689. No non-stop or direct service. Best daily connection is via Sao Paulo using either Varig online operations or a combination of American Airlines and TAM. A single connection exists via Lisbon using TAP but is costly and lengthy. TAM operates a non-stop on Sundays from Miami to Salvador at 0815 with an overnight if coming from the New York City area. Double connections apply using direct flights to Rio that transit Sao Paulo and then connect to Salvador.

Los Angeles-Salvador First class varies $13,800 to $9,634; business class varies $10,200 to $5330; full coach $4,846 to $2,602; apex fare $858-low season; $1,030-high; recent sale $678. No non-stop or direct service. Best daily connection is Sao Paulo using Varig online operations or the American Airlines and TAM combinations. Red eye flights exist from LA to Miami to connect with TAM’s non-stop on Sunday at 0815. AA offers a double connection via Dallas and Sao Paulo.