What to See in Pelourinho, Salvador’s Colonial Center

A windowed footbridge leads to a tall, rectangular structure with an impressive view of the bay stretching out to the horizon.

A Bahian joke states that taking a ride on their beloved elevator is the only way to ascend in life. Photo © Deo Araujo licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Most of Salvador’s most interesting sights are conveniently located in the old colonial center of the Cidade Alta, known as the Pelourinho (a reference to one of the neighborhood’s main squares, the Largo do Pelourinho, where slaves were routinely whipped at the pelourinho, or “pillory”). Despite its inauspicious past, the “Pelô” provides a feast for architecture buffs, with the largest concentration of baroque architecture in the Americas. Replete with richly adorned churches and convents, its hilly cobblestoned streets also reflect a lot of the vibrancy and color of Bahian life. Until the 1990s the Pelourinho was a crumbling mess, its buildings dilapidated and its community of pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers making the neighborhood a definite risk zone. If you’re curious as to what the Pelô was like before its overhaul, gaze (from afar!) down some of the neighboring streets behind the Praça da Sé, which have yet to receive their facelifts and which are notoriously dangerous. After being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the area underwent a massive restoration that saved many of the historic buildings and (somewhat unceremoniously) removed the former inhabitants, replacing them with boutiques, restaurants, bars, and open-air spaces for musical shows. What it lost in terms of gritty authenticity it made up for in terms of heightened security and animation. Indeed, the Pelô became a vibrant hot spot that attracted both Soteropolitanos and visitors intent on all forms of merrymaking, by day or night.

While the bairro itself can be explored on foot in a couple of hours, in order to take advantage of all the church interiors and interesting museums, boutiques, and lazy outdoor bars, you’ll need a full day.More recently, however, the Pelô has become somewhat of a tourist showcase that is increasingly forsaken by locals while visitors themselves are increasingly approached by vendors and beggars. Nonetheless, there is no denying the rich history and magnificence of its restored edifices, which are consistently impressive, even to the most jaded of Soteropolitanos. While the bairro itself can be explored on foot in a couple of hours, in order to take advantage of all the church interiors and interesting museums, boutiques, and lazy outdoor bars, you’ll need a full day. The labyrinthine layout of the neighborhood is conducive to wandering. Just make sure you don’t venture off the beaten police-patrolled track—especially at night. The streets that haven’t yet received a facelift are still rife with marginal types, and tourist assaltos (muggings) are not unheard of.

Pelourinho Sights

The best place to start your exploration of the Pelô is at the Praça Municipal. Also known as Praça Tomé de Souza—in honor of Salvador’s founder and first governor general (a 3-ton statue guards the square) this large plaza was the seat of colonial Brazil for over two centuries. The square is dominated by the monumental Palácio do Rio Branco (10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 1–6 p.m. Sat.–Sun., free). Guarded by soaring eagles and topped by an impressive dome, the palace is fondly known by Bahians as the bolo de noiva (“the wedding cake”), an appropriate nickname considering its resemblance to a sugarcoated baker’s confection. Constructed by Tomé de Souza in 1549 as the governor’s palace, over time the building suffered bombardments, partial demolitions, and makeovers—all of which explain its eclectic style, a mixture of neoclassical, Byzantine, and Renaissance elements. Having housed the Portuguese royal family when they fled Napoleon’s troops in 1808 and later a prison, it now houses Bahia’s ministry of culture. Step inside and you’ll find lots of rococo plasterwork, frescoes, and a small museum with furnishings as well as artifacts belonging to governors past. More interesting is the glorious view from the palace’s verandas, where you can take in the Cidade Baixa and the Bay of All Saints.

Elevador Lacerda

To the right of the Palácio do Rio Branco, overlooking the ocean, you can’t miss the streamlined, art deco Elevador Lacerda, which has been shuttling lines of Soteropolitanos between the Cidade Baixa and the Cidade Alta since the 1930s. Open 24 hours a day, it takes only 20 seconds for each of its four elevators to transport its passengers—more than 50,000 of them daily—for a mere R$0.25. If you want to visit the Mercado Modelo, catch a local bus to Bonfim, or grab a boat to Itaparica, the Elevador comes in handy. Otherwise, have a seat at the famous Sorveteria Cubana (tel. 71/3322-7000, 9 a.m.–10 p.m.), another 1930s landmark with comfortable seats overlooking the Bay of All Saints, and indulge in icy treats such as a coco espumante (a fizzy old-fashioned coconut ice cream soda). A Bahian joke states that taking a ride on their beloved elevator is the only way to ascend in life.

