Four ways for World Cup visitors to experience the best of Brazil

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Brazil lives, breathes and dies football – that's why you're coming for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, after all! – but the South American giant is no one-hit wonder; from the tablelands and canyons of the country's impressive national parks to a rich culinary pedigree to the living museums of its colonial past, Brazil offers a lot of distractions off the pitch.

Brazil is the world's fifth largest country – all of non-Russian Europe fits easily within its 8,515,767 sq km. Unless time is no object (lucky you!), a visit here requires focus and advance planning – the latter will be especially important during the World Cup – if you intend to make the most of it.

So which Brazil do you want to see before and after the matches? We've created four unique itineraries to highlight what Brazil does best (besides football, of course) – nature, gastronomy, colonial Brazil and beaches. All the itineraries feature World Cup host cities along the route. Following them religiously from start to finish isn't the idea here; rather, attack these trips with a hop-on, hop-off approach, depending on which host cities already play a part in your plans.

Go on then …Qual é o seu prazer? What's your pleasure?

Nature calls: where to go wild in Brazil (three weeks)

Red and green macaws in the Pantanal. Image by Schafer & Hill / Photolibrary / Getty Images.

Red and green macaws in the Pantanal. Image by Schafer & Hill / Photolibrary / Getty Images.

Brazil is the world's most biodiverse country. There is a lot of nature to cover, much of it world-famous (the Amazon, Iguaçu Falls, the Pantanal), but some of the highlights are not so well known internationally (read: less crowded). With over 15% of the country's environment protected and nearly 70 national parks to choose from, there is a lot to enjoy.

  • Begin in Foz de Iguaçu, which should offer you a break on airfares since it's not a World Cup host city, and admire one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls. You need two days (one for the Brazil side, one for Argentina – don't even think about seeing just one or the other).
  • From Foz, it's a lengthy but easy bus ride on Eucatur (www.eucatur.com.br) to Campo Grande, one of the gateways to the Pantanal, Brazil's ultimate wildlife-watching experience. Here, in wetlands 20 times the size of Florida's Everglades, you'll soon be sick and tired of all the exotic birds and mammals you see on a minute-by-minute basis. After your week, you won't even flinch when you see a jacaré!
  • Most folks tack on Bonito to a Pantanal trip and so should you. This freshwater river wonderland is Mother Nature's aquarium, where life-changing snorkelling and ecotourism attractions in crystal-clear rivers are another example of Brazil at its best. It's an easy side trip to/from Campo Grande.
  • Back in Campo Grande, make your way to Cuiabá, the smallest World Cup host city, and plan a two-day detour north of the city to Parque Nacional Chapada dos Guimarães, where you'll find several impressive sights and hikes.
  • Fly to Manaus and witness the first ever World Cup matches in the Amazon jungle. Pick up a cheap hammock there and settle in for the five-day riverboat to Belém for the ultimate waterborne jungle journey.
  • Leave a few days to explore the bustling, bohemian Amazon city of Belém, the more thrilling and food-centric of Brazil's two Amazon metropolises (and a cheaper flight out since it's not a host city).

Bom apetite: a Brazilian foodie tour (two weeks)

A fish dish served during a cruise down the Amazon. Image by Jorge from Brazil / CC BY 2.0.

A fish dish served during a cruise down the Amazon. Image by Jorge from Brazil / CC BY 2.0.

A diversity of flavours shape Brazil's regional cuisines. From the Afro-Brazilian influences of Bahia and the Northeast to the massive immigration (mainly of Italians, Japanese, Syrians, Lebanese, and Germans) in the South/Southeast and the countryside cowboy cuisine of its interior (to say nothing of its Portuguese heritage), most Brazilian recipes are as culturally diverse as a cocktail reception at the UN. Foodies rejoice!

  • This tastebud tour begins in São Paulo, Brazil's undisputed gastronomic capital, which boasts over 12,500 restaurants showcasing 52 types of cuisine. But you'll want to stick to what Sampa does best: Brazilian, Japanese, Italian and Arab. There are (literally) hundreds of amazing places to eat in this culinary monster, but for the best bang for your buck try: Maní (contemporary Brazilian), Pizzeria Speranza (pizza), Kinoshita (Japanese; www.restaurantekinoshita.com.br) and Tendo do Nilo (Lebanese; www.tendadonilo.com.br).
  • Head west into Brazil's vast interior to Minas Gerais, famous for its hearty homegrown cuisine and warm, welcoming people. In World Cup host city Belo Horizonte, chef Doña Nelsa's Mineira staples – frango com quiabo (chicken with okra), carne na panela (stewed beef), tutu a Mineira (mashed black beans with onions, garlic and seasonings) at Xapuri, are a national reference for what Minas does so well.
  • Detour four hours from BH via São João del Rei to the gorgeous town of Tiradentes, a treasure in its own right, but an altar for genuflecting gourmands in the know. Just 7,000 people share some six starred restaurants – the highest per capita in Brazil – according to Guia4Rodas, Brazil's most respected culinary bible and a soulmate to France's Michelin guides.
  • Back in BH, fly to World Cup host city Salvador, the culinary cradle of Brazil's fiery and complex African-influenced cuisine. Dig into Brazil's best regional dishes, such as the moqueca (seafood stew) and acarajé (black-eyed pea fritters stuffed with vatapá, a creamy paste of shrimp, peanuts, coconut milk and dendê oil). For the former, head to Donana (www.donanarestaurante.com.br); for the latter, Casa Da Dinha (www.casadadinhadoacaraje.com.br).
  • Finish things off with a flight into the heart of the Amazon, Belém. Making use of exotic Amazonian ingredients, the region's most famous dishes, such as tacacá (a soup made from jambu, a mouth-numbing indigenous herb, tucupi [a manioc broth] and dried shrimp) have been championed not only by the city's gourmands (eat at Remanso do Peixe; www.facebook.com/RemansoDoPeixe), but also by the country's most famous chef as well: at São Paulo's D.O.M., currently sitting pretty as the sixth best restaurant in the world according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, celebrity chef Alex Atala owes it all to harnessing the best of this region. Bom apetite!

