My favorite Things to do in Recife & Olinda
My favorite Things to do in Recife/Olinda - Understand
Recife and the neighboring Colonial Era town of Olinda are in Northeast Brazil; in fact, Recife is in one of the most eastern places of the country. Sunrise is around 5AM pretty much year-round.
Recife isn't an appealing city despite its charming location along a tropical beach. Think of it as one big suburb with a long beach (one that's polluted and riddled with sharks) and two Colonial Era city centers. Everything else is just a random combination of roads and grey buildings. Recife looks really pretty in aerial photography, but when you get closer it actually isn't!
Recife does not have much of a tourist infrastructure, so the good news is that it's not crowded or touristy, but this also means you need to converse in Portuguese. Plan for two or three days in the city on a trip through Brazil.
My favorite Things to do in Recife/Olinda - Safety
Recife is often described as Brazil's most dangerous city. The main places of interest that I will note below are safe during the day, but don't go there at night. Use taxis at night to go from place to place. In general I found the city safer than, say, Dar es Salaam, but certainly less safe than Lima, for example. A good number of neighborhoods are 'no-go zones' for Brazilians and tourists alike; you will recognize them easily when you get closer. However, there isn't an easy way to tell when you randomly explore the city what you are getting yourself into, so explore during the day and head home before sunset.
My favorite Things to do in Recife/Olinda - Getting Around
Taxis are the way to go. Drivers are friendly, reasonably priced and while they do not speak English, they show some patience with foreigners. Since there are so few places to visit here, it's easy to tell them where you want to go. It is a good idea to download EasyTaxi, which is very popular all over South America. There are buses here, but they are slow and hot. Renting a car isn't a great option either, since drivers are surprisingly aggressive here.
My favorite Things to do in Recife/Olinda - Sights
Olinda/ Alto Da Sé
Clearly the most stunning place in the Recife area is Olinda. Olinda is just 3 miles outside the city center of Recife and most of its buildings stem from the 16th century. Now I thought I had seen it all before, but Olinda has some of the most stunning views I have ever witnessed. There's a stark contrast between the turquoise waters, yellow beaches, green trees and blue city towers, which are all mixed in with Colonial Era churches. Go there on a sunny day (that usually means before noon) and you will be amazed. The best views are from the patio of the Igreja da Sé - you can't miss this shiny cathedral.
It is a good idea to have your cab driver take you up the hill directly to Alto Da Sé, which will save you the sweaty ascent. You can discover the rest of the Centro Histórico de Olinda afterwards, going downhill.
There are a number of great photo ops with small alleyways, cobblestone streets and picturesque houses. It's very compact and while it's hot and steep, you can walk through it all in an hour. When I was in town it was pre-carnival and the crowds in the lower section of the city were maddening. Make sure you like crowds or stay away in January and February - especially in the afternoon.
There are a few well-rated restaurants in the area here if you like to snack, but I did not try any, as there was so much street food due to the carnival.
The old town of Recife is on a small island and it's just starting to be revived again. There are a good number of colonial buildings to ogle at and the colors are stunning; on a clear day (or before lunch) they just look fantastic. The revival of the area is still a work in progress and there is not much else to do besides looking at the buildings from the outside. The best local coffee chain is São Braz, which has an outlet at the Porto Novo, which is a bunch of new shops and restaurants along the old port sea wall.
Livraria Cultura is the local Barnes & Nobles equivalent, but has fancy stores that come with great coffee shops. There is one right in the old town.
Praia de Boa Viagem (Boa Viagem Beach)
This long stretch of yellow beach looks fantastic and is longer than Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana and Ipanema combined. It comes with the usual busy traffic just behind it, but is reasonably well-maintained. The bad news is that with all the shark attacks that happened here, the locals have given up on swimming!
Boa Viagem is a rather affluent area and the beach is THE main thing for Brazilians to do. How a whole city has permanently given up on going into the water in the tropics is beyond me. The idea of shark nets has not arrived here yet (Hong Kong has implemented them successfully) and there is no active policy to discourage sharks from coming into the shallow waters. Brazil is rich enough to afford such measures, but for some reason chooses not to.
So the beach is a great place for a sunset run (if you can stand the heat) or a beer with a view, but not for a dip into the water :(
This is the third largest mall in Brazil and the people of Recife have taken it by storm. This mall and the somewhat smaller (but still huge) Shopping Recife mall are bustling with families over the weekend. If you like crowds, RioMar is the place to be on a Saturday or Sunday (or pretty much any other day!) :)
Instituto Ricardo Brennand
This art museum gets great reviews as one of the best in Brazil. It is a bit remote and I skipped it during my time here.
My favorite Things to do in Recife/Olinda - Food
As noted in my Rio de Janeiro Things To Do post, Brazil does not excel at great food and the situation is more dire in a smaller city like Recife. I wouldn't go back to many places I tried and I can't recommend them unless you are seriously starving.
I sourced a number of meals from the grocery store (Carrefour is good for this) and prepared them myself. It's just so much better and healthier than the options you get in restaurants here.
Another good option is to find one of the local buffet meals that are common in many neighborhoods with foot traffic. The food is usually fresh and of good quality (and you also get to see it before your 'order' this way). Temperos da Fazenda is a chain doing that here (although, confusingly, it's also a sauce manufacturer).
Escalante's Tex Mex Food
I started to like Escalante's - a very happening Mexican restaurant with both a huge outdoor and indoor area. The staff are super-friendly and the food is pretty decent, with huge portions that make the high price tag more fair.
Not far from Escalante's is CaféCafé, which isn't a place for coffee but for a bread-based snack. The menu looks deceptively large, but I liked what they did - simple Italian snacks.
This is a weird building that looks like a mini-art museum that just does not fit in, but it is a design store. On the right side is a cool-looking restaurant. I hope you get a chance to try it!
Chicama is rated as the best Peruvian food in town. I did not try it, but it seems a worthwhile option.
This Spanish-style restaurant has delicious-looking food. It is a bit out of the way for most visitors (like me), so I did not venture out there.
My favorite Things to do in Recife/Olinda - Coffee & Drinks
São Braz Coffee
São Braz is the best local coffee chain and has a number of locations across town. Service is usually slow and the menu is long (not a good sign). Most people go there for food and not coffee. The coffee was decent and the banana cake edible (which is great for Brazil!) It's generally really cheap and the AC works, but the same can't be said about the internet.
I liked the coffee and desserts at Livraria Cultura best in town.
Deltaexpresso is the biggest competitor around. The stores I looked up were both closed when I arrived, so no rating from me, but I expect it to be on a similar level to São Braz.
Brazil has a decent German heritage and this place does beer culture well. It is out of the way though, so it's only an option if you have a car or if you visit on the way back from the Instituto Ricardo Brennand.
My favorite Things to do in Recife/Olinda - Where to stay
There is only a limited amount of luxurious or chain hotels in town, and given the few things to do in the city you will begin to miss them quickly.
In general, it is a good idea to stay in Boa Viagem, as this is the safest neighborhood and has the best food options. I ended up with an Airbnb rental which was in a great location, but the apartment itself was just so-so.
Get Real Time Deal Alerts and access to 5,000+ Daily Flight Deals and more than 100,000 hotel rates sorted by deals with a Mighty Travels Premium Subscription.