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Northeast Brazil’s Hidden Gems: 3 Days in Recife and Olinda

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4 weeks ago

After many months in South America and countless trips to Brazil over the years, I can confidently say that Northeast Brazil is my favorite part of the country. Scrap that, Northeast Brazil may even be my favorite part of the continent. Whether you’re on a 2-week Brazil itinerary or here for a few months, you’ll want to make sure you allocate time to the Northeast of Brazil.

Northeast Brazil is everything you love about Brazil: colorful colonial architecture, an infectious year-round Carnaval atmosphere, wind-swept beaches, fresh acai bowls and little offshore islands – including the uber-bougie and exclusive Fernando de Noronha.

Is Recife worth visiting?

What distinguishes Northeast Brazil from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or the Amazon region is a strong grounding in the unique culture of Afro-Brazilians. The Recife region is famous for contributing a number of unique musical genres to Brazil, including the Afoxé rhythms drawn from Afro-Brazilian religious concepts of Candomble.

Add to the mix rainbow-colored plazas full of the liveliest craft workshops and the constant background music of flutes and drums and you’ll soon understand why Northeast Brazil is my favorite part of the country.

I think Recife is the ideal introduction to Northeast Brazil. With a 3-day itinerary (although ideally you want more time!) you get the ideal combination of gorgeous colonial towns, vibrant beach culture and Brazilian history. So in short, yes, Recife is absolutely worth visiting.

Getting to Recife

By plane

Recife (Airport code: REC) is a major gateway to Northeast Brazil and Brazil more generally.

For those already in Brazil, you can fly to Recife from most major domestic airports, including São Paulo (I always recommend flying from Congonhas airport (CGH) if you can), Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Belo Horizonte.

If you are trying to find cheap flights to Recife, I recommend booking well in advance (especially during peak Brazilian holiday periods like Carnival or Christmas).

From June 2024, American travelers can fly directly into Recife on new Azul services from Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. If you can, try to get on these flights and avoid flying all the way to the southern gateways of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (which add a further 2 or 3 hours to your flight).

European travelers can fly directly to Recife with TAP Portugal’s daily one-stop service to Recife via Lisbon.

By bus

Recife is well-connected by Brazil’s excellent long-distance bus network, with regular buses to Natal, Maceio, Aracaju (another Northeast Brazilian hidden gem), Salvador and further afield in Brazil.

3 day itinerary for Recife and Olinda

Day 1: Recife

Recife (pronounced He-See-Fee in Brazilian Portuguese) is one of the largest cities in Brazil and can be a little overwhelming if you haven’t yet navigated any of Brazil’s major cities. To avoid any early hassles, I recommend pre-arranging an airport transfer (especially if you have just arrived in Brazil).

While the city can appear a little dirty at first, I assure you that it will soon win you over with its crumbling colonial architecture and high-quality restaurants. And, as you will see in days 2 and 3, Recife offers one of the best bases for a tour-de-force through Northeast Brazil’s hidden gems.

Recife Antigo walking tour

Recife’s city center can be a little chaotic, with lots of street vendors. If you are planning on tackling the sights of the city center, we recommend dressing down and keeping watch of your pockets. If at any point you feel you are being followed, head into the closest store and call an Uber.

Rather, I recommend spending the day in Recife Antigo (Old Recife). We’ve prepared a short DIY walking tour- make sure to bookmark this article to return to the map below.

Your journey starts at Praca Rio Branco, where you will see a small circular plaque in the center: the 1 Marco Zero. This humble spot is one of the most significant places in the Americas, marking the point where the Portuguese colonial explorers first settled in 1537.

Behind the Praca you will see the extremely large Centro de Artesanato de Pernambuco. This is my favorite spot for souvenir and craft shopping in the Recife region, with a large collection of artists from across Pernambuco state. While some of the crafts can be very expensive, others are extremely cheap – you just need to sort through the gallery!

Try to time your day in Recife over a Sunday, when the whole of Recife Antigo is closed to cars!

For some of the prettiest colonial architecture in Recife Antigo I love simply walking through the streets of Rua Vital de Olivera, Rua de Sao Jorge, Avenida Marques de Olinda and the nearby Praca do Arsenal.

I find the architecture here extremely different to colonial small towns and really gives insight into the once-important status of Recife within the Portuguese Empire.

One of the more historically unique sites in Recife is the Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel which is the first and oldest Jewish synagogue in the Americas. For a small entry fee, you can explore this building and learn more about how the Southern Hemisphere’s first Jewish community influenced the trajectory of Jewish tradition and history.

