Snapshot: The smallest of the northeastern cities to host the 2014 World Cup, Natal is a world away from the frenzy of Recife or Salvador. But there is no better place to go for those who like to combine their football with visits to the beach. Natal is surrounded by miles of expansive white dunes, and buggy ride operators and seafood restaurants abound. The Arena das Dunas stadium was one of Brazil’s slowest World Cup construction projects, but it seems to be back on track now. The city’s two biggest teams, America and ABC, both play in Serie B. Brazilian football’s ongoing problem with violence recently raised its ugly head in the city when seven fans were shot, two fatally, after a recent ABC night game. Such violence is gang related and highly localised and hopefully won’t affect World Cup visitors.
Getting there: Major works to expand the main road to the stadium have been postponed until the 2014 World Cup has come to a close. Therefore, even though the stadium is close to the centre of the city, it is advised to leave plenty of time for your journey — up to two hours to be on the safe side. Taxis are a little more expensive than the rest of the country but are plentiful. Buses are good value but can get crowded during peak times.
Where/what to eat: Rio Grande do Norte is the largest producer of shrimp in the country, so if you enjoy seafood, then definitely have your fill. It is cheap too. Camaroes Restaurante (Av. Engenheiro Roberto Freire, 2610) and Camaroes Potiguar (Rua Pedro Fonseca Filho, 8887) are situated on the Ponta Negra beach, making for beautiful surroundings as you tuck into excellent food.
Mangai (Av. Amintas Barros, 3300) rarely fails to surprise tourists, with its extensive buffet that you pay for by weight. Dolce Vita (Rua Mossoro, 603) is a sophisticated Italian restaurant, while Douce France (Afonso Pena, 628) offers traditional French cuisine, including fine patisserie. For those seeking a meat fix, Fogo & Chama (Augusto Bezerra de Medeiros, 10) is a steak house with a great reputation, serving a number of different cuts.
Where/what to drink: As is traditional in northern Brazilian cities, caipirinhas mixed with exotic fruits are a favourite tipple with locals. In the Capim Santo neighbourhood, Real Botequim (Shopping Cidade Jardim) serves meats and cheese to complement your drinks, while Whiskritorio (Enrico Monteiro, 1851) has a great range of spirits.
In the Petropolis neighbourhood, the Choperia Petropolis (Serido, 511) is stocked with cold beer that you can drink while sitting at outside tables listening to live music. In Ponta Negra, Curva do Vento (Augusto Bezerra de Araujo, 396) provides above par pizzas and delicious stuffed potatoes.
Where to stay: The majority of the accommodations is located in three regions: Ponta Negra, Coastal Highway and Centre. Ponta Negra has more bars and restaurants while hotels are easy to come by, but keep your wits about you at night as crime has been an issue. It is sensible to take a taxi after sunset.
Area trivia: Of the city’s three teams, America are the only club to have reached the Brasileirao’s top division. They managed it in 2007 but lasted just one season.
Two-time Brazil international Richarlyson was born in Natal. Currently playing for Atletico Mineiro where he won the Copa Libertadores in 2013, he has lifted the FIFA Club World Cup and Brazilian League (twice) with Sao Paulo. In 2007, Richarlyson was involved in a legal case when a judge commented that “football was a masculine sport, not a homosexual one” after it was alleged that the midfielder was gay.
Sightseeing: The distinctive sand dunes are an obvious attraction, so be sure to enjoy the thrill of a buggy ride before unwinding on the beach; Ponta Negra, Areia Preta, Redinha and Artistas are all excellent. You should also consider a visit to the largest cashew tree in the world — covering an area of around 7,500 square meters — which is found in the district of Pirangi do Norte. The Forte dos Reis Magos (Wise Men’s Fort) will help you gain a better understanding of Natal’s history.
Estadio das Dunas opened: 2013
Matches to be played at Estadio das Dunas: Mexico vs. Cameroon (June 13), Ghana vs. USA (June 16), Japan vs. Greece (June 19), Italy vs. Uruguay (June 24).
Cost: An exact figure is uncertain, with reports ranging from 400 million reals ($180 million, 115 million pounds) to 1 billion reals ($450 million, 280 million pounds).
Stadium history: Estadio das Dunas stands on the site of the now-demolished Estadio Joao Claudio de Vasconcelos Machado, which was built in 1972 and hosted many matches between the city’s three clubs, ABC, Alecrim and America. Often referred to as the Machado, it was named after Joao Claudio Vasconcelos Machado, who was the president of the Rio Grande do Norte Football Federation and a sports broadcaster.
Stadium trivia: Estadio das Dunas’ design is intended to resemble the region’s iconic sand dunes. While its capacity for the tournament will be 42,086, that figure will be dropped by 10,000 after July 13. The stadium’s shell-like structure shields spectators from the sun but keeps the ground well ventilated by the offshore breeze.