Many people know Recife for its carnival and nearby beaches, including the world-famous Porto de Galinhas, with its wonderful natural pools. But this city in the north-east of Brazil has so much more to offers its visitors. Pernambuco’s state capital overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and consists of several islands connected by bridges. One of these islands is home to its old town in the district of Recife Antigo, which is protected by a two-kilometre cliff featuring works of art by the Brazilian sculptor Francisco Brennand.
While in Recife, you should take the time to walk through Praça da República square, where you can admire the amazing palaces that have impacted the city’s history since the 1800s. These palaces include the Governor's Palace, Santa Isabel Theatre and the Palace of Justice. Alternatively you can head over to Antônio Vaz island for a spot of shopping in the Casa da Cultura, a brilliant example of architectural restoration. And if you’re looking to go a bit further afield, you can leave the centre of town for a visit to Francisco Brennand’s incredible atelier, along with a museum housed in a majestic castle run by his cousin, Ricardo. Finally, if you’re keen to leave the city altogether and explore the local area, we highly recommend a trip to the nearby city of Olinda for a dip into colonial Brazil. Here, the tropical climate is warm all year round.
When arriving in Recife on a Costa Cruises trip, you’ll be greeted by an amazing skyline littered with palaces winding along the coastline. Your first view of this amazing city will be from the sea. And that’s just the beginning!
If you’re looking to discover some of the best things to see in Recife and the local area, read on!
What to see in Recife
- Recife Old Town
- Praça da República
- Governor's Palace
- Santa Isabel Theatre
- Casa da Cultura
- Palace of Justice
- Francisco Brennand Atelier and Ricardo Brennard Institute
- Igreja de Madre de Deus
- Baroque Basilica of Nossa Senhora do Carmo
Recife Old Town
Recife is sometimes referred to as the ‘Venice of Brazil,’ which of course means it consists of a series of islands. Recife Antigo, the city’s old town, is actually connected to the mainland by four bridges. Once upon a time, the city had just one port, which served the nearby colonial town of Olinda. Recife later took on the title of Pernambuco’s state capital. Now, Recife Antigo is the city’s most historical neighbourhood thanks in part to its pièce de résistance: the Praça do Marco Zero. This square overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is where Ribeira de Mar dos Arrecifes dos Navios was first established - the village that later became Recife. In 2000, the area was revitalised thanks to major renovation and construction works undertaken to commemorate its founding. One of these includes a metal disc housed in the centre of the square. Word has it that if you put your open hand over the plaque (excluding your thumb), your fingers will point in the direction of the city’s four main avenues.
Facing Recife Antigo is another incredible attraction, which was constructed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Brazil’s discovery. We’re talking about the Parque das Esculturas Francisco Brennand, designed by a famous local artist. This park is two kilometres long and sits atop the rock barrier that protects Recife Antigo from the sea. It is a very long strip of land and you can walk along it (after reaching it by boat) while admiring ninety different sculptures created by the artist that the park is named after, including a 32-metre-high crystal column. What’s more, if you love art, close to Praça do Marco Zero, you’ll find an open-air gallery full of colourful murals. This attraction is known as the Espaço R.U.A., and people spend hours here taking fun photos in front of the murals.
While on a Costa Cruises trip to Recife’s old town, you can also admire a number of elegant nineteenth palaces, as well as a particularly important building: the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, which was built in 1636 during the Dutch domination of northeastern Brazil. This was the first synagogue built on American soil, and although it was only used as such until 1654 - the year the Dutch were expelled from the city - it still remains a highly symbolic Jewish cultural centre.
Praça da República
There are a number of features that cause the Praça da República to stand out. The first is definitely its location. The square is situated in the district of Saint Antônio on the island of Antônio Vaz. You’ll find it at the upper end of the island, where the two Capibaribe and Beberibe rivers meet. It is surrounded by water on three sides, and is also protected by a number of trees, which give it a peaceful feel and allow it to benefit from pleasant stretches of shade - perfect for sheltering from the Brazilian sun! Two bridges lead off the square: Buarque da Macedo Bridge and Rua Princesa Isabel, which both connect it the district of Recife Antigo on the nearby island, as well as Santo Amaro and Boa Vista on the mainland.
