South America’s largest country is hosting the world’s most popular game. The last World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010, attracted over 3.2 billion viewers—that’s over 45% of the world’s population. Now all eyes are on Brazil, the Portuguese-speaking mammoth of a country that has won the World Cup more than any other team. Its most recent victory was in 2002.
Brazil is the world’s fifth most populated country with a landmass larger than the continental United States. From a jungle so wild that it houses entire civilizations hidden away from modern man, to the roaring beach parties in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is bountiful with diversity.
In 2014, 32 teams will play in 12 cities across Brazil. Here’s what you need to know:
Welcome to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest city. Sao Paulo isn’t the most beautiful metropolis, but with a bit of effort you’ll uncover a thriving art scene, gastronomic delights, and a nightlife that lasts well past dawn. As Brazil’s financial capital, there are plenty of high-end facilities and accommodations.
World Cup: It all starts here. Sao Paulo will host the inaugural game of the 2014 World Cup and a semi-final, in addition to three group matches. The Arena de Itaquera stadium is nearly complete. It will have built-in seating for 48,000 and will contain 20,000 temporary seating to meet FIFA capacity requirements.
After the game: Sao Paulo is a massive metropolis filled with typical upscale urban attractions: museums, fine dining, and interesting architecture.
Though you’ve likely never heard of it, Curitiba is rated one of the best places to live in Brazil. With an effective local government committed to effective infrastructure and environmental awareness, Curitiba is a pleasant place. It isn’t, however, particularly interesting.
World Cup: Arena da Baixada was renovated in 1999, but its origins go back much further. First built in 1914, the stadium has undergone numerous phases throughout the past decade. It’s only fitting that in 2014 Arena da Baixada, now often called Brazil’s most modern stadium, will have a role in World Cup.
After the game: In the city you can visit the botanical gardens and colonial Largo de Ordem. Take a short bus ride to Vila Velha, a park with interesting rock formations and craters. Head toward the ocean and you can visit the rustic island Ilha do Mel. Got more time to spare? Take a 10 hour bus ride or a short flight to Iguazu Falls.
Brazil’s third largest metropolis, Belo Horizonte mixes cosmopolitan flair with traditional market stalls. Belo Horizonte is located in Minas Gerais, an area known for its tucked away colonial towns. It is inland, with Rio de Janeiro to the south and Salvador to the north. Locals call their city Bay-Agah (the Portuguese acronym for BH).
World Cup: There’s a long of history of football in Belo Horizonte. Its stadium, Estadio Mineirao, has been around since 1965 and holds 64,000 spectators. The entire complex was renovated in preparation for its upcoming five World Cup games and one semi-final.
After the game: In addition to numerous museums, the Municipal Park is particularly pleasant. Outside of town are several caves worth exploring. Just two hours away is the popular colonial town Ouro Preto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located in northeastern Brazil, right above the country’s eastern-most point jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, Natal is all about the beach life. Surrounded by sand dunes, the city proudly bears the nickname Sun City for it tropical weather and 300 annual days of sun.
World Cup: The Machadão stadium is a historic host to lively football matches. But to welcome a World Cup game, it had to be bigger. Torn down and rebuilt as the Arena das Dunas, the new stadium will hold 45,000 people.
After the game: Slather on some sunscreen and hit the sand. Praia do Meio is a good beach if you like your sun with libations. To the south, Ponta Negra has a more laid back vibe. Buggy rides across the surrounding sand dunes are a must.
If you looked at a map, we’d forgive you if you mistook Fortaleza for a lonely outpost. In reality, Fortaleza is a thriving city, mixing urban attractions and lovely beach landscape almost as well as Rio de Janerio.
World Cup: The Castelao stadium has been around since 1973 but was recently renovated to meet World Cup requirements. It now holds nearly 64,000 people and will host four group matches, a fourth round, and a quarter-final
After the game: Enjoy the city offerings, making a stop at the cultural center and then the center of tourism. Hit the city beaches for the party scene and then head to the outskirts. A lovely expanse of sand stretches to both the north and south. Praia do Futuro is popular for watersports, while to the north Cumbuco is clean and has additional sport options. Dune buggy rides are popular.
If you’ve always wanted to visit the Amazon, now’s your chance. Manaus is first and foremost an Amazonian city. But don’t expect slow moving backwaters; Manaus is a major port for river and ocean traffic.
World Cup: Arena da Amazônia is still in construction and slated to hold 44,000 fans when finished. Despite some unpleasant talk that the stadium will be used as a jail after the World Cup, the building today has some nifty features, such as a rainwater collection system that will water the field and flush the toilets.
After the game: In town you have the visit the Teatro Amazonas, an oddly placed opera house built in 1896 during the rubber boom. You’ll of course want to head out into the surrounding jungle, perhaps even catch a cruise. Nearby is a natural phenomenon called Meeting of the Waters, which is just what it sounds likes: Darker colored water coming from Rio Negro meets the lighter water of Rio Solimoes and for several miles the two shades flow side by side before eventually mixing.
