the Northeast’s second-largest city, appears rather dull on first
impressions, but it’s lent a colonial grace and elegance by Olinda, 6km
to the north and considered part of the same conurbation. Recife itself
has long since burst its original colonial boundaries and much of the
centre is now given over to uninspired modern skyscrapers and office
buildings. But there are still a few quiet squares, where an inordinate
number of impressive churches lie cheek by jowl with the uglier urban
sprawl of the past thirty years. North of the centre are some pleasant
leafy suburbs, dotted with museums and parks, and to the south there is
the modern beachside district of Boa Viagem. Other beaches lie
within easy reach, both north and south of the city, and there’s also
all the nightlife one would expect from a city of nearly two
Tourists wandering around Recife should be particularly careful with their possessions and it’s best, too, to use taxis to get home after an evening out. Recife is one of Brazil’s most violent cities, an unsurprising statistic given the immediately obvious disparity of wealth and stark poverty, and the large number of homeless people on the streets. On Sundays in the old centre of Recife, the streets often seem deserted except for beggars; everyone else seems to be on the beach at Boa Viagem. Tourists tend to hang out in the much pleasanter environment of laid-back Olinda.
|Modern Recife sprawls onto
the mainland, but the heart of the city is three small islands,
Santo Antônio, Boa Vista and Recife proper, connected with each other and
the mainland by more than two dozen bridges over the rivers Beberibe and
Capibaribe. This profusion of waterways has led to the inevitable
description of Recife as the “Venice of Brazil” – a totally
Recife island is where the docks are and therefore marks the point where the city began. Until only a few years ago it was a dangerous, run-down area inhabited mainly by drunks and prostitutes, but the investment of millions of dollars by the local authorities and private business have brought about something of a transformation in both the look and feel of the area. The brightly painted colonial buildings make the small, easily negotiable island a pleasant place to wander during the day, even though there aren’t many specific things to do. And the island now has the best nightlife anywhere in the city centre, its streets jammed with revellers right through the early hours.
Avenida Dantas Barreto splits the island of Santo Antônio, home to the central business district and many surviving colonial churches. Just over the river is Boa Vista, linked to Santo Antônio by a series of small bridges; the brightly painted criss-cross girders of the Ponte de Boa Vista are a convenient central landmark. Santo Antônio and Boa Vista are the dirtiest areas of Recife, and although they bustle with activity during the day they empty at night, when the enormous, largely deserted streets are a little spooky and forbidding. Residential suburbs stretch to the north, but the bulk of the middle-class population is concentrated to the south, in a long ribbon development along the beach at Boa Viagem.
There’s no excuse for being bored in Recife. There are literally dozens of colonial churches in the city, at least one of which it would be criminal to miss; one excellent and several lesser museums; and some lovely public buildings. The churches tend not to have regular opening hours, but if the main door is shut you can often get in by knocking on a side door – if there’s anyone inside they’ll be only too happy to let you in. Even for the less determined sightseer, there are parks, beaches and a number of places where the most interesting thing to do is simply to drift about, absorbing the feel of the city and watching people get on with their lives – something that’s particularly true of the city’s markets.
Avenida Dantas Barreto
|The broad Avenida
Dantas Barreto forms the spine of the central island of Santo Antônio.
In southern Brazil, avenues like this are lined with skyscrapers, but,
although some have sprouted in Recife’s financial district, generally
the centre is on a human scale, with crowded, narrow lanes lined with
stalls and shops opening out directly onto the streets. Dantas Barreto,
the main thoroughfare, ends in the fine Praça da República, lined
with majestic palms and surrounded by Recife’s grandest public buildings
– the governor’s palace (not open to visitors) and an ornate theatre.
One of the charms of the city, though, is the unpredictability of the
streets, and even off this main boulevard you’ll stumble upon old
churches sandwiched between modern buildings, the cool hush inside a
refuge from the noise and bustle beyond.
