10 Unique Colonial Towns we found in Brazil
Our love affair with colonial towns of the Americas may have begun in Mexico in 2007, but it certainly had a revival in Brazil in 2016. We spent considerable time in Chile and Argentina, but didn’t discover the same richness of colonial history as here in Brazil.
Somehow, Brazilians seem to care more about their heritage. The colonial towns are usually renovated and often freshly painted. They also attract a lot of tourists, many of which are Brazilians on weekend or day trips from nearby cities.
And Brazil has many of their colonial history sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List (as does Mexico).
We visited these 10 Colonial Towns or Cities in seven states of Brazil. Sometimes it was planned; other times we happened upon them. Usually we were very impressed.
We hope to inspire you to include them on your trip to Brazil.
1) Antonio Prado in Rio Grande do Sul
The region surrounding Caxias do Sul , in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, is one of the premier wine-growing regions of Brazil. Yes, Brazil has a flourishing wine industry. After exploring the wine region, we followed the advice of some locals and visited Antonio Prado.
About 100Km North we came to the historical town, which was settled by Italians in the late 19th century. The historic centre is spread over some rather steep hills and the predominantly wooden houses are built to suit them. It was the first place we saw the intricate fretwork, which decorates the roofline of some buildings.
This small town is worth the detour if you’re particularly interested in the Italian heritage of Brazil. It is considered to have historic or cultural importance in Brazil; it’s listed on the heritage register of IPHAN, Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional.
2) Ribeirão da Ilha in Santa Catarina
Florianópolis is worthy of a visit for many reasons , and this small historic village on the west coast of the island is certainly one of them. It’s one of the earliest settlements of Brazil, and is noted for being a perfect example of Portuguese colonial architecture.
Ribeirão da Ilha is still a fishing village and the many seafood restaurants along the beachfront are usually crowded on weekends.
3) Morretes & Antonina in Paraná
We first visited these two towns in 2008. We liked them so much then that we decided to go back again and see if the feelings remained. Morretes is a neat little town on the banks of a small, slow-flowing river. It’s lively at weekends, with art and craft stalls as well as many restaurants, catering to tourists, and locals from nearby Curitiba.
Antonina is just 15Km away and on the coast. It has a completely different feel to Morretes, but is full of colonial architecture in various stages of (dis)repair. Wandering around you’ll find some gems, which are well taken care of.
Both are worthy of a visit, but we did get the impression that Antonina is lacking attention to its heritage, as we noticed some deterioration since our first visit there.
4) São Sebastião & Bairro de São Francisco in São Paulo
We stumbled upon São Sebastião whilst travelling the coast of São Paulo state. In fact, we were looking for a mechanic to fix Berta’s exhaust. We didn’t find one but what we did find was a well-kept historical centre, on the coast, sheltered by the island Ilhabela.
Unfortunately, at that time, some of the roads were torn up and being repaired and it was raining, so we didn’t spend as much time as we might have.
When we were finished wandering around the centre, we drove about 6Km up the coast to reach Bairro de São Francisco, which has its own attractions. There are boats pulled up on the beach and floating in the bay, and Our Lady of Amparo Franciscan Convent overlooks it all. The street running along the ocean has some very nice, old row houses. We spent the night parked by the beach.
5) Paraty in Rio de Janeiro
We’ve been to a lot of colonial towns in the Americas – some of our favourites are in Mexico. But Paraty is up there near the top of our list. It really helps that it is almost vehicle free and, being coastal, is very flat. It gives you time and space to wander where you will.
We were also lucky that it was mid-week in winter, so there weren’t too many tourists around. After seeing some of our photos, one of our friends asked if anyone actually lived there. In fact, many people do, but it was very quiet and laid-back.
It is just lovely. Every view down every street has something new to catch your eye. It was certainly a place to experience and also to take lots of photos away with you. It’s about 250Km from Rio de Janeiro and definitely worth including in your plan if you’re visiting that city.
We don’t really understand why this colonial city is not a World Heritage site.
6) Mariana in Minas Gerais
Minas Gerais was the ‘goldmine’ that the Portuguese were searching for.
Mariana was the first capital of Minas Gerais, before it was moved to its neighbour, Ouro Preto. The historic centre is easy to get around. The streets are in a grid pattern and the hills are not too high. Spend some time sitting in the shady main square just watching the world go by.
The town has many great examples of colonial architecture and all of it is well-cared for.
Consider visiting Minas Gerais in Brazil – it has a lot of interesting destinations.
7) Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais
Ouro Preto, just 20Km to the west, was founded after Mariana, but it developed into a much larger city. It was actually built around the goldmines, as they were discovered and worked. For this reason its structure is a little haphazard. The hilly nature of the terrain also adds to the chaotic road grid.
There are more baroque churches ‘than you can poke a stick at’, as we Australians like to say. Almost all of them are high on hills, so they are visible from afar.
The historic centre is extensive and also exhausting to walk, since it’s all up and down. But every step is worth it! Whenever you reach the top of a steep hill and stop to catch your breath, there is a stunning vista to enjoy. Walking is definitely the best way to explore Ouro Preto – you really don’t want to be driving up and down those narrow, steep, cobbled streets.
Ouro Preto is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site – and is definitely a worthy inclusion.
8) Diamantina in Minas Gerais
Another World Heritage Site is found almost 400Km north of Ouro Preto and Mariana. Diamantina was so named because it was the centre of diamond mining in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The architecture of this town is also baroque in style, but differs from Ouro Preto and Mariana in that it is mostly constructed from timber. Also, Diamantina has a lot of intricate wrought iron balconies, in contrast to the others which mostly built theirs from wood.
It is also on hilly terrain, but not quite as steep as Ouro Preto.
Although it’s a bit off the main tourist tracks, Diamantina is certainly worth including in your visit to Minas Gerais.
9) Pirenópolis in Goiás
Several Brazilians we met told us not to miss this historic town. It was on our way between Brasilia and The Pantanal, so we stopped by. It’s a small town, full of restaurants and shops to attract the visitors from nearby Brasilia. The businesses are all in well-renovated, colourful, colonial buildings along the cobbled streets.
The town is not the only drawcard for this area; it is surrounded by the Brazilian Savannah which is dotted with waterfalls. Unfortunately we were under time constraints and didn’t manage to explore the countryside.
10) Cidade de Goiás in Goiás
Some 200Km from Pirenópolis is the larger colonial town of Goiás – although it is usually known as Goiás Velho (old Goiás).
Once again there are cobbled streets, white-washed houses with colourful window and door trims, restaurants and tourist shops. There are also more churches than a town of its current size could possibly need. But it was the capital of the state of Goiás until early last century so perhaps that explains it.
It’s a nice example of a colonial town; it has its own style, or mixture of styles, but it didn’t really wow us! If you’re passing through the area, as we were, definitely make some time to stop and have a look around.
The Historic Centre of the Town of Goiás is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Would you have expected so many different historic towns in Brazil?
And these are not all of them. The North-East, which was the first part to become wealthy with rubber and coffee, has more historic towns to visit…