Brasilia: a Futuristic City in the Present

For a long time we thought we wouldn’t get to Brasilia – due to its inland location, far from anywhere else. In the end we spent over a week in Brazil’s capital city. And we are both glad we went, because visiting Brasilia has been an uplifting experience, despite a few minor shortcomings (but I’ll mention these later).

Brasilia: a Futuristic City in the Present.This is the Palácio do Planalto, the presidential office, at night. During our visit lit up in green and gold to celebrate Brazil's Independence Day.

Brasilia: a Futuristic City in the Present. This is the Palácio do Planalto, the presidential office, at night. During our visit lit up in green and gold to celebrate Brazil’s Independence Day.

When we arrived on a Sunday, we both commented that it reminded us of Canberra, Australia’s capital city. That’s not too far-fetched since both are artificial cities, designed on drawing boards to become new capitals.

The first thing you notice is the amount of open space; sometimes nicely planted parklands, other times large vacant patches of native shrub – all of which looked rather brown and sunburnt. Another similarity with Canberra, as both cities are located in the dry inland of the country.

After some brief (and disappointing) shopping at a Carrefour market, in a rather wealthy looking green suburb, we entered the city. We had a GPS location from iOverlander in City Park, which sounded nice and convenient for a city stay. (Later we moved to a quieter parking lot in the same extensive park.)

After crossing the bridge towards the city centre I noticed how little traffic there was. I suggested to Yasha that we should take advantage of this to do some sightseeing by driving around. It was still early in the afternoon so she spontaneously agreed.

I drove down the main axis of the government district and parked the truck in front of the National Library – our first view of many Oscar Niemeyer designed buildings in Brasilia’s centre. From there we walked all the way down to the National Congress, taking in the sights along the way. This was our first mistake, because the next day we were completely exhausted and stayed at the parking lot – although we did manage to finish and upload our last blog post.

Click thumbnails below for a larger photo with detailed description

But we quickly learned to live with the shortcomings of this ‘well-planned’ city. To understand what I mean one needs to look at Brasilia’s history, and specifically the era in which its plans were drawn.

Brasilia’s History

The idea of a capital in the middle of the country was born in 1823, a year after Brazil gained independence from Portugal. It finally took the election promise of Juscelino Kubitschek to get it off the ground, beginning in 1956. His slogan “fifty years in five” meant rapid progress for Brazil.

The concept plan of Brasilia's layout as drawn by Lúcio Costa. Can you see the airplane shape? Along the centre axis are all government buildings (towards the bottom of this image). The wings left and right are residential sectors. Hotels and a shopping centre connect the wings with the central axis. The runways of the airport can be seen on the left.

The concept plan of Brasilia’s layout as drawn by Lúcio Costa. Can you see the airplane shape? Along the centre axis are all government buildings (towards the bottom of this image). The wings left and right are residential sectors. Hotels, some offices, and a shopping centre connect the wings with the central axis. The runways of the airport can be seen on the left.

Alongside Kubitschek, three men were responsible for the creation of Brasilia:

  • Lúcio Costa was the urban planner and created the idea of an airplane shaped city layout, two axes intersecting in the middle (where the main bus station is)
  • Oscar Niemeyer was the leading architect and many of his airy concrete-and-glass designs for official buildings are today’s main attractions
  • Roberto Burle Marx was the landscape designer, responsible for the parklands, gardens, and the many attractive water gardens (he later designed the botanical garden of INHOTIM ).
Brasilia: the Palácio Itamaraty, which houses the foreign ministry, as seen from the road. Behind the black glass facade, another recurring feature of Oscar Niemeyer's architecture, you see a palm tree and a statue standing inside the building.

Brasilia: the Palácio Itamaraty, which houses the foreign ministry, as seen from the road. Behind the black glass facade, another recurring feature of Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture, you see a palm tree and a statue standing inside the building.

Although not finished, the city was officially inaugurated on the 21st of April 1960. Originally planned for 300,000 inhabitants, it quickly outgrew this prediction. First of all, most of the construction workers who were brought in from north-east Brazil refused to leave.

Today the city has 2.5 million inhabitants – not counting large satellite towns outside the borders of the Federal District. Not all are wealthy. We saw evidence of real slums within a few hundred metres of flashy glass-and-concrete structures. But many of Brasilia’s citizens seem to be doing better than people in other cities. This is evident in the well patronised restaurants and the flashy new cars parked outside of shopping centres.

Some of the typical residential apartment blocks in the south wing. Many currently undergo renovation. All are roughly built to the same scale and their overall height is limited to 4 or 5 storeys. There is always some green space between them.