Boa Viagem: The beach
|Regular buses make it easy
to get down to Boa Viagem and the beach, an enormous
skyscraper-lined arc of sand that constitutes the longest stretch of
urbanized seafront in Brazil. As you’d expect of a city of islands,
Recife was once studded with beaches, but they were swallowed up by
industrial development, leaving only Boa Viagem within the city’s limits
– though there are others a short distance away to the north and south.
In the seventeenth century, Boa Viagem’s name was Ilha Cheiro Dinheiro,
or “Smell Money Island” – as if whoever named it knew it would
become the most expensive piece of real estate in the Northeast.
Much of Boa Viagem is only three or four blocks deep, so it’s easy to find your way around. Take your bearings from one of the three main roads: the seafront Avenida Boa Viagem, with the posh hotels and a typically Brazilian promenade of palm trees and mosaic pavements; the broad Avenida Conselheiro Aguiar two blocks up; and then Avenida Engenheiro Domingos Ferreira.
The beach itself is longer and (claim the locals) better even than Copacabana, with warm natural rock pools to wallow in just offshore when the tide is out. It’s also rather narrow, however, and more dominated by the concrete culture around it than most in the Northeast. It gets very crowded at the weekends, but weekdays are relatively relaxed. There’s a constant flow of people selling fresh coconut milk, iced beers, ready-mixed batidas (rum cocktails), pineapples, watermelon, shrimp, crabs, oysters, ice creams, straw hats and suntan lotion.
The heart of the action emanates from Praça Boa Viagem. Close to here are some of the liveliest restaurants and choparias. At weekends there’s a thriving and colourful food and craft fair in the Praça Boa Viagem, busiest on Sunday evenings.
The usual cautions apply about not taking valuables to the beach or leaving things unattended while you swim. There have also been a small number of shark attacks over the years, but they have almost always involved surfers far from shore.
Casa da Cultura
|Right opposite the Estação
Central, the forbidding Casa da Cultura de Pernambuco (Mon–Sat
9am–7pm, Sun 10am–2pm) was once the city’s prison and is now an
essential stop for visitors. It’s cunningly designed, with three wings
radiating out from a central point, so that a single warder could keep an
eye on all nine corridors. The whole complex has been turned into an arts
and crafts centre, the cells converted into little boutiques and one or
two places for refreshment. The quality of the goods on offer here is
good, but the prices are a lot higher than elsewhere in the city, so go to
look rather than buy. The Casa da Cultura is also the best place to get
information on cultural events in the city, providing a monthly Agenda
Cultural with listings of plays, films and other entertainments;
dancing displays are often laid on too, which are free and not at all bad.
Mercado de São José
|Recife is probably the
best big Brazilian city to find artesanato, and the area around São
Pedro is the best place to look for it. If you shop around, even tight
budgets can stretch to some wonderful bargains. There are stalls all over
the city, but they coagulate into a bustling complex of winding streets,
lined with beautiful but dilapidated early nineteenth-century tenements,
which begins on the Pátio de São Pedro. The streets are choked with
people and goods, all of which converge on the market proper, the Mercado
de São José, an excellent place for artesanato.
If you simply can’t face the crowds, there’s a very good craft shop, Penha, on the corner of the Pátio de São Pedro. It’s the main city outlet for some of Recife’s excellent woodcut artists. In the same shop you’ll also find extremely inexpensive prints on both cloth and paper, known as cordel. The usual themes are stock Northeastern stories about cowboys, devils, saints and bandits, although there are also cordel based on political events, and educational ballads about disease and hygiene, even poems about how AIDS is transmitted and the need to use condoms. Even if you don’t understand a word of Portuguese, the printed covers are often worth having in their own right, and they’re extremely cheap, around $1 each. Outside the shop, you can dig out cordel around the mercado or in Praça de Sebo, where the secondhand booksellers have stalls.
