Brazil’s greatest cities have a superstar: Rio de Janeiro. But also Salvador with the old town quarter Pelourinho and the baroque cities Ouro Preto and Olinda are not stingy with their charms.
Rio de Janeiro – Brazil’s number one among the dream cities
Rio is the absolute highlight of every South America trip. Already the landing approach to the Brazilian metropolis lets you guess that this is no ordinary city. Bordered by high granite mountains („morros“) in the hinterland, it extends to the golden sandy beaches shimmering in the sun on the bay of Guanabara and the Atlantic Ocean. Also the world-famous landmarks of Rio – the Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Corcovado with the statue of Christ – show their most beautiful side to the newcomer in good weather.
On 1 January 1502, the Portuguese navigator Gaspar de Lemos discovered the huge Guanabara Bay, which he mistook for an estuary. He gave it the name „Rio de Janeiro“ (Portuguese for „River of January“). In 1680 Rio became the capital of the southern regions of Brazil. From the beginning of the 18th century, it developed into a prosperous port city after gold was struck in the neighbouring region of Minas Gerais. Rio became even more important when the city was named the capital of the Viceroyalty of Brazil in 1763 and finally even received royal visits from Portugal: in 1808 the Portuguese court fled to Rio after Napoleon’s attack on Portugal and stayed for 14 years. After the return of the court to Portugal in 1822, Brazil became an independent empire and in 1889 a republic. Rio remained the capital until 1960, when Brasilia was forced to give up its rank.
What impresses the visitor the most is Rio’s unique location. The best view of the city is from the top of the „Pão de Açúcar“ (Sugar Loaf Mountain), the legendary 396-meter-high quartz-granite rock. The best time to go up is early in the morning or after a rain shower. That’s when the air is clearest and the visibility best. Already from the fully glazed cable car you can guess what awaits you at the top: a fantastic view of Guanabara Bay with its many white yachts, glittering beaches and the partly green hills. The Sugar Loaf Mountain was less idyllic in 1979, when dramatic scenes took place during a cable car ride: In the Bond film „Moonraker“, Roger Moore alias 007 fought the villain Jaws (Richard Kiel) at dizzying heights.
The trip to the Corcovado (Portuguese for „humpbacked“) in the tropical Tijuca National Park takes you even higher: With open arms, the statue „Cristo Redentor“ (Christ the Redeemer) welcomes the visitor at a height of 710 metres. From here, too, there is a magnificent view over Rio and the Guanabara Bay. The Brazilian musician Antônio Jobim was so fascinated by the Corcovado that he dedicated a song to it, which has since become a jazz standard.
World famous beaches
On no city tour – apart from the world-famous city beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema – the „Estádio de Maracanã“, where Pelé scored his 1,000th goal in 1969, is a must. When it opened in 1950, it had room for 200,000 spectators, making it the largest football stadium in the world. After several modernizations, its capacity has been halved, but its popularity has not suffered. In front of the stadium, even Hollywood sends its regards: footprints of elite footballers such as Pelé and Beckenbauer decorate the pavement.
The square „Praça XV de Novembro“ near the Guanabara Bay with its colonial buildings and streets is the historical centre of Rio. It was built during the gold rush in Minas Gerais in the 18th century. The elegant „Paço Imperial“ palace, built in 1743, was the first residence of the Portuguese King João VI and his court after his flight from Portugal. In 1888 the Lei Áurea („Golden Law“) was signed here, which abolished slavery in Brazil. Today the „Paço Imperial“ serves as a cultural center.
Also the modern cathedral „Catedral Metropolitana“, which looks like a volcano of concrete from the outside, is part of every city tour. Inside, its stained glass windows and the centuries-old artifacts of the Portuguese royal family are impressive. From the cathedral, one can get into a small tram that drives through steep cobblestone streets to the artists‘ quarter „Santa Teresa“.
Culture city Rio
Rio also has a lot to offer in terms of culture. The city’s largest museum, the „Museu Histórico Nacional“, is dedicated to the history of the country from the pre-Columbian period to 1889, while the „Museu Chácara do Céu“ houses works by Pablo Picasso and other modern masters. The 100-year-old municipal theatre „Teatro Municipal“, the most impressive building at the „Praça Floriano“, is home to the Rio Opera and Orchestra. As far as nightlife is concerned, everyone finds a place to have fun. Especially popular is the trendy nightlife district Lapa with good Brazilian live music, many bars and botecos (corner pubs). Here the Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio) like to relax after work with a happy hour drink.
Last but not least: the world-famous Carnival of Rio, which officially starts on Friday before Ash Wednesday. On the colourful parades of the samba schools, among others, queens, kings and princesses display their imaginative, spectacular costumes – depending on the samba school’s theme. The carnival once again shows that the Cariocas love to celebrate and enjoy life, no matter what social class they come from.
Salvador – historic city in the northeast
Founded in 1549, Salvador in northeastern Brazil was already allowed to call itself the „capital of Brazil“ – just like Rio, but only until 1763. Less praiseworthy was the port city’s ranking among the most populous metropolises in the southern hemisphere: until 1650, Salvador occupied the top position here, but only because the majority of the population consisted of African slaves who had to work on the surrounding sugar cane plantations. They were sold at the central slave market in Salvador and publicly flogged in the pillory (Portuguese: pelourinho).
