In Brazil, futebol (what we call soccer) is a lifestyle, a religion. It’s nearly a synonym for South America’s largest country. Yet Brazilian people also have great passions for nature, architecture, food, art and music.
As Brazil hosts the World Cup tournament through July 15, it also is preparing to show off its cities. Here’s what tourists can see at some of Brazil’s major cities, during the matches or long after the games are over:
The nation’s capital, built in an area that formerly was desert, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. This midcentury marvel, with its scissors-shaped highways, has grown into a city of 4 million, filled with diplomats, many of whom are English speakers. Visitors will want to see the unconventional buildings conceived by the late architect Oscar Niemeyer, including the Congress and government palace Itamaraty, which offers guided tours in English daily.
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Don’t miss: Nature lovers can visit the Parque Nacional, which features two swimming areas fed by hot springs.
Beaches are a major draw in Brazil’s fifth largest city, with miles of coastline. Iracema and Praia Futuro are among the most famous, with locals tending to show up in the afternoon and stay all night. On the beach, try your head and feet at a pickup game of volfute, a hybrid of soccer and beach volleyball, before heading over to the nearby World Cup stadium, known as “the Big Castle.”
Don’t miss: Dancing in the hip nightclubs, where you’ll hear the sounds of the Afro-Brazilian mix of pop and samba called axe, as well as forro, which is Brazilian country music.
This city in the northern region of Brazil was the country’s first capital, and natives like to say, “If you haven’t been to Salvador, you haven’t been to Brazil.” Founded in 1549, it is filled with colonial architecture in happy pastel colors, with sharp spires and wrought-iron terraces. Head to Pelourinho, the old district square, to see young people perform the martial art of capoeira, to make a wish outside the Church of Nossa Senhor Do Bonfim, or to hear the sambas played by the children of Escola Olodum during one of their afternoon rehearsals.
More than 80 percent of the people in the state of Bahia are of African descent, making Salvador the most African city outside Africa. History buffs will want to visit the nearby town of Praia do Forte to see the ruins of Castelo D’Avila. Built in 1551, this fort was the arrival point for countless slaves trafficked from West Africa.
Don’t miss: Acaraje (Ah CAR ah JAY), the addictive little fritters formed from black-eyed peas, onions, bell pepper, celery and some crab or chicken, and sold on streets and beaches by the turbaned Baianas.
The Western Hemisphere’s largest city can be overwhelming. This economic center of 20 million people is vast, and snarled with traffic. (It helps to have friends in high places who can transport you via helicopter.)
Still, São Paulo is vibrant, fashionable and sophisticated. Culturally, the city is a standout, with rows of museums including the Museu do Futebol, an interactive museum that tells the history of Brazil through soccer. Take a walk through the sculpture garden in Ibirapuera Park, Brazil’s largest. Spend the day at the Pinacoteca, a museum that emphasizes Brazilian art, or Museu Afro-Brasil, another museum that was built in 1951 to pay tribute to Brazil’s enslaved and Africa-descended populations through visual arts, sculpture, textiles, jewelry, pottery and photography.
Don’t miss: Museu Lingua Portuguesa, a graphically brilliant center that explores the history of Portuguese in Brazil, where visitors can learn how the sounds, accents and music are heavily influenced by African and Amero-Indian words.
Rio de Janeiro
Tourists flock to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, but the surfing is best at Praia Pirinha, near Barra de Tijuca, where many of the 2016 Olympics venues will be built. Cariocas still applaud when the sun sinks into the Atlantic, so climb one of the rocks on the bay and watch the sunset.
It is difficult to take a bad picture in the Cidade Maravilhosa, so consider a morning ferry ride around the bay for great views of Sugar Loaf Mountain, or set your time-lapse camera for images from the top of the Cristo statue or of the sun setting near Arcos de Lampos.
Visitors who want to relax between soccer matches can take a day trip to Paqueta, a quiet island community off the coast, with a gorgeous beach and no cars. Get around the area by boat, horse-drawn carriage or bicycle.
Don’t miss: Feijoada, a stew of beans with beef and pork and Brazil’s national dish, served on Wednesdays and Sundays. We don’t think there is a better version in Rio than at the restaurant Simplesmente, in the artsy Santa Teresa neighborhood.
This capital city in the state of Amazonas is situated within the world’s biggest rain forest, making this region a treasure of ethnography and biodiversity. Take a tour to see the Meeting of the Waters, a point where the dark Black River and the light Solimoes River run side by side without mixing.
Visitors who have some time away from Amazona Stadium can spend a day at Museu do Indio, which features a collection of more than 3,000 artifacts produced by native tribes in the Amazon region. The Dessanas tribe welcomes visitors, but their village near Manaus is accessible only by boat, a trip that can be arranged by tour groups.
Don’t miss: The more than 100-year-old fish market Mercado Municipal Adolpho.
Pronounced (Huh-CEE-fee), the capital of Pernambuco state is known for its culture and nightlife. Antigo Recife, the old city, is filled with colonial architecture and is surrounded by glorious beaches, where it isn’t unusual to see wild horses running among the coconut palms.
Shoppers will want to see the Casa da Cultura, a former prison that has been transformed into a shopping area for folk art and handicrafts.
Don’t miss: Grab an umbrella and take dance lessons at Paco do Frevo. This colorful museum is dedicated to the history of the bouncy dance reminiscent of a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.