A recent survey of readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine asked what they thought were the world’s most and least friendly cities. While the U.S. and Ireland tied for the most cities in the friendly top 20, the overall winner was Florianópolis, a beautiful seaside city on the southern coast of Brazil.
Brazil is largely a mystery to most travelers. When they think of it, they have visions of scantily-clad cariocas on Copacabana Beach or riotous crowds during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro and overlook the rest of the country. But Brazil is much more than Rio.
As the largest and most populous country in South America, Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest nation and covers a larger land area than the 48 contiguous U.S. states. Its 194 million residents rank it as the fifth most populous country. It has sixteen cities of over a million and São Paulo’s population of 11.3 million (19 million metro) make it the world’s seventh largest city, roughly the same size as New York and Mexico City.
A country of that size is bound to have its hidden gems, and Florianopolis ranks high among them. Located on the Atlantic coast about midway between São Paulo and Porto Alegre, Florianopolis straddles a narrow strait between the mainland and Santa Catarina Island. It was settled in the late 1600s by migrants from São Paulo and later from large numbers from the Portuguese colony of The Azores. The Azorean influence remains strong to this day with fishing villages and textile makers dotted along its coast.
Probably best known for its beaches, Florianopolis has over 100 in eight geographical groups: Northern, Eastern, Southern, Northeast Bay, Southern Bay, Continental, Island, and Lagoons. The northern beaches are sheltered, calm, and tranquil. The eastern beaches catch big Atlantic waves and are considered to have some of the world’s best surfing. Each beach tends to have its own personality and attracts people that match.
Brava beach is popular with surfers; Mole is great for people-watching amidst the usual crowds. Its talcum-like sand and world-class waves draw both surfers and sunners along with general fun-seekers who pack its beachfront bars.
Waterside activities are abundant. You can paraglide at Barra da Lagoa and Lagoa da Conceição, scuba dive at Praia Mole, Praia do Santinho, or Praia dos Ingleses, and sandboard (the tropical equivalent of snowboarding) at Joaquina.
Surfers gravitate to Barra da Lagoa, Praia da Joaquina, Praia Mole, and Matadeiro, and there’s windsurfing at Lagoa da Conceição. For a more laid-back day, go trekking at Lagoa do Peri, Naufragados, Lagoinha do Leste, or Costa da Lagoa.
The northern end of the island is most popular with tourists, and party headquarters are at
Jurerê Internacional, a jet-set resort where flashy cars, flashy clothes, and flashy people gather around the Praia Café, a see-and-be-seen nightspot where the parties extend till sunrise. Parador 12 and Pacha also attract the smart set to their luxuries, including a club that accommodates 3,500 revelers and a 15,000-seat outdoor concert venue.
For a more laid-back vibe, the inland town of Lagoa da Conceição is full of colonial charm and has become a favorite of the artsy crowd.
The center of Florianopolis is where you’ll see the largest concentration of colonial architecture. It’s where the old churches and museums are as well as the Public Market, which has been selling food and local crafts since its founding in 1898.
The city is home to over 100 galleries and museums that showcase everything from pre-Colombian and colonial artifacts to the Torture Museum, a quaint little spot across from the Shipwreck Museum that has historic devices designed for purposes ranging from extracting religious conversion to tethering quarreling spouses until they resolved their differences…one way or another. Many of these sites are on or near the Praça XV de Novembro, a park near the Metropolitan Cathedral in central Florianopolis that commemorates the date Brazil declared itself and independent republic in 1822. A short walk to the northwest is the Hercilio Luz Bridge, built in 1926 to link the island and mainland and the city’s most famous landmark. It was closed to traffic in 1991, but is maintained as a historic landmark. The double spans known as the Colombo Sales and Pedro Ivo Bridges carry traffic across now, a short way south of the old bridge.
On the island’s southern end about 25 miles from the centro, Ribeirão da Ilha is a place to escape the tourist crowds and see the historic settlement of the Azorean immigrants. Its center has a plaza that contains the Church of Nossa Senhora da Lapa do Ribeirão and the Ethnological Museum with documents and relics from the area’s Azorean past.
Santa Catarina Island is also home to several forts constructed in the mid-1700s to protect it from attacks by the Spanish, Portugal’s principal colonial rival for South American territory.
Shoppers aren’t neglected in Florianopolis, either. Several modern malls have world-class stores and multiplex cinemas if you need a familiar touch of home. Shopping Beiramar in Central Florianopolis has about 200 shops to tempt you, and Iguatemi Florianopolis, west of the center in Bairro Santa Mônica matches it with 200 more stores and seven movie screens with stadium seating.
Across the bridge in São José, a ten-minute drive takes you to 180 shops and 7 movie screens. A few miles north of the city center on Highway 401, Floripa Shopping is a new center with 160 businesses and 8 movie screens.
You won’t go hungry in Florianopolis. The coastal city and its resorts are chock full of great places for fresh seafood and tropical fruit. Portuguese and Azorean dishes abound and are a welcome diversion from overly familiar European and Latin menus. Italian, German, and Polish immigrants have also added the welcome flavors of their ethnic cuisine to your dining choices. In central Florianopolis you can find “per kilo” buffets where you can mingle with locals and dine on very good food including salads and fresh fruit accompanied by fresh juices for around $6.00 US.
With so many places to explore and things to do, you will find it most convenient to have a car. There are car rentals on the island and at the airport. Renting can be fairly expensive (up to $50 US per day, depending on options), but it makes touring the city and its sights much easier. Streets and highways are well maintained, but traffic can be heavy, especially between the city center and the resort areas, a trip that can take up to two hours on busy weekends.
Florianopolis’ subtropical climate is nearly ideal. Summertime highs run to the mid-80s F and only drop to around 70 at night (remember, you’re in the Southern Hemisphere—midsummer is in January). Winter weather swings from 70 degrees in the day to the 50s overnight. Rainfall is relatively even throughout the year, averaging about 7 inches per month in the summer to 4-5 inches in winter, sometimes carried in by strong Antarctic winds from the south.
Hercilio Luz International Airport serves Florianopolis and Santa Catarina Island. It’s located about 8 miles south of the central city and is served by both taxis and bus lines. There are few flights to points outside Brazil, so if you’re traveling internationally, you will normally connect through Rio or São Paulo. One word of caution—be sure your connection to Florianopolis leaves from the same airport you arrive at. Both Rio and São Paulo have two major airports. Brazilian carrier TAM flies nonstop to Rio and São Paulo from New York and Miami as well as most major cities in Europe and Latin America. It also has alliances with 27 other carriers worldwide. Several other international airlines also serve Rio and São Paulo.
The island sports dozens of hotels ranging from clean if Spartan properties that cost as little as $50 US per night to lavish accommodations you can’t afford if you have to ask the price. Many in all price ranges are located right on the beaches and most are within a short walk or cab ride to restaurants and nightspots.
Named The Best Place to Live in Brazil by Veja magazine, Florianopolis has plenty to like. From jetsetters to backpackers, tourists are soaking up sunshine and swilling caipirinhas in increasing numbers. It may not be quite as laid-back as an eco-resort, but Florianopolis competes very favorably with better-known and considerably more expensive tropical destinations in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Plus, its people are the friendliest in the world!
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