Traveling down the northeastern coast of Brazil, you'll see gleaming resort cities, long stretches of sandy beaches, and beautiful small beach towns and fishing villages, but I was still surprised to find this little colonial city perched along the shore. Olinda's small, winding, cobblestoned streets, great Brazilian restaurants, fantastic views, and colonial architecture provided a welcome contrast to the beach scene.
Olinda was founded in 1557, and served as the state capital for a number of years until the capital was moved four miles south to Recife. We spent two pleasant days exploring the shady streets and alleyways here, sampling the restaurants, and stopping to admire the views of the ocean and numerous church steeples visible from much of this hilly city. Twenty colonial period churches remain in Olinda, and they will be the highlight for photographers or architecture buffs--visitors here feel as though they have been carried back in time.
As for the beaches, they're not the reason that I would go to Olinda. I found them to be small, narrow, and crowded, well below the standard set by Fortaleza, Canoa Quebrada, or Natal. Nearby Recife would be a better beach destination in this area.
A popular tourist draw for Brazilians and foreigners alike, Olinda can be crowded on weekends and holidays. Being an attraction brings with it the advantage of good tourist infrastructure, but it also brings some annoyances, such as the young, energetic "tourist guides" that will come out of the woodwork as soon as you arrive in town, wanting to show you around.
The highlight of the year in Olinda--as is the case with many Brazilian cities--is its Carnival, which is known throughout Brazil as being the most authentic in the country. It's rich in tradition and folklore, without the electric bands or huge floats found elsewhere in the country. The main attraction for many is the use of giant puppets made from cloth and paper mâché, some of which have been in the parade since 1932. The city fills to the brim for these five days of mayhem ending on Ash Wednesday.
When visiting Olinda, I advise you to avoid the weekends, so you'll have more of the place to yourself. Plan to spend a day on one of the oldest streets in town, Rua do Amparo--a culture-rich corridor lined with inns, restaurants, museums, and art studios--while enjoying the warm weather and ocean breezes.
And if you'd like to stay for more than just a visit, buying property here is not as expensive as you might think, given the city's beauty and popularity. I looked at a nice home directly on the famous Rua do Amparo, with a corner lot and ivy-covered walls. It would be a great place to be at the heart of everything that's going on here, or to open a tourism-related business. With three bedrooms and two baths, the asking price is $105,000 at today's exchange rates. The owner doesn't speak English, but if you speak Portuguese (or know someone who does), you can call him at +(55) 81-9239-6034 for more details.