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Brazil’s historical highlights

By Martha Hales

Immerse yourself in Brazil’s fascinating past when you explore these historic highlights, each showcasing the journey that this nation has been on. There have been centuries of comings and goings in Brazil, gradually mixing Portuguese and African influences with the indigenous heritage resulting in a multifaceted and intriguing cultural landscape. Many regions in Brazil have some historic interest, but we have rounded up the most important destinations for visitors who are hoping to glance back to past centuries as they travel.

The quaint streets of Minas Gerais in Brazil

The colourful city of Salvador

Moving to a different beat to much of Brazil, Salvador wears its influences on its sleeve. As the first settlement of the Portuguese colonists, and a significant arrival port for enslaved labour from Africa, this is a place that oozes history. You can see the past all around as you explore  historic Pelourinho district’s cobbled lanes, flanked by impressive and colourful colonial buildings and churches. Allow your senses to be heightened when you come across flavours, music and culture with a distinctly African twist, echoing the city’s melting pot of culture. Combine all of this with the appealing climate, the bright traditional dress and a fantastic location above a shoreline blessed with stunning beaches - it’s hard to resist a trip to Salvador.

The colourful houses of Salvador in Brazil

Picture perfect Olinda

Sitting pretty on the northern Brazilian coast, the diminutive town of Olinda is recognised by UNESCO for its exceptionally well preserved colonial architecture, and it is the jaunty, colourful facades and murals around the town which make it so attractive. Olinda’s photogenic coastal location and its verdant parks and gardens complement the baroque churches and low rise streets which undulate across the hilly terrain. Olinda’s prosperity grew towards the end of the 16th century as it became one of the major centres for the sugarcane industry. Sugarcane was one of the pillars of the Brazilian economy for a period spanning more than 200 years, and Olinda reaped the rewards.

Pretty streets in Olinda, Brazil

Peaceful Paraty

When arriving in Paraty you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone had turned up the town’s colour saturation. Emerald hills behind, sapphire sea in front and rainbow boats bobbing in the bay all frame the dainty and oh-so-pretty port. Horse power is king on the bumpy cobbled streets and you are likely to see several of them pulling carts painted in yet more eye popping colours. Visiting Paraty feels like you’ve stepped back in time to its heyday as a major hub for the export of gold from the mines of inland Minas Gerais. The Caminho do Ouro (gold trail) was established at the height of the gold rush to bring the treasured product to Paraty where it would be loaded onto ships and transported to Portugal via Rio. When the gold mines had been plundered Paraty declined, and hence remained a peaceful backwater with a strong Portuguese influence in its architecture.  

Cobbled streets in Paraty, Brazil

The mountain town of Ouro Preto

This town’s name translates as ‘black gold,’ and the major reason for its existence comes from the gold mines which scatter the surrounding landscape. The baroque beauty of the architecture here attests to the riches it once enjoyed as one of the principal locations of Brazil’s gold rush, and today there are still many gold flourishes to be found throughout the town - especially in the churches. At the height of gold fever the population of Ouro Preto was around 75,000, making it the largest city in the whole of South America at that time with more than double the population of New York City. This picture postcard town which nowadays seems so peaceful was also the setting for the start of an independence uprising in 1789, led by Tiradentes, who was executed for his rebellion. There is a museum within Ouro Preto dedicated to the Inconfidência Mineira, the unsuccessful movement behind the uprising, and another to mining and minerals.

The Ouro Preto Cathedral sat atop a hill

Antonio Prado's Italian heritage

Between 1880 and 1900 there was a real upsurge in the numbers of Italians emigrating to Brazil, and many settled in the Southeast of the country. A lasting testament to the influence of Italian culture and customs on Brazilian life is found in the town of Antonio Prado. Known as ‘the most Italian town in Brazil’, there are 48 original examples of typical Italian-Brazilian architecture which are still standing. 30% of the Italian immigrants to Brazil arrived from the region of Veneto, so it is not unusual to hear a Venetian dialect as you explore the town. The descendants of the town’s forefathers have also strived to preserve aspects of the ‘homeland’ culture, including artisan crafts such as lacemaking, Italian cuisine, and folk music.

The Italian-inspired town of Antônio Prado, Brazil

The port town of Belem

Located in the northern part of Brazil on the Amazon estuary, Belem is a busy port town with a lively mix of old and new. The city was founded by Portuguese colonists in 1616, making it the oldest European colony on the Amazon and one of the most important centres in the sugar industry. It has since seen its fortunes rise and fall with the popularity of the goods that passed through its harbour, such as rice, cotton, nuts, coffee, rubber and latterly metals, minerals and hardwood. Today Belem has ample evidence of its wealthy roots in the elaborate 17th century architecture of the old city, much of which is reminiscent of Lisbon with detailed tile facades decorating many buildings. Don’t miss the historic Ver-o-pêso, Latin America’s largest open air market, whilst visiting the town.

The blue turrets of Ver-o-pêso market in Belem, Brazil

Make it happen

Why not uncover the treasures of the past on your next holiday in Brazil, perhaps combining some historic destinations with some beach time, or with some of Brazil’s world-beating natural attractions such as Iguazu Falls or the Amazon rainforest. Tell our brilliant local partners what you’d like to prioritise on your trip, and they will create a bespoke itinerary just for you. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.