Founded in 1535 by the Portuguese, Santos was the main gateway for millions of immigrants, many of whom came to work on the coffee plantations. After abolishing slavery, the government partnered with growers to offer free passage from Europe. Over 900,000 Italians signed up and later Chinese and Japanese joined the work force.
Today, Santos’ opulent Coffee Exchange Building houses the Museu do Café or Coffee Museum. (Rua XV de Novembro 95, website). This homage to coffee is more a cathedral than a place of business with marble pillars, patterned marble floors and stained glass doors, windows and ceiling. Circling the old auction hall are glass wall murals of the Portuguese arriving at the port and other historical scenes. Antiquated cultivating tools and photos of laborers carting heavy sacks of coffee contribute to Santos’ coffee story, starting from 1717 up to today. But for many, the café is the main attraction. Here visitors can sample coffee toffee, snacks and hot and cold coffee drinks.Brazilian plantation owners once dominated the coffee market. They set the world price of coffee until 1929 when the stock market crash and subsequent worldwide depression dried up demand. Due to years of subsidized overproduction, the price of coffee collapsed – excess coffee was destroyed by the ton – and suddenly the market was no longer controlled by the coffee barons.
Riding the Trolley
The coffee museum lies a block from the Port in the city’s historic center. As the coffee exporting capital of Brazil, Santos boasts the largest port in Latin America. Walking a block in the other direction leads to the main square and City Hall with its Louis XVI-style main hall reflecting the city’s wealth during the coffee boom.
Antique Scottish, Italian and Portuguese streetcars with an attached open air carriage tour the historic city center. The three-mile ride over cobblestone streets passes Portuguese tile houses, the Customs House and other significant buildings. Before the ride, pick up a tourist map as the conductor’s commentary is only in Portuguese. Riders can hop off and on at Monte Serrat.
Up Pops a Mountain
Smack in the middle of downtown, the 515 foot Monte Serrat has panoramic views of Santos. The easiest ascent is via the funicular, which lumbers up through trees to an old casino converted into a lookout point. The more ambitious can choose to climb the four hundred and fifteen steps. Further up sits Nossa Senhora do Monte Serrat Sanctuary, whose chapel sheltered residents from Dutch pirates in 1614. An avalanche buried the pirates who were pursuing the residents. In gratitude, the governor made Senhora de Monte Serrat the city’s patron saint.
The Carmelite Convent Church, the city’s oldest house of worship, dates from 1599. The gilded wood altars and jacaranda wood pews are early examples of Brazilian baroque. Gregorian chanting accompanies mass the second Sunday of each month. A bell tower links the convent to an 18th Century church noted for its wooden rococo altars.
Also in the city’s historic center is the Saint Anthony of Volongo Sanctuary. Slaves condemned to death used to pray before the “Patron Saint of the Hanged” in the courtyard. Inside the Sacristy is the Hanging Bell, moved here when slavery was abolished.
Wedged in by condos facing the beach, the neo-gothic Saint Anthony Basilica, Embaré, features intricately carved wood altars and sculptures of angels in illuminated wall panels.
Frescoes by Benedicto Calixto fill the city’s 21st Century Cathedral. A collection of the artist’s works also hang in the Pinacoteca Benedicto Calixto (Av. Bartolomeu de Gusmao 15, website, free admission), a white brick mansion facing the beach. The house alone is worth a visit for its early 20th Century decorations of stained glass windows and door panels, and for the ornate painted ceilings.
Wave-patterned sidewalks bring the look of Rio’s Copacabana beach to Santos. Fountains sprout amid palm and almond trees, lilies and other types of flowers forming the world’s longest beachfront garden. Bike lanes run alongside the 4.3 mile-long sandy beach. Jutting out from the shore, a municipark houses a skateboarding track and observation tower for surfing competitions.
You can find a number of small museums near the ferry dock as well as an aquarium. The Fishing Museum shows stuffed fish and model ships, the Maritime Museum displays shipwreck bounty while the Sea Museum has sponges as wells as sharks’ jaws and teeth. Schooners give tours to nearby islands or you can board a ferry to visit them.
Santos is home to Brazil’s most famous soccer player, Pelé, who played at Santos Football Club on Princess Elizabeth St. The club’s free museum exhibits clips of his games along with uniforms, trophies and other memorabilia.
Getting there: Visitors arrive by boat or from Sao Paulo by bus or taxi. It’s 63 miles from Sao Paulo’s international airport but the drive takes at least two hours due to heavy truck traffic heading to the port. Rain and fog in the mountains bordering Santos often compound the problem.
Weather: Santos has a tropical rainforest climate. In January, the temperature averages around 82’F, dropping down to 71’F in July.
Getting Around: The historical city center is compact enough to walk around. Streetcar tours pass downtown’s main attractions. Buses are one option to get from the beach to downtown. Another option are the reasonably priced taxis. Double-decker bus tours run along the beach Saturdays and Sundays in Brazil’s summer. The city’s seven canals, built as rainwater channels, double as location markers.
Currency: The Real (approximately 2R = $1 USD)
Tipping: Many restaurants in Brazil add a 10% service charge to the bill. In such cases, it’s not necessary to tip. Taxi drivers are not tipped.
Visa: Americans need a visa to enter Brazil. $160. Contact the Brazilian Consulate.
Eat & Drink
Many restaurants specialize in fresh seafood. Be aware that Brazilians are big eaters: main courses can usually feed four people.
Operating for over 90 years, Café Paulista (Praça Rui Barbosa 8) has wall tile scenes of animals and coffee farmers, adding to its old-world atmosphere. Their specialty is grilled grouper on a stick (Garoupa a Guanabara) accompanied by tomato and palm risotto. Avoid the olive, radishes and bread set on the table. The appetizers are not worth the R6 cover charged each diner.
Vista ao Mar (Av. Bartolomeu de Gusmão, 68) facing the beach specializes in seafood. Families pack the room on weekends, sharing paella and fish dishes.
At Balneário Shopping Center near the beach, the spacious food court gives diners a choice of cuisines from Greek to Japanese. A pianist entertains at night.
Where to Stay
Mercure Santos (Av. Washington Luiz 565, website) is a popular choice. Near the beach, this highrise has a rooftop pool and bar. The sixth floor nightclub stays open till early in the morning. Rooms from $140.
Parque Balneario (Avenida Dona Ana Costa 555, website), a beachside hotel, keeps guests amused with a spa, children’s club, teens’ game rooms and for adults, snooker tables and card game room. Rooftop pool. Rooms from $125 (with advance purchase).
Atlantic Golden Hotel (Rua Jorge Tibiriça 40, website), the city’s newest hotel offers compact rooms and a small rooftop. Rooms from $140 (partial view $160), breakfast included.