Before leaving on our extensive road trip through the historic state of Minas Gerais, I sat at the dining room table with my brother-in-law’s mother, studying the map of our anticipated route. She spoke Portuguese slowly, the pace of an elderly woman eager to share past experiences with a new friend. As her finger traced the many roads that she had driven on her own trip through Minas Gerais, she announced, “There were two places I always wanted to see in my life: Macchu Pichu and Ouro Preto. And I’ve seen both.” Ouro Preto, really?
Well, Ouro Preto lived up to the hype, and it should, considering the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is truly beautiful, a mix of preserved architecture and precious art in a striking urban landscape of cobblestone hills nestled in the surrounding mountains.
Unlike almost every other place in Brazil that I’ve visited, Ouro Preto strikes that perfect combination of a place where people clearly live (including about 15,000 university students) and a place where tourism thrives. Although I would highly recommend that the town ban cars from its main square for the sake of both residents and tourists, the town is developed for tourism. Ouro Preto is small and organized enough to be seen in two or three days but special enough to warrant the long drive it takes to get here.
Ouro Preto is a center of Brazilian history. While Americans go to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to see our history, Brazilians go to Ouro Preto. This town was the center of what was then (the 1690s) the largest gold discovery in the western hemisphere, and the town developed in the early 1700s as a result of the wealth from this gold rush. Artists and the elite from Europe came to Ouro Preto, fostering Brazilian Baroque and Rococo art to develop here. The town’s many churches are what it’s most famous for, especially those with the work of Brazil’s most famous artist, Antonio Francisco Lisboa (Aleijadinho).
Igreja de São Francisco de Assis
Aleijadinho’s masterpiece in Ouro Preto is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi (Igreja de São Francisco de Assis). He designed and carved the exterior, including the soapstone sculptures on the front. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn everything about the city’s churches because we hired Portuguese-speaking guides (I was traveling with Brazilian family members), and English information on these churches is lacking, but if you go, hire English guides at the tourist office. (Just next to the church is a very good restaurant, Bené da Flauta.)
Across the street from the church is the feira, or outdoor market, which sells local handicrafts, especially items made from soapstone. You can watch people carving soapstone while you browse. The handicrafts are not expensive and make nice gifts that are very typical of this area. The market is open daily from morning to dusk:
In the center of town is the main square, named after former resident Tiradentes, a leader of the 1789 attempted revolution. It has two large monuments on either end and a nice array of shops and cafés on its sides. Make time for the ice cream shop, which sells dozens of flavors, mostly containing fruits from the Amazon. Ouro Preto is a university city, and you can get a feeling for local life at the corner cafés.
The Museum of the Inconfidência independence movement (Museu da Inconfidencia) is a large building from 1784. It contains the tomb of Tiradentes and historical artifacts from the movement, including torture instruments and important art works. Open Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-5:30.
The center of the square contains a monument commemorating Tiradentes. On the other end of the square is the old university, which now houses the Museu Mineralógico Da Escola De Minas (Mineralogy Museum). Because this area has such rich mines, you can see beautiful examples of all kinds of minerals in this museum, some from the surrounding area and others collected from around the globe. The museum’s entrance offers nice views of the city, but if you’re with children, keep a very close eye on them; the above photo of the square and the below photo of the town were taken from the entrance:
Adjacent to the Museu de Inconfidência is the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Besides being one of Ouro Preto’s most beautiful churches, its hilltop location allows for views of the town and surrounding hills.
The wall along the front of the church is a nice place to sit to watch the sun set and take in the surrounding views in the evening light.
Ouro Preto’s Two Sides
From Tiradentes Square, the town splits in two directions. If you’re facing the Museu de Inconfidência, with the white Mineralogy Museum behind you, to the left is the St. Francis of Assisi church and handicrafts market as well as charming, quieter streets. To the right, streets go steeply downward to a couple of the city’s other main attractions, which I’ll show you in a moment. First, let’s see what lies to the left of the square.
As we descended from the square to the handicraft market and Church of St. Francis of Assisi, we passed many historic houses and a view of the nearby mountains and the famous shape of the peak of Itacolomy, which formerly served as a handy landmark for gold seekers trying to find their way back to Ouro Preto.
Down one particularly tiny, walled street is the Church of Our Lady of Mercy from 1772. Our pousada, or B&B, was at the end of this tiny street, and we walked by the church several times but never noticed anyone coming or going. The steps and climbing plants, and the fact that the church was completely lit at night, made it quite beautiful, I thought.
On the other side of town (if you’re in the square facing the Museu de Inconfidência and descend to the right) is the city’s second most important church as well as several places of historic importance.
One of Ouro Preto’s most distinctive features is the decorative balconies and other exterior details. Because the city used to be so rich, the houses were decorated with ornate iron balconies and lanterns, and every house uses colorful window trim (more windows and doors here).
The Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar (Church of Our Lady of Pilar) is known for the huge amount of gold inside, the second largest amount of gold inside a Brazilian church. The church is located in a pleasant square with shops and quaint side streets to explore.
The Casa dos Contos, or the House of Tales, was where gold was originally weighed. We visited its historic rooms and the senzala, or slave quarters under the building. This was one of the most interesting places I visited in Ouro Preto, partly for the artifacts of Brazil’s sad past of slavery and for the modern art gallery also housed in this historic building.
Finally, just outside of Ouro Preto, is the another cute but smaller historic town, Mariana, and the nearby Minas de Passagem. The tour took us down into the mine on a rickety antique cable car. The mine was opened in 1719 and is now the largest gold mine open to the public in the world. There is a crystal blue lake that visitors can even swim or cave dive in; we did neither but really enjoyed looking around a small part of the 30 km of underground of tunnels.
Ouro Preto left a huge impression on all of us. The beauty found around every corner, the way the city is so well preserved, and the city’s history make it the most interesting place I’ve visited in a long time.
And you? What UNESCO Heritage Sites have you visited? Have you been to the historic towns of Brazil?
P.S. More about Minas Gerais, Brazil: