Preparing for a trip to a city off-the-beaten path like Salvador, Brazil is hard. Where to stay? What to do? What NOT to do? How will I get around?
But, some of the best things in life are those that we have to a bit harder for. Brazil, and particularly Salvador, is one of those things. As my friend Kirk says, “Salvador reveals itself to you slowly.”
I’m going to lift the curtain a bit on Salvador, Brazil to help you make the most of your time in this tropical paradise. If you want to pull the curtain back even further, check out my DIY-style Essential Guide to Salvador, Bahia.
The best Salvador, Brazil neighborhoods for tourists
For visitors to our little corner of paradise, I recommend one of five different neighborhoods.
Each neighborhood has its own distinct personality, type of tourist who stays there, type of housing available, and price point. But what they all have in common is that they are welcoming for tourists, have good amenities, and generally safe for visitors.
- Barra — beach, beach, and more beach
- Itapuã — like a trendy suburb
- Pelourinho — the historic city center
- Rio Vermelho — nightlife and clubs
- Santo Antônio — colorful, shop-filled residential neighborhood
Take a deep dive into each of the five neighborhoods where I break things down by price range, housing type, who it’s best for, and what you can expect to find.
Getting around town
For a non-Portuguese speaker, using a taxi or ride-share app (Uber / 99) is going to be your best bet.
While I’m not necessarily a huge fan of those apps, in a city where very few people speak English, they are a total lifesaver. Set up your account to pay with a credit card (cash is also an option here) so you don’t have to deal with cash and/or counting change and getting around becomes a relatively stress-free experience.
The catch, of course, is that to use an app, you need to have internet. Which is why taxis and busses can still be your friend.
If you are going to and from tourist destinations, even with little-to-no Portuguese your driver will understand you. The drivers all have meters on the passenger side near the roofline of the car, so you can watch the fare as you go. And, taxis are ubiquitous here — there are taxi stands every few blocks in most neighborhoods.
I admit it, I’m a fan of public transportation. The metro here doesn’t go to any tourist neighborhoods, but the Salvador, Bahia bus system is extensive and generally reliable. And, at roughly R$4 reais, you can’t beat the price. Because taking the bus is a bit of adventure here, I have a whole article dedicated to taking the bus in Salvador.
Getting cash in Salvador
Even though credit card machines are becoming more and more popular, there are many locations where cash is still king in Salvador.
As a foreigner, the two local banks where you can withdraw cash are Bradesco and Banco do Brasil. While that may sound limiting, there are branches of each all over the city — including the Pelourinho.
If you are in a pinch, there are also red Banco 24Horas machines all over the city — which are multi-bank ATMs. They will also work, but you will pay a hefty “convenience fee” for foreign cards. The last time I used one of these machines the fee was R$24 reais.
Get more Salvador, Brazil ATM tips.
Pro tip: If your home bank charges international fees, look into getting a CapitalOne 360 account. They are a virtual-only bank that has no foreign transaction fees and I have never had a problem with that account anywhere in the world. (I make no money from this recommendation, I’m just a happy long-term customer.)
3 must-try regional foods
- Acarajé — this is the street food that Salvador, Bahia is best known for. At its root, it’s a deep-fried bean fritter stuffed with shrimp, fish paste, tomato salad, and hot sauce. But it also has a deep cultural and religious significance that ties it to Africa and the slave trade. You wouldn’t go to New Orleans and not try a beignet, so you don’t go to Salvador and not try acarajé.
- Moqueca — I think every coastal culture has its own version of fish stew, and moqueca is the Brazilian version. Traditionally made with coconut milk, tomato, green pepper, onion, a splash of dendê (palm oil) and your favorite seafood, it’s a perennial favorite of locals and visitors alike.
- Beiju — this tapioca-based, crepe-like street food re-defined breakfast for me. Topping variations are limited only by your creativity, but being the land of salted meat, the savory versions invariably involve carne do sol or some other salty meat and cheese. The most popular sweet version is guava jelly and cheese, popularly known as Romeo and Juliet.
Deciding on a phone chip for Salvador
If you are going to be in Salvador for more than a few days or intend to go off the beaten tourist path, then I think that a phone chip is worth the R$10 reais investment.
The biggest advantage of getting a chip is that it frees you up to use the super-popular taxi and ride-share apps. As mentioned above, if you don’t speak Portuguese (or even if you do) it’s going to be a lifesaver.
If you are traveling with others, I don’t think it’s worth it for everyone in the group to get a chip. Unfortunately, snatch and grab is a very real thing here, and a tourist looking intently at Google maps or their social media profile is an invitation for trouble.
Brazil has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world, and the north and Northeast are some of the poorest parts of the country.
Which means that you need to pay attention when you are out and about. Most theft is about opportunity, and someone walking around with a plainly visible phone or jewelry is easy target. If you watch the locals, you will see that most of them stick their phone either in their bras or down the front of their shorts — even the front pocket is easy pickings for an experienced pickpocketer.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of Stashbandz to store my stuff when I’m out and about.
40 great reasons to put Salvador on your bucket list
From world-class beaches to gorgeous colonial architecture to sultry dance rhythms, discover the 40 reasons why publications from The Guardian to the New York Times are saying that Salvador is a must-visit destination.
Your no-cost inspiration piece comes as a 16-page PDF -- great for printing and sharing with future traveling companions.Get the Guide
As my client Casey said, “my primary regret is not spending more time in the region.”
My top 3 things to do in Salvador
Go to Balé Folclórico
There is no better way to get an overview of the culture of Salvador, and the entire northeast, than with a show at Balé Folclórico. This internationally-known dance group gives a short, high-energy show nightly in the Pelourinho. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “show type person” I encourage you to check it out. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Visit the Pelourinho
This is the historic center of Salvador and a UNESCO world heritage site. The colorful buildings (and colorful characters), sultry samba-reggae rhythms, unique shops, and countless selfie opportunities charm hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
Sunset at the Farol
Not only are the sunsets themselves exceptional, but the nightly gathering at the Farol da Barra (lighthouse) are something special. Hundreds of people gather there nightly to laugh, play music, a simply take a moment out of their day to stop and give thanks. When the tip of the sun hits the horizon the crowd breaks out in spontaneous applause. Pure magic!
4 thoughts on “First-timer’s Guide to Salvador, Brazil”
Brazil is open to tourists from the US.
I wanted to know your thoughts for travel to Salvador (and other parts of Brazil) this November, 2020, in light of COVID-19. Any feedback/insight would be much appreciated!
Hi Anser, indeed, Brazil is open to tourists. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but here in Salvador the bars and restaurants are open on a limited basis, the beaches are only open during the week and groups are prohibited (as are the beach vendors who provide chairs, umbrellas, food, drink, etc), and there are no group activities and live music. Regional transport (busses, ferries) remains closed.
In short, the city is still doing everything it can to limit groups and everything it can to promote social distancing. The Pelourinho shops are largely open, but there are very few people about and no music on the streets. I find it quite unlikely that any of this will change before November. Museums are open on a limited basis, without guides. Some hotels appear to be open, but not all.
So, if you are hoping to see the famed Salvador warmth and culture, you will likely be disappointed (or at least we won’t be putting our best foot forward). But, if the goal is to simply get away, then Salvador could be a good choice.
I’m planning on going to Salvador, Bahia on December 17th are the museums, top tourist attractions, bars and restaurants open? Thank you.
At this moment, mostly yes. The museums are open in a limited capacity. Bars and restaurants are currently open, but close earlier than normal. Beaches are still tightly controlled — no chairs or umbrellas or food/drink sellers allowed. There are no shows or cultural events happening. Shops are open fewer hours than normal because there are a lot less people. Churches and religious houses just closed again.