We fell in love with the downtown area of Recife called Recife Antigo. The city started around the port, but the original buildings were burned down by the Dutch in the 1600s.
The area was rebuilt soon after, though, and there are plenty of beautiful old buildings already restored or under restoration, including South America's first synagogue.Today, Recife Antigo is one of the city's hotspots, filled with restaurants, bars, and shops selling the best handicrafts I saw. If you wish to shop and help support Pernambuco's artisans, then definitely go to Paranambuco, at Rua do Bom Jesus, 215.
The best bookstore I've ever been to is Livraria Cultura on the riverbank, next to the gorgeous Paço Alfândega Shopping, an eighteenth-century convent that later served as the Custom House. While in there, don't forget to eat at Café São Brás; they serve the most delicious curaus, tapiocas, corn soups, pamonhas (see photos below), etc. They have several locations around town. The shopping is also home to Recife's most sophisticated restaurant, Assucar.
Nearby, the Church of São Pedro (see photo below) is surrounded by restored houses that form a complex called Pátio de São Pedro.
Casa da Cultura, the old prison that has been converted into a cultural space and shopping center, has been beautifully rehabilitated and offers a lot of different merchandise.
Mercado São José, across the river from Recife Antigo, is a fabulous place to buy jewelry made of coconut, palm fronds, and different seeds, adorable rag dolls, carnaúba palm bags, traditional noise makers like the famous rói-rói, etc. The dolls come in several sizes, our favorites are the tiny ones, about two inches tall. Around June and July, during the traditional festas juninas you will find all sorts of balões like the one pictured here and bumba-meu-boi costumes for children. All of these are pictured below.
If you are in Boa Viagem beach, make sure to go eat at a buffet restaurant called Chica Pitanga, Rua Petrolina, 19, right next to the little church. Best place to sample regional dishes like canjica, queijo de coalho (incredibly delicious cheese that is served melted...), bolo de rolo (paper thin cake rolled with a filling of guava paste), maxixada, Bolo Souza Leão (cake made with manioc and coconut milk), tapioca molhada, pamonha de forno, etc.
The market around the church is a great place to buy laces (like the marvelou dress on the photograph below) and cachaças with pornographic labels!! Fátima Rendas is a chain of stores that also sells beautiful renaissance laces. In Boa Viagem, they're located across the street from the church. Other locations include Casa da Cultura, Shopping Center Recife, and the airport.
Besides all these attractions, Recife has a very nice museum dedicated to northeastern culture called Museu do Homem do Nordeste, located at Rua 17 de Agosto, 2167, Casa Forte, phone (81) 441-5500.
Nearby Olinda is a lovely hilly town with lots and lots of great old churches. Olinda and Recife have one of the most beautiful and exciting carnavals of Brazil...go join the frevo, caboclinhos, and maracatu-dancing crowds someday!
If you have time, take the bus to Caruaru, located in the "Agreste" region of Pernambuco (134 km west of Recife) and the home to the most fantastic feira in Brazil. You can buy anything from rag dolls to (live) goats, fruits, and the loveliest clay figurines. Don't miss Alto do Moura nearby, considered by UNESCO to be the largest center in Latin America for this type of craft.
By coincidence, pernambuco is the name of a Brazilian native tree...also known as pau-brasil! The best bows for violins, violas, and cellos are made from this wood, now becoming so scarce that bow makers have joined forces with conservationists to save the pernambuco or pau-brasil tree! If you'd like to become part of this effort, you can join the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative.
For insider tips on travel to this favorite destination of ours, visit the Recife online guide Férias Brasil (in Portuguese).