Clinging to civilization, Cuiaba sits on the edge of the southern Amazon. Built thanks to a gold boom, Cuiaba is located in the geographic center of South America. Most outsiders visit due to its great location as a launching point for excursions into Brazil’s varied landscape, including the savanna, the Pantanal wetlands, and the Amazon.
World Cup: Cuiaba isn’t exactly Brazil’s soccer hotspot. The new stadium, Arena Pantanal, cost a pretty penny, and critics claim it was a waste. Regardless, it will host four World Cup matches and hold up to 43,000 visitors. There are plans to reduce its capacity after the tournament.
After the game: Spend your time wisely – skip the city tour and head off into the Pantanal, a massive wetland ideal for wildlife watching. The National Park Chapada dos Guimaraes is another option. Here you’ll find swimming holes, waterfalls, and caves to explore.
Welcome to Brazil’s capital. What? You didn’t know this was the capital city? You’re not alone. Rio has the glamor and Sao Paulo has the cash, but Brasilia is the inland heart of this South American giant. The city sprang from nearly nothing in the 1950s and after three years of construction was named the capital city (before that Rio had the honor).
World Cup: Newly built for the World Cup, Estádio Nacional hosted the Confederations Cup earlier this year and can hold over 71,000 spectators.
After the game: Brasilia is the only city built in the 20th century to be named a UNESCO site, so take some time to stroll about and see what all the hype is about. There’s some extraordinary architecture on display in Brasilia’s clean, formulaic layout,
It may be a sea-side city, but we wouldn’t recommend going in the water. Recife is a thriving urban center with coastline to match. However, if you want to be one with the people, head to Boa Viage, an extremely popular gathering place. The city sprawls over a collection of islands and peninsulas, so expect to spend a decent amount of time on bridges.
World Cup: More a complex than a stadium, Pernambuco was finished in May after over two years of construction. It seats 46,000 and houses to a university and solar power plant.
After the game: Explore some of the city’s narrow side streets for a sample of the wild nightlight. Then leave for the quieter city of Olinda, just a few miles north. Olinda is one of Brazil’s best preserved colonial cities. It has a vibrant art scene with a historic center rolling across several picturesque hills.
Southern Brazil’s dominate city, Puerto Alegre is a wealthy place with a high quality of life and high literacy rate. It’s also the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, the country’s southernmost state with a distinctive personality. This is home of gaucho culture, chimarrao, and churrasco.
World Cup: Jose Pinheiro Borda was originally built in 1969 with the help of eager fans. It’s still under renovation for the World Cup. It will host five games and hold 52,000 fans when finished.
After the game: Porto Alegre may have more in common with nearby Argentina and Uruguay than the rest of Brazil. Here a cowboy culture reigns dominate; you’ll want to leave the well-manicured city streets (which do have an interesting urban art scene) to see it at its best. The area was settled by European immigrant, so as you wander the Serra Gaucha you’re sure to stumble upon towns inspired by the Swiss, Germans, or Italians.
All Around Greats
Rio de Janeiro
Ah, Rio. Brazil. There is little not to love about this dynamic city. Home to the infamous Carnival, the city is sure to be packed during the World Cup. What would be traffic and oppressive crowds in other cities will inevitably be transformed by Rio de Janeiro into a massive street party.
World Cup: Rio is home is the most famous soccer stadium in Brail: Maracanã. Built to host the world cup in 1950, locals hope for better luck this time around—last time Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in the final. In 2014, the final game will once again be played in the Maracanã, along with six other matches.
After the game: Where do we start? Rio is home to some of Brazil’s most iconic landmarks, mainly Christ the Redeemer statue and the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain. Crowds are certain to be massive during the World Cup, so you’ll probably want to visit early in the morning while everyone else is still asleep. Jardim Botânico is the place to head if you’re looking for some greenery and natural escape. Thrill seekers can book hang gliding excursions, and the beaches are always a happening location. To truly enjoy Brazil’s beaches, head north to Buzios or south toward Paraty.
Incredibly vibrant and bursting with Afro-Brazilian soul, Salvador is one of Brazil’s most exciting cities. Located along the coast right below the country’s jut out into the Atlantic Ocean, Salvador was Brazil’s first capital city. A bit rough around the edges, Salvador mixes street smarts, urban culture, and beautiful beaches into one compelling packages.
World Cup: Fonte Nova was recently finished, and despite some setbacks—like the roof almost caving in after a rainstorm—is ready to host six World Cup games.
After the game: There’s a lot to keep you occupied. Explore the renovated UNESCO site Pelourinho, a series of twisting roads and colorful colonial buildings. Embrace the darker side and party all night at Rio Vermelho. Or, alternatively, chill out at the beach. City beaches are nice, but to really be wowed take an hour trip outside of the city.