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The colonial heart of Fortaleza

Most foreign visitors usually head straight to the beach, often completely bypassing the city's historical centre. And that's a shame because whilst Fortaleza may not be Brazil's most beautiful city, its charming centro more than makes up for that with a lot of character and several worthwhile attractions. Go in search of the city’s Dutch roots, visit an art deco theatre or combine art and nightlife in the ‘Sea Dragon’ cultural centre.

Experience the real hustle and bustle of Fortaleza's city centre. Fortalezenzes go about their daily shopping in the busy maze of narrow streets around the cathedral, while bar owners scrub their front steps. Buy a hammock at the Centro de Turismo in the former jail, stroll through the 19th-century Passeio Público park or relax on a bench under the palm trees at Praça do Ferreira square. Please note: after the shops close in the evening, the city centre is deserted and unsafe except for the bustling nightlife district around the Dragão do Mar.

The 20th-century cathedral dominates the downtown cityscape
The 20th-century cathedral dominates the downtown cityscape

Fortaleza

Arts and cultural centre Dragão do Mar

Art, caipirinhas and colonial architecture

The lovely cultural centre Dragão do Mar is wedged between downtown and Iracema. Named after a popular local hero who rebelled against slavery, the centre consists of several modern buildings connected by walkways. Here you will find two museums (a regional and a modern art museum), a theatre, cinema, library and a planetarium, all surrounded by colourful colonial houses which have been converted into restaurants, bars and patios. Locals flock here for a museum visit followed by dinner or a few capirinhas on a patio overlooking the square.

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Dragão do Mar, Rua Dragão do Mar 81, Iracema, Fortaleza, http://www.dragaodomar.org.br/ 

Fortaleza's Dutch roots

Across from the Mercado Central market stands the colonial fort that gave Fortaleza its name. Fort Schoonenborch was founded in 1649 by the Dutch. Five years later the Portuguese conquered it and renamed it Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Assunção (the Fortress of Our Lady of Assumption). Few people know that the fort, which serves as the command post for the 10th Military Region, is open to visitors. Just report to the soldier on guard at the main gate and you will be allowed to explore the courtyard surrounded by white plastered walls and black cannons that point towards the turquoise blue ocean.

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Former Fort Schoonenborch from 1649

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Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, Rua General Bezerril, Centro, Fortaleza
This 19th-century theatre is Fortaleza’s loveliest building

High octane art deco

Ornate Scottish wrought iron, colourful stained glass windows, decorated ceilings, elegant murals and 800 hardwood seats: Theatro José de Alencar is by far the loveliest building in Fortaleza. The theatre was inaugurated in 1910, although the garden by famous landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx was only completed decades later. At night, the theatre hosts a variety of performances, ranging from plays to opera, musicals and local forró music. In the daytime, you can enjoy a guided tour of the building. The information is only in Portuguese, but that hardly matters as the sumptuous architecture speaks for itself.

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Theatro José de Alencar, Rua Liberato Barroso 525, Centro, Fortaleza