Olinda and Recife are two old cities that sit side by side in Brazil's north eastern state of Pernambuco and it's fair to say that Olinda is the star of the show. It's gorgeous! The historic centre of Olinda is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. You can read all about that here. Pretty as a picture, Olinda has a perfect blend of hilly cobble stoned streets, colonial houses, Baroque churches, lush tropical greenery and spectacular views of the turquoise coloured sea. It really is one of the most beautiful little places in Brazil and while you can easily cover it off as a day trip as I did, you could also spend a couple of happy days just hanging out and soaking it in. Modern day Olinda is a bohemian mecca full of artists, some local and some who've come from elsewhere to make it their new home. You can spend your time exploring the streets, visiting the ateliers of artists and chilling out in cute cafes. One of the local artists I chatted to assured me that Olinda hosts the best carnival in Brazil and I daresay it could be a great option if you're in Brazil at that time (usually around February). Carnival in the north east is much more interactive than its southern counterparts. Rio puts on one hell of a show but in the north east, you are the show! You and everyone else who is out dancing on the streets. Salvador is famous for the interactive street party carnival but can be a bit dangerous, so Olinda might just be the perfect balance.
There are official tour guides in Olinda wandering around just waiting to sign you up for a personalised tour of the old town but if your Portuguese is not very good I would advise you to verify their English is sufficient before you commit . If there's no communication barriers then this is a great way to learn about the history of the town as you walk around, it costs very little, provides employment and is a good chance to chat to a local person. There are plenty of pousadas (guest houses) to stay in, or you could do as I did and base yourself in Recife. It was very easy and cheap to get a bus to Olinda and only took about 30-40 minutes from Boa Viagem in Recife's south, and I found a day was more than enough to see everything. You'll find plenty of options for a lunch stop with a sea view, and there are quite a few street food vendors selling typical north eastern food which is always fun to try. If I had my time again I think I would base myself in Olinda instead. The only down side is that it's further from the airport.
Recife, meaning reef, is the capital city of Pernambuco and has been nicknamed the Venice of Brazil due to the many canals and bridges throughout the down town area. I only spent one afternoon exploring Recife's down town and historical area as I was cut short by bad weather but I still saw a fair bit and I think 1-2 days is plenty of time to look around. I would recommend 3-4 days to anyone thinking of visiting both Recife & Olinda. The sea is the most inviting shade of turquoise and, as you might have guessed, full of beautiful reefs. This is a bit cruel really because you can not swim in the sea in Recife. Well, you'd be crazy to at any rate because it is full of both tiger and bull sharks. Boa Viagem is the well to do, high rise apartment packed beach suburb to the south of Recife and this is where I was based for my stay. There is a lovely beach promenade and you can wade in the natural pools created at low tide but you'd be nuts to swim out at high tide because Recife has one of the highest rates of shark attacks in the world, with 1 in 3 being fatal. The attacks only started happening after Porto Suape was built in the late 80s and the dredging involved interrupted the natural habitat of the sharks and as a result the feeding channel now leads the sharks straight into the beaches of Recife. It's a shame as I'm sure this has adversely affected Recife's tourism prospects. While the rest of the north east is a paradise for beach goers, Recife has now only got its history and architecture to seduce visitors.
Luckily Recife does have plenty of beautiful historical buildings although, unlike its sister city Olinda, Recife's historic buildings are generally not as well preserved. To make matters worse, there are lots of ugly new (newer but still often old and run down) buildings surrounding them so you don't get many whole idyllic stretches of charming old buildings. I found Recife to be very run down and I kept thinking how much I wish I were a billionaire philanthropist who could pour funds into reviving it because it has so much potential to be amazing! That said, it's not without its charms as it is. It's a fun city to just wander the streets and check out the market. There are many amazing churches and theatres and a few pockets of cute old streets. There is a very clear presence of poverty in Recife and there are some shanty towns built on the river's edges and even under bridges due to the many people who have flocked to the state's capital city in search of economic opportunities, unable to find enough work in the traditionally agriculture driven countryside of Pernambuco. Sadly, I had a hard time getting good photos of Recife because of the horrible weather (and my sub-par photography skills). I won't lie and say that it's the prettiest city in Brazil but even so, the below photos are selling it short as it is a very interesting place. There are a few picturesque rows of colonial buildings on the river but I wasn't able to get any good shots unfortunately.
With lovely warm weather all year round you can visit Recife and Olinda any time. The best way to get there would be to fly to Recife, unless you're already in a neighbouring state in the north east, in which case you'll be a reasonable length bus ride away. I was already in Pipa in Rio Grande do Norte so I took a bus which took about 5 hours. From Recife I flew down to Salvador da Bahia but if I had had more time up my sleeve I would have bused down, stopping over in both Maceio and Aracaju as both cities are said to be beautiful. Olinda is somewhat touristy due to its UNESCO status and Recife gets to ride that wave as that's where the airport is, but I assure you neither city has been spoiled by tourism at all. Few people in the north east speak English and it's easy to just immerse yourself into the local goings on. As everywhere else in Brazil, people are very friendly and happy to see foreign faces but you won't be bothered too much by touristy sales vendors here.