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.

Goiás Velho, another UNESCO World Heritage site, was one of the 10 colonial towns we visited in Brazil.

Goiás Velho, another UNESCO World Heritage site, was one of the 10 colonial towns we visited in Brazil.

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.

Antonio Prado is a Heritage Listed town in Brazil known for its Italian heritage. Most old houses are made from wood and often have amazing fretwork around their roof gables.

Antonio Prado is a Heritage Listed town in Brazil known for its Italian heritage. Most old houses are made from wood and often have amazing fretwork around their roof gables.

A tourist shop in Antonio Prado open for business on a Sunday. For some reason the town's tourist office is closed on Sundays.

A tourist shop in Antonio Prado open for business on a Sunday. For some reason the town’s tourist office is closed on Sundays.

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.

Ribeirão da Ilha is an old Portuguese settlement on the island of Santa Catarina. It's maybe not as spectacular as other historic towns in Brazil but is in stark contrast to the mostly modern look of Florianópolis. On weekends its fish restaurants by the beach attract many visitors.

Ribeirão da Ilha is an old Portuguese settlement on the island of Santa Catarina. It’s maybe not as spectacular as other historic towns in Brazil but is in stark contrast to the mostly modern look of Florianópolis. On weekends its fish restaurants by the beach attract many visitors.

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.

A view across the river towards the historic centre of Morretes.

A view across the river towards the historic centre of Morretes.

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.

Historic Antonina: a lovely shop front. Notice the floral arches of the door and window frames.

Historic Antonina: a lovely shop front. Notice the floral arches of the door and window frames.

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.

The colonial Portuguese style church in the the centre of São Sebastião.

The colonial Portuguese style church in the the centre of São Sebastião.

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.

The historic cloister of Nossa Senhora do Amparo in Bairro de São Francisco.

The historic cloister of Nossa Senhora do Amparo in Bairro de São Francisco.

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.

A vista in the colonial town of Paraty. Behind the church tower lies the ocean.

A vista in the colonial town of Paraty. Behind the church tower lies the ocean.

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.

Some of the beautiful colonial houses in Paraty are adorned with geometric plaster corners.

Some of the beautiful colonial houses in Paraty are adorned with geometric plaster corners.

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.

A view across the roof of the old historic part of Mariana.

A view across the roof of the old historic part of Mariana.

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.

The baroque church 'Nossa Senhora do Carmo' stands across the road from the historic government house in Mariana.

The baroque church ‘Nossa Senhora do Carmo’ stands across the road from the historic government house in Mariana.

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.

Colonial buildings surround the courtyard in front of the 'Museu do Oratório' in Ouro Preto.

Colonial buildings surround the courtyard in front of the ‘Museu do Oratório’ in Ouro Preto.

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.

Evening photo of some of the historic houses at the small plaza near Igreja Santa Efigênia in Ouro Preto.

Evening photo of some of the historic houses at the small plaza near Igreja Santa Efigênia in Ouro Preto.

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.

A view up one of the old cobbled streets of the colonial town of Diamantina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A view up one of the old cobbled streets of the colonial town of Diamantina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The distinctive wooden bridge connecting two parts of the historic 'Casa da Glória' in the colonial town of Diamantina.

The distinctive wooden bridge connecting two parts of the historic ‘Casa da Glória’ in the colonial town of Diamantina.

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.

The wealth of the historic town of Pirenópolis was founded on silver, now weekend visitors from nearby Brasilia bring their money.

The wealth of the historic town of Pirenópolis was founded on silver, now weekend visitors from nearby Brasilia bring their money.

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.

Goiás Velho used to be the capital of the state of Goiás. This UNESCO World Heritage site is unique in that it features historic buildings from different periods side-by-side.

Goiás Velho used to be the capital of the state of Goiás. This UNESCO World Heritage site is unique in that it features historic buildings from different periods side-by-side.

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…


During our trip through Brazil we were surprised by the number of colonial towns preserved in Brazil. Here are 10 historic towns you should add to you itinerary. Many of the places are recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage list.

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Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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2 Responses

  1. The church in #6 looks like the one in Ouro Preto! It’s my fave colonial town in Brazil. :)

    • Yasha says:

      Yes, there is a great deal of similarity between the churches. The towns are very close, and developed alongside each other. The baroque style is just stunning.

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