I Used Insider Tips to Plan a Multi-city Brazil Trip — Here's How You Can, Too

Recommendations from family and friends made my first trip to Rio, Trancoso, and Salvador unforgettable.

<p>JohnnyGreig/Getty Images</p>

JohnnyGreig/Getty Images

After years of intermittent planning, replaying scenes from the famous film “Black Orpheus,” and seeing streets teeming with swaying hips and sparkle during Carnival, I finally visited Brazil for the first time.

Equipped with a list of guidance from friends who frequent the South American country each year, those recommendations doubled with the help of people I met while there. One conversation can lead to some of the most lasting travel tips and memories — a gift that no Google search or online research can replace.

Here are some highlights of my visits to Rio, Trancoso, and Salvador de Bahia that made my week-long trip memorable.

Rio de Janeiro

<p>Ismail Salahuddin</p>

Ismail Salahuddin

From my home base of Los Angeles, my Copa Airlines flight landed me in Rio a little after midnight. An overnight stay at Hotel Fasano, part of Leading Hotels of the World, offered views of the lulling waves of Ipanema Beach across the street at dusk — a vast contrast from the photos of shorelines brimming with tanned bodies and swimmers I’ve seen over the years. The moment was a peaceful introduction to a place where the city and sea spill into each other. The Phillipe Starck-designed property is an ode to modernism, with a lobby drenched in oceanside sunlight and buttery leather and wood textures. From my balcony, the golden sands of Copacabana, sounds of samba, and neighboring favelas seemed so close and far all at once. With just three days in Rio, I would, of course, visit the more well-known tourist attractions, but thanks to those recommendations and a bit of luck, I would learn much of the city's history and people, too.

<p>Tomas Rangel</p>

Tomas Rangel

What to Do in Rio de Janeiro

The following day, I checked into Hotel Emiliano, which would serve as the base for the rest of my Rio introduction. The 90-room hotel's distinctive exterior of white, foldable shutters makes it stand out among the row of unmarked high-rise buildings and vendors just below on Copacabana Beach.

A rooftop pool with expansive views of Copacabana’s shimmering shoreline, an intimate spa, and two restaurants — including a foliage-filled Brazilian and Italian fusion restaurant, Emile. My tour guide, Edson “Eddie” Vander Campos Alves, was lively and informative. We visited Sugarloaf Mountain on a rainy day, and despite the less-than-ideal visibility from a location known for its awe-inspiring panoramic views of the city, Eddie’s undeniable passion for Rio made the weather a second thought.

After lunch at the plant-filled Escama, where families and friends dined over seabass and grilled lobster paired with zippy viogniers, we headed to Little Africa, located on the port of Rio. Shaped much in part by Black matriarchs who played a critical role in the creation of samba and the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, Little Africa is the site of where nearly a million enslaved Africans finished their forced transcontinental journey to reach Brazil’s shores. Their traditions have had a lasting impact that still breathes life into every corner of Brazil — from samba drums to the palm oil and okra (quiabo) used in some of the country’s most famous dishes. Little Africa includes the port of Cais do Valongo — where enslaved Africans first arrived in Salvador — and Pedra do Sal, considered the samba's birthplace in Rio.

<p>Mariana Monteiro</p>

Mariana Monteiro

“In this region, Black people reimagined life in the diaspora, recreated affective bonds, resisted, earned money, made art, loved, and celebrated. Little Africa is a very important place to connect with the roots of Brazilian history and culture and to understand that the Black population was and is a fundamental part in building this nation, even though the official history denies it, “ said Luana Ferreira, a historian who offers licensed tours about Brazil’s Black history. Through her passionate knowledge, the streets of Little Africa came alive.

“Usually, Black people are only portrayed when the slavery system is spoken of, and on the tour, it is inevitable to touch on this subject. However, our main goal is to break this paradigm and present this region as the birthplace of Black culture in Rio de Janeiro, the birthplace of samba and our popular carnival.” Fortunately, several city officials and community members agree with this sentiment and advocate for bringing Little Africa to the forefront of tourism investments in the coming years. 

Where to Eat in Rio de Janeiro

I arrived in Rio with a long list of restaurant recommendations from friends and colleagues. Some of my favorite meals included:

Mesa do Lado is a “gastrosensorial” experience created by Michelin chef Claude Troisgros. To get to the 12-seat experience, you’ll have to walk to the back of a restaurant called Chez Claude through red curtains. The orchestrated experience — more than two hours — is meant to heighten the dining experience through taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell, achieved through projections of images and videos, set to songs by artists like Paulinho da Viola, Elza Soares, Cesária Évora, and even AC/DC. My favorite dishes of the night were the cassava biscuit served with truffle-infused parmesan cream and saumon à l'oseille — a salmon filet immersed in a cream-based sauce that contains chardonnay, dry vermouth, and sorrel leaves.

