Sadly, the Cidade Baixa, Salvador’s port and commercial district, has seen better days. The area is a mélange of decaying historic buildings (some of them formerly quite grandiose), the odd colonial church, warehouses, and decaying 1960s and 1970s high-rises built before Salvador’s commercial center moved to the more mod (and characterless) neighborhoods surrounding Shopping Iguatemi. Although there are signs that an urban revitalization could take place here, it will certainly be a while. Today, “Comércio” (as it is known) is fairly bustling during the day but dangerous at night. When you come down from the Cidade Alta to explore its few attractions, take a bus (any one that has “Comércio” written on the side), or the Elevador Lacerda to Praça Visconde de Cairu, or else a taxi. Don’t even think about walking up or down the steep roads linking the two cidades—they are unsafe, even by day.
Across the street from Elevador Lacerda, on the far side of Praça Visconde de Cairu, you can’t miss this canary-yellow 19th-century building that used to be the customhouse. In former times, newly arrived slaves were chained in its dank basement until they were auctioned off. After being partially destroyed by arson in 1986, the building was transformed into the Mercado Modelo (Praça Visconde de Cairu 250, tel. 71/3241-2849, 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun.).
This two-story bazaar sells every kind of Bahian handicraft and cliché under the sun. Offerings range from twanging berimbaus (a one-string instrument attached to a gourd) and figas (good luck charms in the shape of a forearm and fist) to orixá refrigerator magnets. If you’re in the market for touristy trinkets and are willing to haggle for them, you’ve come to the right place. Live music and capoeira demonstrations are held out back for the benefit of tourists. Although the performances are free, if you decide to take a few snapshots, you’ll be hit up for a contribution. Upstairs, the traditional restaurants serving typical Bahian food offer magnificent sea views but, like the market itself, have lost their original cachet.
Feira de São Joaquim
For a more authentic, vibrant, and sensual—albeit chaotic—market experience in Salvador, grab a cab or hop a bus (with the destination “Ribeira” or “Bonfim”) from Praça Cairu and head for the city’s oldest and biggest outdoor daily market. It’s only a short ride away in a neighborhood known as Calçada.
São Joaquim is not for the faint of heart. Its labyrinthine lanes are riddled with potholes, puddles, and rotting fruit, and you’re always in danger of being run over by a wheelbarrow full of mangoes or smacked in the head with a jackfruit. If you’re not a vegetarian, the gory meat section will make you consider the possibility. And if the sight of people tossing live roosters into the trunks of cars surprises those for whom poultry is usually a packaged deal, remember that they’re usually for Candomblé rituals. Indeed, São Joaquim is not at all set up for tourism, and for this reason it’s somewhat of an adventure. Pyramids of spices and tropical fruits assault the senses with their fragrant scents and dazzling colors. There are areas where you can buy traditional ceramic pots and vases, and others selling woven straw hats and mats. However, the most interesting section is where the stalls are devoted to Candomblé artifacts: fistfuls of brightly colored beads associated with different orixás, fragrant leaves for sacred baths, and traditional ceramic serving dishes for food and other offerings. Unless you have a strong stomach, it’s probably not a great idea to chow down at one of the many barraca restaurants serving up dirt-cheap fare. However, do stop for a beer or a shot of cachaça and take time to observe and absorb the action.
Forte São Marcelo
If you walk to the back of the Mercado Modelo, you’ll find yourself in front of the Terminal Marítimo. This is where you can catch boats for the Ilha de Itaparica as well as the Forte São Marcelo (tel. 71/3525-7142, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun.), a circular 17th-century pseudomedieval fort, erected on a sandbar, that guards the entrance to the Bay of All Saints. For R$12, you get whisked across the water to the fort, where you can wander amid digitally simulated galleons and cannons, view exhibits, or simply take advantage of the privileged surroundings.
Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia
Looking back toward the city from the Forte São Marcelo, it’s hard to miss the stately baroque Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia (Rua Conceição da Praia, tel. 71/3242-0545, 7 a.m.–noon and 3–7 p.m. Mon., 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 7–11:30 a.m. Sat.–Sun., free). Built in Portugal in 1736, the deconstructed church was shipped piece by piece to the site of Salvador’s first chapel. The patron saint of Salvador, Our Lady of Conception, is also linked to the wildly popular Candomblé orixá Iemenjá, goddess of the sea. Accordingly, the saint’s feast day on December 8 is the occasion for one of the city’s most traditional religious and popular festas.
Solar do Un hão–Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM)
Although you can walk there, it’s safer to take a quick taxi ride up the coastal road, past the Igreja de Nossa Senhora de Conceição and Bahia’s swanky marina, to one of the city’s finest and most beautifully situated museums, the Museu de Arte Moderna (Av. Contorno, tel. 71/3117-6139, 1–7 p.m. Tues.–Fri. and Sun., 1–10 p.m. Sat., free). Known by its acronym, MAM, as well as its original title, the Solar do Unhão, this 17th-century complex hovering over the Bay of All Saints was originally a sugarcane plantation complete with a mansion (solar), slave quarters, and a chapel. In the 1960s, the well-preserved ensemble got an inspired refurbishment courtesy of reputed São Paulo modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi. This is when it was transformed into Bahia’s Museum of Modern Art. Aside from a permanent collection that boasts token works of major Brazilian modernist painters, the museum showcases temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists from all over Brazil.
Even if the art itself doesn’t grab you, the buildings and setting are truly captivating. A sculpture garden featuring works by local talents such as Carybé and Mario Cravo Jr. winds up and down a shady path overlooking the sea. In the late afternoon, the wooden pier above the ocean is a magical place to have a drink (or a crepe) and watch the sun setting behind the Ilha da Itaparica. An art-house cinema looks onto the main cobblestoned courtyard. Shaded by flamboyant trees, it is the scene of Saturday night jazz jams (from 6 p.m., R$4) that are mobbed by young Soteropolitanos.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.