Salvador is Bahia state's buzzing capital city, its pulsating vibrancy staying with visitors long after they leave the golden shores.
Founded in 1549, Salvador quickly became Brazil's premier city, and the Portuguese Empire's second most important, after Lisbon. Prospering during the 17th and 18th centuries as Brazil's major port, it handled a significant portion of the country's gold, sugar and diamonds.
Today, the city's impressive colonial architecture is evidence of its rich history. Well-restored enclaves of the old city and ornate Baroque churches remain amid modern tower blocks and colourful mansions, all of it connected by quaint cobblestone streets. The São Francisco Church and Convent, a high-baroque cathedral located in downtown Salvador, has to be seen to be believed. Funded by the area's sugar barons and built between 1708 and 1723, the cathedral's interior is literally plastered with gold, while precious stones and paintings reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel adorn the ceiling. Most churches are open to the public and many have been turned into museums.
This delightfully decadent city's spicy atmosphere is best soaked up on foot within its narrow streets and markets, the Mercado Modelo probably being Salvador's finest in this regard. One of the city's more unusual experiences is to ride the Elevador Lacerda: the Art Deco structure houses old electric elevators that carry passengers between the port and the old historic part of town.
Salvador's beaches present visitors with an enviable list of options. The range extends from calm coves ideal for swimming, sailing and fishing, such as Porto da Barra beach, to wild coasts facing the Atlantic Ocean. Aleluia Beach falls into the latter category and attracts many surfers. Some beaches are surrounded by coral reefs, forming natural swimming pools ideal for children, while others host many of Salvador's great festivals, including the performances and fireworks of the New Year festivities.
Salvador is Brazil's most Africanised state, owing to the thousands of slaves who were transported to the region's sugarcane plantations 400 years ago. The Museu Afro-Brasileira is dedicated to this history and culture. The fusion of African and Latin cultures has given Salvador a unique brand of magic that is particularly evident at the city's many festivals, most notably the massive Carnival in mid-November. It attracts two million revellers from all over the world and is said to rival the famous Rio Carnival.