Your Travel Guide to Brazil’s World Cup Cities

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Yes, the FIFA 2014 World Cup is finally here, and since Brazil is not only my native country, I also have been to all of the 12 cities hosting this event. I have prepared a personal list with what to do between games for the soccer fans who will be flying around this nation. Brazil is a very large country, and as in any giant society, it will always be a different experience in every city you go.

It is wise to keep in mind that there is a lot of political commotion going on in Brazil; the World Cup has not really been that welcomed by certain segments of the population who strongly believe that FIFA is producing an event for the “rich people” only, when the majority of the population cannot afford the ticket prices to attend the games.

Also, the World Cup has highlighted the country’s major social problems, so be aware of your surroundings, and don’t go out venturing by yourselves in places when you shouldn’t be; shanty towns are not for tourists, it doesn’t matter if you feel it is safe because you know someone who lives there. It really doesn’t make sense to have your passport with you while you are out in the world visiting Tokyo, Rome or Rio de Janeiro, so never go out with it, just make a copy of it. Travel insurance is always a smart move.

One thing is for certain, Brazilians are a wonderful people, perhaps when the Brazilian team starts to play, the famous Brazilian energy and vibe might calm everybody’s nerves. No matter what, soccer in Brazil is still a religion. So, when you are there on the weekends, you should try feijoada, a Brazilian bean-based food served only on Saturdays, and if you like alcohol, well, caipirinha is “the drink. I prefer it made with cachaça instead of vodka, especially if you order it fruit-flavored. However, go slow while drinking caipirinhas — one is great, two are wonderful, but three is a big risk. They are so good that you have no idea how strong they are. After the fourth caipirinha, you won’t even remember which country you came from.

Let’s get to my cities guide. Please keep in mind that my suggestions for places to shop are mainly directed to places where you will find handicraft works.

1. MANAUS

manaus
Teatro Amazonas (Wikipedia photo)

Of all the cities hosting the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Manaus is the only one located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. You should not leave Manaus without trying tacacá, a seafood broth sold in kiosks everywhere, hot and delicious. Also, if you have heard of açai before, then you must have the luxury to say that you tried the power of Amazon fruit itself where it is originally from.

Where to Eat: Restaurante Banzeiro is where you will taste the best Amazonian food.

What to See: A visit to Teatro Amazonas is a delight. This beautiful opera house is the result of the rich era from the rubber boom times during the Belle Époque.

Where to Shop: Mercado Municipal Adolpho Lisboa is the perfect market for local fruits, spices and handicrafts gifts.

2. NATAL

Natal's dunes (Wikipedia photo)
Natal’s dunes (Wikipedia photo)

Ponta Negra is the neighborhood where all the action happens in this summer vacation city.

Where to Eat: For the best seafood in town, Camarões Potiguar is a must, especially if you enjoy shrimp.

What to See: Try to find some time so that you can go visit Genipabu, one the most beautiful beaches of the state, and where you can have the coolest buggie rides ever.

Where to Shop: Shopping Mãos de Arte is another great place with decent prices for handicrafts works.

3. FORTALEZA

Beachfront property in Fortaleza. (Wikipedia photo)
Beachfront property in Fortaleza. (Wikipedia photo)

The name means “fortress,” and as in many cities located in Northeastern Brazil, the main attraction are the beaches. Fortaleza is an easy city with lovely people and a great young vibe. This is the capital of forró, a style of dance and music that originated in Northeast Brazil, so don’t be surprised if you come across forró open-air parties.

Where to Eat: Moleskine Gastrobar is the trendy place of the moment in Fortaleza, although the service might be slow, the food is delicious, and the drinks are great. Also, Guarderia Brasil, located in the Praia do Futuro beach will give you all the fun experiences you need in this city besides the soccer matches.

What to See: If you faced a very long flight to Rio or Sao Paulo to connect in Brasilia to finally arrive in Fortaleza, then you must be willing to drive 180 miles to go to Jericoacoara, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. This place is so breathtaking you might even forget there’s a World Cup going on.

Where to Shop: Exquisite craft works with the best that the Ceará state has to offer can be found at CEART

4. RECIFE

Colorful, historic Olinda (Veer.com photo)
Colorful, historic Olinda (Veer.com photo)

I find Recife to be a dangerous city, so don’t let your guard down. However, the locals are very friendly, and the beaches are a delight. Boa Viagem beach, for sure, is the best one, a five-mile stretch filled with great restaurants.

Where to Eat: Parraxaxá has a happy and colorful ambiance with a great local food buffet, and Spettus has the best steak in Recife.

What to See: Definitely visit Olinda, declared a Historical and Cultural Patrimony of Humanity by the UNESCO in 1982, this historic colonial city is few miles from Recife.

Where to Shop: The Feirinha do Recife Antigo, located on Bom Jesus Street, is open from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. and is a great street fair affair.

