Maceió comes as a surprise to first-time visitors. Alagoas, the state it's in, is traditionally cowboy country: dusty and dry. But Maceió is on a stretch of coastline marked by fine beaches, lagoons, reefs and vast mangrove swamps with manatee reserves, all of which are just beginning to be discovered by travelers. The city, in recent years, has been the engine of Brazil’s ethanol boom; tourism here has just recently started to gear up. Palm trees yield coconuts galore around Maceió, and help define the rich seafood-based cuisine. Try to sample some sururu broth, made with palm oil and coconut milk, or bredo, spinach cooked in creamy coconut-milk sauce.
Customs, cuisine and music in this northeastern city are so different from Rio and São Paulo that you might as well be in another country. Recife is one of Brazil's largest metro areas, with distinct neighborhoods, including an old colonial core with buildings in various states of preservation. In the Boa Viagem district, where at low tide you can see the reefs that gave the city its name, a long seafront boardwalk is a favorite spot for locals to jog and bike. Recife's nearby sister city of Olinda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site popular for its hilltop views, stunning Baroque buildings, walkable cobblestoned streets and world-famous carnaval.