Brazil's African heritage defines the staggeringly beautiful Northeastern state of Bahia. Bahia’s centerpiece is Salvador, a sprawling colonial city with historic churches, cobblestone streets, lively festivals, powerful percussion reverberating off old stone walls and capoeiristas (practitioners of capoeira) moving against the backdrops of 16th-century buildings. Beyond the city limits, Bahia awaits with more than 550mi (900km) of coastline, World Heritage–listed sites, deserted beaches and paradisaical islands. In the south, idyllic coastal villages attract vacationers and divers, while inland, the spectacular Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina features waterfalls and quiet hiking paths waiting to be explored.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bahia.
Spanning over 1520 sq km and containing within it innumerable species of plants and animals, deafening waterfalls and vast, rugged plains, Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina is a natural wonder that has drawn hikers and naturalists since even before it was officially designated a national park in 1985. Within its boundaries are hundreds and hundreds of miles of hiking trails ranging from afternoon-length jaunts to multiday treks that have the power to astonish even the most seasoned outdoors person.
This famous 18th-century church, located a few kilometers north of Comércio on the Itapagipe Peninsula, is the source of the fitas (colored ribbons) you see everywhere in Salvador, a souvenir of the church and a symbol of Bahia itself. Bonfim's fame derives from its power to effect miraculous cures, making it a popular shrine.
Picture-perfect Largo do Pelourinho is a sloping, triangle-shaped square, once the site of the pelourinho (whipping post) – one of several nearby locations where slaves were exposed and punished. After slavery was outlawed in 1835, the neighborhood fell into disrepair; in the 1990s major restoration efforts were initiated to preserve the cobblestone square's colonial houses and churches. Today, the square is the heart of Salvador's historic center.
Charter a trip to this 913 sq km park, located about 65km from mainland Brazil, to experience the natural splendors of the Atlantic ocean. Flocks of busy seabirds and tight-knit pods of humpback whales can be seen as they stop near the islands within the boundaries of the park to rest during their migrations between June and October. The park can only be reached by boat, but there are many tour operators that run excursions.
Experience wild flora and fauna and the culture of the Paxato, one of the largest indiginous communities in Brazil, at this stunning park. It's free to enter, but you pay by the hike.
The centerpiece of the Cidade Alta is the Pelourinho, a Unesco-declared World Heritage site of colorful colonial buildings and magnificent churches. As you wander the cobblestone streets, gazing up at the city’s oldest architecture, you’ll realize that the Pelô is not just for tourists. Cultural centers and schools of music, dance and capoeira pack these pastel-colored 17th- and 18th-century buildings.
Located about 1.5km outside of the village, Praia da Cueira has a nice stretch of palm-tree-lined beach facing the Atlantic that you'll likely find less crowded than the beaches in town. It's a popular spot for surfers and at the northern end of the beach you'll find Guido's Restaurante, an island institution.
Holding one of Bahia’s most important collections, the Museu Afro-Brasileiro exhibits wood carvings, baskets, pottery and other artwork and crafts linking Brazilian and African artistic traditions. The highlight of the museum is a room lined with 27 huge, breathtaking carved wooden panels depicting orishas (spirits common in Afro-Brazilian spirituality) by Argentine-born Carybé, who is perhaps Salvador’s most renowned 20th-century fine artist.
Take a break from the beach and head into the forest to Vila Rosa, a beautifully restored cocoa farm. Guided tours take visitors around the plantation to see the collection, fermentation and drying of cocoa beans, then into the chocolate factory to taste the final product. The farm is located 20km from Itacaré: the best way to arrive is to make a reservation on Vila Rosa's shuttle, which leaves Itacaré between 9am and 10am.