Stretched out along the eastern shore of the Rio Guaíba, Rio Grande do Sul’s prosperous Gaúcho capital of 1.5 million resembles a somewhat generic European or North American city. Although it has a reputed gastronomic scene (particularly if you’re a card-carrying carnivore) and a very dynamic cultural life for a Brazilian city its size, in terms of attractions, Porto Alegre is not really worth going out of your way to visit. However, there is definitely a day’s worth of sights and activities to keep you agreeably occupied.
Founded in 1755, “Porto” began life as a Portuguese outpost whose mission was to defend the Brazilian colony from its Spanish rivals to the south. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when the commercialization of Rio Grande do Sul’s vast cattle herds became a serious business, that the city began to thrive. Soaring demand in exports led to the development of a port on the giant Lagoa dos Patos, a deep freshwater lagoon fed by the Rio Guaíba. Throughout the 20th century, the city grew at breakneck pace, becoming the largest and most economically important of Brazil’s southern capitals. More recently, as host of events such as the controversial World Social Forum—which has provided a counterpoint to the First World elitism of the World Economic Forum—and the distinguished Bienal de Artes do Mercosul, Porto Alegre has proved itself to be a progressive and cosmopolitan place.
Getting To and Around Porto Alegre
Porto Alegre is directly connected to Rio, São Paulo, Curitiba, and Florianópolis by air. There are also flights to Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Montevideo. The ultramodern Aeroporto Internacional Salgado Filho (Av. Severo Dulius 9010, tel. 51/3358-2000) is only 8 kilometers (5 miles) northeast of the city center. Taking a prepaid taxi into town will cost around R$30. There is also a executivo minibus airport shuttle service for only R$4. An easy alternative (if you don’t have much luggage and are staying in Centro) is walking over a viaduct to take the Metrô (R$1.70), which will take you to the Mercado.
Buses from around the state and the country arrive at the rather forlorn Estação Rodoviária de Porto Alegre (Largo Vespasiano Veppo, tel. 51/3210-0101). Itapemirim (tel. 0800/723-2121) operates daily buses from São Paulo (18 hours, R$130), while Santo Anjo (tel. 48/3621-5000) offers daily service from Florianópolis (6.5 hours, R$65–75). For schedules and prices of bus services throughout Rio Grande do Sul, visit www.rodoviaria‑poa.com.br. Although the bus station is within walking distance of Centro, the fact that it’s surrounded by highways and bypasses means it’s easier (and safer) to take a taxi, bus, or the Metrô to your destination.
Although getting around central Porto Alegre is easily done on foot, the city also has an extensive municipal bus service (fare is R$2.70) as well as a one-line Metrô (tel. 51/3363-8000, 5 a.m.–11 p.m. daily)—although quite limited, it is a convenient option for travel between the airport, Rodoviária, and the Mercado Público.
For city tours, the Linha Turismo (Travessa do Carmo 84, Cidade Baixa, tel. 51/3289-6744, Tues.–Sun., R$15) is an open-roof doubledecker bus that follows two different routes. The “Tradicional” (9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.) weaves through the Centro Histórico along the banks of the Rio Guaíba to the Fundação Iberê Camargo, while the “Zona Sul” (10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.) passes along the shores of Praia de Ipanema and in front of the house of legendary soccer star Ronaldinho Gaúcho. To view Porto from the Rio Guaíba, two boats—the Cisne Branco (departing from the port at Av. Mauá 1050, tel. 51/3224-5222, Tues.–Sun., R$18) and the Porto Alegre 10 (departing from the Usina do Gasômetro, tel. 51/3211-7665, Tues.–Sun., R$15), offer several hour-long outings a day.
Sights in Porto Alegre
Most of Porto Alegre’s most interesting attractions are located within the old city center (Centro) next to the river, a compact region easily explored on foot. Although a late-20th-century building boom resulted in a sea of nondescript office towers and busy thoroughfares, a significant number of grand neoclassical buildings happily survived the wrecking ball. Walking around the Centro is safe enough during the day, but be careful at night (take a taxi) when businesses close and the area becomes more deserted.
The city’s geographic and symbolic heart is the Mercado Público (Praça XV de Novembro, Centro, tel. 51/3289-4000, 7:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 7:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat.). Completed in 1869, this rather grand, biscuit-colored neo-classical building has an interesting (and very well-organized) array of stalls proffering everything from food, wine, cookware, and herbs to handicrafts from all over the state. Be sure to check out the stalls selling religious objects used in Afro-Brazilian Umbanda rituals as well as the umpteen varieties of Gaúchos’ bitter and beloved erva maté. For refreshments, do like the locals and stop for an icy chope at Naval or an icy suco or sorvete at Banca 40, which has been selling homemade ice creams for over 50 years. The Café do Mercado (Loja 103, tel. 51/3029-2490) serves up one of the best espressos in the city, a nice accompaniment to a traditional doce de Pelotas. The market is a favorite gathering place during happy hour (bars and restaurants stay open later than the market’s stalls).
