The narrow streets of Recife Antigo (also called the Bairro do Recife), where the city began, have been revitalized in recent years and the area is well worth a slice of your time.
This district encompasses both the formal Praça da República, surrounded by imposing 19th-century governmental buildings, at its northern end and a bustling commercial area further south, where the streets are lined with shops, stalls, ornate facades and colonial churches in assorted states of preservation.
The area is fine when the shops and businesses are open but can be sketchy after dark and on weekends, so plan your visit accordingly.
Oficina Cerâmica Francisco Brennand & Instituto Ricardo Brennand
The ceramics 'workshop' of Francisco Brennand and the art institute of his cousin Ricardo constitute a regional highlight; it's well worth setting aside half a day for the trip out to Várzea, on Recife's western edge, to see them. The only times both places are open simultaneously are Tuesday to Sunday afternoons.
Worth a Trip: Ihla de Itamaracá
Less than 40km north of Olinda, Ilha de Itamaracá (separated from the mainland by a wide channel) is a peaceful island retreat with some interesting historical buildings and a pleasant weekend beach scene that feels a world apart from the urban sprawl that surrounds Recife just a short drive away.
Immense Forte Orange on the southern tip of the island is Itamaracá's star attraction. It was built by the Dutch in 1631 before being expanded by the Portuguese in the early 18th century and has recently been restored. It's perched in an incredibly scenic location overlooking the narrow Santa Cruz channel, which has pretty beaches on both sides. There are several bars and restaurants here and locals offer boat trips across to Ihla Coroa do Avião, a tiny island surrounded by inviting waters.
Three kilometers west of Forte Orange is Vila Velha, a small port founded in 1540, one of the earliest Portuguese settlements in Brazil. Overlooking the grassy main plaza is Nossa Senhora da Conceição, one of the oldest churches in Brazil. Behind the church there are fantastic views across the river to tiny Ilha Coroa do Aviäo. Walk down the hill towards the water to check out the urns used by the Portuguese to fire the bricks used to build the first structures on the island.
A walking trail, the Trilha dos Holandeses, leads to Vila Velha from behind the chapel about 500m back up the road from the Eco-Parque Peixe-Boi near Fort Orange. It takes about 45-minutes each way and it's fairly remote, so it's best to go in a group.
Itamaracá island has plenty more beaches, strung out along its 15km ocean shore. The quietest and prettiest are north of the central, most built-up part of the coast around Pilar and Jaguaribe. If you don’t have a vehicle, take a Kombi (R$2) to the end of the line north of Jaguaribe where a small boat (R$2) takes passengers across the river to wide and wild Praia do Sossego. From there it's possible to hike 3km north to palm-lined Praia do Fortinho, the nicest beach on the island. If you're driving, a dirt road leads to the beaches from a turnoff on PE-035 in the interior of the island.
Itamaracá is an easy day trip from Recife but if you want to stay, the best accommodations are found around the southeast tip of the island where you'll find several midrange hotels and guesthouses.
To reach Itamaracá, take the 1946 Igarassu bus (R$4.40, one hour), with departures every few minutes from Av Martins de Barros in central Recife. It passes through Olinda in both directions. At Igarassu’s Terminal Integração bus station, change to one of the frequent 968 Itamaracá buses (free). A few of these go to Forte Orange; most of the others head to Jaguaribe but you can get off at the Forte Orange turn-off (entrada do forte) and catch a frequent Kombi van or colectivo (shared taxi; R$1.50) for the remaining 5km.