Museu da Cicade
vultures should visit Recife’s most central museum, the Museu da
Cidade (Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat & Sun 1–5pm), in the
star-shaped fort, the Forte das Cinco Pontas, off the western end of
Avenida Dantas Barreto; the best view of it is coming in by bus from Boa
Viagem. Built in 1630 by the Dutch, the fort was the last place they
surrendered when they were expelled in 1654. The building is actually far
more interesting than the museum itself, which is dedicated entirely to
the history of the city, with old engravings and photographs.
Museu de Arte Moderna and the Forte do Brum
|The Museu de Arte
Moderna Aloisio Magalhães, located in Boa Vista just over the river
from Santo Antônio at Rua da Aurora 256 (Tues–Sun noon–6pm), houses
prestigious changing exhibitions of mainly Brazilian modern artists, many
amongst Pernambuco’s best. Of less general interest is the Museu
Militar on Praça Comunidade Luso-Brasileira (Tues–Fri 9am–6pm,
Sat & Sun 9am–4pm). Housed in the seventeeth-century Forte do
Brum at the northern end of Recife island, the museum displays
weapons, photographs, World War II artefacts and some local ethnographic
pieces – only really of interest to military enthusiasts. The fort, a
prominent, white-walled four-pointed structure, also puts on occasional
modern art exhibitions – check for details in the monthly Agenda
Cultural do Recife.
Museu do Estado
|The “Dois Irmãos via
Barbosa”, is the one to take for the Museu do Estado (Tues–Fri
9am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 2–5.30pm), a fine nineteenth-century mansion
at Av. Rui Barbosa 660, in Graças. It’s on the right-hand side about
twenty minutes after leaving the city centre, well before the Museu do
Homem do Nordeste, but difficult to spot, so you might need to ask. Here
you’ll find some fine engravings of Recife as it was in the early part
of the last century, all of them English, and upstairs there are good
paintings by Teles Júnior, which give you an idea of what tropical
Turners might have looked like. On the last Sunday of the month there’s
also a busy little antiques fair held at the museum.
If the bus is crowded, or you can’t make the driver understand where you want to get off, don’t worry: after the museums it runs on to the Horto Zoobotânico (Tues–Sun 8am–5pm; $1), a combined zoo and botanical gardens. The gardens are the best part, with outdoor cafés and shady paths to walk along; the zoo, like most in Brazil, is shockingly bad, with the animals confined in concrete boxes far too small for them, where they’re constantly taunted by children and adults who ought to know better.
Museu do Homem do Nordeste
|The Museu do Homem do
Nordeste (Tues, Wed & Fri 11am–5pm, Thurs 8am–5pm, Sat &
Sun 1–5pm) was assembled by anthropologists and is one of Brazil’s
great museums and the best introduction there is to the history and
culture of the Northeast. It’s quite a way out of central Recife. Take
the “Dois Irmãos” bus from outside the post office or from Parque 13
de Maio, at the bottom of Rua do Hospício; there are two “Dois Irmãos”
services, but the one marked “via Barbosa” is the one to get, a
pleasant half-hour drive through leafy northern suburbs. The museum is not
very easy to spot, on the left-hand side, so ask the driver or conductor
where to get off.
The museum is split into several galleries, each devoted to one of the great themes of Northeastern economy and society: sugar, cattle, fishing, popular religion, festivals, ceramics and so on. The historical material is well displayed and interesting, but the museum’s strongest point is its unrivalled collection of popular art – there are displays not just of handicrafts, but also of cigarette packets, tobacco pouches and, best of all, a superb collection of postwar bottles of cachaça (rum). A look at the designs on the labels, very Brazilian adaptations of Western 1950s and 1960s kitsch, leaves you with nothing but admiration for the imagination – and drinking capacity – of the people who put the display together.
The first floor of the museum is largely devoted to the rich regional tradition of clay sculpture and pottery that still flourishes in the agreste and sertão, especially around Caruaru. The work of Mestre Vitalino, a peasant farmer in the village of Alto do Moura, is a highlight. In the 1920s, he began to make small statues depicting scenes of rural life, of an astonishing vitality and power; the feeling and expression in the faces is quite remarkable, for example in the leering devil appearing to a terrified drunk clutching a bottle of rum. As Vitalino grew older, he began to incorporate the changes happening in the countryside around him into his work. There are statues of migrants, and urban themes appear with a series of portraits of professionals: the lawyer, doctors and dentists (very gruesome), the journalist and the secretary. These themes take over in the work of the next generation of artists, the sons of Vitalino and other pioneers, like the almost equally well-known Zé Caboclo, whose work fills the next few cases. In the third generation the style changed, and it’s interesting that the best contemporary sculptors are women, notably the granddaughters of Zé Caboclo. The statues remain true to the established themes, but they are miniaturized, and the effect comes from the extreme delicacy of detail and painting, which contrasts with the cruder vigour of their male precursors. You’ll see reproductions of many of the statues here on market stalls across Brazil, but Pernambuco is the place to get the real thing: examples of the work of many of the artists displayed in the museum can still be bought fairly cheaply, especially in Alto do Moura itself.
Museu do Trem
|Over in the Estação
Central itself, on the busy little Praça Visconde de Mauá, the Museu
do Trem (Mon–Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 2–6pm) is worth a look, too,
tracing the history of the railways that played a vital role in opening up
the interior of the Northeast. British visitors can wax nostalgic over the
exploits of the Great Western Railway of Brazil Limited, some of whose
engines and wagons decorate the forecourt between the museum and the metrô
terminal. The fine station, lovingly restored in 1997, is a relic of the
days when British companies dominated the Brazilian economy.
Olaria de Brennand
|If you have time, try and
round off your sightseeing with the bizarre Olaria de Brennand, an
industrial estate in the northern suburbs – there can’t be anywhere
more impressively offbeat in the whole of Brazil. One of three brothers
who inherited a huge tile, ceramic and brickwork factory, Brennand became
a very strange kind of tycoon. Although already rich beyond the dreams of
avarice, he was driven to become an internationally famous ceramic artist.
His factory estate, far from being an industrial wasteland, nestles in the
middle of the only part of the old coastal forest still surviving in the
metropolitan area. It’s a very beautiful piece of land – and it’s
sobering to think that without it, nothing at all would remain to show
what the coast around Recife looked like before the arrival of the
Past the rows of workers’ cottages and a brickworks, you come to the oficina, an enormous personal gallery (Tues–Fri 9am–noon & 2–4pm) containing thousands of Brennand’s sculptures, decorated tiles, paintings and drawings. A lot of the work is good, and has strong erotic overtones – to say that genitals are a recurring theme is putting it mildly.
The gallery is a long way from the centre, but is definitely worth the effort. A taxi from Santo Antônio will set you back around $12 and if you don’t want to walk back you’ll have to arrange for it to pick you up again, because no taxis pass anywhere near. Alternatively, take the bus marked “CDU–Várzea” from outside the post office to its terminus: once there you can either take a taxi or walk – it’s not far but you’ll need to ask the way. Make sure you say “a oficina de Brennand” with the stress on the second syllable of “Brennand”, or nobody will know what you’re talking about. The staff are always pleased to see foreign visitors.
|Perhaps the most enticing
of the buildings in central Recife is the seventeenth-century Franciscan
complex known as the Santo Antônio do Convento de São Francisco,
on Rua do Imperador – a combination of church, convent and museum.
Outside, you’ll be besieged by crowds of beggars displaying sores and
stumps, but negotiate your way through to the entrance of the museum
(Mon–Fri 8–11.30am & 2–5pm, Sat 2–5pm), pay the nominal fee,
and you’ll find yourself in a cool and quiet haven. Built around a
beautiful small cloister, the museum contains some delicately painted
statues of saints and other artwork rescued from demolished or crumbling
local churches. But the real highlight here is the Capela Dourada
(Golden Chapel), which has a lot in common with the churches in the old
gold towns of Minas Gerais. Like them, it’s a rather vulgar
demonstration of colonial prosperity. Finished in 1697, the Rococo chapel
is the usual wall-to-ceiling-to-wall ornamentation, except that everything
is covered with gold-leaf. If you look closely at the carving under the
gilt you’ll see that the level of workmanship is actually quite crude,
but the overall effect of so much gold is undeniably impressive. What
really gilded the chapel, of course, was sugar cane: the sugar trade was
at its peak when it was built, and the sugar elite were building monuments
to their wealth all over the city.
|The church of São
Pedro (Mon–Fri 8–11am & 2–4pm, Sat 8–10am) is situated on
the Pátio de São Pedro, just off the Avenida Dantas Barreto. The
impressive facade is dominated by a statue of St Peter that was donated to
the church in 1980 by a master sculptor from the ceramics centre of
Tracunhaém in the interior. Inside the church there’s some exquisite
woodcarving and a trompe l’oeil ceiling, and on another corner of
the Pátio is the Museu de Arte Popular de Recife (Mon–Fri
9am–7pm) which has some interesting exhibits, including pottery and
wooden sculpture. If you’ve missed the church’s opening hours, content
yourself with the exterior views, best seen with a cold beer in hand from
one of the several bars which set up tables in the square outside. The
whole of the Pátio has in fact been beautifully restored, which lends
this part of the city a charm of its own.
Getting there & around
|The airport is
fairly close to the city centre, at the far end of Boa Viagem. A taxi to
Boa Viagem itself shouldn’t be more than $6–7, to the neighbouring
island of Santo Antônio about $10–12; or take the Aeroporto bus ($2.50)
from right outside, which will drive through Boa Viagem and drop you in
the centre. The Rodoviária is miles out, though this is not really
a problem since the metrô (tel 081/3424-1662 for information), an
overground rail link, whisks you very cheaply and efficiently into the
centre, giving you a good introduction to city life as it glides through
various favelas. It will deposit you at the old train station,
called Estação Central (or simply “Recife”). To get to your
hotel from there, whether in the central hotel district, Boa Viagem or
even Olinda, you’re best off taking a taxi – Recife is a
confusing city even when you’ve been there a few days, and the extra
money will be well spent.
Recife’s bus network (tel 081/3452-1103) is an appalling mess. Routes change frequently, the destinations marked on the front of the buses are places you’ve never heard of, and unlike in Rio or Salvador there are no helpful signs on the side of the vehicle showing where it stops along the way. To make things worse, the complex layout of the city means that it’s hard to get your bearings. What follows is a basic guide to getting around, but you’ll probably still have to ask.
Most city buses originate and terminate on the central island of Santo Antônio, on Avenida Dantas Barreto, either side of the Pracinha do Diário (also known as Praça da Independência). There are more stops nearby on Avenida Guararapes outside the main post office. To get from the city centre to Boa Viagem, take buses marked “Aeroporto”, “Iguatemi” or “Boa Viagem”, or catch the more comfortable frescão marked “Aeroporto”, just outside the offices of the newspaper, Diário de Pernambuco, on the Pracinha do Diário; it goes every twenty minutes and costs about $2.50. To get to Olinda from central Recife, walk south down Avenida Dantas Barreto from the Pracinha do Diário to the last of the series of bus stops, and catch the bus marked “Casa Caiada” – you’ll think you’re heading in the wrong direction at first, but you will get there eventually. Alternatively, a taxi from central Recife to Olinda should cost around $8–10 and will take about fifteen minutes.
From Boa Viagem, most buses in either direction can be caught on Avenida Engenheiro Domingos Ferreira, three blocks in from the sea. Buses marked “Dantas Barreto” will get you to the city centre, and so should most of those marked “Conde de Boa Vista”, though it’s probably best to ask. You can get directly from Boa Viagem to Olinda on buses marked “Rio Doce”.
If you’re completely fed up with the buses, there are always shared taxis. These small vans race around the city towards the end of the afternoon, offering lifts to various destinations for between $1 and $3. They’ll stop almost anywhere and are a pretty good way of getting around as long as you’re not too nervous a passenger, though it’s clear that many locals don’t like to use them.
|Tourist information is not
Recife’s strong point, and what there is is directed mainly at the upper
end of the market. The state tourist office, EMPETUR, runs a 24-hour
information post at the airport (tel 081/3341-5707), where you may
find English-speaking staff and a few maps and calendars of events.
They’ll also ring hotels for you, but are no good for the cheapest
places. EMPETUR has its headquarters inconveniently located at the Centro
de Convenções (Mon–Fri 9am–6pm; tel 081/3241-2111, ext 2174), an
ugly concrete building more or less en route between Recife and Olinda. In
Boa Viagem, there is a Delegacia do Turista at Rua dos Navegantes
1003 (tel 081/3326-9603), which is open 24 hours a day and can help with
accommodation at the beach. Alternatively, there’s the tourist
hotline: just ring 1516 (Mon–Fri 8am–6pm) and you should be able
to find someone who speaks English.
For up-to-date listings of events in and around Recife, try the Roteiro section of the daily Jornal do Comércio, or the Viver section of the Diário de Pernambuco, also daily. Alternatively, the Agenda Cultural do Recife is a useful guide to museums and theatre, dance, music and photography events, and is available from the Casa da Cultura or online at www.recife.pe.gov.br.
|Eating out is
cheapest in Santo Antônio, more expensive in Recife island and Boa
Viagem, with Olinda somewhere in between. Recifense cuisine revolves
around fish and shellfish. Try carangueijo mole,
crabs cooked in a spicy sauce until shells and legs are soft and edible,
which solves the problem of digging out the meat; small crabs called guaiamum;
and agulhas fritas, fried needle fish. As befits a sugar city, a
favourite local drink is caldo de cana, the juice pressed from
sugar cane by hypnotic Victorian-looking machines.
Cheapest of all, and surprisingly pleasant, are the food sellers and suco stalls clogging the streets of Santo Antônio, with the usual selection of iced fruit juices, kebabs, cakes, sandwiches and pastel. There’s a row of reasonably priced stalls licensed by the city authorities on the pedestrianized Rua da Palma, across the road from the main post office, much patronized by office workers. The area also has many cheap lanchonetes and restaurants, although as their clientele is mainly workers they tend to close in the early evening. There’s also an inexpensive lunchtime-only vegetarian restaurant, O Vegetal, which has branches on Avenida Guararapes (no. 210, 2nd floor) and Avenida Dantas Barreto (no. 507). Santo Antônio is pretty dead at night, with the exception of the cobbled square around São Pedro church, the Pátio de São Pedro, where there are some good regional restaurants, with tables in the square and nice views of the church. Also worth a visit is the classy Restaurante Leite, Praça Joaquim Nabuco 147 (tel 081/3224-7977), close to the Hotel Quatro de Outubro, which serves good local dishes in a very stylish nineteenth-century interior.
Recife island has plenty of restaurants, and you may want to eat there as a prelude to going on to a bar or a nightclub. But prices are relatively high and the emphasis is on sophistication rather than good old-fashioned hearty Brazilian cooking. Buon Gustaio, on Rua do Bom Jesus, does superb Italian food, and Gambrinus, at Rua Marquês de Olinda 263, is one of the places where you can get some local dishes. There’s also a branch of the vegetarian restaurant, O Vegetal, on Rua do Brum (lunchtime only).
Down on the beach there are hundreds of places to eat, with one of the biggest concentrations in the Pina district, between the city centre and Boa Viagem. Catch a bus in the direction of Boa Viagem and get off on Avenida Herculano Bandeira, which is just where the bus veers round to run parallel to the sea. Almost the whole of the avenida is taken up with restaurants, most of them concentrating on seafood; especially recommended are Marinho’s and Pra Vocês.
In Boa Viagem itself the best value is to be found at the seafood places on the promenade near the city-centre end of the beach, and in the dining rooms of the cheaper hotels, all of which are open to non-residents. Peixada do Lula, at Av. Boa Viagem 244, is a reasonably priced seafood restaurant; Bargaço, on the same street at no. 670, does a mixture of seafood and spicier Bahian dishes; Edmilson da Carne de Sol, at Rua José Trajano 82, is good for meat; and La Pinha, Praça Boa Viagem, is a pleasant and inexpensive little pizzeria and seafood restaurant. On either side of the main drag Avenida Domingos Ferreira, there are a number of other eating places, such as the comida por kilo Restaurant Laçador, and the more expensive Chinese restaurant, the Shanghai Palace.
|As elsewhere in Brazil, nightlife
in Recife starts late, after 10pm. The variety of music and dances is
enormous, and Recife has its own frenetic carnival music, the frevo,
as well as forró, which you hear all over the Northeast. The
dancing to forró can be really something, couples swivelling
around the dance floors with ball bearings for ankles. In the past couple
of years, Recife island has become the most happening place in the city
centre, but there’s also plenty of action in Boa Viagem as well as in
Olinda. There are other interesting nightspots in suburbs like Graças and
Casa Forte, but they’re not well served by public transport, so you’ll
have to take a taxi.
For a taste of strongly regional music of all types it’s worth trying out an espaço cultural or two. The Espaço Nodaloshi, at Estrada dos Remédios 1891 in Madalena (tel 081/3228-3511), frequently brings together large numbers of musicians from all over Pernambuco, generally starting the shows around 10pm or later. The Espaço Cultural Alberto Cunha Melo, at Rua Leila Félix Karan 15 in Bongi (tel 081/3228-6846), runs similar live music shows. These and other similar places generally promote their programmes through the Agenda Cultural.
|In Santo Antônio,
virtually the only place with any zip to it is the Pátio de São Pedro,
with its bars and restaurants. Occasionally something extra happens here,
though: music and dance groups often appear at weekends, and it’s one of
the centres of Recife’s Carnaval.
As night falls and the rest of the city centre shuts down, Recife island comes to life. There are all kinds of bars here, including quiet places where middle-aged professionals sit and discuss the events of the day. But the scene is mainly young and noisy: Rua do Apolo in particular has a string of bars with names like Armazém da Cerveja (“Beer Warehouse”) and Arsenal do Chopp (“Beer Arsenal”), which gives you some idea of the spirit of the place. In the same street, the Moritzstad club frequently holds live concerts of the Manue Beat bands, one of Pernambuco’s modern musical movements. You should certainly sample the atmosphere here at least once just to get an idea of how seriously young Recifenses take enjoying themselves.
In Boa Viagem, bars open and close with bewildering speed, which makes it difficult to keep track of them. The liveliest area, though, is around Praça de Boa Viagem (quite a long way down the beach from the city centre, near the junction of Avenida Boa Viagem and Rua Bavão de Souza Leão); the Lapinha bar and restaurant is a popular meeting place, as is the Caktos bar, Av. Conselheiro Aguiar 2328.
Quieter and classier is the northern suburb of Casa Forte. A good place here is Agua de Beber, a gem of a bar at Praça de Casa Forte 661: a large house with an expensive restaurant upstairs, it also has a leafy courtyard in which you can sit and drink magical caipirinhas.
|If you’re looking to lay
down a few steps, you need to head for a casa de forró; the best
time to go is around midnight on a Friday or Saturday. In all of them you
can drink and eat fairly cheaply, too. They often have rules about only
letting in couples, but these are very haphazardly enforced, especially
for foreigners. There’s a small entry fee, and you may be given a coupon
as you go in for the waiters to mark down what you have – don’t lose
it or you’ll have to pay a fine when you leave. Taxis back are rarely a
problem, even in the small hours. Two good casas de forró are the Belo
Mar on Avenida Bernardo Vieira de Melo, in Candeias bairro, and
the Casa de Festejo on Praça do Derby in the bairro of
Torre. Otherwise, look in local papers or ask EMPETUR for details; there
are dozens of others. One place that mixes forró with samba is the
lively Cavalo Dourado (Fri & Sat only), at Rua Carlos Gomes
390, in the bairro of Prado. More westernized, but still good, is Over
Point Dancing at Rua das Graças 261 in Graças.
Recife island has a good share of nightclubs, though the emphasis is on Western dance music rather than forró, at places like Planeta Maluco on Rua do Apolo. But the best nights in the docks district are Thursdays between October and March, when a large area along Avenida Marquês de Olinda is given over to hours of live music and open-air dancing, called – appropriately enough – Dançando na Rua (“Dancing in the Street”). The Depois Dancing Bar, at Av. Rio Branco 66 in Recife Antigo (8pm–late) is a nightclub with live Western and forró music from Wednesday to Saturday and a reasonable restaurant.
Carnaval in Recife
|Carnaval in Recife
is overshadowed by the one in Olinda, but the city affair is still worth
sampling even if you decide, as many locals do, to spend most of Carnaval
in Olinda. The best place for Carnaval information is the tourist
office, which publishes a free broadsheet with timetables and route
details of all the Carnaval groups. You can also get a timetable in
a free supplement to the Diário de Pernambuco newspaper on the
Saturday of Carnaval, but be warned that it’s only a very
The blocos, or Carnaval groups, come in all shapes and sizes: the most famous is called Galo da Madrugada; the commonest are the frevo groups (trucks called freviocas, with an electric frevo band aboard, circulate around the centre, whipping up already frantic crowds); but most visually arresting are caboclinhos, who wear Brazilian ideas of Indian costume – feathers, animal-tooth necklaces – and carry bows and arrows, which they use to beat out the rhythm as they dance. It’s also worth trying to see a maracatu group, unique to Pernambuco: they’re mainly black, and wear bright costumes, the music an interesting (and danceable) hybrid of African percussion and Latin brass.
In Recife the main events are concentrated in Santo Antônio and Boa Vista. There are also things going on in Boa Viagem, in the area around the Recife Palace Lucsim Hotel on Avenida Boa Viagem, but it’s too middle-class for its own good and is far inferior to what’s on offer elsewhere. Carnaval in Recife officially begins with a trumpet fanfare welcoming Rei Momo, the carnival king and queen, on Avenida Guararapes at midnight on Friday, the cue for wild celebrations. At night, activities centre around the grandstands on Avenida Dantas Barreto, where the blocos parade under the critical eyes of the judges. The other central area to head for is the Pátio de São Pedro. During the day the blocos follow a route of sorts: beginning in the Praça Manuel Pinheiro, and then via Rua do Hospício, Avenida Conde de Boa Vista, Avenida Guararapes, Praça da República and Avenida Dantas Barreto to Pátio de São Pedro. Good places to hang around are near churches, especially Rosário dos Pretos, on Largo do Rosário, a special target for maracatu groups. The balconies of the Hotel do Parque are a good perch, too, if you can manage to get up there. The day is the best time to see the blocos – when the crowds are smaller and there are far more children around. At night it’s far more intense and the usual safety warnings apply.
|It’s cheapest to stay
right in the rather run-down centre, and most expensive in the beach
district of Boa Viagem. The other obvious area to consider staying is
Olinda, where prices fall somewhere between the two. Recife’s youth
hostel, the Albergue da Juventude Maracatus do Recife, is in
Boa Viagem at Rua Maria Carolina 185 (tel 081/3326-1221), and is superb.
Complete with swimming pool and free breakfast, it’s excellent value at
$15 a night.
|In Boa Viagem finding a
hotel is the least of your problems: it sometimes seems as if they
outnumber apartment buildings. The difficulty is finding a reasonably
cheap one, as the majority cater for international tourists and rich
Brazilians. Even so, you should be able to find somewhere for between $20
and $30 a night, certainly if you’re prepared to stay a little way back
from the seafront.
The Centre: Boa Vista and Santo Antônio
|Most central hotels are
concentrated around Rua do Hospício, near the bridges linking Santo Antônio
with the neighbouring island of Boa Vista.