Praça da Alfândega
From the market and Praça XV, a labyrinth of pedestrian streets running parallel to Rua Sete de Setembro lead uphill toward the Praça da Alfândega, where you’ll immediately notice a trio of very handsome neoclassical buildings. Built in the late 1920s, Santander Cultural (Rua Sete de Setembro 1028, tel. 51/3287-5500 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) is a former bank headquarters that was purchased by the Spanish Banco de Santander and converted into a great cultural center. Aside from a mainfloor gallery that hosts important exhibits of national art and features a cinema, the Café do Cofre is a charming café located inside the former safe—try the “Moeda” (“Small Change”) sandwich with mozzarella and eggplant. A second safe shelters a cinema.
The palatial turn-of-the-20th-century Correios (post office) building now houses the Memorial do Rio Grande do Sul (Rua Sete de Setembro 1020, tel. 51/3224-7210, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free). If you want to bone up on Rio Grande do Sul’s history, this is the place to peruse illustrated timelines and learn about famous Gaúchos (among them President Getúlio Vargas and beloved diva Elis Regina) via videos, photos, and documents. Occupying the former customhouse is the Museu de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul (MAR GS) (Av. Sete de Setembro 1010, Centro, tel. 51/3227-2311, 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free), with a mildly interesting collection of works by Brazilian and Gaúcho artists as well as frequent temporary exhibits and a rooftop café with great views of the city.
Praça Marechal Deodoro
Heading south from Praça da Alfândega, uphill along Rua General Câmara, you’ll come to the Praça Marechal Deodoro (also known as Praça da Matriz), which is also surrounded by several elegant buildings. On one corner is the city’s prestigious Theatro São Pedro (Praça Marechal Deodoro, tel. 51/3227-5100, noon–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 4–6 p.m. Sat.–Sun.). Hiding behind its neoclassical facade is an enchanting baroque interior that can only be visited by reservation, unless you’re attending a performance. However, the lovely Café do Theatro is open daily to the public and serves a lavish tea (3–7 p.m. Wed., R$35).
Flanked by Roman columns, the rather imperious Palácio Piratini (Praça Marechal Deodoro, tel. 51/3227-4100, 9–11 a.m. and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) is home to the state governor’s palace. At half-hour intervals, free guided tours are given. Quite intriguing are the painted panels illustrating a local folk tale whose protagonists include a slave, his sadistic master, and the Virgin Mary. The two statues guarding the main doors (representing Industry and Agriculture), are by Paul Landowski, the French sculptor responsible for Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Cristo Redentor statue.
Despite its Italian Renaissance facade, the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Madre de Deus (Rua Duque de Caxias 1047) is a strictly 20th-century affair. On the same street, in an attractive 19th-century private residence, the Museu Júlio de Castilhos (Rua Duque de Caxias 1231, tel. 51/3221-3959, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sat., free) showcases an eccentric collection of historical paraphernalia. Highlights range from a quintet of cannons used by Garibaldi’s troops during the Guerra dos Farrapos to the size-16 boots of a local giant who measured 2.18 meters (7 foot 2) who was a circus attraction in the 1920s.
Although it’s some distance from Centro, contemporary art aficionados should consider checking out the newly completed Fundação Iberê Camargo (Av. Padre Cacique 2000, Praia de Belas, tel. 51/3247-8000, noon–7 p.m. Fri.–Wed., noon–9 p.m. Thurs.). The building itself, designed by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, is a curious sight: all white concrete with zigzagging external ramps that overlook the Rio Guaíba. Inside, galleries mingle a permanent collection of paintings, sketches, and engravings by noted 20th-century Gaúcho artist Iberê Camargo with temporary exhibitions.
The municipal tourist office (tel. 0800/51-7686) has detailed information as well as free city maps. You’ll find branches at the airport (8 a.m.–10 p.m. daily), the Mercado Público (9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), and the Usina de Gasômetro (9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun.). The municipal website, in Portuguese, is very thorough. For (some) English information, try www.poaconvention.com.br.
For information about Rio Grande do Sul, the state tourist office (tel. 51/3228-5440) also has branches at the airport (7 a.m.–7 p.m. daily) and the bus station (7 a.m.–7 p.m. daily).
For money changing and ATMs, the greatest concentration of banks is in Centro, around along Rua dos Andreada and Avenida Senador Salgado Filho near Praça da Alfândega. The post office is at Rua Siqueira Campos 1100. For Internet access, you’ll find lots of cybercafés along Rua dos Andradas.
In an emergency dial 192 for an ambulance, 190 for the police, and 193 for the fire department. For medical treatment, try the Hospital Pronto Socorro (Largo Teodoro Herzl, tel. 51/3289-7999).
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.