Regardless of what the tourist information offices tell you – or even what's posted outside – Pelourinho's churches keep sporadic opening hours. It's best not to build your itinerary around visiting them.
Cidade Baixa (Lower City)
Interspersed between the Comércio’s modern skyscrapers is some fantastic 19th-century architecture in various stages of decay.
The main artery of this leafy suburb is a well-traveled boulevard between Barra and the Pelourinho. You'll find several museums and a few restaurants to enjoy.
When locals talk about going to a city beach, they're usually referring to Barra. Praia Porto da Barra, on a horseshoe-shaped stretch of coast, is small, picturesque, usually crowded, loaded with vendors selling everything imaginable, and a great place to be at sunset. The bay’s waters are clear and calm, and the people-watching is fantastic. To the left of the lighthouse, Praia do Farol da Barra has a beach break popular with surfers at high tide, and tidal pools popular with children and families at low tide.
Smaller crowds and an unpolluted Atlantic are about 40 minutes’ bus travel east from the center (or more with traffic). Calm seas lap on flat, white sands with barracas (stalls) and swaying palms at popular beaches Piatã (25km) and Itapuã (27km). As you reach the beaches of Stella Maris (31km) and Flamengo (33km), the waves get progressively stronger, barracas begin to space out, and sand dunes and more greenery create a more natural setting. Catch an Itapuã, Aeroporto or Praia do Flamengo bus, making sure it goes up the coast (via orla) and as far as you are going.
Feature: African Slave Artisans
African slaves played a key role in building the culture of the Pelourinho. Forced to work on their masters’ churches, and prohibited from practicing their own religion, these enslaved artisans expressed themselves through their work. At Igreja e Convento São Francisco, the faces of the cherubs are distorted, and some angels given noticeably large genitals, while others appear pregnant. Most of these creative touches were chastely covered by 20th-century sacristans. The polychrome figure of São Pedro da Alcântara by Manoel Inácio da Costa shows a figure suffering from tuberculosis – just like the artist himself. One side of the saint’s face is more ashen than the other, so he appears to become more ill as you walk past him. José Joaquim da Rocha painted the entry hall’s ceiling using perspective technique, a novelty during the baroque period.
Meanwhile, over at Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo, the artist known as O Cabra (Half-Caste) was hard at work on his infamous statue of Nossa Senhora do Carmo. O Cabra was a slave with no artistic training, and he was reportedly besotted with Isabel II, daughter of the rich landholder Garcia d’Ávila. He supposedly modeled the Virgin on Isabel II's likeness, and gave African facial features to the Christ child cradled in the statue’s arms. Could this be what O Cabra imagined their love child would look like? O Cabra took eight years to finish the life-size image of Christ (1630), with blood made from 2000 rubies. It’s on display in the church’s small museum.