Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times
Bottles of cachaça, or sugar cane liquor, line the walls at another bar.
Its international anonymity was born of no coastline and thus no beaches, no famous Carnival and thus no February madness, and no big attractions save a few buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer that pale next to his famous works in Brasília.
But Beagá, the city’s nickname (from the pronunciation of its initials in Portuguese), does have a claim to fame: as the bar capital of Brazil. Not bars as in slick hotel lounges or boozy meat markets, but bars as in botecos, informal sit-down spots where multiple generations socialize, drink beer and often have an informal meal. If you believe the local bluster, there are 12,000 bars in the city, more per capita than anywhere else in the country. Why, no one is completely sure, but one theory has turned into a popular saying: “Não tem mares, tem bares.” Loosely: “There are no seas, thus there are bars.”
And though tourist guidebooks barely make mention of them, they make for a great way for travelers to dive into the social life of a city whose metropolitan area has exploded in recent decades to over five million inhabitants. The best time to come is for the eighth annual Comida di Buteco competition in April, when some 40 of the top bars square off in categories like hygiene, beer frigidity, service and most importantly, best tira-gosto — or appetizer. Winners are decided not just by judges but by public ballot, giving Belo-Horizontinos a flimsy excuse to go out every night for a month.
If you miss it, don’t worry. Every night of the year seems to have something of a party feel in this off-the-radar screen hot spot. Get your feet wet at Mercearia Lili (Rua São João Evangelista, 696, Santo Antônio, 55-31-3296-1951), a regular participant in Comida di Buteco. It is one bar of many in Santo Antônio, an upscale neighborhood of steep hills that require superhuman parallel parking skills or, preferably, use of the city’s metered taxis.