Brazil's Big Three: Rio, Sao Paulo & Salvador - United Hub

Brazil’s big three: Rio, São Paulo and Salvador

By Bob Cooper

Brazil is nearly as large, populous and diverse as the United States. So where does a tourist begin? In the U.S., the answer might be to visit New York City, Chicago and L.A., each with its own personality. In Brazil, the best answer is Rio de Janeiro for its festive vitality, São Paulo for its cosmopolitan culture and Salvador for its history and beaches.

Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro at sunset

Rio de Janeiro

The world came to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and left with a big grin. The energy of the city, the splendor of the beaches and the spirit of the people — including a passion for sports — made the games the global success story of the year.

From the Lapa district's samba clubs to the beaches, Rio de Janeiro is a colorful city where the party never ends. Copacabana Beach's two miles of sand are routinely packed with tourists and locals alike while adjacent Ipanema Beach is more sedate, located alongside the Ipanema and Leblon neighborhoods' upscale shopping streets and restaurants. Two steep, iconic mountains tower over the city, letting you see it all from high above. Take a gondola ride to climb to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, or a cog train to ascend up to Corcovado Mountain's 130-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue.

Estaiada Bridge in Sao Paulo, Brazil

São Paulo

With 12 million people, São Paulo is the Western Hemisphere's most populous city, boasting more residents than New York City and even Mexico City. But that's not the only reason to visit. It's a must-see global city because of what the diverse, relatively affluent population has built — many of South America's finest museums, architecture, culture and more.

Several museums are found in the old city center. Walking distance apart are a neoclassical Brazilian art museum (The Pina), a neo-Byzantine cathedral and a Belle-Epoque covered marketplace. Elsewhere in the city are the São Paulo Museum of Art, boasting the largest collection of Western art in the Southern Hemisphere, and Museu Paulista, a colossal history museum surrounded by Versailles-inspired gardens at the University of Sao Paulo. Every Saturday, live samba music is played in many of the city's bars, but the place to experience this is at Bar Samba in Vila Madalena. And when you're hungry, it's good to know the restaurants are the best in Brazil, especially in the Jardins district. Among them are countless sushi spots and pizzerias, thanks to a vast population of Japanese and Italian immigrants and descendants.

Salvador

Among the major cities on Brazil's northern coast, none offer as much to visitors as Salvador, the original capital city of Brazil. This city of three million has stunning beaches, superb restaurants and bars, plus an historic city center (Pelourinho — a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site) that dates to the 16th-century dawn of the city.

Similar to Rio, almost everything worth experiencing in Salvador is on the water or close by, starting with beaches on the Bay of All Saints and Atlantic Ocean — ideal for swimming, surfing and sunbathing. Also found near the shore is the Elevador Lacerda (the world's first elevator—now a tourist attraction) and many museums devoted to South American, modern and decorative art. Also found in the Old City nearby are more museums, six cobblestone squares and a 17th-century cathedral. Many of Salvador's restaurants serve Afro-Brazilian food, a relic of the city's past.

Practicalities

All three of these Brazilian cities are closer to the equator than Miami, so expect balmy year-round temperatures that almost always hover in the seventies and eighties. The only months to avoid are the rainy season: December to February in Rio and Sao Paulo; April to June in Salvador. Transportation in all three cities is easy via Uber, buses and subways. Don't bother with pricey taxis or rental cars. And while in Brazil, be sure to try the national beverages — Brazilian coffee by day, caipirinhas by night.

If you go

United Airlines offers flights to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo from numerous U.S. cities, including nonstop flights from Houston Intercontinental to Rio de Janeiro and nonstop flights from Chicago O'Hare, Houston Intercontinental, New York/Newark and Washington Dulles to São Paulo. Salvador is served by Star Alliance partner Avianca Brasil, with frequent flights from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. You can also get to any of these three cities via one of our partner airlines, Azul Brazilian Airlines. MileagePlus® Rewards can help pay for your hotel room. In addition, before you go make sure to submit the proper documentation to receive a tourist visa. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your Brazilian adventure.

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