Exploring Old Towns Olinda & Recife, Brazil

The neighbouring communities of Olinda and Recife in northern Brazil have fabulous but very different Old Towns. Separated by the Beberibe River, both have historical centres filled with colonial Portuguese heritage buildings. Olinda was established first and therefore, its buildings are much older, but no less impressive. The two centres are so close that you can explore the Old Towns of both Olinda and Recife in a couple of days.


As one of Brazil’s oldest colonial communities, we were excited to visit Olinda. It was established in 1547 by the Portuguese because it provided the perfect location between the sugarcane fields and the Atlantic Ocean. For almost 200 years Olinda was one of the most important cities in Brazil’s sugarcane industry. Those crops are still important to this area. As we drove into the city fields of sugar cane covered all of the available land.

With a name meaning ‘Oh Beautiful’, how could you not expect Olinda to be a pretty town. It was built on a hill so that its narrow, cobblestone streets run and up and down throughout the historical district. They are made even more attractive by the colourful colonial homes that adorn their sides. It’s not a large area and the buildings are simple, but their colourful exteriors almost make you forget the lack of ornate decorations. Carvings on weathered wooden doors add even more character to this old neighbourhood.

At the top of the hill is Catedral da Sé (1540). With all of the colourful homes in Olinda we were surprised by its plain exterior and humble interior. Across from the church, the viewpoint, Alta da Sé, allowed us to look down upon the terracotta rooftops of Olinda and see as far away as high-rises of Recife.

Not far from the cathedral a 19th century astronomical observatory was built on the site where the Olinda Comet was first observed in 1860.

In addition to colourful colonial homes, there are many churches on the slopes of Olinda. There are said to be more than 30 churches, chapels and monasteries in the small Old Town. We walked by quite a few with the most impressive being Basílica e Mosteiro de São Bento (Basilica and Monastery of St. Benedict). The tall wooden doors and windows with carved stone frames draw you toward it. The interior is even more impressive with a grand, ornate golden alter and golden pulpit for the priest.  

The rest of the churches in town weren’t as elaborate and seemed a bit more worn down.

Walking through Olinda’s historic centre, not only do you get to enjoy the homes, palace and churches, but there is also a lot of greenery. The trees, flowers and bushes adds a layer of warmth to the town.

Olinda initially served as the capital of what is now the state of Pernambuco. The most grand building in town is the bright yellow palace that served as the former governor’s residence. For a few years in the 17th century the Dutch ruled parts of the Brazilian coast including Olinda. When the Portuguese regained control, the capital was eventually moved to Recife, on the other side of the Beberibe River.

Olinda’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which usually comes with an agreement to maintain the area. Somehow that part of the deal was lost in Olinda. Although many of the buildings are in quite good condition and are all date appropriate, there are many that are not well maintained. There’s garbage on the streets and there appears to be a lot of poverty in the city. These factors took away a little of the charm of Old Town.

Recife Antigo (Old Recife)

When Olinda was being established, a number of Portuguese fishermen set up shacks on the delta between the Capibaribe and Beberibe Rivers. Stone reefs not far from the shore provided protection and gave the city its name, Recife (Reef). The Portuguese realized that the stone reefs created the perfect place for a harbour and used it for exporting sugarcane to Europe.

During the short Dutch reign they established a large settlement in Recife, and made it their regional capital. Therefore, when the Portuguese regained control a few years later, the city of Recife was much larger than when they were forced out. In the early 1800s, the Portuguese moved the capital of Pernambuco from Olinda to Recife.

Walking around the historic centre of Recife you can tell it is a much younger capital than Olinda. Instead of the utilitarian buildings we saw Olinda, Recife’s historical area has grand, ornate structures typical of the period. Old Recife was built on a series of islands created by the many rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean in this estuary. Some people call Recife the Venice of Brazil because it has many bridges crossing between these rivers, but in reality, there’s not much similarity between it and Venice.

We began our tour of Old Recife at Praça Marco Zero (Ground Zero Square) on the outer island. Surrounding the colourful centre of the square are restored and unrestored colonial buildings. We walked along the streets for a few blocks on either side of the square to find a mix of Dutch and Portuguese colonial buildings. Some were beautifully restored, others were in the midst of restoration and some were falling into ruin.

Much of the area is a pedestrian zone making it a perfect place to stroll without worrying about traffic. Rua de Bom Jesus is a popular walking street where we saw the first synagogue in the Americas, Synagogue Kahal Zur Israel. It was founded in 1637 by Dutch Jews. When the Portuguese returned to Recife most of these Jews went to North America and the building suffered from neglect. Recently though it has been restored and is now open as a museum.

Today, there are many IT companies with offices on this small island and the restaurant patios were full with staff on their lunch break. It’s a great area to wander around the streets for an afternoon.

Across from Marco Zero Square is a boardwalk that runs along the side of the ocean. We watched for a while as an egret was struggling to swallow a fish it caught. The fish was obviously much too large for it to swallow, but he was not giving up on his lunch. After a while the egret eventually flew off with most of the fish still hanging out of its mouth.

Two bridges lead from this small island to one of the larger ones where the stately colonial buildings are even more grandiose. Praça da República (Republic Square) is a large treed square with a regal looking law courts building on one side and Santa Isabela Theatre on the other.

Throughout this island there are many large and small squares, each seemed to have its own colonial church. Old Recife is in a working part of the city’s downtown. We were there mid week and there were a lot of people out on the streets going to or coming from their lunch break. Unfortunately there were also many miscreants in this part of the historical centre. There were quite a few people sleeping on the streets or hanging out in front of churches. There were more security and police in the area and we were careful to take care of our belongings.

It’s not the most relaxing atmosphere nor the most picturesque on this island, but several buildings were beautiful making it worth checking it our for half a day.

Boa Viagem

Recife is located on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Boa Viagem Beach is one of the most popular parts of town with a nice community beside it of the same name. Filled with high-rises and restaurants it’s a relatively safe part of the city. Similar to Fortaleza, Natal and João Pessoa, Recife’s coast is yet another long, sandy refuge on the edge of a busy city.

The second of the two-part federal election occurred when we were in Recife. We were in Manaus for part one. Even though the country seemed to be very divided politically, we didn’t notice much difference on election day. A few cars honked and waved the flag of the party they support and we heard a few cheers and boos when the winner was announced, but otherwise it was a normal day. That is until we were on a bus on our way out of the city two days later. Truckers were protesting the election results by blocking major highways in and out of the city. We saw a few fires burning of the side of the highway as our bus slowly drove by. For the first 6 hours of our journey that day, our bus was only moving at 20 km/hour.

How to get to Recife

Recife is the capital of Pernambuco and is very easy to access by car, plane or bus. The main bus station though is 30 km from downtown. We found Uber to be the best option for getting around the city. Note that rush hour traffic is very congested so plan your travel accordingly.  There is a metro system in Recife, but it doesn’t travel to Boa Viagem so we didn’t use it.

Where to stay in Recife

The large city of Recife is your likely base to explore both Olinda and Recife. Most people will stay near Boa Viagem and there are many hotels and restaurants to chose from. We stayed in a lovely inn, Hotel Pousada Casuarinas. The English speaking host was very friendly and helpful and the garden-like setting is very peaceful in the middle of this big city.

To read about our other adventures in Brazil click here.

Coming Next – A Day in Salvador’s Historic Centre

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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