Perched on Brazil's Atlantic coastline, Natal is the capital and largest city of Rio Grande. This beach gateway rests on the banks of the Rio Potengi with a population of about 600,000. Undoubtedly, the main selling point of Natal is the sun and sand before the city itself, which, unlike the other large cities in northeast Brazil, doesn't have a notable nightlife or rich historical center. Its quieter, more subdued feel, however, is one of the main reasons it's ranked the safest capital city in the country.
The city was founded on Dec. 25, 1599, hence the name Natal, which means Christmas in Portuguese. In June,
Natal will be among the 12 host cities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup
. The matches will be played in
Estadio das Dunas
, whose name and undulating structure were designed to imitate the sand dunes, one of the most impressive natural attractions in Natal.
Attractions and Activities
Parque das Dunas (Dunes State Park)
Dunes State Park comprises 2,896 acres of protected sand dunes that surround Natal. Like most sand dunes, these natural formations are shaped by wind and water. At this unique park, you'll discover a surreal landscape with more than 250 species of plants and a variety of native animals, including armadillos, hawks and snakes. For hikers, there are three trails: Perobinha, which is only 40 minutes round?-trip, making it perfect for kids; Peroba, the path recommended for teens and adults that lasts approximately 1.5 hours round-trip; and Ubaia Sweet, which starts from Grove Valentine and lasts 2.5 hours. If you've never seen an expanse of sand dunes, it's definitely worth the trip.
Via Costeira (Coastal Way)
As a continuation of Ponta Negra Beach, Via Costeira is an urban avenue suited for the laid-back easyrollers. The Coastal Highway stretches a little more than 6 miles, where travelers delight in Dunas State Park on one side and the ocean on the other. In the 1980s, it stood as symbol for the development of Natal. Today, the large coastal avenue connects nearly all of the urban beaches in Natal.
Oceonagrafia da UFRN Museum (Oceanography Museum)
In this museum, you can find skeletons of a 25-foot-long blue whale, dolphins and humpbacks. If you're interested in the mysteries of the deep blue sea, the most unchartered terrain on Earth, then you should check out this museum. Other panels feature the origin of oceans, lakes and seas, and information on sea creatures and amphibians.
Buggy or four-wheel drive tours
One of the best ways to explore Natal is by buggy or via four-wheel drive tours. There are several tour operators, so comparing prices before you get there isn't a bad idea. Fees typically include meals, fuel, park entrance costs and boat fees. A buggy seats four people, which is perfect for a family adventure! Normally, tours leave from Natal at 9 a.m. and return at around 3 p.m.
Beaches, beaches, beaches
Located near shops, bars and restaurants, Ponta Negra makes for the most popular beach among tourists and deep-pocketed locals. In the 1800s, the beach used to be a home for fishermen, yet when the tourism industry launched in the early 1990s, the 2.5-mile long area evolved into a hot spot. The biggest draw is Morro do Careca, the tallest sand dune in Natal and one of the city's most iconic landmarks.
Want to witness a Guinness World Record? On Pirangi Beach, you can visit the biggest cashew tree in the world, which is over 100-years-old and covers an area of more than 2 acres. From December to February, you can taste the cashews. Other than that, the beach offers calm waves with plenty of sandy spots to hang out and relax.
Redinha is protected by reefs, so the waves are small. On the beach, you'll be quick to spot barracas offering food and drink, while several kiosks sell fried fish and cold beer. It's a fun and relaxing day trip for the family, especially since it's located close to one of the largest aquariums in Brazil, the Aquarium Natal.
Genipabu, Pipa and Baia Formosa are few other magnificent beaches within the city.
To experience an authentic Brazilian steakhouse, Sal e Brasa is the end-all be-all. Though it serves breakfast and lunch, the emphasis is on dinner. With waiters coming around incessantly with sirloins, chicken wrapped in bacon and pork roast, meat-eaters have nothing to do but sit and indulge. Rest assured, there is no service quite like Brazilian steakhouse service.
As far as crowd favorites goes, Camaroes Restaurante takes first place. Everyone comes for the shrimp and leaves feeling far from skimped. The portions are enormous for the price. Started in 1989 with only 12 tables, Camaroes now hosts nearly 3,000 people everyday for lunch and dinner between the three locations.
Mangai makes for a scrumptious brunch spot. The menu is huge, so even picky eaters can find something they like. The roasted corned beef and cream is a particular hit, as is the two baiao, which is a typical dish from the northeastern backlands with rice, vegetables and beef jerky. Don't forget to save room for dessert, because the chocolate quenga served with caramelized banana and ice cream will have you drooling.