Downtown Rio de Janeiro
We did a “free tour” to discover the center of Rio. The meeting place was at the foot of the historical clock in Largo Da Carioca Square. It was here that the first city was built, a flat area then surrounded by four hills, a natural defense against invaders. They have since been razed to allow for the expansion of the city.
Our visit was a look back at the four centuries of Brazil’s evolution, from the discovery of the country to its development to the present day. We went back in time by walking through the old streets and admiring the ancient monuments — an excellent way to better understand Brazilian society and culture.
If you want a little summary of the history of Brazil, it’s here.
Otherwise, let’s explore the city.
The historical clock
Some pictures of the place
This clock from 1909 was originally a decorative lamp made of ornamental cast iron parts. It was the second installed in Rio, the first being in the popular district of Lapa, the first one to have public lighting in 1906.
After a quick tour of the square, we headed towards the old town to a trendy bakery.
The building on the left is the Brazilian oil company PETROBRAS headquarters.
The inhabitants have elected this typical construction of the 1970s the most hideous in the city!
The story of Frei Galvão, who became Saint Anthony after his canonization by Pope Gregory IX on 30 May 1232
During the era of colonial Brazil, Frei Galvão was renowned for his healing powers.
People turned to him when medical resources were expensive or unavailable.
It was his “paper pills” that made him famous. He wrote a phrase in Latin from the “Small Office of the Blessed Virgin” on a piece of paper that he rolled into a ball and that his patients were to take as medicine.
Anecdotes tell of spectacular cures, such as that of a young woman suffering from excruciating pain in her stomach: the torment ceased immediately after consuming the tablet, and she expelled many kidney stones.
The story of his miracle pills spread, and Frei Galvão had to teach the Récollet Sisters to make them, which they still do today.
The sisters still distribute them free of charge to some 300 faithful who request them daily.
The Colombo Bakery
It is the most famous in Brazil, inaugurated during the first years of the Brazilian Republic in 1894.
It is a beautiful Parisian-style architecture that offers delicious traditional Brazilian and Portuguese snacks. Its fame attracts tourists from all over the world who are eager to taste its specialties.
We couldn’t resist a “Pastel de Belém” — a souvenir from Portugal — which we savored as we continued our visit.
It is also here that each new president comes after they are elected as an obligatory passage. A fun fact is that upstairs they all have their own chair, branded with their name, refusing to sit in one of their predecessors.
Rua do Ouvidor and the Arch of Teles
We went up the passage of the Arch of Teles, which connects Rua do Ouvidor to the old The Carmo’s Square, today The Square XV.
This street belonged to the previous commercial district of the city. The thoroughfares here are cobbled and lined with beautiful, colorful colonial houses.
Today, the district, which has always remained very lively, is full of bars and restaurants and has kept an air of old Rio.
This passage housed the residences of the region’s most influential families during the colonial era. It is one of the best-preserved in the city, now pedestrianized to conserve the original paving.
The Arch of Teles was built in the middle of the 18th Century. It was part of the residence of the Teles de Menezes family, owners of the surrounding buildings, hence its name.
The Square of November 15 or The Square XV
This square, surrounded by historic buildings, is one of the most famous in the city center. It has been the scene of memorable events.
In colonial times, this square was the gateway to Rio for those who came by sea, whether they were kings or enslaved people.
After 1811, however, the landing and trade of enslaved Africans were moved to Valongo Wharf, in the port area. This new wharf was used until 1831 when the blockade of Africa prohibited the Atlantic slave trade in Brazil. But the clandestine business did not stop until 1888.
A little anecdote about an arrival from the Portuguese court
When they arrived in Rio, the queen of Portugal and her entourage had their heads shaved. The colony’s women, perplexed, did not find it very elegant. However, some have decided to take the plunge and adhere to this European “fashion.” Before learning, a little too late, it was a radical remedy for lice.
After this little parenthesis, we set off again to discover the main historic buildings in the area.
The Imperial Palace or the Old Royal Palace
It was the home of the Portuguese Royal Family of John VI when they moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1808. It once served as the Palace of the Governors and the Palace of the Mint.
Important speeches took place in this building, such as the “Dia do Fico” meaning The Day of the Stay. On this very day, the king’s son Pedro I and the First Emperor of Brazil decided to stay in the country while the royal family returned to Portugal.
This is also where Princess Isabel signed the letter of the abolition of slavery, the Áurea law or the golden law, on May 13, 1888.
The Church of Our Lady of Carmo and the Convent of Carmo
In 1808, John VI transformed it into a royal chapel. It was here where historical events took place: the coronations of the two emperors of Brazil, Dom Pedro I and his son Dom Pedro and the wedding of Princess Isabel and Prince Gaston d’Orléans, Count D’Eu, in 1864.
Located on Primeiro de Março Street, this church attracts attention for its beauty amidst the modern buildings of the new city landscape. It is in Rococo style and was built after the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazilian lands.
