Exploring Porto Alegre, the Capital of Rio Grande do Sul

A seated bronze sculpture in the foreground with the top of a cathedral tower in the distance.

Praça Marechal Deodoro. Photo © Glauco Umbelino, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

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.

Roads in Porto Alegre and throughout Rio Grande do Sul are well maintained. Should you want to rent a car, Avis (tel. 51/3358-2260) and Hertz (tel. 51/3358-2472) both have offices at the airport.


City Tours

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.


Other Area Information

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.

Mercado Público

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.

Entertainment and Events in Porto Alegre

Nightlife

The most happening neighborhood in terms of nightlife is Moinhos de Vento, where there are lots of hot spots on Rua Fernando Gomes and Rua Padre Chagas. Younger, artier student types frequent the more alternative bars in Cidade Baixa—surrounding the Parque Farroupilha—where you can often hear live music being played. The city’s progressive politics have spilled over into the arts and music scene, making Porto a surprisingly vanguard place with a fairly active gay and lesbian community.

Opened by a local trio of beer buddies, Bier Markt (Rua Castro Alves 442, Rio Branco, 6 p.m.–midnight Mon.–Sat.) takes chope (draft) seriously, giving prime consideration to artisanal microbrews made locally (Abadessa and Coruja) and nationally. Every week a special “guest star” is featured. The perfect mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide gases assures a creamy head of foam on brews that are served in specially fashioned mugs at carefully monitored temperatures. Bottled beers are also in large supply. Occupying a renovated 1940s house, the space itself is warm and woody.

Extremely eclectic Ocidente (Av. Osvaldo Aranha 960, Bom Fim, tel. 51/3312-1347, noon–2:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9 p.m.–2 a.m. Tues.–Thurs., 9 p.m.–6 a.m. Fri.–Sat., cover R$10–20) is a nocturnal institution. During the week, performances here range from indie rock bands to “electronic” literary salons. On weekends, things get groovy as DJs take charge of thematic festas such as the Best and Worst of the ’80s. Friday attracts a gay and lesbian crowd. Meanwhile, vegetarians can drop by for the inexpensive lactovegetarian lunch buffet served during the week.

Tiny Ossip (Rua da República 666, Cidade Baixa, tel. 51/3224-2422, 7 p.m.–close daily) is a favorite haunt of Alegrenses from all walks of life who meet to chat late into the night, usually on the sidewalk since the place itself fills up fast. For nibbling, chow down on delicious thin-crust pizzas. Less crowded and more intimate, Mercatto D’Arte (Rua João Alfredo 399, Cidade Baixa, tel. 51/3224-9441, 7 p.m.–close Tues.–Sat., cover R$5–7) is a romantically lit, jazz-infused bar ideal for tête-à-têtes over a glass of wine or “green” pancakes stuffed with mushrooms and gorgonzola. Much of the eclectic decor—the owners love trolling for antiques in nearby Uruguay—is for sale.

Cultural Centers

Before being transformed into one the city’s foremost cultural centers, the pale pink Casa de Cultura Mario Quintana (Rua dos Andradas 736, Centro, tel. 51/3221-7147, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Tues.–Fri., noon–9 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) was the formerly grand belle epoque Hotel Majestic, where renowned local poet Mario Quintana resided for some time (his room is now a museum). Today, the building houses various art exhibition spaces along with a bookshop, a candy store, a theater, an art-house cinema, and—for fans of MPB—the Elis Regina gallery, with photos and recordings of the great singer. In the ground floor courtyard, the lovely Café Catavento serves snacks and light meals. At 7 p.m. Wednesday–Friday, there are always free musical performances. Meanwhile, on the seventh floor, the Café Santo de Casa offers sweeping views over the Rio Guaíba as well as a per-kilo lunch buffet (Mon.–Fri.), brunch, afternoon tea, and happy-hour specials accompanied by live jazz and classical music.