5. SALVADOR

One of Salvador's churches (Veer.com photo)
One of Salvador’s churches (Veer.com photo)

A city so culturally rich in colors, food, music, beaches, architecture, churches, history … Salvador was the first capital of Brazil, from 1549-1763. It has one of the best street carnivals in the world, and it’s a very charming city where the old meets the modern. Pelourinho, the Historic Centre, is a must-visit; every corner of this area is filled with something that will attract the eye with its history. Look for the Bahianas, beautiful native women dressed in beautiful long and round native costumes. They wear a turban and lots of jewels, and these adorable ladies are a postcard of the city. Some will have a food stand with the most delicious local finger foods (you must experiment acarajé and vatapá).

Where to Eat: Sorriso da Dadá in the Pelourinho area is my suggestion for a delicious lunch. For dinner, try Trapiche Adelaide, one of the best restaurants in Salvador with a good crowd and great view overlooking the bay.

What to See: An interesting part of Salvador is the escarpment that divides the city between Upper Town and Lower Town. These two parts of the city are connect by the first elevator installed in Brazil, the Elevador Lacerda. Also, a trip to Trancoso is so worthwhile. If you loved the Salvador historic style, Trancoso is the Bahia chic version of it (just ask Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen). Jacaré do Brasil is my where-to-stay-suggestion in Trancoso.

Where to Shop: Well, everywhere you go is an invitation to shop, but Mercado Modelo, situated down by the harbor, is the former slave market in Salvador. It is a very touristy place, but you can find anything there, and what are you anyway?

6. BELO HORIZONTE

Feijao tropeiro (thebrazillink.com photo)
Feijao tropeiro or cattleman’s beans (thebrazillink.com photo)

Also called Beagá, this is a city built on hills and completely surrounded by mountains, so it’s only natural you’ll find a great deal of parks, caves and gorgeous waterfalls around. This is a giant city that really doesn’t feel like one. Savassi is one the most famous neighborhoods in BH, with cafes, restaurants, pubs, diners, bistros … this is where the nightlife begins and ends. You must try the feijão tropeiro (cattleman’s beans) dish, a typical dish of beans, cooked eggs, bacon and toasted cassava (manioc) flour. Just delicious!

Where to Eat: Xapuri in the Pampulha is all you need to know in Belo Horizonte to experience local food. It doesn’t get any better than Xapuri. Pampulha is an upscale area where the soccer stadium Mineirao is also located. Now, if you love pizza, Marília Pizzeria is the best in the city (I can actually say they serve one of the best pizzas I ever had).

What to See: Inhotim is a very unique and new place with strong collections of contemporary art and a botanical collection containing rare species from every continent. Ouro Preto, a town about 65 miles from Belo Horizonte, is a major tourist attraction for its well-preserved colonial appearance with old buildings and cobblestone streets. It was the focal point of the gold rush and Brazil’s golden age in the 18th century under Portuguese rule. Stunning churches!

Where to Shop: Mercado Central is an indoor market and one of the oldest places in town you can find local art.

7. BRASILIA

Catedral Metropolitana (brasiliatour.com.br photo)
Catedral Metropolitana (brasiliatour.com.br photo)

The capital of Brazil was designed in the late 1950s by world-famous and renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer. It is the only city in the world constructed in the 20th century to have been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It is a young town, of course, and was planned in the shape of an airplane. Personally, Brasilia sometimes has a cold feeling, but as in the truly Brazilian spirit, you can find areas full of excitement, especially in the North Wing.

Where to Eat: With very pop/kitsch décor, great food and an awesome crowd, the Restaurante Universal is my main suggestion to eat in Brasilia (make sure you don’t get it confused with the Universal Church located nearby).

What to See: Catedral Metropolitana is a must-visit along with a tour of the Itamaraty Palace.

Where to Shop: The indigenous crafts fair at the FUNAI Building. All of the goods sold here are handmade by indigenous people from all over Brazil, and all the money goes entirely to them. You will find the FUNAI Building near the city center, in the Radio and Television Sector. FUNAI is the Brazil’s Federal Office of Indian Affairs.

8. CUIABA

The Pantanal (veer.com photo)
The Pantanal (veer.com photo)

The capital of the Mato Grosso state, Cuiabá interestingly is located exactly in the heart of South America, and it is the starting point to explore the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, with an exquisite collection of animal species and aquatic plants. Cuiabá is a very hot city, so dress lightly, and don’t forget sunscreen. The “Popular” neighborhood is where everything happens, especially around the “Popular” square.

Where to Eat: Mahalo is my main suggestion for lunch or dinner with excellent service, delicious cuisine and a beautiful location. Bar do Azeitona is where you’ll find the coldest beer in town to cool you down from the Cuiabá heat.

What to See: Since you need at least two or three days to go the Pantanal, another option is to visit the Chapada dos Guimarães Park with its breathtaking waterfalls and crystalline rivers.

Where to Shop: Find the best local handicraft works including souvenirs from the Pantanal at Casa do Artesão.

9. CURITIBA

A traditional Japanese dance is performed in Curitiba (cnn.com photo)
A traditional Japanese dance is performed in Curitiba (cnn.com photo)

One of the best cities to live in Brazil, with a coveted quality of life. Curitiba is an international role model in dealing with such sensitive issues as transportation and the environment. This town is mostly inhabited by Brazilians of European descent; Japanese immigrants started to arrive around 1915. Curitiba city has the second-largest Japanese community in Brazil (Sao Paulo is first). It is a beautiful city, easy and safe.

