Portugal's former New World colonial capital is storybook Brazil—a city both cinematic and gritty, its colorful cobblestoned streets lined with astonishing gilded churches and photogenic architecture dancing to its own Afro-Brazilian drum. It is a microcosm of Brazil: a kaleidoscopic mélange of African roots and culture, European tradition and indigenous pedigree, with a vivacious soul that bewitches visitors right away.
Under Portuguese royal orders to establish a capital in Brazil, Tomé de Souza landed in Salvador in 1549 with 400 soldiers and 400 settlers in tow. By the late 1500s, the city was the most important in the Portuguese empire after Lisbon. Its complicated history continues to shape the city today, and nowhere is it more palpable than the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Pelourinho, the old town. Here endures a sensory kaleidoscope: colorful colonial buildings and jaw-dropping churches, a percussion-heavy local soundtrack of unique musical styles such as afoxê and samba reggae, capoeira circles that seem to break out spontaneously in the open-air plazas, and the scent of acarajé (bean and shrimp fritters) filling the air. It all merges—sights, sounds, smells and the ever-present sensation of heat—in Salvador's bewitching personality.