Rua da Misericórdia

Walking down the Rua da Misericórdia, past the new City Hall, you’ll pass the Santa Casa da Misericórdia (Rua da Misericórida 6, tel. 71/3322-7355, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 1–5 p.m. Sun., R$5). A religious complex dating from 1549, it was converted into a museum as part of an ongoing project to renovate the architectural treasures on this strip. A permanent exhibition of artwork, religious objects, and furniture from the 17th century conjures up Salvador’s colonial history, as do its magnificent cloisters, church, and living quarters.

Across the street is the Galeria Fundação Pierre Verger (Portal da Misericórdia 9, tel. 71/3321-2341, open daily, free), which shows a small rotating collection of black-and-white photographs by French photographer, ethnographer, and adopted Bahian Pierre Verger. Born into a wealthy Parisian milieu in which he never felt at home, in 1932, at the age of 30, Verger turned his back on the high life and took off to explore the world. With a camera in hand to fund his journeys (his pictures were subsequently published in Life, Paris Match, and many other major magazines), he traveled throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In Bahia, however, he felt an especially strong bond that kept on luring him back until he finally settled here, becoming a professor specializing in the African diaspora as well as a Candomblé initiate. In fact, in the 1940s Verger was one of the first people permitted to make photographic records of mysterious (and often prohibited) Candomblé rituals. His elegantly composed yet highly sensual portraits of Salvador’s sailors, fishermen, capoeiristas, Carnaval merrymakers, and Bahians from all walks of life offer precious glimpses of a world past. The small gift store has eye-catching Verger T-shirts and handbags.

Praça da Sé

Rua da Misericórdia opens up onto Praça da Sé. This renovated square, with its uncomfortable benches and somewhat kitschy fountain, was once the site of Salvador’s original 16th-century sé, or cathedral, which was destroyed in 1933. Excavation sites reveal some of the original cathedral’s foundations, but otherwise the square is quite modern. If you stick around too long, you’ll quickly discover that the praça is a favorite hangout for street performers—ranging from somewhat eerie human statues to ubiquitous Michael Jackson impersonators (he endeared himself to Bahians when he filmed his video for “They Don’t Care about Us” in the Pelourinho in 1998). Meanwhile, at the far end of the praça is the entrance to the Plano Inclinado Gonçalves (7 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat., R$0.25), a thrillingly steep funicular that whisks 30 passengers at a time between the Cidade Alta and Cidade Baixa.

Catedral Basílica

An eclectic mixture of baroque, rococo, and neoclassical styles, the 17th-century Catedral Basílica (Terreiro de Jesus, tel. 71/3321-4573, 8–11 a.m. and 3–6 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.–1 p.m. Sun., R$3) was built out of sandstone shipped in blocks from Portugal before undergoing reconstruction after an early-20th-century fire. Its recently restored magnificent interior is a testament to the riches of Portugal’s overseas colonies. The 16th-century ceramic tiles in the sacristy hail from Macau, while the delicate ivory and tortoiseshell inlay in one altar (third on the right) is from Goa. Other precious materials that adorn the interior include marble, jacaranda, and lots and lots of gold leaf—the altars and ceiling are completely slathered in it.

Museu Afro-Brasileiro and the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia

Adjacent to the cathedral on the Terreiro de Jesus, these two museums are in the building where Brazil’s first school of medicine was created in 1833. The modest Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia (tel. 71/3321-2013, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., R$1) houses a small collection of archaeological objects—some of them found during the excavations carried out at the Praça da Sé—as well as indigenous tools, weapons, and photos depicting traditional indigenous groups.

Much more interesting is the Museu Afro-Brasileiro (tel. 71/3321-2013, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$5). Along with maps tracing the trade routes that brought African slaves to Bahia, exhibits of objects and artifacts draw interesting parallels between African and Bahian cultural traditions, including capoeira and Candomblé. A highlight is the museum’s collection of sacred objects and apparel—as well as photos—related to Candomblé and the cult of individual orixás, or divinities, which provide an informative introduction to the Afro-Brazilian religion that is such a strong cultural reference in Bahia. Depicting the orixás are the exquisitely carved wooden panels, inlaid with shells and shiny metals, sculpted by one of Bahia’s most famous artists, Carybé.