Showcase old town of Pelourinho
Today the meanwhile restored old town of Pelourinho with its pastel-colored houses is no longer a place of horror but a popular tourist destination. Here, one can stroll for hours through picturesque alleys, look for souvenirs or real works of art in small shops, drink a „Cafezinho“ (espresso), watch kids playing Capoeira and take pictures until the batteries are empty. Thus, the „Terreiro de Jesus“, which was built in 1549, belongs to the most beautiful places of Pelourinho, in the church „Igreja e Convento de São Francisco“ there is a silver chandelier weighing 80 kilograms to admire, and the „Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco“ with its beautiful sandstone facade is also very photogenic.
In no case one should miss to have a look into the church „Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos“, which was built in the 18th century by slaves. In the museum „Museu Afro-Brasileiro“, which – like all of Salvador – cultivates the Afro-Brazilian traditions, the carved Candomblé gods of the artist Carybé are particularly impressive.
Memory of Jorge Amado
For those who want to relax after their walk, the charming café in the „Fundação Casa de Jorge Amado“ is the perfect place to do so: it is dedicated to the famous Brazilian writer Jorge Amado; the covers of his world-famous novels adorn the walls of the café. If you have time and desire, you can explore even more of the city from Pelourinho, which is situated on a high rock. You can either take the public bus or a taxi towards the seafront, where you can visit, for example, the Barra lighthouse and historical fortresses, or take the „Elevador Lacerda“, an over 100-year-old express elevator, from the upper to the lower town. There the market „Mercado modelo“ invites you to browse and shop.
It is best to stay in Pelourinho until the evening, because now the city really comes to life: Live bands play everywhere, drummers give you a taste of their repertoire, locals offer Bahian dishes like Acarajé at stalls, balls of bean purée and crabs fried in hot palm oil.
Nearly a week of carnival
The absolute highlight of the year is the carnival, which lasts six days and six nights. For weeks before, the grandstands for the world’s largest street carnival are already being set up and finally 19 kilometers of road are closed off for the main procession along the promenade and through the centre. Huge trucks with loudspeaker boxes and a stage for the respective music group drive at a snail’s pace through the streets, followed by dancing and singing fans. The crème de la crème of Salvador’s music scene such as the group Olodum and Daniela Mercury take part in the carnival hustle and bustle.
Ouro Preto – the „Black Gold“
This famous baroque city in the state of Minas Gerais – situated at an altitude of almost 1,180 metres – is not without reason called „Black Gold“: in the 18th century, gold surrounded by a dark layer of iron was discovered here, which triggered a huge boom. For more than 100 years the precious metal was mined on a large scale – a total of more than 1,200 tons. Even today there are still three gold mines in the area; washed gold and diamonds from the mountains of Minas Gerais are additional sources of income.
City of the Brazilian Baroque
No wonder then that in Ouro Preto and other places in the surroundings, one could afford expensive villas and baroque churches. The most famous builder and son of the town was Aleijadinho (Portuguese for „cripple“), whose real name was Antônio Francisco Lisboa and who lived from 1738 to 1814. Although he had severely crippled hands, he dedicated his whole life to sculpture. He created sculptures and reliefs in the style of the Brazilian Baroque, which earned him high recognition throughout Brazil.
Cobblestone streets, well-preserved colonial houses and beautiful churches characterize the face of Ouro Preto. One of the most fascinating baroque churches is „Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos“, which was built by African slaves. The decagonal church „Nossa Senhora do Pilar“ impresses with its extraordinary interior architecture – a composition of putti and dragons. Aleijadinho’s sole work is the church „Igreja São Francisco de Assis“. And if you want to learn more about the artist, you should visit the museum dedicated to him next to the church „Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Antônio Dias“.
The fact that so many cultural treasures have been preserved in Ouro Preto is thanks to the government of 1933: In that year they declared the whole place a national monument. In addition, the small town of almost 70,000 inhabitants has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1980.
Olinda – beautiful sister of Recife
Olinda (Portuguese for: „Oh, how beautiful“) in the northeast of Brazil is one of the oldest cities in the country. This jewel of baroque architecture has been on the World Heritage List since 1982. Beautiful colonial buildings, baroque churches, lush gardens and small chapels define the image of the city, which was founded by the Portuguese in 1535.
Unlike its big sister Recife, which is right next door, Olinda is the epitome of a picturesque artists‘ town. After Dutch occupying forces had severely destroyed the town in the middle of the 17th century and driven it out, Olinda came into being in its present form. In 1837 „the beautiful“ had to cede the rank of the capital of Pernambuco to Recife, because the latter had a better access to the sea.
Cultural center with many sights
Nevertheless, Olinda is one of the cultural centers of Brazil. The colourful street carnival has also gained fame outside the country’s borders: For one week, people celebrate, sing and dance; the whole old town is transformed into a huge stage.
One of the main attractions of Olinda is the „Convento de São Francisco“, Brazil’s oldest Franciscan convent dating from 1585, which was abandoned during the Dutch invasion and rebuilt in the 18th century. Especially beautiful: the cloister walls decorated with Portuguese tiles and the baroque furniture of the sacristy made of dark jacaranda wood.
The oldest church in northeastern Brazil, the „Igreja da Sé“, dates from 1535 and was restored to its original state in the mid-1980s after several renovations.
The „Museu de Arte Contemporâneo“ (Museum of Contemporary Art) has chosen a special place for its exhibits and changing exhibitions: The 18th century building was formerly used as a prison. In the 17th century, the slave market „Mercado da Ribeira“ was also located nearby. Today you can buy handicrafts there and watch the performances of folklore groups.