Fortaleza, a sprawling city of 2.5m people is the fifth largest city in Brazil. But it’s often overshadowed by the bigger, more tourist-heavy cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Salvador.
A 1,200 mile leap north from Salvador means hot and humid Fortaleza in the north eastern state of Ceará is even closer to the equator. Its name translates as ‘fortress’ or ‘strength’ and it was once a part of Dutch Brazil before it was colonised in the 17th Century by the Portuguese.
Thanks to its rich colonial heritage, traditional forró music, spectacular watersports and of course, beautiful beaches, Fortaleza is a favourite holiday destination among Brazilians.
The Europeans and Americans have started to follow – especially as Fortaleza will feature in the Torch Relay for the Rio 2016 Olympics, and hosted the FIFA Fan Fest during the World Cup last year. But with some of the most stunning coastline in the world, I was excited to explore what this region offers for travellers who don’t want to follow the crowds, and honeymooners looking for some spectacular escapism.
One day, I’ll make it to the bright lights of Rio. But for now, feast your eyes on 10 brilliant things you can do in Brazil’s fifth fabulous city.
1. Visit Mercado Central de Fortaleza
This concrete block that resembles a multi-storey carpark is worth the visit despite its appearance. Once inside, you’ll find a bazaar of stalls selling cachaça, nuts (including cashews – one of their main exports), leather shoes and bags, clothes, lace and souvenirs. If you’re keen to buy a hammock (after all, this is their birthplace) there’s a wonderful shop where you can pick the colour and design of your choice. They’ll then embroider it with the words of your choice.
2. Visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of Fortaleza
Don’t be put off by the blackened exterior of this cathedral (caused by the humidity). Once inside, you’ll find a spectacular space of stained glass windows and Neo-Gothic architecture. This cathedral was designed by French architect George Mounier and was finally finished in 1978 after taking 40 years to build. With a capacity for 5,000 people, it’s the third largest cathedral in Brazil. Once inside, you’ll appreciate just how vast it is. If there’s a service on, the acoustics are staggering.
3. Visit the Dragão do Mar cultural centre
When we visited the Dragão do Mar cultural centre was still being worked on. But in a few months time, it will house various artists, galleries, museums and cultural entertainment and is a meeting point for many locals in Fortaleza. It also features movie theatres and a planetarium.
As the site of The School of Contemporary Arts, artistic exhibitions are a focus here. So look out for the eye-catching murals which tell a story and soak up the beguiling modern architecture which juxtaposes the colonial buildings behind it.
Dragão do Mar translates to Dragon of the Sea – the name given to Chico da Matilde, a leader who led Ceará to be one of the first states to abolish slavery. Come here at night for cocktails and live music with the locals. And check out the statue of Patativa do Assaré, one of Cearás late great poets.
4. Explore the colonial buildings
Fortaleza is a confused mix of granite high rises, and worn out low-level houses. But money has been spent on restoring the colourful colonial buildings which neighbour the Dragão do Mar. They’re now home to some good cocktails bars and restaurants. But they worth visiting for the photographs alone.
5. Walk down Avenue Beira Mar
Aside from the beautiful Praia de Iracema (Iracema Beach) and English Bridge (actually a pier), this street is where all the high-end restaurants and hotels are. Iracema hosted the FIFA Fun Fest during the World Cup. It’s here you’ll also find the Statue of Iracema – in honour of the historic European literature that tells the story of a native Indian lady who fell in love with a Portuguese colonist. Come nightfall, the area comes alive with beachfront markets and open-air night clubs.
6. Dine on Local Cuisine
Join in with the locals and start your day with a breakfast of tapioca. This pancake like savoury is made using the starchy flour extract you get from cassava (or yucca) and is pretty tasteless. But add some cheese, carne de sol (dried meat) or coconut and it’s actually quite tasty.
Come lunch time, make sure you try shrimp! Shrimp is sold everywhere in Fortaleza and they’re so reasonable to buy, even in upscale restaurants. Try Coco Bambu – a fantastic beach facing restaurant on Fortaleza’s Avenue Beira Mar and order one of their shrimp and rice dishes with cassava chips. You wont regret it, trust me.
7. Enjoy Pirate Monday
Brazilians know how to party and a bit of inside knowledge tells me that ‘Pirate Mondays’ are where it’s at. On the Rua dos Tabajaras, near to Fortaleza’s English Bridge (pier), you’ll find Pirata Bar. This is where Brazilians go to enjoy traditional forró music and comedy on a Monday night. You heard it here first.
8. Surf & Swim at Futuro Beach
Priai do Futuro was the setting for the eponymous Brazilian film. And if you visit, you’ll understand why the rolling waves draw in the surfers. The current is incredibly strong here, so it’s for professionals, or supervised surfing lessons only. Hotel Vila Galé is a basic but decent base to stay if you want to explore this part of the city.
9. Visit the Mausoleum of General Castelo Branco
General Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco was the first of five presidents to serve during the Brazilian military dictatorship which lasted between 1964 and 1985 and he was named Chief of Staff of the Army in 1963. He is known for being one of the leaders who toppled President Joao Goulart and imposed tough economic laws on the country. Shortly after his retirement he died in an air crash near Fortaleza and today, he is remembered at this modern mausoleum over water.
10. Check out Dragon Fashion Week
In May, Fortaleza hosts Dragon Fashion Week which follows the famous fashion week in Sao Paulo. The region is known for its colourful and unique weaving which often features and apparently Fortaleza produces some of the best costumes for Brazil Carnival. It may only be the fifth city in Brazil but it seemingly still has its place in the fashion world.
And indeed travel world.
Until next time x
Fly: TAP Portugal flies from London Heathrow to Fortaleza seven times a week. Prices start at £702 return including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.
Tourist info: Find more info about Brazil on the Tourist Board website, Visitbrasil.com.
Buy the Rough Guide to Brazil on Amazon