Museu Tempostal

The “artwork” in the engaging Museu Tempostal (Rua Gregório de Matos 33, tel. 71/3117-6383, 1–6 p.m. Tues.–Sat., free) consists of thousands of postcards that trace Salvador’s surprisingly rapid transformation over the last century. The entire collection of over 35,000 works includes some amazing belle epoque specimens featuring postcards decorated with embroidery as well as watercolors, not to mention feathers and strands of human hair.

Solar do Ferrão

The Solar do Ferrão houses the Museu Abelardo Rodrigues (Rua Gregório de Matos 45, tel. 71/3117-6381, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$1), a collection of over 800 icons of saints, altars, engravings, and other religious objects (not all on display) considered to be one of the finest collections of sacred art in Brazil. The works were amassed by Pernambucano collector Abelardo Rodrigues, who once lived in this attractive 17th-century mansion. Also on permanent display are architect Lina Bo Bardi’s fine collection of Northeast Brazilian folk art and an equally impressive ensemble of African masks and statues donated by Italian magnate Claudio Masella.

Largo do Pelourinho

When you first set foot in this impressive square, you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the baroque landscape of church spires and faded pastel mansions, as well as the Cubist-like image of houses rising up and down the Pelô’s steep hills. Although its official name is Praça José de Alencar, it is known as Largo do Pelourinho due to its dubious past as the site of the city’s pelourinho (whipping post). It was here that slaves were publicly flogged (a legal activity in Brazil until 1835) as well as auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Flanked by museums, boutiques, restaurants, and the imposing cerulean blue facade of the famous church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, these days the largo buzzes with less nefarious activities. By day, vendors try to hawk naïf canvases and coax gringos to put Afro braids and cornrows in their hair. Meanwhile, nights are often filled with live music and people dancing with enviable poise on the irregular cobblestones.

Housed in a handsome colonial mansion, the Museu da Cidade (Largo do Pelourinho 3, tel. 71/3321-1967, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon. and Wed.–Fri., R$1) serves up an eclectic mix of things Soteropolitano. Depictions of Catholic saints and ex-votos mingle with sculptures of orixás and other objects related to Candomblé. More secular offerings include works by local artists and artisans and a room devoted to Castro Alves, one of Brazil’s great romantic poets and famously eloquent abolitionists.

Next door, the Fundação Casa de Jorge Amado (Largo do Pelourinho 49, tel. 71/3321-0122, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., free) is a small museum and shrine devoted to the life, times, and writing of Jorge Amado, one of Bahia’s (and Brazil’s) most cherished and internationally renowned writers and “figuras” (i.e., a truly memorable human being). It also functions as a center for literary events. With photos, book covers, and other media featuring the author of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, the museum provides an overview of Amado’s life and career, also touching on that of his lifelong love and companion, Zélia Gattai (a highly renowned writer in her own right). A nice rest stop is the museum’s pleasant café (named after Gattai) with its great view of the square.

Halfway down the steep Largo do Pelourinho is one of Bahia’s most important churches, the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (tel. 71/3326-9701, 8:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat.–Sun.). This strikingly blue-tinged landmark is a symbol of black pride and resistance. After the king of Portugal gave the site to the Irmandade dos Homens Pretos, a brotherhood of local black men, it took slaves most of the 18th century to construct this church. Built in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black People, it’s visually striking with its handsome rococo facade and tiled towers influenced by Indian architecture, a consequence of Portugal’s colony in Goa. Services here, in which Catholics hymns merge with traditional African percussion instruments—particularly during the mass held at 6 p.m. Tuesday—reflect Bahia’s unique religious syncretism.

At the bottom of the Largo do Pelourinho, lively bars with occupants spilling onto the street are neighbors to the Casa de Benin (Rua Baixa dos Sapateiros 7, tel. 71/3241-5679, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free). Located in a grand colonial building on the corner, it is worth stopping in for a look at its small collection of traditional artifacts from Benin. This West African country, with whom Bahia has maintained cultural ties, was the origin of a great many of the slaves who were brought to work on the colonial sugarcane plantations.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.

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