An early Portuguese attempt to settle the Natal area in 1535 failed due to resistance of the potiguares (the local indigenous people) and French brazilwood traders. The Portuguese didn’t return until December 25, 1597, when a fleet arrived at the mouth of the Rio Potengi with orders to build a fort to keep the French and potiguares at bay; the name Natal is Portuguese for Christmas. On January 6, 1598, the day of the Reis Magos (Three Wise Men), the Portuguese began building their fortress, the Forte dos Reis Magos.

Apart from a period of Dutch occupation (1630–54), Natal remained under Portuguese control thereafter. During WWII its strategic location close to Brazil’s northeastern tip prompted Presidents Getúlio Vargas and Franklin D Roosevelt to turn the sleepy city into a supply base for Allied operations in North Africa. Thousands of US military were stationed here and the city became known as the ‘Trampoline to Victory.’ These days, it’s marketed as the Cidade do Sol (Sun City), and with good reason.