Porto Alegre’s other major cultural hub is the Usina do Gasômetro (Av. Presidente João Goulart 551, Centro, tel. 51/3289-8140, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Tues.–Sun.). Built in the 1920s on the banks of the Rio Guaíba, the towering redbrick smokestack of this former coal-fired power plant has become a city landmark. The renovated interior has various galleries, a cinema, a theater, and a bookstore, along with a café that features one of the finest views of Porto’s legendary sunsets over the river.

Festivals and Events

Mid-January–mid-February, Porto Alegre sizzles during Porto Verão Alegre, a summer festival of dance, music, and theatrical performance held throughout the city for next-to-nothing prices. In late September, Semana Farroupilha commemorates September 20, 1835, which marked the beginning of the Revolução Farroupilha, the popular uprising that led to the declaration of the short-lived Republic of Rio Grande do Sul as well as a 10-year war of independence (the Guerra dos Farrapos). The weeklong festivities include parades, traditional Gaúcho music and dancing, and, of course, lots of food.

Shopping in Porto Alegre

At 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.) you’ll find regional wines, erva maté along with cuias and bombas, and local handicrafts. On Sunday, head to the centrally located Parque Farroupilha (also known as Redenção) for the very lively Brique da Redenção (9 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun.), a flea market featuring a mix of art, antiques, and regional handicrafts. For sophisticated shopping, check out the centrally located Moinhos Shopping (Rua Olavo Barreto 36, Moinhos do Vento, tel. 51/2123-3000, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 1–7 p.m. Sun.), which also boasts a fancy food court and a cineplex.

Accommodations in Porto Alegre

There is no shortage of decent budget accommodations options in Centro (which tends to be somewhat abandoned at night). Posher options can be found in upscale Moinhos de Vento, home to the city’s fashionable restaurant and bar scene. Since Porto attracts far more business travelers than actual tourists, hotels offer weekend discounts. The quasi-continental climate ensures that most hotels have heating in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer.

After viewing the gleaming art deco exterior of the Hotel Lancaster (Travessa Engenheiro Acelino de Carvalho 67, tel. 51/3224-4737, R$120–140 d), the rather bland modern interior comes as a bit of a letdown. The guest rooms are pleasant enough, though basic and rather small. Still, the hotel is good value and is well located in the midst of Porto Alegre’s commercial hub.

Those with sustainable sensibilities will approve of Eko Residence (Av. Des. André da Rocha 131, Centro, tel. 51/3225-8644, R$180–230 d). This “green” hotel’s energy needs are partially met by wind and solar power, and it recycles rainwater and garbage. Appealingly modern guest rooms are quite spacious and feature free Wi-Fi along with kitchenettes. An in-house restaurant serves healthy fare, and the color green—from painted walls to potted plants—is pleasantly omnipresent. Reasonably priced and well located, the Quality Porto Alegre (Rua Com. Caminha 42, Moinhos de Vento, tel. 51/3323-9300, R$300–390 d) is a sleek and attractive if generic high-end choice. The large guest rooms are nicely appointed. The best have sweeping views across the treetops of the Parcão, a neighborhood park whose entrance faces the hotel.

Food in Porto Alegre

Vegetarians beware! In Rio Grande do Sul’s capital, churrasco is an art form, and the city’s churrascarias are temples where carnivores fervently worship the most succulent cuts of red meat on the planet. Although you’ll find churrascarias and rodízios throughout Brazil, the best (not to mention the cheapest) are in Porto Alegre. Although all churrascarias serve salads and vegetable dishes on the side (a tendency disdained by the “Old Guard”), if meat really isn’t your thing, there are also some fine eateries representing Rio Grande do Sul’s major immigrant groups: Italians, Germans, and Poles. Centro has many options during the day, but at night, when the area closes down, you’ll have to search for sustenance in surrounding regions such as swanky Moinhos de Vento.

