Olinda is one of Brazil's most charming and picturesque colonial towns. The name "Olinda" comes from the Portuguese "Ó, linda" meaning "Oh, beautiful" and much of its original beauty and character has been retained, which contributed to it being declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982.
Olinda's setting is striking. Colourful colonial mansions and white-washed baroque churches sit majestically along its steep, narrow cobbled streets which cascade down a verdant hillside dotted with coconut palms. The town is brimming with artists studios and craft shops set within the colourfully-hued mansions, fit to bursting with a tremendous variety of brightly coloured art reflecting the vibrant local culture
From Olinda's highest square, Praça Alto da Sé, there are wonderful views out over the turquoise ocean and the neighbouring metropolis of Recife, just 6km away. Some of the best artisan shops are also located here, as well as stalls selling tasty local treats such as tapioca and acarajé (deep-fried black-eyed pea fritters stuffed with caramelized onions and shrimp) and drinks.
For most of the year Olinda is a tranquil place with most visitors making day trips from neighbouring Recife, however during Carnival it is a different story. Olinda is home to one of Brazil's most vibrant and exciting street Carnivals. Unlike Rio de Janeiro, Carnival in Olinda is free and all about participation, with thousands of locals, Brazilian and foreign tourists descending upon the narrow streets for a mammoth eleven days of lively music, playful dancing and caipirihna fuelled mayhem - definitely not for the faint-hearted! Numerous samba and frevo (music and dance originating in Recife) schools rehearse year round in preparation for animated performances through the streets in colourful and at times barely there costumes.
The symbol of Carnival here are giant, colourful puppets made of papier-mâché, some up to 15 feet high. The puppets play an important role in opening and closing carnival. The most well-known puppet, "O Homem da Meia-Noite" (Man of Midnight) has marked the start of every carnival by parading at midnight on the Saturday since 1932. Eleven days later on the final day of Carnival, a huge get-together of these puppets marks the end of the event.
Often overlooked by visitors who are drawn straight to Olinda, Recife is the second largest city in the Northeast and Brazil's oldest capital, founded by the Portuguese in 1537. Named after reefs that lie off it shores, it has an unusual coastal setting, located at the confluence of the Beberibe and Capibaribe rivers and spread over and around small islands and bridges which has given it the nickname of the Brazilian 'Venice'.
It is an urban place, with high-rise office buildings, shopping centres and traffic clogged highways. In contrast, the narrow streets of Recife's waterfront historic quarter are home to restored pastel coloured colonial buildings and churches and make for a pleasant wander.
The ultra-modern seafront district of Boa Viagem is lined with high-rise apartments and a wide range of restaurants and hotels.
Well worth a visit whilst in Recife is the Oficina de Ceramica Francisco Brennand, where one of Brazil's most renowned ceramicists, Francisco Brennand, transformed his family's disused tile factory into a studio, museum and gardens.
Recife's Carnival is reputed to be one of the best in Brazil, like Olinda it is a street-party style participatory event with fewer visitor numbers than the likes of Rio and Salvador.