The former convent of Carmo is the oldest building on the site. It was the residence of the queen of Portugal, Queen Maria I, also known as Maria the Mad, who refused to live with the rest of the royal family during their exile.
The Palace Tiradentes
It was inaugurated on May 6, 1926 and was then the Chamber of Deputies until 1960. Today, it is the seat of the legislative assembly of the state of Rio de Janeiro.
After having our fill of royal history, we headed to the art district.
The Cinelandia District
The national library stands a little further on, neither more nor less than the largest in Latin America.
On the right is the Pedro Ernesto Palace. It is a magnificent building in the neoclassical French architectural style that now houses the city hall for Rio de Janeiro.
The name of Cinelandia comes from “cinema!”
It used to be an upscale part of town, full of cinemas and theaters. The artists’ suburb is known as “Paris Carioca” or “Brazilian Broadway.”
This area is, of course, home to the Municipal Theater, one of the most fascinating buildings in downtown Rio. An eclectic building full of golden details and is almost a miniature of the Paris Opera!
It began with the 60,000 books King John VI of Portugal brought back from his exile in 1808. Since then, every work published in Brazil must be sent here to be indexed and classified.
The end of our visit is approaching. We only had one typical place left to discover — a work of art more than a place steeped in history. The story of an artist who left his mark on the city.
While walking towards the Selarón stairs, we were able to see the famous Carioca aqueduct and the modern San Sebastian Cathedral.
The Carioca Aqueduct
The Carioca Aqueduct was built in the middle of the 18th Century to transport fresh water from the Carioca River to the center’s inhabitants. It is a typical example of colonial architecture and engineering.
Located in the Lapa district, it is often called “Arcos da Lapa” or the “Arches of Lapa.” Since the end of the 19th Century, it has served solely as a bridge for the famous Santa Teresa tram that connects the Santa Teresa district to the city’s heights.
Saint Sebastian Cathedral
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian, also called the “new cathedral,” was built between 1964 and 1979. The architect who designed it was inspired by the Mayan pyramids.
On each side of the church, four glass windows rise to a height of 64 m and allow the interior to be very bright. The building is 94 m high and can accommodate 5,000 people.
That’s a matter of taste… some people love its style, and others do not.
Homeless Jesus is a bronze sculpture by Canadian Timothy Schmalz depicting Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a bench. The original was installed at Regis College at the University of Toronto in early 2013. Others have since been installed in many places around the world.
The first one I discovered was in Madrid!
The Selarón stairs
The most famous steps in the world! More than 200 steps are decorated with ceramic tiles from 60 countries.
Inaugurated in 1994, they are the work of the painter of Chilean origin Jorge Selarón who spoke of them as a tribute to the Brazilian people.
In 1990, Selarón began renovating the dilapidated steps that ran along the front of his house. At first, his neighbors laughed at him for his choice of colors as he covered the steps with shards of blue, green, and yellow tiles — the colors of the Brazilian flag.
What started as a beautification project quickly turned into an obsession. Each time Selarón ran out of money, he sold his paintings to finance his work. Then, he asked passing tourists to send him earthenware from their homes when they returned, which they did.
And one thing led to another, the staircase became what it is today.
It is on one of those steps that we sat down to rest before heading back south to Rio to explore the Botanical Garden.
The Botanical Garden
It is located at the foot of Corcovado south of Rio de Janeiro and covers an area of 350 acres. It shows the diversity of Brazilian and foreign flora, with around 6,500 species represented.
I love strolling through botanical gardens, the tidy side of nature. Everything is always perfect — the well-maintained flowerbeds, the magnificent flower arrangements, the grandiose fountains — and designed for the eyes’ pleasure and for onlookers to enjoy a relaxing walk.
The garden was founded in 1808 by King John VI of Portugal. Initially intended for the acclimatization of spices such as nutmeg, pepper, and cinnamon imported from the West Indies, it was opened to the public in 1822. It now houses bromeliads, orchids, carnivorous plants, and cactus collections.
On the left, and for me the most beautiful, is “the monkey apricot .”This species native to the Amazon has exuberant, fragrant flowers that come out directly in clusters along their trunks. Wonderful!
We finally discovered the brazilwood, which gave its name to the country and which was one of the most extensive export products for the Portuguese, mainly due to the color of its wood. It is now protected.
It is with this pleasant surprise that the day ended. By this time, our legs had enough and it was with haste that we returned home to rest a little.
This day was, for us, the discovery of the history of Brazil — a history rich in events that explains the culture of the country, a complex mixture of those from distant places, Africa and Europe.
What I find unfortunate, however, is that there are very few, if any, stories about native people. The past is focused on the settlers and what they brought, good or bad. Moreover, you have to dig deep to get information about the first inhabitants of this continent. Like their history, they were pushed back into the mountain and somehow forgotten.