Cafés and Snacks

Located in the Museu de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul (MARGS), the Bistrô do Margs (Praça da Alfândega, tel. 51/3018-1380, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$20–30) is conveniently situated if you’re sightseeing. You can choose to sit in the warmly minimalist dining room or on the outside terrace, which is ideal for people-watching. The menu offers simple but creatively prepared salads, fish, and meat dishes as well as enticing desserts. This is a popular happy-hour meeting point, especially on Thursday and Friday when live music is played. For lighter and cheaper fare, such as freshly made sandwiches as well as desserts and coffee, visit the newly reopened Café do Margs on the first floor.

Churrascarias

Coming to Porto Alegre and not indulging in the sublime melt-in-your-mouth cuts of Pampas-raised beef is akin to traveling to Japan and never partaking in sushi. Flaunting the convention of swank superchurrascarias with their vast cavernous dining rooms, Portoalegrense (Av. Pará 913, São Geraldo, tel. 51/3343-2767, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 7–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat. Mar.–Jan., closed Feb., R$15–20) is a simple, traditional family-run restaurant in a large, rustically furnished house where the focus is all on the meat. Delicious picanha (rump cut), costelas (spare ribs), and costeletas de carneiro (lamb chops) are particularly well regarded.

Equally traditional is Barranco (Av. Protásio Alves 1578, Petrópolis, tel. 51/3331-6172, 11 a.m.–2 a.m. daily, R$20–30). In a given month, some 15,000 local carnivores devour 8,000 tons of prime cuts of beef, pork, and lamb. The best seats are those scattered beneath a shady canopy of jacarandas that is particularly alluring during the city’s scorching summer months. For dessert, try the delicious pudim de laranja (orange pudding). Those craving variety should head to Na Brasa (Rua Ramiro Barcelos 389, Floresta, tel. 51/3225-2205, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 7 p.m.–midnight Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–midnight Sat.–Sun., R$46 pp), where both classic and more exotic cuts—ostrich, quail, and javali (wild boar)—are served rodízio style (a 1960s invention frowned upon by traditionalists). The salad buffet features a range of fine cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, and artichoke hearts along with traditional regional side dishes.

International

Occupying a very attractive early-20th-century house and garden, Chez Philippe (Av. Independência 1005, Independência, tel. 51/3312-5333, 7:30–11:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat., R$35–55) is owned and operated by one of Brazil’s foremost French chefs. Hailing from Provence, Philippe Remondeau has cooking in his DNA—most of his family have been cooks and pâtissiers, and he does them proud with daring inventions that draw on local ingredients and flavors. Foie gras in a pastry shell with watercress, ginger and jabuticaba sauce, namorado fish with dried mushroom crumble, and passion fruit millefeuille with white chocolate sauce are examples of his unusual creations. Reservations are recommended.

Serving authentic southern Italian cuisine, Copacabana (Praça Garibaldi 2, Cidade Baixa, tel. 51/3221-4616, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 7 p.m.–1 a.m. Tues.–Sun., R$15–25) has been around for three family generations. The faithful diners who clustered around its wooden tables in their student days still swear by the homemade pastas and delicious veal and lamb dishes served in this cozy trattoria.

Traditional

Located in the Mercado Público, Gambrinus (Av. Borges de Medeiros 85, tel. 51/3226-6914, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat., R$25–35) has been around for over 120 years—making it the oldest restaurant in the city and a culinary and cultural institution. The tavern-like decor with its tiled walls, soaring ceilings, and old-fashioned wooden tables is simple and welcoming. The forte is fish and seafood, and daily specials range from bacalhau (salted cod) to grilled eel with shrimp sauce. Since there is no dessert, head across to Banca 40 for sorvete. Chalé da Praça XV (Praça XV de Novembro, tel. 51/3225-2667, 11 a.m.–midnight Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$15–20) is another atmospheric restaurant, located in a historic art nouveau-ish building whose steel structure was sent over in pieces from England. This is a good place to try regional specialties or for a happy-hour drink and snack.

Information

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).

Services

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.


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