Best of Porto Alegre, Brazil
Porto Alegre is not like the Brazil you know. Rio Grande do Sul, the capital of Brazil’s southern state,is decidedly and proudly more European, holding fast to the traditions of its Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and German descendants. The 2014 World Cup city is also the modern outpost of the region's gaucho culture, represented by a love of open spaces, fierce independence and a taste for chimarrão, the local erva maté tea, passed down by Brazil’s wandering cowboys. You can wander Porto Alegre’s urban parks, trendy neighborhoods and rich cultural sites via city tour bus, boat or bike rental. Here are a few other ways to experience this unique city.
WHAT TO DO
Praça da Matriz
To get a sense of Porto Alegre’s beginnings, start in the heart of the city in Praça da Matriz. The historic square dates back to the 1700s and is bounded by some of the city’s most notable sites like Catedral Metropolitana, a gilded ode to the Italian Renaissance and birthplace of the city’s Catholic faith. Try capturing its richly-colored portico in a photo, and move to the center of the shaded square to see an obelisk-like monument to gaucho politics and beloved politician Julio de Castilhos, which stands steps away from the Castilhos family home and museum, chronicling Rio Grande do Sul’s history in a nearly 10,000-piece collection.
If Praça da Matriz is the heart of Porto Alegre’s past, Mercado Público may be where the past meets its present. The market has been a popular gathering place and center for commerce since the 1880s. Today, you’ll still find Porto-Alegrenses shopping at one of more than 100 shops for fresh meats, vibrant produce and fragrant spices, or dining at one of its varied eateries. Restaurante Gambrinus serves authentic Portuguese fare along with a cold Brazilian-style beer called chopp. The market is also the best place to get the best coffee in the city at Café do Mercado. Pick beans from the Amazon, Salvador da Bahia or any other top coffee-producing region and go home with a pungent fresh roast.
One place more popular with locals than Mercado Público may be Guaíba Lake. The lake is the backdrop for almost all recreational activities in Porto Alegre from biking and jogging along its Ipanema Beach to strolling its boardwalk. A trip out on the lake by tourist boat or catamaran reveals Porto Alegre’s sweeping cityscape from a different perspective. But the most popular pastime is sitting along its banks to admire sunsets that Porto-Alegrenses say are the best in the world. The lake’s most spectacular sunsets take place in winter when the sun shines through a narrow corridor of clouds and bounces off the lake, creating a reflecting pool of watercolors. Try watching the sun drop from the sky from the 4th floor of the lakeside Usina do Gasômetro, a power plant turned cultural center, and stay for art exhibitions and musical performances.
While sunsets in Porto Alegre are legendary, the city’s greatest sports legends have emerged from Estadio Beria-Rio, Porto Alegre’s 50,000-seat soccer stadium, also known as the “Giant.” Built from the ground up with cement and brick donated by devoted fans, Beria-Rio has been the site of epic battles between Porto Alegre’s 2 soccer teams, Sport Club Internacional and Gremio. It seems only fitting that the stadium “by the river,” named for its prime location on the Guaíba River, is being outfitted with billowing white sails around its exterior for its 2014 World Cup hosting duties. If you’re in Porto Alegre for the World Cup, anticipate a newly refurbished stadium and legendary play in matches between powerhouse teams like Australia vs. the Netherlands and Nigeria vs. Argentina.
Fundação Iberê Camargo
A few sites in Porto Alegre are icons of the city like Catedral Metropolitana, Usina do Gasômetro and Estadio Beria-Rio. The white angular architecture of Fundação Iberê Camargo is another. The building houses the modern paintings and engravings of Camargo, one of Rio Grande do Sul’s most celebrated gaucho artists. Contemplate his works along with other contemporary artists, and get panoramic views of Guaíba Lake through capsule-shaped windows.
To experience how Porto-Alegrenses unwind, venture down Rua Padre Chagas in Moinhos de Vento, the neighborhood where well-heeled city dwellers dine at trendy restaurants, sip beers at outdoor cafes and shop at high-end boutiques. You’ll find good people-watching in its park, where locals sit on a Sunday to share chimarrão. A similar scene takes place in Bom Fim’s Parque Farroupilha, also known as Redenção, where a more eclectic mix meets for its flea market. The hipster crowd mingles in Ciudad Baixa, which boasts a bustling bar scene.
WHERE TO STAY
If boutique hotels are your preference, Moinhos de Ventos has them. Hotel Laghetto Viverone mixes the Old World charm of a 19-century villa with a modern interior. The larger Blue Tree Millenium offers lakefront views and proximity to the great Estadio Beria-Rio, while Plaza São Rafael sits in the heart of the historic district, and provides amenities like a 25-meter pool and a mineral water hot tub.
Given Porto Alegre’s Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and German roots, you can find all of these cuisines here. But this region is known for its churrascarias, or barbeque steakhouses, where sizzling cuts of beef, pork and chicken are paraded past your table. Some places serving up the best churrasco are Komka in São Geraldo and Barranco in Petrópolis. For a more modern and sophisticated take on churrasco, try Nabrasa Steak.