Historic Town of Ouro Preto

By Stillman Rogers

What is Ouro Preto?

Founded at the end of the 17th century when early prospectors rubbed black stones from the river and discovered the stones were gold, Ouro Preto (Black Gold) was the focal point of the Brazilian gold rush and Brazil’s golden age in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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“With the exhaustion of the gold mines in the late 19th century, the city’s influence declined but many churches, bridges and fountains remain as a testimony to its past prosperity” as well as to the talent of its Baroque architects, sculptors and local stone craftsmen, according to UNESCO.

Looking down a street, a row of market stalls along the street with roofs over them. Beyond them, the church: white with brown trim. Two towers, one on either side of an ornate entrance. The church isn't very large: just about 2 stories tall in the front, with an additional story or two in the two towers.
Igreja de São Francisco de Assis

Included in the UNESCO site are:

  • Museo de Inconfidencia (1780s), a museum about the 18th-century rebellion against Portugal
  • Municipal Theater and Opera House (1769) 
  • Casa dos Contas (1780s), the original mint and jail
  • Nossa Senhora do Carmo Carmo (1766) with 18th-century Portuguese tiles
  • Igreja de São Francisco de Assis (1776), a rococo church by 18th-century architect and artist Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho
  • Nossa Senhora do Pilar (1731), with almost half a ton of gold covering its interior
  • Museum of Padre Faria (mid-1700s), the only remaining example of the earliest construction in the Ouro Preto mountains.
A baroque painting shows, presumably, Jesus in the center, with a very busy assemblage of angels, both in the form of cherubs and some who look older. Pillars extend down the side walls, with more angels and clouds all over the place.
Detail of the ceiling in the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis

Why is Ouro Preto a UNESCO World Heritage site?

By the 18th century, the city of Ouro Preto was prospering as a center of gold extraction and becoming a city of public squares, official buildings, private residences, businesses and places of worship. Built substantially under the Baroque influences of the 17th and 18th centuries, the architectural style of the city is also influenced by its Portuguese heritage and independence movements.

The design and execution of these structures by native architects and artisans, such as Antonio Francisco Lisboa, and the skill of local artisans in executing the work, have left a treasury of significant value to humanity. These examples of religious and civic architecture and the accompanying works of art in the city are preserved in their original form and locations, maintaining the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries and including many important works of the Brazilian Baroque period.

A view down a steep cobbled street, with white houses on either side, a few stories tall. Each has colored paint around the windows and terra cotta tile roofs. A hill rises in the distance, covered in trees with buildings showing through the trees, and a church with two towers at the top.
Street scene with the church of São Francisco de Paula on the hill in the background.

What can you expect on a visit to Ouro Preto?

Ouro Preto is an immersion in the culture, streetscape and architecture of three centuries past. It is eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture on a grand scale, seldom experienced in this fullness. It was a city of great wealth and with a pride in showing it in its public buildings. The welcome is warm and there is community pride in its treasure. While you could see the main attractions in two days, there is more to see and do, so you may wish to stay longer in Ouro Preto.

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Is Ouro Preto worth visiting?

For anyone interested in the deeper history of art and architecture in Brazil, this city should be on the short list. The city’s origins as a gold-mining center are visible in its churches, and its well-tended architecture is a joy to explore. Most of its treasures are within comfortable walking distance of each other.

What sorts of travelers would like Ouro Preto?

Lovers of things baroque will be delighted by Ouro Preto. It is colonial in origin with its baroque forms colored by indigenous objects and styles. Anyone who appreciates South American colonial architecture will love this place for the quantity and wonderful condition of the city’s official, commercial and residential buildings, most of which date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The church interiors encrusted in gold will dazzle you.

Facing the altar, with some of the side walls and arched ceiling visible. Every inch is ornately decorated with religious and natural imagery, as well as architectural features like arches and such. Literally all of it is covered in gold.
Inside the church of Our Lady of Pilar, Nossa Senhora de Pilar.

Tips for visiting Ouro Preto

The streets are steep in places, and paved with cobblestones, so have comfortable walking shoes.

Because of its wealth of architecture, visitors should plan on at least two days, allowing time for exploratory walks and enjoying the city’s warm ambiance.

Text: Historic town of Ouro Preto, Brazil. Images: two different views of the town. Top includes the cathedral, bottom a city street.

Where is Ouro Preto?

Ouro Preto is at 20° 23’ 51” south and 43° 30’ 0” west. It is about a six-hour drive (357 km, 248 miles) on route BR 356 north from Rio de Janeiro and two hours’ drive (100 km, 62.3 miles on route BR 040 from Belo Horizonte (which is also worth a stop for its art nouveau/deco and modernist architecture, with several Oscar Niemeyer buildings).

Parking at Estacionamento Publico Ouro Preto (R. Ver. Rodrigo Tófolo, 134-178) is inexpensive, and within walking distance of the major attractions.

To get there by public transport, fly to Belo Horizonte (1 hour) and take a bus (2 hours) to Ouro Preto.

For more information on Ouro Preto see the official website of the city.

Have you been to Ouro Preto? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

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