Some of the typical residential apartment blocks in the south wing. Many currently undergo renovation. All are roughly built to the same scale and their overall height is limited to 4 or 5 storeys. There is always some green space between them.

The once Futuristic Brasilia in the Present

To understand today’s city and its layout one should remember the mood of the times when it was conceived. In the 60s the effects of WWII were almost forgotten and technology was making rapid advancements. The prevailing dreams were that technology would solve all of our problems and make life so much easier. Think of robots taking over most housewife’s tasks, flying cars, and video phones.

The house of the future - as imagined in the 1950s

The house of the future – as imagined in the 1950s. What do you recognise from today’s life? [image credit]

Yes, today we’re slowly getting used to many of these gizmos, but others have mostly been dismissed as unrealistic or impractical. In some cases, a complete rethink has resulted in opposite ideals. Yet, for example, in the 50s and 60s the car promised us unlimited mobility and easy access to any place we wanted to go to. Roads weren’t choked with traffic jams and the first oil crisis was still a long way ahead.

When sightseeing in Brasilia, we quickly found things to be so spread out that walking was not the best choice. Often there isn’t even a real option to walk: forgotten pedestrian crossings, no shade for long distances, nowhere to sit down and catch a breath. And forget the idea of refreshing in a nice air-conditioned restaurant or on the shaded patio of a coffee shop. These simply do not exist in the spread-out government district where most of Oscar Niemeyer’s structures stand. *) But in most cases car parking is plentiful and easy to find, even with a vehicle of Berta’s size.

Finally, we went around the city in our truck – that’s what it seems to have been planned for! Although one day, we had to crawl through a traffic jam along a 5-lane thoroughfare during peak hour, when all government offices were closing. If you avoid these times, driving in Brasilia is easy and not as stressful as in any other South American city.

We saw a lot of the amazing architecture Brasilia is renowned for, and that earned it a UNESCO World Heritage listing. And we missed some, which wasn’t always our fault.

Brasilia: the Congress building and the two administrative towers at night, as seen from Praça Dos Trés Poderes.

Brasilia: the Congress building and the two administrative towers at night, as seen from Praça Dos Trés Poderes.

A few things disappointed us in Brasilia

First of all, I didn’t like the scale of things. In places it reminded me very much of the socialist grandeur I know so well from the former GDR and other Eastern European countries: imposing monuments and large open spaces, which were meant to make the individual feel small and in awe of the state.

This doesn’t come as a real surprise, as Oscar Niemeyer was a stout communist. But combined with obvious signs of neglect, which reflect the state of Brazil’s economy, this crumbling grandeur can quickly become depressing. To see this often great architecture prematurely deteriorating makes me feel sad.

Click thumbnails below for a larger photo with detailed description

Then there was the lack of correct information. On our third day we drove around looking for a tourist information office as marked on our GPS maps. The first one (in the hotel zone) was converted into a taxi office; the second building obviously closed a long time; finally we got to the main office on Praça Dos Trés Poderes which we left well informed by the English speaking Wanley. When we returned two days later with more questions, another man, who was much less interested, gave us mostly wrong info…

Some of these problems arose from the time we visited Brasilia. The country was in the middle of a controversial government transition. When we visited a new President had been elected but the old one hadn’t moved out of residence yet. Thus a number of buildings had limited or no access during this transition period.

We didn’t get to see:

  • the inside of the Palácio do Planalto, the presidential office (the tourist office told us it would be only open on Sunday. When we arrived on Sunday it was closed and we were told it had been open on Saturday)
  • the inside of Palácio Itamaraty (I was keen to get inside as it seems to have an internal patio with mature palm trees and a mezzanine floor – closed until further notice for security reasons)
  • Espaço Cultural Oscar Niemeyer (which should display many of his drawings and models – closed and gutted for renovation)
  • Museu Nacional do Automóvel (closed, as it appears from their website, for good)
  • the TV tower (which gives a good overview of the city – we forgot to go…)

Churches by Oscar Niemeyer. Click thumbs for a larger photo with detailed description

Although it has a lot to explore, Brasilia isn’t really a tourist town. Hotels are centrally located, but what’s missing are other conveniences like obvious coffee shops or restaurants within the government district with its many attractions; restaurants and shops can usually be found in the central hubs of residential blocks – away from the main sights.*)

There seems to be no convenient public transport, connecting tourist sights, and the tourist office doesn’t provide any information about it. We don’t understand why we didn’t see a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus connecting major sights – it would be such an obvious solution! Therefore one of the easiest ways to get around might be to hire a car.