Best restaurants in Recife

  • Aurora Cafe: a lovely stop in Recife Antigo for some air-conditioning and Recife bolo (cake) with condensed milk and cream cheese.
  • Cá-Já Restaurante: perhaps the most famous restaurant in Recife, with Chef Yuri Machado taking an innovative fusion approach towards Pernambuco cuisine.
  • Parraxaxá: a classic Brazilian buffet restaurant (pay by weight), where you can expect live music and a vibrant after-dark atmosphere.

Day 2: Olinda

From the cobblestone streets of Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento to the grandeur of Peru’s Cuzco, South America has no shortage of magnificent colonial-era towns. But with Portuguese rather than Spanish overlords, it’s no surprise that in Brazil, the colonial towns hit a differently.

While some of Brazil’s small colonial towns (like Ouro Preto), cater to a more upmarket domestic tourism market, Olinda offers a different experience with a very much still-lived-in pulse.

In my opinion, the greatest joy of small colonial towns is the lack of major sights. Rather, I just love wandering through the cobblestone alleyways, stumbling on colorful plazas and dilapidated churches. Hilly Olinda means that any sort of alleyway exploration is also an often sweaty workout – but you’re in Northeast Brazil, so you’re going to be sweating regardless.

To get yourself oriented around Olinda, the major sites include:

  • The major plaza of Alto da Sé, with sweeping views over Olidna and towering Recife in the backdrop.
  • The craft stores along Rua Bpo. Coutinho.
  • Casa dos Bonecos, a small museum collection of the larger-than-life puppets used in Olinda’s world-famous Carnaval.
  • The blue-tiled frescos of the Convento de São Francisco.
  • The golden monastery of St. Benedict.

Best restaurants in Olinda

Towards evening, Alto da Sé fills up with little food and drink stalls. This is a great spot for a very cheap dinner, washed down with even-cheaper caipirinhas.

Restaurante Beijupirá Olinda offers a seafood heavy menu with a quaint garden and magnificent views. This is also an ideal restaurant to try Pernambuco state staples like Moqueca.

Cafeteria Alto da Sé is our favorite spot for coffee, cake or a light breakfast with lovely views over Olinda.

Day 3: Porto de Galinhas

Porto de Galinhas may be one of Brazil’s best beach towns. This small beach town is often very busy, but that’s half the fun. Being about 1 hour 20 minutes from Recife, I think Porto de Galinhas is an excellent spot to dive deeper (pun intended) into Brazil’s vibrant beach-town culture.

There will be plenty of crafty entrepreneurs trying to sell you beach chairs. However, it pays to go up and down the beach to find the best price. Once you’re all settled in, it’s time for some Brazilian beach anthropology or, what I call, Brazilian beach bingo. You’ll want to keep an eye open for the following must-do experiences on any good Brazilian beach:

  • Acai-seller serving generous cups full of purple goodness.
  • Beachgoers walking around with large portable boomboxes (don’t mind the competing sounds).
  • Groups of young men playing beach soccer.
  • Homemade popsicle sellers who may invade your personal space.
  • An older man with a small guitar serenading younger folks.
  • Teenagers posing in the most bizarre ways in the shallow water for Instagram or Tiktok.

You might be able to tick all of these often within five minutes of getting to the beach if you’re sitting in the right place.

If you’re up for some adventure, you’ll see men with little boats offering to take people out to sheltered natural pools (piscinias naturais). They will usually have snorkels you can borrow, too.

Where to eat in Porto de Galinhas

Along the beach you will find a number of bistros offering seafood and fresh fish, while the pedestrianized streets behind the beach are full of cute little cafes and acai stores.

If you have more time and are considering a few days at the beach, you might want to head a little further south towards Praia dos Carneiros, or, better yet, take the short flight from Recife to the exclusive island of Fernando de Noronha.

Where to stay in Recife

If you are strictly sticking to this 3-day itinerary, you should stay in Recife city itself. I recommend staying in the area of Boa Viagem (rather than the colonial center). Here, you will find nicer restaurants, a little more of a secure environment and a pleasant beach for an early morning or later afternoon dip.

Mar Hotel, Loft Premium and the Ramada Flat are all excellent and safe choices well located in Boa Viagem. The main reason I recommend staying in Recife itself is because you are then directly in the middle of both Olinda (to the north) and Porto de Galinhas (to the south).

However, if you have a little more time and you are looking to stretch this itinerary, I would always prefer to spend a few nights in Olinda and perhaps a few nights down by the beach. I love staying overnight in Olinda, mainly because it’s a little safer than Recife (so you can walk around after dark) and because you never know what musical talents you will happen upon in its streets.

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