Natal, a breezy beach city with vast blue skies and bright sun 1,220 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro, has much of the small-town feel common in the surrounding rural regions.
Where you’ll see soccer: The U.S. takes on Ghana on June 16 at the newly constructed Arena das Dunas in Natal, a towering homage to sea, sun and sand. FIFA is putting up a giant screen at Praia do Forte north of the tourist areas and stadium. In a calm city light on night life and heavy on fresh air, this is probably the best place to take in the action for those without tickets.
What to do: Natal has become a regional tourist hub for Brazilians and Europeans alike, and the action takes place around the sand and the sea. The beach in the Ponta Negra neighborhood is the go-to place near the city, where the water is warm and calm enough for anyone to take a dip. There’s also enough of a beach break so that sportier visitors can bodysurf or rent a surfboard and try their luck. Lounge all day and try the shrimp, crepes or caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail, sold by beach vendors.
Almost everyone in Natal, including those raised there, will take a dune-buggy journey over the dunes, which resemble a prettier version of the Sahara, and across lagoons on rafts powered by men with poles, to reach various beaches north of the city. Or you can take a buggy or 4x4 to the beaches to the south, on a journey that should include views of dolphins in their natural habitat and a stop at the now-buzzing beach Praia da Pipa.
One big, reliable and well-liked company for all of the above is Natal Vans (www.natalvans.com.br).
For culture and history, locals head to the small downtown to take in the offerings at the Pinacoteca Museum, housed in the former governor’s mansion.
Where to eat: The nickname for someone from Rio Grande do Norte, the state in which Natal is located, is “Potiguar,” an indigenous word for “shrimp-eater,” so it’s no surprise that the favorite local eatery specializes in the tasty little crustaceans. The aptly named Camarões Potiguar has two locations in Ponta Negra (www.camaroes.com.br) and serves family-size helpings of shrimp each night. It does its best by using traditional local ingredients, such as an appetizer made with vatapá, a paste made with coconuts and nuts; escondinho de carne seca, featuring dried beef; and Camarões Jerimum, a shrimp dish with a sauce made with local pumpkins and cashews.
For a wide selection of traditional dishes from the nearby rough-and tumble countryside, head to Mangai (3300 Avenida Amintas Barros; 011-55-84-3206-3344, www.mangai.com.br/site) for the buffet, which features fried macaxeira (yuca), chicken hearts, various types of beef and shrimp and buchada de bode, accurately described as containing “goat guts, liver and blood.” The restaurant is big — and a big local favorite — with a bit of a funhouse feel.
For a more relaxed meal, head to the cool patio at the Manary Praia Hotel (9067 Rua Francisco Gurgel; 011-55-84-3204-2900, manary.com.br) for northeast Brazilian classics such as pastéis, fried dough stuffed with shrimp, cheese and sun-dried beef, or the beloved moqueca, a shrimp and fish stew.
Where to stay: Tourists and Brazilian newcomers all seek a spot in Ponta Negra, with the best infrastructure on a pleasant beach. There are a number of big-name full-service hotels, but I got lucky on www.booking.com (a good resource in Brazil) with Ponta do Mar (2056 Rua Skal; 011-55-84-3236-2008, hotelpontadomar.com.br), an adequate beach bungalow with pool and air conditioning for less than $50 a night. Prices will be much higher during the World Cup.
Important to know: Despite Natal’s natural beauty and potential as major tourist attraction, it still walks and talks like a small town. People are even more open and friendly than most Brazilians. Public transportation is nonexistent. If you rent a car, stick to well-known brands or local favorite Localiza.