Jan 3, 2012

Brazil: its history, summarized, and a few of its architectural highlights

Recife, in Northeastern Brazil

by Alexandra Forbes

The Portuguese admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil by accident in 1500. His fleet had set out in search of Indian spices, but favorable winds pushed them towards an exuberant and unknown land. They dropped anchor in the palm-lined bay of Porto Seguro, in what is today the southern part of the state of Bahia. There are still signs of their arrival: the first whitewashed churches in Porto Seguro and in the neighboring Arraial d’Ajuda attract curious tourists to this day.

The Portuguese organized their new territory into two captaincies (the administrative order of the time) – Pernambuco, north of Bahia, and São Vicente, in what is now the state of São Paulo – and they flourished. Pernambuco in particular grew and prospered thanks to the sugar trade, and soon the colony’s de facto capital was Olinda – Pernambuco’s main city, perched on a hill for protection. Its highest point is home to the São Salvador do Mundo church, better known as Alto da Sé. Built in 1537 as a testament to the wealth of the sugar magnates, this ornate church was adorned with an intricate design of gold leaf and painted tiles. Even today, the church and its surroundings are the nucleus of Olinda’s tourist hub.

Recife's Capela Dourada

The nearby village of Recife boasted deeper waters and a better port, so it soon surpassed Olinda as Brazil’s most prominent city. As Recife’s prosperity grew, the local churches became more luxurious. The Capela Dourada (Golden Chapel) was opened to the public in 1697, taking its name from the tremendous quantity of gold that covers its complex wooden engravings. The chapel is part of the Santo Antônio convent and remains one of the city’s most glorious legacies from this period.

Salvador's Elevador Lacerda

But back to Bahia, where a Portuguese king eventually declared the region’s principal city, Salvador, to be capital of the colony. Salvador da Bahia flourished as a result, becoming the most important city in Brazil. Many of its buildings and churches date back to the 17th century and are concentrated in the historic Cidade Alta and Cidade Baixa, the two levels of the city that since 1872 have been connected by the famous Lacerda Elevator.

After Brazil had been established as a major exporter of sugar, and later coffee and gold, the Portuguese colonists began to expand through the rest of the country. Much of the country’s architectural riches from these days can be found in cities like Paraty and Rio de Janeiro, as well as in the mountain cities of Ouro Preto, Tiradentes and Mariana, heart of the gold rush.

Paraty, near Rio

Strangely, São Paulo, the undisputed financial and cultural capital of the country, has its origins in poverty and neglect. Wealthy industrialists didn’t build large mansions on Avenida Paulista until the early 20th century. Only a few of these palaces have survived, but the avenue remains a symbol of the city’s economic dominance. The most iconic structure is the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP). A large box of glass and cement, held aloft by red pillars, this building was designed by renowned architect Lina Bo Bardi and is an essential stop for any tourist.

MASP Museum in São Paulo

Around the time when the MASP was constructed, in the 1950s and 60s, São Paulo also enjoyed an architectural boom thanks to the work of architect Oscar Niemeyer. Known primarily for Brasilia, the current capital of the country, Niemeyer’s buildings in São Paulo are just as extraordinary and, most importantly, are easily accessible to most travelers. They include the spectacular Auditório Ibirapuera, the OCA exhibition center and the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM), which are all located in Ibirapuera Park, as well as the city’s architectural landmark, the COPAN, in the city’s downtown.
It’s ironic that São Paulo, once known as a gray and industrial city, now possesses some of Brazil’s greatest architectural gems.

In fact, the country’s 500 years of history are most evident the largest cities, like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Each chapter, from the sugar and coffee eras to the discovery of gold, from independence to industrialization and now globalization, has left indelible marks on the urban tapestry. Each new wave of visitors – the Portuguese, African slaves and immigrants from Europe and Japan – has led to new neighborhoods and new architectural styles. The Portuguese may have imposed their tastes and customs over the first two centuries, but today the sheer variety of Brazil’s cities reveals the diversity of its people. In


Iglesia de São Salvador do Mundo
Alto da Sé

São Paulo

Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Masp
Av. Paulista 1578
Admission: US$8.50

Auditório Ibirapuera
Av. Pedro Álvares Cabral, (no address number) – Portão 2
Tel. 55-11-3629-1075

Parque do Ibirapuera, portão 1 y 2 – (no address number)
Parque do Ibirapuera, portão 3 – (no address number)
Admission: US$3.50

Av. Ipiranga 200, downtown


Capela Dourada
Rua Imperador Dom Pedro II, 206
Salvador da Bahia


  1. Overlooked part of Brazil for the luxury holidaymaker is Sao Paulo. Due to its increasing economic power and status as the capital of modern Brazilian culture Sao Paulo is an exciting place to visit as part of a luxury holiday to Brazil.

  2. Good post, it shows the country has a very rich history with diverse people. I think a lot of people don't consider São Paulo as a place to visit on their vacation to Brazil. Rio is the place where most associate their images and stereotypes of Brazil, even though São Paulo is much bigger. Thanks for posting, I enjoyed the pictures, especially the chapel.

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