You decided to make a list of all the absolutely must-see Brazilian sites – but don’t know how to begin it? Here is a great starting point.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared 18 Brazilian places of outstanding historic or environmental value UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are a precious guide for those who want to discover the country’s riches. I have visited most of them and couldn’t agree more with the selection.
See below the full list and the UNESCO’s justification for its choices:
1 – Atlantic Forest Southeast Reserves – The Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves, in the states of Paraná and São Paulo, contain some of the best and most extensive examples of Atlantic forest in Brazil. The 25 protected areas that make up the site (some 470,000 ha in total) display the biological wealth and evolutionary history of the last remaining Atlantic forests. From mountains covered by dense forests, down to wetlands, coastal islands with isolated mountains and dunes, the area comprises a rich natural environment of great scenic beauty.
2 – Brasília – The capital created ex nihilo in the center of the country in 1956, was a landmark in the history of town planning. Urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer intended that every element – from the layout of the residential and administrative districts (often compared to the shape of a bird in flight) to the symmetry of the buildings themselves – should be in harmony with the city’s overall design. The official buildings, in particular, are innovative and imaginative.
3 – Brazilian Atlantic Islands: Fernando de Noronha and Atol das Rocas Reserves — Peaks of the Southern Atlantic submarine ridge form the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago and Rocas Atoll off the coast of Brazil. They represent a large proportion of the island surface of the South Atlantic and their rich waters are extremely important for the breeding and feeding of tuna, shark, turtle and marine mammals. The islands are home to the largest concentration of tropical seabirds in the Western Atlantic. Baia de Golfinhos has an exceptional population of resident dolphin and at low tide the Rocas Atoll provides a spectacular seascape of lagoons and tidal pools teeming with fish.
4 – Central Amazon Conservation Complex — The Central Amazon Conservation Complex makes up the largest protected area in the Amazon Basin (over 6 million hectares) and is one of the planet’s richest regions in terms of biodiversity. It also includes an important sample of varzea ecosystems, igapó forests, lakes and channels which take the form of a constantly evolving aquatic mosaic that is home to the largest array of electric fish in the world. The site protects key threatened species, including giant arapaima fish, the Amazonian manatee, the black caiman and two species of river dolphin.
5 – Cerrado Protected Areas: Chapada dos Veadeiros and Emas National Parks — The two sites included in the designation contain flora and fauna and key habitats that characterize the Cerrado – one of the world’s oldest and most diverse tropical ecosystems. For millennia, these sites have served as refuge for several species during periods of climate change and will be vital for maintaining the biodiversity of the Cerrado region during future climate fluctuations.
6 – Discovery Coast Atlantic Forest Reserves — The Discovery Coast Atlantic Forest Reserves, in the states of Bahia and Espírito Santo, consist of eight separate protected areas containing 112,000 ha of Atlantic forest and associated shrub (restingas). The rainforests of Brazil’s Atlantic coast are the world’s richest in terms of biodiversity. The site contains a distinct range of species with a high level of endemism and reveals a pattern of evolution that is not only of great scientific interest but is also of importance for conservation.
7 – Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia — As the first capital of Brazil, from 1549 to 1763, Salvador de Bahia witnessed the blending of European, African and Amerindian cultures. It was also, from 1558, the first slave market in the New World, with slaves arriving to work on the sugar plantations. The city has managed to preserve many outstanding Renaissance buildings. A special feature of the old town are the brightly coloured houses, often decorated with fine stucco-work.
8 – Historic Centre of São Luís — The late 17th-century core of this historic town, founded by the French and occupied by the Dutch before coming under Portuguese rule, has preserved the original rectangular street plan in its entirety. Thanks to a period of economic stagnation in the early 20th century, an exceptional number of fine historic buildings have survived, making this an outstanding example of an Iberian colonial town.
9 – Historic Centre of the Town of Diamantina — Diamantina, a colonial village set like a jewel in a necklace of inhospitable rocky mountains, recalls the exploits of diamond prospectors in the 18th century and testifies to the triumph of human cultural and artistic endeavour over the environment.
10 – Historic Centre of the Town of Goiás — Goiás testifies to the occupation and colonization of the lands of central Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries. The urban layout is an example of the organic development of a mining town, adapted to the conditions of the site. Although modest, both public and private architecture form a harmonious whole, thanks to the coherent use of local materials and vernacular techniques.
11 – Historic Centre of the Town of Olinda — Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, the town’s history is linked to the sugar-cane industry. Rebuilt after being looted by the Dutch, its basic urban fabric dates from the 18th century. The harmonious balance between the buildings, gardens, 20 Baroque churches, convents and numerous small passos (chapels) all contribute to Olinda’s particular charm.
12 – Historic Town of Ouro Preto — Founded at the end of the 17th century, Ouro Preto (Black Gold) was the focal point of the gold rush and Brazil’s golden age in the 18th century. With the exhaustion of the gold mines in the 19th century, the city’s influence declined but many churches, bridges and fountains remain as a testimony to its past prosperity and the exceptional talent of the Baroque sculptor Aleijadinho.
13 – Iguaçu National Park — The park shares with Iguazú National Park in Argentina one of the world’s largest and most impressive waterfalls, extending over some 2,700 m. It is home to many rare and endangered species of flora and fauna, among them the giant otter and the giant anteater. The clouds of spray produced by the waterfall are conducive to the growth of lush vegetation.
14 – Pantanal Conservation Area — The Pantanal Conservation Complex consists of a cluster of four protected areas with a total area of 187,818 ha. Located in western central Brazil at the south-west corner of the State of Mato Grosso, the site represents 1.3% of Brazil’s Pantanal region, one of the world’s largest freshwater wetland ecosystems. The headwaters of the region’s two major river systems, the Cuiabá and the Paraguay rivers, are located here, and the abundance and diversity of its vegetation and animal life are spectacular.
15 – Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos —This sanctuary in Minas Gerais, south of Belo Horizonte, was built in the second half of the 18th century. It consists of a church with a magnificent Rococo interior of Italian inspiration; an outdoor stairway decorated with statues of the prophets; and seven chapels illustrating the Stations of the Cross, in which the polychrome sculptures by Aleijadinho are masterpieces of a highly original, moving, expressive form of Baroque art.
16 – Serra da Capivara National Park — Many of the numerous rock shelters in the Serra da Capivara National Park are decorated with cave paintings, some more than 25,000 years old. They are an outstanding testimony to one of the oldest human communities of South America.
17 – Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis: Ruins of São Miguel das Missões in Rio Grande do Sul — (shared with Argentina) – The ruins of São Miguel das Missões in Brazil, and those of San Ignacio Miní, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa María la Mayor in Argentina, lie at the heart of a tropical forest. They are the impressive remains of five Jesuit missions, built in the land of the Guaranis during the 17th and 18th centuries. Each is characterized by a specific layout and a different state of conservation.
18 – São Francisco Square in the Town of São Cristóvão — São Francisco Square, in the town of São Cristovão, is a quadrilateral open space surrounded by substantial early buildings such as São Francisco Church and convent, the Church and Santa Casa da Misericórdia, the Provincial Palace and the associated houses of different historical periods surrounding the Square. This monumental ensemble, together with the surrounding 18th- and 19th- century houses, creates an urban landscape which reflects the history of the town since its origin. The Franciscan complex is an example of the typical architecture of the religious order developed in north-eastern Brazil.