Natal (Christmas) is the capital and largest city of Rio Grande do Norte, a northeastern state in Brazil. As of the IBGE July 2009, the city had a total population of 950,820 (1,363,547 in its Greater Natal).
The implementation of the Via Costeira (Coastal Highway), long avenue along the shore and the dunes, was the true starting point for the beginning of tourist activity in the State in the 1980s. That is where the main hotels of the capital city, Natal, are concentrated. Natal has several tourist attractions and is famous for its natural beauty (such as the crystalline waters of Maracajaú and the largest cashew tree in the world), for its historical monuments and buildings (such as the Forte dos Reis Magos, the Alberto Maranhão Theatre and Newton Navarro bridge), for its beaches (such as Ponta Negra, Pipa and Genipabu) and also for its off-season carnival, the Carnatal. The city also boasts the second largest urban park in Brazil, the Parque das Dunas.
It is the capital of Brazil closest to Africa and Europe, and the Greater Natal International Airport connects Natal with many Brazilian cities and also operates some international flights. The city was one of the host cities of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
The northeastern tip of South America, Cape São Roque, to the north of Natal and the closest point to Europe from Latin America, was first visited by European navigators in 1501, in the 1501–1502 Portuguese expedition led by Amerigo Vespucci, who named the spot after the saint of the day. For decades thereafter, no permanent European settlement was established in the area, inhabited by the Potiguar tribe.
In 1597, after some years during which French pirates, led by Jacques Riffault, established regular commercial activities with the native population, the ninth Portuguese Governor-General of Brazil, Francisco de Sousa, ordered the expulsion of the buccaneers. The successful expedition against 50 Frenchmen and their Indian allies was led by the Captain-Major of the Captaincy of Pernambuco, Manuel de Mascarenhas Homem, with the assistance of Jerônimo de Albuquerque Maranhão.
Albuquerque Maranhão began on January 6, 1598, the construction of the Fort of the Holy Kings or of the Magi-Kings ("Forte dos Santos Reis" or "Forte dos Reis Magos"), named after the Three Wise Men, honored in the Christian feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on that day.
On December 25, 1599, Natal (whose name means Nativity or Christmas in Portuguese) was established as a village outside the fort. The fort, city, and surrounding areas were occupied by Dutch forces from 1633 to 1654. They rechristened the fort "Fort Ceulen" after one of their commanders.
The sandy soil of Natal prevented the city from becoming a producer of sugarcane, during the colonial times. For centuries, the economy of the State was based on the raising of cattle in the dry interior lands; the cattle was sent alive to the larger centers, to be used as traction, or was turned into jerked beef, to be used as food; the most typical food of Natal, "carne de sol" (sun meat), has origins in that jerked beef.
Last century, Natal benefited from the growth of the industries of salt (the north of Rio Grande do Norte is the largest producer in Brazil) and petroleum (the largest inland Brazilian reserves are in the State). Natal grew quickly, but in a somewhat planned way (compared to other major Brazilian cities); transit flows smoothly, public services are well distributed, ecologic conscience is visible; violence levels are low. Tourists (first Brazilians, more recently foreigners) discovered the city, which became one of the major tourist destinations in Brazil.
Because of its strategic position (Natal is one of the cities in Brazil nearest to Western Europe and Africa, especially Dakar, Senegal), an American air base was built in a suburb of Natal named Parnamirim during World War II as part of the so-called Operation Rainbow; this base provided support for allied troops combating in the north of Africa. Thousands of American soldiers were sent to Natal, and their presence left traces in the culture of the city.