(CNN) — Manaus, Brazil, is a city of 1.8 million people surrounded by 2 million square miles of Amazon jungle more than 1,500 miles from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Though it doesn't get as many tourists as those two cities, Manaus is a gold mine of brightly colored architecture, riverfront views and world-class eating, minus the huge crowds.
At the turn of the 20th century, Manaus was the center of a lucrative global trade in rubber. Today, it's the gateway for thousands of tourists seeking Amazon jungle adventures at the many lodges outside the city.
Yet there's still only one road in from the more populous areas of Brazil -- a tortuous 540-mile stretch of dirt and asphalt called the BR-319, which runs from the city of Porto Velho. Most visitors arrive on daily flights from Azul, a low-cost Brazilian airline which was started in 2008 by David Neeleman, who is also the founder of JetBlue and of Brazilian descent.
What to eat and drink
The elegant but casual upstairs dining room at Caxiri is the place for gourmet takes on Amazon food classics like the beloved tambaqui river fish. Caipirinhas get a fresh kick with house-infused cachaça and even the straight-forward gin and tonic gets a jungle update with the addition of an Amazon herb that tastes vaguely of nutmeg.
In 2015, Sao Paulo native Fernando Vieira converted a UPS van into a burger truck, named it Borala, and brought it to Manaus. It was the first food truck in the city.
Vieira went on to open Villa Food Park, which offered space to about a dozen food trucks and attracted the city's tattooed set with live music and casual food (burgers dominated the offerings). When Villa Food Park closed, Vieira launched a monthly Street Food Festival which pops up around Manaus with many of the same vendors and the same vibe.
The El Caldeira Bar has occupied a cramped space near the center of town since 1961. Live bands often set up on the sidewalk outside the bar and red plastic tables and chairs spill out until half of the street is blocked. The other half is soon blocked by mobile vendors hawking freshly grilled meat.
Many consider Banzeiro Cocina Amazonica, opened in 2009 by Chef Felipe Schaedle, to be the best restaurant in Manaus and this place is currently enjoying nascent buzz as a possible new addition to the list of Latin America's Top 50 Restaurants. In 2016 the same team opened Moquem do Banzeiro, a more casual place with a serious focus on local fish cooked in live embers (the word moquem refers to cooking in this fashion).
Beer's & Beer, located in the Container Mall alongside other businesses housed in re-purposed shipping containers, offers more than 300 different beers and ciders including Manaus-made Cervejeria Rio Negro. In 2017 the owners debuted a mobile beer trailer with four taps to bring fresh beer to events around the city.
Caxiri, Rua 10 de Julio 495, +55 92 3304-8700 Beer's & Beer, Container Mall, Rua Doutor Thomas, +55 92 3084-9488
What to do
The Amazonas Theater's pink color makes it one of the most recognizable buildings in town.
Manaus' Amazonas Theater (aka Teatro Amazonas or simply The Opera House) is an opulent ode to the rubber boom of the 1800s when rubber barons and the local government had more money than they knew what to do with. Some of that windfall was used for the construction of the theater. It took 15 years to complete and includes tiles, stained glass and other elements brought from Europe. One-hour guided tours in English are available daily on the half hour and the theater presents a packed year round roster of performances from ballet to opera to the White Stripes.
You can take a boat tour to a spot where the milky waters of the Solimões River and nearly black waters of the Negro River meet and mix to create the Amazon River in an event dubbed The Meeting of the Waters. A more dramatic way to see this natural phenomenon is via a 30 minute air tour with Seaplane Tours.
Arena Amazonas, the $220 million dollar, 44,000 seat stadium which was built for the 2014 World Cup, regularly hosts matches between regional and national soccer teams. Tickets are cheap and it's a great way to check out the ethereal architecture of the structure (inspired by local woven bags) and hang out with Manauras.
It's hot in Manaus, so spending a lazy afternoon in cool, gentle tributaries of the Amazon River is a long-standing tradition.
Abare SUP & Food puts a new twist on the idea by offering stand up paddle boarding as well as swimming for guests at their floating restaurant who want to cool off between rounds of cold beers and plates of fresh food al fresco. In 2017 the owners opened the floating Abare Hostal next door. Go on a weekend for the best party atmosphere. Seaplane Tours, Avenida Coronel Teixeira 1320 in the Tropical Hotel, +55 (92) 2123-5200
Where to sleep
Manaus got its first boutique hotel in 2016 when Hotel Villa Amazonia opened just a few blocks from the city's storied Amazonas Theater. The 30 room hotel is sleek, the pool in the central courtyard is inviting and the bistro-style Fitzcarraldo restaurant is stylish and sexy with wood floors that are from the original 1800s construction.
In 2018 Manaus will get its second boutique hotel when Hotel Juma Opera opens in an opulent Belle Epoque style rubber baron's home which was built in the 1800s.
Hotel Casa Teatro is a boutique B&B with a wide range of rooms (some are tiny) right on Sao Sebastian park. The best part? The fantastic views of the Amazonas Theater from the hotel's roof.