Where to Eat: For a great Asian lunch — Korean, Chinese and Japanese — the traditional will fulfill all your expectations. A fantastic dinner with special Brazilian food in Curitiba requires the know-how of Chef Manoella Buffara, who’s in charge of Manu. Just unforgettable.

What to See: The Botanical Garden and the Museu Oscar Niemeyer are two of the most visited attractions in the city. After you check the links, should I still explain why?

Where to Shop: With a joyful flair, the Feira do Largo da Ordem is a good place to get lost looking for gifts.

10. PORTO ALEGRE

Skewered meats rodizio style (veer.com photo)
Skewered meats rodizio style (veer.com photo)

The capital of Rio Grande do Sul, a state located far down south, this is another great city to live, and like Curitiba, it was founded and heavily influenced by immigrants from the Portuguese archipelago of Azores. You are a “gaúcho” if you were born in this state, and once you arrive in town you must try chimarrão, a very famous infused drink made with yerba mate and hot water. Porto Alegre has all four seasons very defined.

Where to Eat: You must have an authentic churrasco (grilled meat), and, of course, the best place for it is a “churrascaria,” with a “rodizio”-style service, meaning that you pay a fixed price and eat as much as you wish. It doesn’t get any better than Fogo de Chão. Yes, this successful chain of restaurants started its business in Porto Alegre in 1979 and opened its first North American restaurant in 1997 in Dallas. Exquisite churrasco!

What to See: The Chafariz Imperial fountain in the Recanto Europeu section.

Where to Shop: My favorite hidden treasure in Porto Alegre is the Histórias na Garagem store.

11. SAO PAULO

Downtown Sao Paulo (veer.com photo)
Downtown Sao Paulo (veer.com photo)

Also called Sampa or Cidade da Garoa (city of drizzle), São Paulo is the most powerful city of South America with more than 11 million inhabitants. It’s the business center that anchors the economy of Brazil, producing 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to 2010 data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

São Paulo is a giant vertical concrete jungle and quite intimidating to even very experienced travelers, and it’s not really tourist friendly since it is so spread out. Nevertheless, it is the epitome of what a real metropolis is, a city of cutting-edge art, fashion, industry and attitude. I don’t find São Paulo to be a beautiful city in general, however, it is only fair to admit that it has everything better to offer. This is a town where people work hard and party harder, from an intense social life with one of the best nightlifes in the world to an impressive number of cultural activities, bars and restaurants. Gastronomy in São Paulo is just heavenly, you will find all the culinary cultures here. The transit is chaotic, and the street energy of the people, especially around Paulista Avenue (it’s most important avenue), is really something to be appreciated. São Paulo will host the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup on June 12.

Where to Eat: It is quite impossible to suggest just few places since the options are countless, from the fun cantinas in Bixiga to the glamorous restaurants in the Jardins area, but Mani Manioca is hands down the best gastronomic experience in São Paulo. Skye Bar at the Unique Hotel is also a must-stop for drinks and to enjoy the panoramic view of Sampa before hitting the intense nightlife.

What to See: Walking in the Ibirapuera Park and a visit to the Museum of Art in São Paulo located on Paulista Avenue are my two favorite things to do here.

Where to Shop: Well, if you can’t find it in São Paulo, chances are you can’t find in Brazil. Oscar Freire Street in the Jardins district is the starting point for shoppers looking for luxury and contemporary designers, but on Saturday, a visit to the open-air market at Praça Benedito Calixto in the Pinheiros is rather amusing and worthwhile.

12. RIO DE JANEIRO

Copacabana Beach (veer.com photo)
Copacabana Beach (veer.com photo)

Brazilians tend to believe that God is really Brazilian, so it’s fair to say that He was just so inspired while creating the “Marvelous City” of Rio de Janeiro. It is absolutely true that Rio touches you in a way, its beauty is just breathtaking. For sure it is one of my favorite cities in the world. Rio is just so amazing that all you need to take this city in is a walk at the calçadão (big sidewalk) in Copacabana beach while drinking coconut water. If you walk on the beach sidewalk from Leme to the end of Copacabana or Ipanema to Leblon, you will feel carioca energy surrounding you. It is sexy, sensual and very relaxed. Rio de Janeiro will host the closing ceremony on July 13 at the Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho Stadium, better known as Estadio do Maracanã.

Where to Eat: I strongly recommend Zazá Bistrô located in Ipanema for the most amazing drinks and superb food. The dessert “Entering Paradise” will take you to places you never been before.

What to See: I am sure you have already planned a visit to the Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain, so a visit to one of the Mangueira events is a recipe for a great time. Mangueira is one of the most traditional schools of samba of Rio and if you are lucky, they will be already doing samba rehearsals for the 2015 Carnival.

Where to Shop: The Ipanema Hippie Fair Market at the General Osório Square in Ipanema on Sundays only is a great famous option for visitors.

Gazelle Paulo is a contributing writer for TheBlot Magazine. He also writes a column for NewYorkSPY.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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