While Fortaleza  has retained little of its history, the small heart of the city, Centro, is teeming with life. Despite the heavy traffic and numerous sidewalk vendors, it is an interesting place to explore. Its small size and grid-plan layout make it easy to walk around. The area is safe during the day, but keep your eye on your belongings in case of pickpockets.
A perfect starting point for exploring Centro is at the waterfront, where you can gaze upon the Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora de Assunção (Av. Alberto Nepomuceno, Centro, tel. 85/3255-1600, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. daily). This massive bleached fortress (now occupied by the army) is not the original 17th-century edifice built by the Dutch, but a reconstruction dating back to 1812.
Opposite the fortress are the rather gloomy neo-gothic cathedral and the Mercado Central (Av. Alberto Nepomuceno 199, Centro, tel. 85/3454-8586, 7:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat., 8 a.m.–noon Sun.). Despite its bland, modern exterior, the market is a fascinating place to wander around and check out the local merchandise.
Fortaleza’s most interesting museum is the Museu do Ceará (Rua São Paulo 51, Centro, tel. 85/3101-2611, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2). Housed in an impressive neoclassical building, the collection relies on diverse artifacts—including furniture, clothing, fossils and literatura de cordel (traditional northeastern folk tales that are illustrated with woodcuts and printed on cheap folio paper)—to evoke Ceará ’s rich history and culture.
Particularly moving is the display dedicated to four fishermen who, in 1941, sailed by jangada from Fortaleza  to Rio de Janeiro  with the mission of bringing Ceará’s poverty to the attention of Getúlio Vargas’s government. Their epic journey was captured beautifully on celluloid by Orson Welles, who filmed it as part of his 1942 must-see documentary, It’s All True.
Rua São Paulo also leads onto the highly animated Praça José de Alencar, which is dominated by what is easily the city’s most stunning edifice. Named in honor of Ceará ’s most renowned poet and novelist, the early 20th-century Theatro José de Alencar (Praça José Alencar, Centro, tel. 85/3101-2583, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8–11:30 a.m. Sat., R$4) mixes a delicate neoclassical cast iron structure (shipped over piece by piece from Scotland) with art nouveau stained-glass windows in rich jewel tones. Tropical embellishment is provided by the surrounding gardens designed by Burle Marx. Every 17th day of the month, the theater commemorates its inauguration with free performances. If you can’t take in a performance, it’s worthwhile taking the guided tour.
A few blocks north towards the sea, the Centro do Turismo (Rua Senador Pompeu 350, Centro, tel. 85/3101-5508, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–noon Sun.) is a former prison whose former cells are now occupied by vendors selling Cearense art and handicrafts. Before inspecting the wares, check out the really fine collection of traditional artesanato on display at the small Museu de Arte e Cultura Popular (8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–11 p.m. Sun.). Also on exhibit are modern pieces by local artists who have drawn on the region’s rich artistic traditions for inspiration, often in strikingly unusual ways. The prisoners’ former exercise yard now houses a pleasantly shady café.
Two blocks east of the market, in the neighborhood of Iracema, is the Centro Dragão do Mar de Arte e Cultura (Rua Dragão do Mar 81, Iracema, tel. 85/3488-8600, www.dragaodomar.org.br , museums open 2–9 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2), a striking contemporary complex of steel and glass that harmonizes nicely with the restored historic buildings surrounding it. “Dragão do Mar” (Dragon of the Sea) was the nickname of Francisco José do Nascimento, a courageous sailor who became an abolitionist hero in the 1880s when he refused to transport slaves in his jangada. The cultural center named in his honor is a wonderful oasis and a major gathering point for Fortalezenses.
Day and night, there is always something going on here, and the more laid-back, untouristy scene provides a welcome contrast to the hype of Iracema. Aside from gallery spaces, you’ll find cinemas, a theater, a bookshop, a handicrafts boutique, a planetarium, and a scenic café that serves the best organic espresso in town. The Centro Dragão do Mar also houses two museums. The Museu de Arte Contemporânea do Ceará exhibits contemporary works by Brazilian and international artists while the Memorial da Cultura Cearense displays regional folk art.