When you think Brazil, the images that come to mind are of the beautiful beaches, breathtaking nature, wild fauna and flora, tropical fruits and of course, the colorful carnival.
Brazil is more than that, however. Its historical towns and sites offer a glimpse into the country’s rich colonial Portuguese heritage, taking you back in time. Many of these towns are “off the beaten path”, which make them even more attractive for those tourists looking for something more than just nice beaches and carnival.
Ouro Preto, Sao Joao Del Rey, Diamantina, Mariana, Tiradentes and Congonhas, all located in Minas Gerais state, are known collectively as ‘historical towns of Minas’, and constitute one of the most stunning examples of baroque architecture in the Americas. Dating back to the diamond and gold rush of the early 1800s, it brought thousands of fortune seekers to the hills and mountains of Minas Gerais. Eventually the gold and diamond mines dried up, but the grandiose palaces, sumptuous gold-doused churches and cobblestoned streets remained intact to this day.
At the heritage site of Pelourinho, located in the city centre of Salvador, you can experience a truly Brazilian way of life. Surrounded by its baroque and well preserved 15ths and 16ths century buildings, festive displays of capoeira (a type of martial arts developed by African slaves) are shown, as well as other folkloric attractions, typical food and drink stalls, musical shows and religious celebrations. Still in Bahia, Porto Seguro was the first site discovered by the Portuguese when they arrived in Brazil in the 1500s. Nowadays, the city is also known for its vibrant nightlife scene, and it offers a massive street party during carnival season.
Olinda and Sao Luis are fine examples of baroque towns. In Olinda was founded the first sugar mill in Brazil, when indigenous people still inhabited the area. The city was burned by the Dutch in the early 1500s and only one century later the Portuguese went back to power. Sao Luis, founded by the French in the late 17th century and occupied by the Dutch before coming under Portuguese rule, has preserved its original rectangular street plan. An exceptional number of fine historic buildings have survived, making this an outstanding example of colonial town.
Nestle among two rivers, Paraty is famous for its cultural scene and architecture. Best explored by foot, its town centre is free of cars. Mysterious masonry symbols decorate its housing and churches walls, leading your imagination to the country’s old times. Petropolis was founded by the Emperor Dom Pedro II, hence the name. Located in the mountain area of Rio de Janeiro state, about 2 hours from the city of Rio, it is still called the Imperial City. There you can visit the Crystal Palace, famous for its glass walls, the Imperial Palace and the Palacio Quitandinha, built in the mid-1900s and once the biggest casino in Latin America. A former luxury resort, it hosted famous international guests, like Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, Lana Turner, Henry Fonda, Maurice Chevalier, Greta Garbo, Carmen Miranda, Walt Disney, Bing Crosby, Eva Peron and King Carol of Romania, among many others.
It is always possible to combine one or more of these cities with more popular destinations in Brazil, so if you would like to immerse yourself in the real Brazilian history and culture, make sure to set aside 3 or 4 days on your itinerary to visit one or more of these architectural gems.