Colonial splendours: explore Brazil's Portuguese heritage (two weeks)

A cobbled street in the colonial town of Paraty. Image by Rodrigo Soldon / CC BY 2.0.

A cobbled street in the colonial town of Paraty. Image by Rodrigo Soldon / CC BY 2.0.

Brazil stands alone in South America as the lone country colonised by the Portuguese, a quirk of history that distinguishes its culture, its architecture and its way of life from its continental neighbours. One of the most endearing treasures the Portuguese left behind is Brazil's wealth of colonial towns and villages, many of which are Unesco World Heritage sites. Step back in time on this tour of the country's most alluring spots.

  • From your international gateway of Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, make your way to Paraty, which sits halfway between the two along a drop-dead gorgeous stretch of sea and Atlantic rainforest. This pristinely preserved coastal town will floor you; its whitewashed walls and uneven cobbled roads are something straight out of a period piece. Surrounded by unparalleled beaches, it's the best Brazil has to offer.
  • From Rio state, head inland to Minas Gerais, where tranquil Tiradentes awaits to charm your socks off. Not only is this tiny village one of Brazil's most quaint, but it's one of the best places to eat in the country.
  • About 170km north is Ouro Prêto, which rises from the countryside like a dazzling colonial diamond in the rough. Over 80 years of conservation efforts have helped turn the city's two dozen gilded hilltop churches and colourful streets into a living museum. It's Brazil's Venice.
  • Fly to host city Salvador via Belo Horizonte and revel in the vibrant sights and sounds of Pelourinho, the bustling city's Afro-Brazilian-influenced historic quarter, another Unesco World Heritage site and certainly one of the country's most picturesque spots.
  • It's a quick 1 1/4-hour flight north from Salvador to Recife – catch a World Cup match, then ride out the remainder of your time in country in nearby Olinda, the Unesco-protected, artsy antidote to Recife's big city bedlam located just 20km north of Recife's international airport.

Coasting along: the best of Brazil's beaches (one month)

An arc of beach at Fernando de Noronha. Image by Jackson Carvalho / Flickr / Getty Images.

An arc of beach at Fernando de Noronha. Image by Jackson Carvalho / Flickr / Getty Images.

Where to begin? There's 7,491km of coastline in Brazil. That's a lot of sun, sand and caipirinhas! This country doesn't even do bad beaches, so narrowing it down to the top shores becomes one gargantuan (and subjective) task. Consider this your rough guide to beach-bound paradise.

  • Fly into World Cup host city Fortaleza, where an all-day bus/4WD truck combo will transport you to the isolated paradise of Jericoacoara, one of Brazil's storybook destinations. Towering beach dunes and memorable sunsets will linger long in the memory.
  • Head back to Fortaleza, where one of Brazil's ultimate beach experiences awaits: hook up with Nordeste Off Road for a three- to five-day, 700km, 92-beach buggy ride all the way to Natal, stopping in traditional fishing villages, popular weekend beaches and more remote sands along the way.
  • Natal is both a World Cup host city and a gateway to Brazil's aquatic Eden: Fernando de Noronha, which no discerning beach connoisseur would ever consider skipping. Here you'll find Brazil's three most beautiful beaches, its best diving and its best surfing (Dec to Mar).
  • You can fly out of Noronha to Recife, where you can catch another World Cup match, then make your way south to Praia dos Carneiros, a perfect isolated patch of sand hugging the Rio Formoso, before hopping on a flight to Salvador, another host city and gateway to the beautiful Bahian beaches of Trancoso, Boipeba, Caraiva and Praia do Espelho. Take your pick!
  • After soaking up the sun in the best of Bahia, it's time for a change of scenery. Fly south to Florianópolis on the island of Santa Catarina. You're now within earshot of 42 idyllic beaches, each with its own distinct personality. There is something for everyone here: surf beaches, gay beaches, hippie beaches, trendy beaches – you get the idea. It's the kind of place you won't want to leave. Up to you!