If you were dropped blindfolded into Ouro Preto and opened your eyes, you’d be pardoned for mistaking that you’d travelled back in time to the 1700s. This treasure house of Baroque architecture has remained amazingly intact over the centuries. From its small beginnings as a settlement for treasure seekers during the gold rush of the early eighteenth century, Ouro Preto acquired the status of a 'vila' and was known as Vila Rica (Rich Town). Today, the municipality of Ouro Preto is comprised of twelve rural districts. Historically, it was the stronghold of the Inconfidentes, early fighters for Brazil’s independence from colonial rule. Ouro Preto also nurtured a school of mulatto artists whose legacy is a significant part of the town’s cultural ethos. Nature too, has been extraordinarily munificent to Ouro Preto.
When you’re satiated with the town’s colonial beauty, there’s the Itacolomi State Park to explore with its hiking trails and waterfalls.
Our Ouro Preto Destination Guide below tells you all about the exciting highlights of the town and the stunning surrounding area. The ideal way of seeing the sights and getting a taste of the local culture is by taking one of our interesting Ouro Preto tours. For more exciting things to do throughout the rest of the country, check out our Brazil Destination Guide.
Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar Church
Of the many churches gracing Ouro Preto, the Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar is quite an ‘eye catcher’, a term that really doesn’t do justice to the fact that over 400 kg of gold was used in the construction of this fabulous specimen of Baroque architecture. The church was built in 1786, when Baroque extravagance was reaching its zenith. There was no such notion as excessive opulence, as is evident from the mind-boggling number of angels and cherubs, gargoyles and florid mouldings that were used to embellish the outside and inside of the church that is also all in gold.
São Francisco de Assis Church
Built in 1794, the São Francisco de Assis Church is considered to be Ouro Preto’s most beautiful places of worship; it’s certainly one of Brazil’s loveliest. The Franciscan brotherhood commissioned the famed Brazilian mulatto sculptor and architect, Aleijadinho, to design the church. Aleijadinho used locally available soapstone to fashion his elaborate carvings, the pulpits and altars. It took him three years to create the baptismal font in the sacristy. Manuel da Costa Atayde, another locally born artist, painted the ceiling mural of the Virgin Mary in heaven, with musicians and cherubs around her. Note the two front towers, on either side of the church which have actually been set back, so as not to diminish the effect of the elaborately carved entrance.
Chico Rei Mine
Centuries ago, this mine lured gold-diggers and treasure seekers from afar. Today, Chico Rei is a tourist attraction in Ouro Preto, inviting visitors to experience the life of a miner in Ouro Preto. It’s a self-guided tour; take your time to explore the labyrinth of tunnels and passages underground and look around at the innumerable nooks and crannies in the walls, where miners stashed away their daily finds. If you’re claustrophobic, you might consider skipping the tour altogether as the tunnels are extremely confining. Deep down is a mineral room, where there’s a display of the precious stones and minerals that this mine once yielded. It takes around 45 minutes to do a thorough inspection of this attraction.
About 13 km (5 miles) from downtown Ouro Preto is Lavras Novras, a rural district surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges and waterfalls. It has become a popular attraction in recent years for young travellers looking for destinations off the beaten track.
This was once the city council as well as the jail where conspirators of the Brazilian revolutionary movement, the Inconfidência Mineira, were confined. On the ground floor, you can see exhibits such as keys, locks and lamps from the days of the Inconfidência. The building was constructed between 1784 and 1854, on the southern side of the Praça Tiradentes. Here, you will find the tomb of Tiradentes, the revolution’s prominent leader and instruments of torture. The first floor houses important exhibits of Aleijadinho and Atayde.
Praça Tiradentes, the main square of Ouro Preto, lies in the heart of the city, flanked by the Museu da Inconfidência and the University of Ouro Preto. Two parallel streets lead downhill out of the square – Rua Senador Rocha Lagoa and Rua Conde de Bobadela (also called Rua Direita) – both chock-a-block with cafes, pubs and shops. Walk down their twisting paths until you arrive first at the Praça Reinaldo Alves de Brito, where you can stop to admire the sculpted fountain ; once you have your breath back, proceed further down to the Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora do Pilar. Going further you’ll reach the charming church of Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario.
The other side of Praça Tiradentes leads down to the Largo de Coimbra where the Igreja São Francisco de Assis is located. Keep going further down to the Matriz Nossa Senhora da Conceição, another important church. Next door to this is the Aleijadinho Museum, dedicated to the iconic painter whose works contributed significantly to the cultural ethos of Ouro Preto. From here, your walk will lead you along the Rua Bernardo Vasconcelos, crossing a quaint old stone bridge, before it starts climbing steeply. At the top stands the Matriz Santa Efigenia dos Pretos, a church built by slave communities who were prohibited from worshipping in other churches. The view from here is worth the arduous climb, but if you’re not up to it, hire a taxi from the main square for R$6 (US$3/£1.50). At the church, look out for the distinct Afro-Brazilian motifs like goat horns and shells, that give away the origins of the sculptors. As you walk back down the sharp incline, you’ll be able to marvel at the lovely view of the city.
The small community centre is dominated by the church of Our Lady dos Prazeres (of Pleasures). There are waterfalls and hiking trails aplenty for nature lovers. However, the signage is poorly executed, considering that negotiating some of these attractions can be very risky. The Cachoeira do Rapel, a waterfall cascading down 200 m over several levels is one example, a definite no-no for inexperienced hikers. There are several other falls to explore and enjoy – Cachoeira dos Namorados (Sweethearts’ Waterfall), Represa do Custódio, named after the dam of the same name and Cachoeira Três Pingos (Three Raindrops Waterfall). Locals will tell you that the Represa do Custódio is the most beautiful. Getting close to it however, takes time and effort, as vehicles can go up to a certain point, after which there’s a forty minute walk ahead. It’s well worth the attempt, to experience the sheer power of the water as it gushes down. A fine spray, cool and refreshing, mists over tired walkers.
There are agencies of the major banks in Ouro Preto, including the Banco do Brasil (São José Street 189), Itaú (São José Street 105), HSBC (201 St. Joseph Street), Caixa Economica (São José Street 128) and Bradesco (Tiradentes Square 32).
Credit cards are accepted in most establishments. There are Internet cafes that offer services like broadband Internet access, scanning, printing and international telephone calls. There are electronics stores and photo shops where you can buy memory cards, revealing photos and other services.
If you need medical attention there is the Santa Casa de Ouro Preto at Padre Jose Moringa street, 320 – Bauxita - Phone: +55 (31) 3551-1133. Open 24 hours. There is also the emergency room, available in UPA - Mecânico José Português São Cristóvão Street, Phone: (31) 3559-3255. Open 24 hours a day.
It is good to remind visitors that comfortable shoes are essential to meet the charming hills and the stone sidewalks.