The only way to truly explore Olinda is by hitting the cobblestones and setting off on foot. It's hard to get lost in the historic part of the city. The hilltop Igreja da Sé dominates the city to the west, while the ocean is always visible to the east; Recife's skyline stands out to the south. Most attractions are open daily; churches usually open from 8am to 5pm, with a 2-hour closure for lunch from noon to 2pm. Sunday and Monday are pretty quiet. If you like it more lively and bustling, visit on Friday and Saturday.
Buses from Recife will drop you off at the Praça do Carmo, dominated by the lovely N.S. do Carmo church. This more-than-400-year-old church has finally undergone a much-needed renovation. It's worth peeking in to see the huge ornate jacaranda-wood altar. The large leafy square on the front side of the church is known as Praça da Abolição (abolition square) because of the statues of Princess Isabel, who was responsible for abolishing slavery in 1888. Follow Avenida da Liberdade, and you'll pass by the 1590 Church of São Pedro Apostolo before turning right and walking up the steep Ladeira da Sé to the Igreja da Sé.
Alternatively, from N.S. do Carmo you can swing to your right on the Rua Sã Francisco, which leads to the Convento de São Francisco (R$2; closed Sat afternoon and all day Sun). Built in 1577, this was the first Franciscan monastery in Brazil. It's worth ducking in to see the life history of Jesus in the N.S. das Neves, done in Portuguese blue tile.
From the Convento São Francisco, the Travessia São Francisco leads up to the Ladeira de Sé and the Igreja da Sé. Originally built in 1537, this now rather austere church is more interesting for what it's suffered over the years than anything else. A series of photographs and drawings just inside the main door shows the church's various incarnations.
The square in front of the Igreja da Sé provides the best view in town. You see the red-tiled roofs and church towers of Olinda, and thick stands of tropical trees set against the sparkling blue ocean below. Farther south you get great views of Recife's skyline all the way to Boa Viagem. It's a good place to ponder Recife, Olinda, and the nations that made them. The Portuguese, coming from cities like Lisbon, founded Olinda on a hilltop. The Dutch, with models like Amsterdam in mind, founded Recife on a bit of mudflat by the river mouth. The Dutch choice proved the more practical. But the Portuguese city is far more beautiful.
The square in front of the Igreja da Sé has a great crafts market and excellent food stalls selling fresh tapioca pancakes and shots of flavored cachaça. Nearby, at Rua Bispo Coutinho 726, you'll find the Museu de Arte Sacra de Pernambuco (Tues-Fri 9am-12:45pm). It's not one of the great ones; if you saw the sacred art museums in Salvador or São Paulo, skip this one.
The very steep Ladeira da Misericordia leads down toward the Rua do Amparo. This is one of Olinda's prettiest streets, featuring small, brightly colored colonial houses packed with galleries, restaurants, and shops. Largo do Amparo has the feel of a little Mexican square. On the square itself, N.S. do Amparo (built 1613) features two bell towers (a sign they could afford to pay the bell-tower tax back in the old days) on the outside, and some nice tiles and gold work inside. Farther up the hillside, N.S. do Rosario dos Pretos and São João Batista have nothing inside worth hoofing it up the hill.
Leaving the square and following Rua Amparo until it becomes Rua Treze de Maio, you come to the Mamulengo Puppet Museum (tel. 081/3429-6214; Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm; free admission). The small three-floor museum assembles puppets used in Northeastern folk drama. Puppet characters come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some have hidden levers that cause them to stick out their tongues (or other, ruder appendages). Almost next door, the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Pernambuco (Museum of Contemporary Art; tel. 081/3429-2587) has next to nothing inside.
Farther down, following Rua São Bento leads to the Mosteiro de São Bento. Built in 1582, this monastery is still home to 27 Benedictine monks, and only the church is open to the public.
From the monastery, Rua XV de Novembro leads down to the Largo do Varadouro; the large crafts market Mercado Eufrasio Barbosa is worth a visit. Those returning to Recife can take a bus from this square instead of returning to the Praça do Carmo.
Give Your Guide a Test Drive -- In most of the squares, especially at the Praça do Carmo, young guides will offer their services for a fee (usually around R$25). Many are former street children trained by the city as tour guides. Some are good; some are hopeless. If you're interested, test out your prospective guide, if only to make sure you can understand his English. Hiring a tour guide protects you from being hassled by other guides and vendors. If you're lucky, they may also show you the city's nooks and crannies.
Olinda, City of Artists -- Every year, Olinda hosts a large open house event, called Olinda, Arte em Toda Parte (Olinda, Art Everywhere). During the last 10 days of November, the city's artists open their studio doors to visitors and a number of special events, exhibits, and cultural presentations take place. For more information check the website www.olindaarteemtodaparte.com.br or stop by the tourist information center at the Largo do Amparo on Rua do Bonsucesso 183 (tel. 081/3439-9434), open daily from 9am to 6pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.