Nevertheless, Brasilia is an interesting place to visit, especially if you appreciate Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture. You find so many examples of his work, often side-by-side and juxtaposed. I was astonished by some of the simple techniques he used to make his structures appear much lighter than they actually are (see more in my photo descriptions).

Click thumbnails below for a larger photo with detailed description

From our experience as overlanders, Brasilia is an easy and safe city. Quiet overnight places are easy to find; driving around and parking isn’t a major issue either. Once you have learned where to find the commercial hubs inside the residential areas, shopping for supplies becomes fairly easy too. Just avoid the main lunch time from 12:00 to 15:00 when parking space in these areas is in high demand.

Parking lot #8 in the city park - our quiet overnight place for the last few nights. You can find large parking lots almost everywhere in Brasilia - often completely deserted...

Parking lot #8 in the city park – our quiet overnight place for the last few nights. You can find large parking lots almost everywhere in Brasilia – often completely deserted… We noticed some quiet ones, obviously unused, in the middle of the embassy zone.


*) NOTE: later we were told that there are restaurants hidden in a number of government buildings, including the Congress complex, that are open to the public. But they are not sign-posted and you would have to know where to find them… In many of these buildings a strict dress code applies on work days.


Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, was created in the 60s to give the country a new political center. It's a modern city, full of impressive architecture created by the famous Oscar Niemeyer. For this alone it's worth a visit. Read our post for more!

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Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, was created in the 60s to give the country a new political center. Nowhere else can you find so much of Oscar Niemeyer's impressive architecture in such a compact space. For this alone it's worth a visit. Read our post for more!

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Have you been to Brasilia?
What has been your impression?
Do you like the architectural style of Oscar Niemeyer?
Please tell us in the ‘comments’ below.

Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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12 Responses

  1. Nancie says:

    I’d love to see all of Brasilia’s awesome architecture before it crumbles into nothingness. Hopefully, the government won’t let that happen. However, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. I’m a great walker, so I would find an area with few visible amenities a real challenge. Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday

    • Juergen says:

      I truly believe that Brazil (and Brasilia) has some sense to keep Niemeyer’s buildings in some sort of serviceable state of repairs. After all: they are proud of them and it would endanger their World Heritage Listing…

  2. Anda says:

    I missed you, Juergen and Yasha! Now I know where you’ve been while we were waiting for you at #TheWeeklyPostcard week after week. I so envy you. It seems you two have all the fun in the world while we are stuck home in front of our computers. South America has is a great attraction for me, but I didn’t manage to go further than Argentina. I’d love to visit the fascinating Brazil and due to your enticing post this dream of mine may become a reality. Thanks for sharing your experience with us and thanks for joining #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    • Juergen says:

      You don’t see much of us because this is one of the limitations we constantly fight with: we can’t really participate or reciprocate on comments due to unreliable internet. That’s one big difference to you – sitting at home with broadband and a provider you can call if things go wrong. (ps: excuse tainted reply because right now I’m fighting connection problems for the last 24 hours.)

  3. Corinne says:

    I have never been to Brazil, but if and when I go I’m hitting Brasilia…It looks very cool!

  4. Lolo says:

    What an interesting read! I find it so fascinating that once Brazil gained its independence, they just created a new capital out of nothing! I did not know that! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • Juergen says:

      To create a new capital ‘out of nothing’ seems to have been a trend of the 1960s. We can think of 3 globally: Canberra in Australia, Islamabad in Pakistan, and Brasilia in Brazil. There might be others too.

  5. Loved reading this post, though it’s a shame about the lack of correct information to navigate around the city. Being in a new place, knowing what you want to see and not being able to find your way there can become frustrating if time is limited. Funny you mention it reminds you of Canberra, ACT which is where I have posted about today. Thank you for linking with #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • Juergen says:

      Not so ‘funny’ that we compare Brasilia with Canberra – we’re from Australia after all. And the similarities stuck out.

  6. Ruth says:

    I find your observations very interesting and eye opening. It is the first time I hear the comparison between Brasilia and a communist city. But, I am not that familiar with communist cities. So bad there is not a lot of info in the city. That doesn’t surprise me about Brazil.

    • Juergen says:

      You don’t have to venture that far east (seeing that you just visited Budapest), many medium size towns in the former Eastern block still have left-overs of former socialist ‘glory’. Tourist information in Brazil seems to come in two forms: a) enthusiastic people, proud of their hometown, who provide infos well beyond what you asked for, or b) no help whatsoever, no language skills beyond Portuguese, brochures with bad Google translations, or worse even ‘locked doors’ (almost all Tourist Information offices seem to be closed on Sundays – when weekend visitors come to town).

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