Natal is the Portuguese word for Christmas, which marks the date of the founding of the city in 1597. Initially the Portuguese colonialists hadn't shown much interest in the area, as its soil wasn't suited to agriculture like the soil in Pernambuco to the north. However, the French began trading with the natives, which prompted the Portuguese to build a fort to protect their territory. The settlement was founded at the mouth of the River Potenji, and Natal grew into a small, but reasonably prosperous port and fishing town.

During World War 2, American forces occupied the city and used it as a staging post for the campaign in North West Africa. This influx of GI�s meant that Natal was among the first Brazilian cities to be culturally influenced by North America.

Natal's main industry is now tourism, which comes primarily from other Brazilians, Portuguese and Italians. The area's climate is ideal for a beach town, with temperatures never going below 24 degrees Celsius, even in winter. There is some rainfall between June and August, but it is a negligible amount.

The city has a population of 700,000 (roughly that of Leeds in the UK) which makes it the smallest state capital in Brazil. It is also one of the safest cities, and violent crime is rare, although obviously not unheard of. Police are common, as the city is aware of the importance of its reputation for safety as an attraction for tourists.


The Forte des Reis Magos is the main historical site in Natal. It is the city's oldest building, and was built by the Portuguese when they arrived in 1598. It is built in white stone in a typical five-sided star configuration. When the Portuguese invaded NE Brazil in the 17th century, this fortress became one of their strongholds, and it was the site of a ferocious battle as the Portuguese attempted to reclaim the territory.

The fort is on Praia Forte, which used to be one of the most upmarket areas of Natal. Its status has dwindled in favour of Via Costeria further to the south, which now contains the majority of the city's luxury hotels. However, the beaches are still popular with locals, and you can find good quality accommodation at a budget price.

Ponto Negra is the main tourist area in Natal. It contains most of the city's hotels, restaurants and amenities for travellers. It's 4km beach is the main reason many people come to the city. The beach is clean and beautiful, with white sands and clear inviting waters. The beach is backed by the impressive hill of Moro de Caraca, Natal's most prominent landmark. Climbing the hill is against the city regulations, but this rule is commonly flouted with no consequence.

The largest [ Cashew tree] in the world is in Pirangi do Norte, a short distance from Natal. A fisherman planted the tree in 1888, and it has grown to an incredible circumference of 500m. The tree is unique because when it grows new branches, these get so heavy that they bend to the ground. Instead of dying like most branches would, they grow roots, so it actually seems like the tree has lots of trunks. Entrance to the park is R$2, which covers a short talk from a guide, a trip to the observation tower, and free reign to pick some of the 80,000 cashew nuts the tree grows every year.


There are several arts and crafts markets (Feira in Portuguese) in Natal that are excellent places to shop for souvenirs. Vilarte is a permanent market on Avenida Roberto Freire. There are about 30 stalls selling traditional clay, glass and wooden crafts. Prices are very reasonable if you are willing to haggle a little.

On Rua Aderbal de Figueiredo, there is Tourism Centro, which is more of a souvenir shop complex than a tourist office. There are several shops selling good quality local produce, although you may pay slightly more here than in the other markets in town. This is where most tour companies bring their coaches for a shopping trip. On Thursday nights, there is an exhibition of local folklore for the benefit of tourists, which provides some fascinating insights into the way of life for the people of NE Brazil.

[ Natal Shopping Centre] offers an alternative to shopping in traditional open-air markets. The complex is fairly small, with only 100 shops (20 of which are restaurants). There are a few chain stores among them, including the only MacDonalds in Natal, but many of the clothes and book stores are independent. There is also an exhibition area, which usually contains some kind of cultural event.

Nightlife and Eating Out

Natal's cuisine is dominated by the seafood harvested from the fertile Atlantic Ocean. The city is a leading exporter of shark meat to Japan, and you will find shark steaks with garnishes in many of the city's restaurants. There is also a selection of the Churascuro restaurants that seem to be ubiquitous in Brazil. You pay a set price for all you can seat, fill your plate with salad from the buffet, then wait for the waiters to bring round skewers of various kinds of barbecued meats.

Pont Negra is the place that tourists tend to congregate in an evening. It is surrounded by bars and restaurants. They will stay open for as long as they have customers, playing traditional samba music. Close by on Praia dos Artistas (the artists beach) is Chaplin, the most popular club in Natal. It has 4 different rooms of music and two different bars.

Tourist Information

  • Centro de Turismo, Rua Aderbal de Figueiredo 980, Natal
  • 084/211-6149
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The city is served by Augusto Severo International Airport. Although technically you can fly directly to and from Europe with this airport, it is more likely that you will fly to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, and then get a domestic flight up to Natal.

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