SALVADOR, Brazil (Reuters) - Salvador, the third-largest city in Brazil, is the country's oldest metropolis, but it has a lower profile than party hot spot Rio de Janiero or the commercial nerve center Sao Paulo.
The laid-back coastal city, which lies on the All Saints Bay on the Atlantic Ocean, is the heart of Bahia, the Brazilian province know for its rich African culture.
Salvador is gearing up for an influx of sports fans, since it has been chosen as one of Brazil's 12 host cities for the FIFA World Cup in 2014. The city is also known for having some of the wildest Carnival parties.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors make the most of a short visit to the city.
9 a.m. - After breakfast at the hotel, spend the day in Salvador's historic center Pelourinho, which is on UNESCO's World Heritage list (whc.unesco.org/en/list/309). Its golden churches reflect Brazil's colonial past, when Salvador served as the capital city for more than 200 years.
In the 1950s, the city center fell into disrepair, but thanks to a resurgence partly funded by the Brazilian government, boutique hotels, hostels, gift shops, galleries, museums and restaurants have opened in the old city. Visit the boutique hotel Casa Amarelindo. The 10-room hotel has a bar with a deck overlooking the All Saints Bay. Many modern hotels are also available a cab ride away from Pelourinho in the lower city.
Noon - Try the lunch buffet at the SENAC Hotel School, which also offers cooking classes.
Some must-see sights in the old city include the Golden Church and the Afro-Brazilian Museum, which illustrates the influence of the culture on the Bahia region. The slave trade was based in Salvador because of its port. More than a million Africans passed through the city over three centuries.
The town square may look familiar from the 1995 Michael Jackson video for "They Don't Care About Us" that featured the city's famous Olodum drummers. The colorful houses and cobblestone streets make it easy to imagine what Salvador was like in colonial times.
7 p.m. - For a casual dinner, dine at one of the restaurants in Pelourinho. Mama Bahia in the old city serves authentic "moqueca" seafood stew, made with palm oil and coconut milk.
9 p.m. - A traditional one-hour dance show put on by the Bale Folclorico da Bahia Foundation in Pelourinho is an inexpensive and entertaining look at Bahian folklore and religious dances. Tuesday is the big party night in Pelourinho with outdoor concerts and bar stands. But watch your valuables at street parties when it gets dark. Sip a caipirinha drink, the classic Brazilian cocktail made with lime, sugar and a local sugarcane liquor called cachaca.
9 a.m. - After a leisurely breakfast, visit the lower city or "cidade baixa," which is connected to Pelourinho through a large elevator. Bonfim Church is the most well-known attraction.
The church, believed to have healing powers, has a special room filled with mementoes left by people who say they have been cured.
Noon - Stop for lunch and then hop in a cab from the church to the waterfront neighborhood of Ribeira to the Sorveteria da Ribeira ice cream shop (www.sorveteriadaribeira.com). A banana split will easily feed two people.
1 p.m. - Check out the "Dique do Tororo" park to see the giant statues from the local Candomble religion floating on a lake. Watch the frantic construction going on around-the-clock for the eight-nation Confederation's Cup this summer, the so-called dress rehearsal for 2014's World Cup.
The stadium, called Arena Fonte Nova, is wedged into a hill in front of a lake. The city tore down its old stadium to make way for the new one.
Watch the sun set on the bay at the Barra Lighthouse on the edge of the city.
7 p.m. - Head to Rio Vermelho, a district a few miles away on the water where restaurants and clubs light up late at night. For a more casual evening, Rio Vermelho boasts outdoor street stalls serving cachaca and local dishes.
For a more upscale evening, have dinner at modern restaurant Salvador Dali or one of the city's meat churrascarias, such as Boi Preto or the chain Fogo de Chao. The nightclub Zen has live musical acts and a sushi restaurant on the roof.
9 a.m. - Take a break from the city and head out on a schooner ship to island hop. Tour operators in the old city sell affordable tours from the port for full-day excursions that include lunch and stops at nearby islands with remote beaches such as Frades or Itaparica island.
If you have a few extra days, sail to Morro de Sao Paulo for quality beach time.
2 p.m. - After your boat tour ends, walk across the street from the port to the stalls of Mercado Modelo. The outdoor stalls hawk local crafts but the good stuff is inside the complex, where there is an amazing array of local art, clothes and trinkets for sale.
(Reporting ; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Stacey Joyce)