Second only to Rio in the magnificence of its natural setting, on the mouth of the enormous bay of Todos os Santos (All Saints), SALVADOR is one of that select band of cities that has an electric feel from the moment you arrive. The modern cloud-scraping skyline has a distinct beauty of its own, poised as it is on an undulating headland at the mouth of a deep-blue ocean bay.
Fantastic swimming beaches, the largest collection of colonial architecture in Latin America, and a vibrant modern culture – perhaps the richest living cultural mix in the country, with its multitide of Afro-Caribbean bands and performers – all combine to help make Salvador the most popular destination in the Northeast, even if it considers itself distinct from the rest of this region.
Salvador was founded in 1549 by Tomé de Sousa, who chose the city for its inaccessible perch 70m above sea level. This marked the beginning of the permanent occupation of the country by the Portuguese , though it wasn't easy for them. The local Caeté Indians killed and ate both the first governor and the first bishop before succumbing to superior force and steel. Salvador was also the scene of a great battle in 1624, when the Dutch destroyed the Portuguese fleet in the bay and stormed and captured the town, only to be forced out again within a year by a joint Spanish and Portuguese fleet. For the first 300 years of its existence, Salvador was the most important port and city in the South Atlantic.
Much of the plantation wealth of the Recôncavo was used to adorn the city with imposing public buildings, ornate squares and, above all, churches. Today, Salvador is a large, modern city, but significant chunks of it are still recognizably colonial. Taken as a whole it doesn't have the unsullied calm of, say, Olinda but many of its individual churches, monasteries and convents are magnificent.
The other factor that marks Salvador is immediately obvious – most of the population is black. Salvador was Brazil's main slave port, and the survivors of the brutal journey from the Portuguese Gold Coast and Angola were immediately packed off to city construction gangs or the plantations of the Recôncavo; today, their descendants make up the bulk of the population. African influences are everywhere. Salvador is the cradle of candomblé and umbanda, Afro-Brazilian religious cults that have millions of devotees across Brazil. The city has a marvellous local cuisine , much imitated in other parts of the country, based on traditional African ingredients like palm oil, seafood, peanuts and coconut milk. And Salvador has possibly the richest artistic tradition of any Brazilian city, rivalled only by Rio.
A disproportionate number of Brazil's leading writers and poets were either born in Salvador or lived there, including Jorge Amado, the most widely translated Brazilian novelist, and Vinícius de Morães, Brazil's best-known modern poet. The majority of the great names who made Brazilian music famous hail from the city – João Gilberto, the leading exponent, with Tom Jobim, of bossa nova; Astrud Gilberto, whose quavering version of The Girl from Ipanema was a global hit; Dorival Caymmi, the patriarch of Brazilian popular music; Caetano Veloso, the founder of tropicalismo; the singers Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa; and Gilberto Gil, who was at one time secretary of culture in the city government. Timbalada rhythms and the world-renowned black musician Carlinhos Brown are among the most recent additions to Salvador's hall of fame. The city's music is still as rich and innovative as ever, and bursts out every year in a Carnaval that many regard as the best in Brazil.