The place to start a tour of Recife is at the Zero Marker in the heart of Old Recife. Gaze out toward the ocean from here, and about 90m (300 ft.) offshore you'll see the long, low reef from which the city draws its name. On the reef sits a strange tall green pillar capped with something that could charitably be said to resemble a tulip. This more than slightly phallic monument is the work of an eccentric ceramics artist named Francisco Brennand. If you're interested in seeing more, he has a large estate on the far edge of town (Oficina Cerâmica Francisco Brennand, Av. Cachangá, Varzea; tel. 081/3271-2466; Mon-Thurs 8am-5pm, Fri 8am-4pm) brimming with weird and wonderful ceramic creations, many of them long, hard, and potent-looking.
A block back from the Zero Marker is the Rua do Bom Jesus. The street and this whole island are the oldest part of Recife, founded not by the Portuguese but by the Dutch. The reconstructed Kahal Zur Synagogue, rebuilt on the foundations of the first synagogue in the Americas, is worth a visit. On weekends this part of the city is a fun area to visit for free outdoor concerts. The center of the nocturnal activity is the Praça Artur Oscar. At the north end of the square the tall thing like a Norman castle is the Malakoff Tower, a former astrological observatory now open as a public viewing platform.
From here north all the way to Forte Brum, Old Recife reverts from antique to just plain old -- run-down and a little slummy. The fort at the end of the 5-block walk isn't special enough to warrant the trip, so head back to Avenida Rio Branco, and cross the Buarge de Macedo bridge to Santo Antônio.
This area, too, was the work of the Dutch. In the heyday of the Dutch colony, Santo Antônio was called Mauritsopolis, after the founder and ruler, Enlightenment prince Maurits van Nassau. The large green neoclassical square almost at the foot of the bridge was once Nassau's private estate, but is now the Praça da República. It's one of Recife's most graceful public areas.
Just behind the Beaux Arts Palácio da Justiça on Rua do Imperador Dom Pedro II, you pass by the Capela Dourada . Then, turning right on Rua Primeiro do Março, you come to a big blue-and-white Beaux Arts confection of a building that has, since the 1880s, been home to the city's premier paper, the Diário de Pernambuco. Across the street is the Praça da Independencia, a good place to catch a bus, but of no interest otherwise.
Crossing Primeiro do Marco and sneaking south through the fun maze of narrow streets (parallel to but not on Av. Dantas Barreto) you will come -- provided you find Rua do Fogo on the far side of Avenida N.S. do Carmo -- to the Pátio de São Pedro, a popular outdoor music venue.
The Concatedral de São Pedro de Clérigos is a classic example of Portuguese colonial baroque. Nice as it is, however, it's the patio that makes the spot special. This broad cobblestone square is enclosed by dozens of small, restored shops, all gaily painted in bright pinks, blues, and greens.
Crossing Avenida Dantas Barreto from here you would come to the N.S. do Carmo Basilica, which would be worth a quick look before continuing for a few more blocks to the Casa da Cultura and the Estação Geral.
As it turns out, however, the little shops surrounding the patio are a great place to grab a chopp (cold Brazilian draft) and have a seat at -- what else? -- a patio table. Toward the end of the day the place fills up with the one-for-the-road crowd; there's often a band. This is a good place to cease exploring for a while.
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.