While on your Costa trip, you’ll notice another interesting feature in the square. In its centre is a large fountain surrounded by a garden overlooked by some of Recife’s most important historical buildings. These buildings appear to be looking at each other from opposite sides of the lawn and are named the Palácio do Campo das Princesas, the governmental headquarters, Santa Isabel Theatre, the Palace of Justice and the Liceu de Artes and Ofocios de Pernambuco. The latter was originally a school founded by the Jesuits in 1880, but after various tribulations, it was eventually turned into a public school a few years ago.
Recife's Praça da República changed name five times before being awarded its present title, which it assumed in 1889 following the proclamation of the Brazilian Republic.
Governor’s Palace is one of the most distinctive buildings in Praça da República and is bound to attract your attention when visiting the centre of Recife on your Costa excursion. The palace’s official name is Palácio do Campo das Princesas and is located in the northern most part of Antônio Vaz island, overlooking the gardens and surrounded by a luscious riverside park. This huge building features a pristine facade in an eclectic neoclassical style. It is the headquarters of Pernambuco’s State Government and was built in 1841 by then-Governor Francisco do Rego Barros.
Its original name dates back to a simple anecdote. Back in 1859, it was refurbished to welcome a new important guest, Brazil's Emperor Pedro II. The emperor was accompanied by his wife, Empress Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies, and their two daughters, Princesses Isabel and Leopoldina, who used to play in the park surrounding the palace and in Praça da República gardens. In their honour, the palace was later named the Palácio do Campo das Princesas.
In front of the palace is a small treat for literature lovers. In the midst of the trees you’ll notice a Baobab tree, which is said to have been a source of inspiration for the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who came to Recife before writing his famous book, The Little Prince.
Santa Isabel Theatre
During your Costa trip to Praça da República, you won’t be able to help but notice Santa Isabel Theatre. This neoclassical pastel pink building leads off the square’s gardens and has its back to the Rio Capibaribe.
Santa Isabel Theatre is dedicated to Princess Isabel, one of the two daughters of the Emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, after whom the Palácio do Campo das Princesas is named, which sits to its left. It is one of fourteen important theatres in Brazil and was built for Pernambuco Province’s President Francisco do Rego Barros in 1839. Back then, Brazil was unable to find a local architect to design the building due to a shortage of architects and engineers. Rego Barros brought over professionals from Europe and entrusted the work to the French engineer Louis Légre Vauthier. The Santa Isabel Theatre was actually the first theatre in Brazil to be designed by a civil engineer and was built along the Campo do Erário, which was essentially an expanse of sand that would later become the Praça da República. Opened in 1850, it was destroyed by a fire in 1969. Louis Légre Vauthier was called upon to rebuild it, but given that he’d already returned to Paris, he asked a local engineer to manage the construction works.
Palace of Justice
Yet another jewel in Recife’s Praça da República square is the Palace of Justice, which is where you’ll find the Pernambuco State Magistrates' Court. In addition to its public importance, this palace also has a very imposing presence. Make sure you look up during your Costa trip to this part of Antônio Vaz island, because its 45-metre dome is the tallest in the whole of Brazil. Recife’s Palace of Justice measures over 2,500 square metres and is spread across five floors. It also features an eclectic facade sporting allegorical sculptures and busts of prominent Brazilian legal personalities.
The building is located where the Palace of Freiburg once stood in 1640, which was home to Recife’s Dutch colony. After a series of altercations linked to Pernambuco’s affirmation of independence, the palace was demolished in the late 1700s by order of the Provincial Governor at the time. A decision was later made to move this legal hub to the square, after being located in various different parts of the city over the years. The current Palace of Justice was erected in 1924 by the Italian architect Giacomo Palumbo, who originally studied in Paris, and took just six years to complete. The building was designed during a period of infatuation with European architecture, which saw a number of city districts redesigned in the early 1900s, including the amazing Praça da República.
Casa da Cultura
Does the Casa da Cultura on the island of Antônio Vaz in Recife seem a little austere to you? That’s hardly surprising given that it was a local detention centre until 1973, after being built in the mid-1800s by engineer José Mamede Alves Ferreira. Today, however, the Casa da Cultura is used for a completely different reason. In 1976, it was reopened as the city’s cultural and artistic centre by local artist Francisco Brennard and architect Lina Bo Bardi, who oversaw its restoration.