Then there's Oteque. Set in an old house in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood, Chef Alberto Landgraf and his team execute an impressive seafood-based menu from an open-air kitchen. Landgraf's seasonal courses celebrate his Japanese heritage, including raw bluefin tuna with seaweed vinaigrette, pine nuts and caviar, monkfish with creamed burrata, and several fresh ceviches. Oteque also features many organic wines, chosen by sommelier Leonardo Silveira.

Lastly, up a winding hill in Rio’s bohemian Santa Marta neighborhood, Aprazível welcomes crowds from its multi-leveled, treehouse-like structure. Shaded wooden tables surrounded by lush plants offer views of Rio in the distance. It’s an ideal place to spend a slow afternoon and enjoy a passionfruit caipirinha and the catch of the day served alongside coconut rice and baked banana.


<p>Ismail Salahuddin</p>

Ismail Salahuddin

Located on the coastline of Bahia, Trancoso is a small fishing village turned bohemian enclave dotted with coral-colored buildings, long stretches of golden sand beaches, and dirt roads decorated with banana trees and bursts of jungle plants. To get there, I flew just under two hours from Rio to Porto Seguro airport. Then, it’s a 90-minute drive through bumpy dirt roads to get to the vibey beach town that's drawn celebrities like Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, and Leonardo DiCaprio to its shores.

What to Do in Trancoso

<p>Courtesy of Hotel Fasano Trancoso</p>

Courtesy of Hotel Fasano Trancoso

Choosing Trancoso as a second stop on my multi-city Brazil trip was deliberate. There’s only so much to do in the laidback region, and that slow pace is exactly what I craved after leaving Rio’s busy streets.

I checked into Fasano Trancoso, a sprawling 740 acres set amongst a natural reserve between tropical forest and the ocean. Like its Rio sibling, the property, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, came highly recommended by several friends for its sweeping location. Here, 40 geometric white bungalows face the ocean, some with rooftop decks, and a beachside restaurant decked out with salvaged furniture is where I enjoyed a freshly grilled lobster and the addictive queijo de Coelho, a firm white cheese that’s grilled and topped with honey.

The hotel is just a 20-minute drive from Trancoso’s Quadrado, a historic town square that I quickly learned is the heartbeat of the area. During the day, most of the tropical-colored fishing homes and a 16th-century white church that borders its grassy center are closed, but at night, the live drumming and capoeira dancers fill the square, and several restaurants and bars open their doors to crowds. About a five-minute drive from the Quadrado, Nativos Beach is a popular stretch of sand that includes two volleyball fields, beach bars, and hotels. For a more isolated location, consider Rio da Barra, about a 15-minute drive north of the Quadrado.

<p>JohannesCompaan/Getty Images</p>

JohannesCompaan/Getty Images

Where to Eat in Trancoso

Proximity to the beach and a tropical environment means there’s no shortage of seafood and fruits like acerola, the fibrous and sweet mangaba, and carambola (star fruit). At Capim Santo, first created by celebrated Brazilian chef Morena Leite’s mother, Sandra Marques, the menu focuses on Brazilian dishes executed with French techniques. I ate alfresco in their garden restaurant, on grounds also home to a small boutique hotel.

While dining at Mesa do Lado in Rio, Chef Troisgrois insisted that I dine at Alma Ninho, helmed by Morena Leite, who was raised in the Quadrado and focuses on highlighting the seafood flavors of Bahia. “We are on the beach and eat a lot of foods influenced by African cuisine, so coconut milk with seafood and fruits is part of what makes our tropical cuisine in Bahia so special.”

<p>Antonio Soto</p>

Antonio Soto

At Alma Ninho’s wooden bar, alongside just five other diners, I indulged in courses like churros with tapioca, grilled lobster with salad and granola from the nearby garden, and black ravioli with seafood — all plated on seashell-shaped plates.

The gastronomic experience is hosted in Leite’s six-suite guesthouse that overlooks the ocean and a mountainside bursting with plants. “We want you to feel at home here, and I want to share all the research I’ve done around the world, from the flavors of the food to the art displayed on the walls,” she said. This intimate celebration of Bahian food was my favorite part of visiting Trancoso.

Traveling to Brazil

From my hometown of Los Angeles, Copa Airlines offers the shortest flights, typically with a layover in Panama City. Once in Brazil, regional airlines like Azul Airlines offer flights out of Rio to nearby cities like Porto Seguro and Salvador. 


<p>Ismail Salahuddin</p>

Ismail Salahuddin

After Trancoso, a one-hour flight north on the reliable and regional AZUL airlines landed me in Salvador, a city I had dreamed of visiting for years because of its rich Afro-Brazilian history. Fortunately, I arrived equipped with a wealth of recommendations from a friend, Aja, who visits the region annually with her family.

“As an African-American and member of the larger African diaspora, I am inextricably linked to Salvador, its people, history, and culture,” she told me before my visit. “I fell in love in Bahia, and every time I return with my growing family, our love deepens. Because of all that Salvador has given me, I am continuously finding ways to give back to this amazing city and its people.”

