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The capital of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, Recife—pronounced “heh-see-fee”—is a lively city bursting with beautiful beaches, incredible cuisine, and vibrant music and art scenes. Having earned the nickname of Brazilian Venice, Recife is marked by rivers and bridges that criss-cross their way through the city. The historic Centro dates back to the 16th century and boasts cool bars, cultural events, and quirky craft shops in and around its colorful colonial buildings. To the south, Zona Sul is flanked by natural reef beaches and high-rise hotels, while Zona Oeste is the greenest part of the city. Recife’s dynamic culture can be seen throughout more than 20 museums, which celebrate everything from art and history to religion and transportation. Talking about Recife isn’t complete without mentioning its annual Carnaval, which draws nearly 2 million people to its streets with the infectious rhythms of genres like maracatu and frevo. Directly to the north, the city of Olinda offers a quieter atmosphere, and many visitors opt to stay here at night while visiting Recife by day.
Recife is divided into 4 major areas—the Centro, Zona Sul, Zona Oeste, and Zona Norte—and within those, smaller neighborhoods that each have their own personality.
Centro (Center) — Made up of the neighborhoods of Recife Antigo, Santo Antônio, São José, Santo Amaro, and Boa Vista, the Centro is connected by a series a bridges that cross over the Capibaribe River. The heart of the district is Recife Antigo, an island that sits right along the coast of the South Atlantic Ocean. The neighborhood is home to many of the city’s cultural, historic, and artistic attractions, including the Fort Brum Military Museum, the Malakoff Tower, and music and dance exhibition halls such as Paço do Frevo and Cais do Sertão. The highlights of the district are concentrated on the south end of the island, where you’ll find a variety of restaurants, cafes, and beer bars. Before taking advantage of the nightlife, head to Marco Zero square to watch the sun set behind the Francisco Brennand Sculpture Park. Every Sunday afternoon, the neighborhood comes alive with street fairs, dancing, music, and food stands.
Zona Sul (South Zone) — As the center of the city’s social life, Zona Sul is the the most modern and tourist-centric part of the city, with swanky hotels, upscale eateries, outdoor cafes, and sprawling shopping malls. During the day, 5-mile-long (8-km) Boa Viagem Beach offers a picturesque place to soak up the sun or try out traditional snacks from a seaside vendor, though swimming isn’t advised as the area is known for its large population of sharks. Once the sun goes down and the beach is lit up, the district thrives with the activity at cocktail lounges and nightclubs.
Zona Oeste (West Zone) — To the west of the Centro, Zona Oeste is the greenest part of the city, scattered with remnants of the Atlantic Forest that once covered much of Brazil’s northeastern coast. In the westernmost neighborhood of Várzea, the Francisco Brennand Ceramic Workshop highlights the creations of the country’s famous sculptor, while the Ricardo Brennand Institute is a lavish castle boasting an impressive collection of art, artifacts, and gardens. Roughly 4 miles (6.5 km) north, the Two Brothers State Park is an expansive reserve housing hiking trails, botanical gardens, a science museum, and the Two Brothers Zoo.
Zona Norte (North Zone) — Largely a residential area, Zona Norte is a place where the wealthy have settled throughout the centuries, largely in the neighborhoods on and around the Capibaribe River. Today, the district is known as the place to find the city’s best hospitals and schools, but it’s worth a visit to try out the bars and restaurants in neighborhoods like Casa Forte, Graças, and Espinheiro.
Once you’ve explored Recife from street level, see the city from a new perspective from the top of the Federal Regional Court. Sitting on the western edge of Recife Antigo, the towering structure houses a restaurant on its 16th floor. Simply show your ID in the lobby and get whisked to the top of the building in an elevator. When the doors open, you’re met with panoramic views over the picture-perfect island. Dig into a buffet feast of Brazilian classics, along with other international eats, as you look out upon sights like the Atlantic Ocean, the Capibaribe River, and the Francisco Brennand Sculpture Park.
Explore the must-see sites of Recife in in just a few hours. With a local leading the way, immerse yourself in the city’s rich history as you wander the streets of Recife Antigo, Santo Antônio, and Boa Vista. Pass the oldest synagogue in the Americas, admire the gorgeous facades that line Republic Square, and see the former prison now serves as one of the most important cultural centers in the city. From here, your guide leads you out of town into the tranquil village of Olinda. In its UNESCO-listed historic center, take time to appreciate the brightly painted houses, ornate monasteries, and baroque churches that mark its tree-covered hillsides.
On another journey out of Recife, discover Porto de Galinhas, a tiny seaside town that’s frequently voted one of the best beach destinations in Brazil. On a full-day tour, soak up the natural beauty of the scenic spot as you lounge in the shade of coconut groves, wade in water dotted with colorful fish, or take a ride through the reef pools on a fishing raft. When you get hungry, grab lunch at a casual beachside bar or one of the more high-end options in the hotels.
Back in Recife, don’t forget to visit the many museums, galleries, and shops that speak to the city’s incredible culture. You can dive into Recife’s African influence at the Afro-Brazil Art Museum, marvel at costumes at the Carnaval House, or peruse the handmade ceramics at the Pernambuco Craft Center. At the City Museum of Recife, travel back in time as far as the 1600s or admire the collection of contemporary work at the Museum of Modern Art.