From the southern town of Paraty to the northern city of Olinda: colonial architecture and cobblestone streets can be found all over Brazil. But nowhere is the concentration so high than in the inland state of Minas Gerais. Minas Gerais has long been known for its wealth of minerals and its mining activities, which, together with the goldrush, created huge wealth in the 18th century. The result is a mix of beautifully decorated churches, colonial houses and a peek into the country’s rich history. It is in this state that you will find the most beautiful colonial towns of Brazil!
Let’s start small, shall we? Tiradentes is the cute-as-a-button type of village. From the main square, Largo das Forras, two parallel cobbled streets lead towards Tiradentes’ most beautiful town houses and churches. Make sure you head for the Igreja Matriz de Santo Antonio, the town’s most important church. The terrace in front of the church offers a staggering view over the colonial houses and surrounding mountains!
I was there on a Monday morning when the place was pretty much deserted. It was perfect for a quiet stroll, occasionally stopping at one of the few little cafés. During the weekend the place is supposed to be very busy with people browsing through the town’s artisan shops and antique stores, so you might want to choose a different day to appreciate the colonial charm.
Tiradentes is situated in the Serra de São Jose, with the mountains offering a beautiful backdrop against the colourful, historic houses of the city centre.
Ouro Preto was Brazil’s first Unesco World Heritage site. It’s considered to be the jewel of Minas Gerais, its most magnificent and best preserved colonial gem. The place with the biggest number of churches, most of them exuberantly decorated by Aleijadinho.
But it’s not only its colonial charm that makes it worth a trip. Ouro Preto played a big role in the country’s history too. It used to be the centre of gold mining in the beginning of the 18th century and it’s from this very city that Brazil took its first steps towards independence. Nowadays the city managed to strike that perfect balance of a place where local people go about doing their daily business and a place where tourism thrives.
Ouro Preto is a lot bigger than Tiradentes, but still very manageable, although you might want to get into shape before tackling its steep streets! It’s the ideal place to spend a few days, checking out the churches’ interior (the Igreja de São Francisco Assis is a must-see!) or learning about the history of the region at the “Museu da Inconfidência”, which tells the story of the unsuccessful uprising against Portuguese colonization.
Don’t forget to check out some of the colonial houses. The Casa dos Contos, the place where gold was weighed, and/or the Casa de Tomas Antonio Gonzaga are perfect examples of the rich decoration of the 18th century.
Only 30 minutes away by bus from Ouro Preto lies the quiet little village of Mariana. You might recognize the name because of the catastrophic dam failure in 2015 that caused massive flooding and killed 19 people in the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues. Luckily Mariana was spared from this environmental nightmare.
The village of Mariana was one of Minas Gerais’ first settlements and its first capital. Just like Tiradentes, life takes place around the two main streets, connecting the main squares at each end. The Praça da Sé is home to the namesake cathedral and is a great place for people watching. A few minutes further you stumble upon Praça Gomes Freire with its cooling fountain and welcoming shade. But THE reason for visiting is the Praça Minas Gerais, where you’ll find the two main churches and the pelourinho (the name for the post where slaves were sold/whipped) . The best view of the square is from the grassy field to the right of the “Câmara Municipal”.
Don’t rush through Mariana, instead give yourself over to its relaxed pace!
If you’re hungy, head for Lua Cheia, Mariana’s best “por kilo” place. A sumptuous buffet awaits you, along with atmospheric seating inside the colonial building or even better, the patio outside.
The Pelourinho of Salvador da Bahia
The Pelourinho is not really a town as such, but if you think “colonial” in Brazil, you really can’t leave the Pelourinho out. The most famous neighbourhood of Salvador da Bahia is home to colonial architecture, capoeira schools and is the place where Africa meets Brazil. It has numerous, beautifully decorated, churches, wide-open squares and steep cobble-stoned streets. But don’t spend all your time there, venture beyond the Pelourinho to discover other aspects of this intriguing city too!
Have you been to any of these colonial towns of Brazil ? Or maybe to Olinda or Paraty? Let me know in the comments!