During my three days there, she gave me several incredible tips on what to see in the UNESCO World Heritage city, including the open-air market Feira de São Joaquim and Solar de Unhao, a complex of historic buildings near the Modern Art Museum. Over the years, the community has opened several bars and restaurants in this location, including the beloved Afro-Brazilian-themed restaurant Dona Suzana.

I checked into Hotel Fasano Salvador, a towering retreat housed in a building from the 1930s that overlooks a sheltered bay that opens to the Atlantic Ocean called Bay of All Saints. Fasano is one of the few luxury hotels in Salvador, but that’s set to change, as the city — which offers several welcoming bed and breakfasts — is rife with luxury development. Inside, 70 rooms in the Art Deco space are highlighted with warm organic tones, and a rooftop pool offers the best sunset views in the city alongside people watching on Castro Alves Square just below.

Best Time to Visit

Brazil’s summer months are between October and November, when tourist crowds are few and hotel prices are reasonably low. Carnival celebrations in Rio and Salvador in 2025 will occur at the end of February.

What to Do in Salvador

If I did just one thing in Salvador, Aja advised, it would have to be getting tickets to the Balé Folclórico da Bahia show. The 38-member dance troupe pays tribute to African deities (orixás), reenacts Maculelê, a dance celebrated by enslaved at the end of sugar cane season; capoeira, a martial arts dance brought to Brazil from Angola; and, of course, samba, whose roots began in the sugar cane mills of Salvador. The palpable joy of this performance, the whirlwind of colors that took flight with dance, the remembrance of a people who found the will to go in the face of the unimaginable — this is what this performance succeeds in covering and what is ever present on every corner of Salvador.

Salvador has the largest population of African descendants outside of Africa. Nearly every revered tradition in Brazil today, from capoeira to Carnival, was created by formerly enslaved people. The origins of that world-famous celebration can be viewed in the historical center of Pelourinho at Salvador’s Caso do Carnaval, which features several video projections, large-scale exhibits, and even a cinema room where you can learn several traditional Brazilian dances.

At Blue Praia Bar in the seaside Vermelho neighborhood, the city’s cool kids are scattered about among Balinese-style beds built between swaying palms and tableside at an al fresco dining space that overlooks Buracão Beach. This is where I spent my last afternoon in Salvador, with plates of cod croquettes and espetinhos de queijo. Tucked away on a quiet street, I instantly felt as though I had discovered one of the city’s gems, where the hours pass with ease as residents play soccer on golden sands and order glasses of passion fruit caipirinhas.

Where to Eat in Salvador

Central to food in Salvador are the flavors of Africa, like palm oil (dendê), coconut milk, and cassava. Walking around the city, Baiana women dressed in billowing white cloth to honor Oxalá (the god of creation) sell acarajé, a typical Bahian snack made of mashed black-eyed beans, onions, and shrimp fried in palm oil. During slavery, many descendants of enslaved women gained their freedom and financial independence by selling these snacks. Don’t miss an opportunity to stop at a tabuleiro (stand) on the street and get a taste of this important symbol of power. At Casa de Tereza, you can try acarajés and another famous Bahian dish — moqueca. The rich, coconut-based stew includes palm oil, dried shrimp, cassava flour, tomatoes, onions, and peppers.

More flavors from Africa, like a black-eyed pea dumpling called abará, can be enjoyed at Zanzibar, which overlooks the Bay of All Saints and Dona Mariquita, where popular dishes include cassava leaf stew and a milk pudding used in Candomblé to celebrate the Orixá, Yemanjá.

One of my favorite evenings was watching the sunset with a caipirinha in hand at Antique Bistrô, a former mansion with a patio with panoramic bay views. There are several small plates to pair with their popular cocktails, such as the tender smoked rib I had, which could have easily won at any barbecue competition.

At Origem, various takes on Brazilian foodways, from Indigenous corn to the citrusy umbu fruit, take center stage at this fine-dining favorite. A rotating tasting menu focuses on the five biomes of Bahia (Cerrado, Caatinga, Atlantic Forest, Coastal, and Marine Zone) to create a genuinely expansive gastronomic experience.

On my last night, I reserved a marina-side table at Mistura Contorno, a seafood-focused restaurant highly recommended by everyone I spoke to about Salvador’s dining scene. Mistura’s menu results from Chef Andréa Ribeiro's vision to fuse Mediterranean and Brazilian flavors, which, based on the lively space filled with patrons, has succeeded.

During my splurge-worthy finale dinner in a city I will return to, I enjoyed plates of grilled fish, calamari, lobster, octopus ceviche with coconut and Sicilian lemon, and a pappardelle ossobucco.

A final sunset and crayola-colored sky from my hotel balcony completed my first visit to Brazil — though it certainly won’t be my last.

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