Ringed by green mountains, the sparkling bay stretches by an impossibly wide, sandy beach. It’s miles of waterfront make for an open-air fiesta of beach volleyball, bicyclists whizzing along the boardwalk, old men playing chess in shady parks and food-truck vendors hawking everything from fruit ices to sugarcane water.
Squint your eyes, and it could be Rio. But the city is actually Santos, Brazil’s Atlantic gateway to nearby Sao Paulo. Barely an hour by bus from that teeming megalopolis, Santos is a favored seaside escape for Jewish and other Paulistas (as Sao Paulo residents are called); with a lively beach scene and proximity to the Sao Paulo airport, Santos makes an ideal getaway for visitors, too.
This city of just under a half-million has a beachfront like Rio and feels like Miami. But gritty, industrial Santos doesn’t get nearly the tourism of either; as just one of dozens of spectacular beach towns along Brazil’s southern coast, Santos draws a mostly local crowd. It’s a flavorful, manageably sized slice of urban Brazil.
During this time of year, the Southern Hemisphere winter is high season, with dry, sunny days in the 70s. You can reach Santos in about an hour by bus from Sao Paulo; the city itself is divided between mainland Brazil and the island of Sao Vicente.
Santos’ commercial port is the largest in Latin America, shipping out most of the world’s sugar and coffee. The city is also the eastern terminus for the recently built Trans-Oceanic Highway, a 1,600-mile project that connects Brazil to the Peruvian Pacific coast via the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. But for all this, the tourist’s Santos is relatively small, manageable and (by Brazilian city standards) pedestrian-friendly.
As a satellite of Brazil’s largest Jewish community in Sao Paulo, Santos itself is home to some 400 Jews and two modest, blue-and-white synagogues. Both temples — Beit Sion and Bet Jacob — as well as the Brazil-Israel Cultural Center are located in prosaic neighborhoods south of the center, where the Rio Pedreira meets the Atlantic.
Jews were among the dozens of European, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrant groups to settle Sao Paulo State in recent centuries. Santa Catarina Hill, overlooking the river, is considered Santos’ birthplace; the city was founded in 1546 on this promontory, where the remains of a 16th-century hospital complex and an 1800s Italian doctor’s villa are much-visited landmarks.
Stones from Santa Catarina were excavated to pave the city streets below, and they’re still visible in the cobblestones of the 19th-century riverfront quarter. Pastel colonial-style buildings are reminiscent of Havana, a vintage feel enhanced by the rattling presence of 19th-century trams.
For a colorful look around Santos’ historic core, hop on one of the trams that depart from Valongo Station and traverse downtown Santos, where ornate neo-Renaissance buildings are century-old vestiges of Brazil’s export boom.
One of these is the Santos Coffee Museum, a pink 1922 edifice built to house the world’s central coffee and commodities exchange. Arts and culture are not the strong suits of Sao Paulo State’s 11th-largest city, and the museum is interesting chiefly for its beautiful vintage architecture; the lavish marble interior features columns, murals, stained-glass windows … and extremely tasty coffee.
One tram rumbles up the hill to Monte Serrat, Santos’ answer to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, which boasts a 360-degree vista over the glittering high-rises, the distant mountains and the water beyond. (Athletes can opt to climb 450 steps up a verdant, garden-like path to the peak.) Another tram stops near the Memorial das Conquistas dos Santos Futebol Clube, dedicated to Brazilian soccer great Pelé, a native son who played on this team for the bulk of his storied carrier.
But most of the Santos action is down by the beach, a few miles south of downtown on the southern waterfront. Locals eagerly tell you their beach garden is the longest anywhere (the Guinness Book of World Records says so); Jardim da Orla is a three-mile oasis of green lawns, towering palmettos, striking modern sculptures, fountains and monuments to Brazilian heroes.
Santos is hardly a fancy town, so eating and drinking is more a social experience than a gourmet one. In the city center, professionals mingle in coffee shops over flaky pastries and cafezinho; along the beach, open-air fish joints bustle with families in bathing suits, all enjoying the fresh sea air. Leave the culture for another vacation: In Santos, the point is to relax.