When visiting Recife on a Costa excursion, you’ll get the opportunity to admire both its exteriors and vibrant interiors. The building occupies a total area of 8,400 square metres, spread over three floors. It has a cross-shaped layout and features a central atrium covered by a dome. The outdoor patio is now a food court, where you can try specialities local to this region of Brazil, and where folk shows are often performed.
However, Recife’s Casa da Cultura not only hosts cultural events and exhibitions, it also attracts a lot of tourists thanks to its gigantic, colourful market. Strolling through its interiors, you’ll find over 150 local craft shops, bookshops and small shops selling keepsakes from Recife. A quick fact: if you want to see what the building once looked like, look out for the only jail cell left intact following the restoration.
Francisco Brennand Aterlier and Ricardo Brennard Institute
Francisco Brennand is a sculptor born in Recife and has made produced some key works of ceramic art for the city, as well as some fantastic Brazilian art in general. His previous projects include the Parque das Esculturas, which is two kilometres long and sits atop a cliff in front of the city’s historic centre. A trip to his Brennand Oficina is a must for those visiting Recife. Brennand has essentially transformed a brick factory into an incredible thematic space featuring more than 2,000 ceramic works of art. The Oficina is full of mystical, mythological and mysterious symbols and references. Walking through it is akin to getting lost in a kind of sacred city populated by imaginary animals and unusual creatures.
Located just outside the centre of Recife surrounded by greenery, and ready to welcome you as part of a Costa expedition to a surreal land is the Ricardo Brennard Institute, which is named after Francisco’s cousin. Originality certainly runs in the family. Entrepreneur and collector Ricardo decided to build a castle (the Castelo de San Joo) with a drawbridge nestled within a gigantic 18,000-hectare park featuring a collection of mediaeval artefacts. Here, you can admire one of the largest collections of armour in the world, a 62,000-volume bookcase, an art gallery exhibiting endless European and non-European works and number of artefacts from the period of Dutch domination.
Igreja de Madre de Deus
While walking along the streets of Recife Antigo, you’ll also come into contact with the splendid Igreja de Madre de Deus, built between 1680 and 1709 by the merchant Antônio Fernandes de Matos. The church has its back to the river, while its white stone facade features brown inserts and is dominated by two side towers nestled between the old town’s narrow cobbled streets. This is a prime example of Rococò style and is even more exuberant inside the church, which features ornately decorated gold and wooden structures.
Baroque Basilica of Nossa Senhora do Carmo
The Baslica and Convent de Nossa Senhora do Carmo is an impressive feat of architecture situated in the Recife district of Saint Antônio on Antônio Vaz island. It belongs to the Order of the Carmelites, to which it was donated in 1654, following the expulsion of the Dutch from what was then known as the Boa Vista Palace. The order initially featured a hospice and a chapel, before later building a convent. The church as it stands today was completed in 1767, before being awarded the title of Basilica in 1922. Nossa Senhora do Carmo is the patron saint of Recife.
Its impressive baroque facade, featuring white and brown inserts, boasts a 50-metre-high tower (the second tower is incomplete) and a very elaborate dome. While its interiors contain precious wooden and gold details, along with an ornately decorated altar and side niches. The Basilica also has an indoor patio.
Recife has not always been the capital of Pernambuco. Its original capital was actually Olinda, and legend has it that its name comes from the exclamation, ‘Oh, linda!,’ which roughly translates as, ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ The person who supposedly uttered this expression was the city’s founder, the Portuguese explorer Duarte Cohelo Pereira, in 1535, when he first travelled to the area that would later become Olinda. Over the centuries, the city may have lost its power, but not its beauty. Today it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you want to find out why, just head into town on a Costa excursion perhaps. Olinda features some of the best preserved colonial history in South America. Its city centre features a succession of baroque churches (the Igreja Alto da Sé is one of the oldest in the state and emerges from the eponymous ocean lookout) and colourful houses overlooking cobblestone streets, which form a wonderful rainbow. Located just a short distance from the centre of Recife, Olinda is a must-visit for those travelling through Pernambuco.
Brazil is not just worth visiting for Sao Paulo, Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. It’s also home to some lively, wonderful cities such as Recife, which has retained its charm and is a wonderfully original destination. It’s the perfect mix of fun, history, culture and sun and really sets this wonderful country apart. If you choose to embark on a Costa Cruise , you’re guaranteed to love the thrill of approaching this city from the ocean, just like the first great travellers who landed on its shores.