Written by Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Jul 31, 2020
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Brasília, which succeeded Rio de Janeiro as Brazil's capital in 1960, was built in less than three years. Its location in the center of Brazil was chosen to help open up the western part of the country.
The extraordinarily ambitious plan, mainly the work of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, caused a sensation with its avant-garde architecture and its innovative city planning ideals. Because Brasília was planned and constructed as a whole piece, it doesn't have the mix of commercial, residential, and government functions that happens when a city grows over time; instead, these uses are strictly divided.
This makes it easy to find the architectural highlights — its prime tourist attractions — most of which are in one large area, but these are widely separated from the commercial and residential neighborhoods where you can join in local life.
The central area is in the form of a large cross with a curving north-south axis, Eixo Rodoviário, and a straight east-west axis, Eixo Monumental. Esplanada dos Ministérios is the central axis with the principal official buildings. Be prepared for plenty of walking, or join a tour to cover the distances between sights.
To find all the best things to do, use this handy list of the top tourist attractions in Brasilia.
See also: Where to Stay in Brasília
1. Praça dos Tràs Poderes
Brasilia's governmental center combines some of its most striking landmark buildings and monuments into a stunning showcase of modern architecture.
As the name of the Praça dos Tràs Poderes (Square of the Three Powers) suggests, it is surrounded by buildings housing the executive, legislature, and judiciary: the Palácio do Planalto, the official residence of the President; the Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Court); and the Congresso Nacional.
Also around the square are the Historical Museum of Brasília and the Panteão da Liberdade (Pantheon of Freedom), designed by Oscar Niemeyer to honor the rebels of the Inconfidància Mineira of 1789 and President Tancredo Neves, who died in 1985 soon after taking office.
On the south side is the Palácio dos Arcos. The Mastro da Bandeira is a 91-meter flagpole from which flies a 73-meter Brazilian flag.
2. Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida
The city's most famous landmark is the unique circular cathedral, designed by Niemeyer and completed in 1970. Its 16 curved concrete columns soar upward to create a crown that surrounds a glass roof. The natural lighting effect inside is spectacular.
When you enter the church, through a darkened tunnel, you will be surprised to discover that what you saw from the outside is only the building's roof; most of the cathedral is underground. The roof itself is composed of two layers, with plexiglass over the stained glass.
The four large statues outside the entrance represent the Four Evangelists; also outside is a 20-meter freestanding bell tower.
Address: Esplanada dos Ministérios, Brasilia, Planalto Central
3. Palácio dos Arcos
The Palácio dos Arcos, also known as the Palácio Itamaraty, houses the Foreign Ministry and is one of Oscar Niemeyer's greatest achievements. A long line of symmetrical arches stands above a reflecting pool, the whole ensemble set in beautiful gardens designed by the noted Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
The lavishly decorated interior surrounds a semi-roofed courtyard with a garden. The building is open to the public, and a highlight of the interior is the spiraling freestanding staircase, which seems to be suspended in air.
Address: Esplanada dos Ministérios, Brasilia, Planalto Central
4. Monumento JK: President Kubitschek Memorial
The dramatic monument on Praça do Cruzeiro is the memorial to President Juscelino Kubitschek, the larger-than-life president of Brazil who is considered the founder of Brasilia. The monument was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, and many consider it among his finest works.
Along with Kubitschek's tomb and a museum devoted to him, the monument contains interesting exhibits on the city he envisioned and saw through to reality, including early plans, construction photography, and other materials that illustrate Brasilia's history.
Around the monument are artworks by contemporary sculptors, which along with its historical interest, make it a popular attraction for tourists.
Address: Praça do Cruzeiro, Brasilia, Planalto Central
5. Lago do Paranoá, Ponte Juscelino Kubitschek and Ponteo Lago Sud
On the east side of the city, the Rio Paranoá has been dammed to form a large lake, the Lago do Paranoá. Along its shore are embassies and consulates, sports clubs, restaurants, the University, the Olympic Center, and the Palácio da Alvorada, official residence of the President of the Republic.
The Ponte Juscelino Kubitschek, better known as Ponte JK, is a concrete and steel bridge across the lake, supported by three crisscrossing arches that tower more than 60 meters above the water. Designed by architect Alexandre Chan and structural engineer Mário Vila Verde, the bridge has received several architectural awards since its completion in 2002. It is especially striking at night, when floodlights accent its soaring curves.
One of the most popular places to visit on weekends is the Pontao do Lago Sul, a promenade along the south side of the lake lined with restaurants and ice-cream stands.
6. Santuario Dom Bosco (Sanctuary of Dom Bosco)
The church of São João Bosco is dedicated to the 19th-century Italian priest canonized in 1934, whose vision of the foundation of a Utopian capital city in the New World near the 15th parallel is considered the inspiration for Brasilia.
This sanctuary was built right on the 15th parallel. Architect Vasconcelos Naves designed a square building of 40 tall pointed arches that frame tall windows of stained glass in multiple shades of blue, designed by Claudio Naves and made by Hubert van Doorne.
The windows make up most of the walls, and an enormous chandelier is made of more than 7,000 pieces of Murano glass. The large cedar Crucifix over the altar was carved by Gotfredo Tralli from a single tree.
7. Congresso Nacional (National Congress)
Yet another landmark of modern architecture is the pair of buildings housing the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil (the lower house) and the Senate, along with their offices. For this, Oscar Niemeyer chose two sharply contrasting designs.
For the two houses, he created dish shapes that have been referred to as flying saucers, separating them by a pair of sharply linear rectangular towers. Around these photogenic buildings is a broad lawn with a reflecting pool, and inside are exhibits that include a Tunnel of Time.
You can tour the complex with an English-speaking guide.
Address: Via Eixo Monumental, Brasilia, Planalto Central
8. Parque Nacional de Brasília
Brasília National Park covers 28,000 hectares in the northwest part of the city, protecting a number of different environments, including the low and crooked trees of the cerrado, the bush steppe of the Brazilian interior, expanses of scrub and grassland, swampy palm-scattered plains, and the imposing trees of the gallery forests found on riverbanks and lakeshores.
The streams in this area, dammed to form Lake Santa Maria, supply the whole of Brasília with drinking water, and among the park's greatest attractions are its mineral springs.
Along with its varied flora typical of the wild areas of midwestern Brazil, the park protects a rich and varied fauna, with innumerable species of birds, rheas, wild pigs, giant armadillos, capybaras, pampas deer, rare maned wolves, jaguars, caimans, anacondas, and other species of snakes.
You can follow either of two main walking trails through the lush forests: the short Capivara, about a 20-minute walk, or the hour-long Cristal trail. You can also join the locals soaking in one of the two mineral pools.
9. Monumental Axis and Torre de TV (Television Tower)
The 224-meter-tall Brasilia TV Tower is a good place to visit to get an overview of the city and a sense of its layout. It stands at one end of the Burle Marx Garden, and from this vantage point, you get a good view of the entire Monumental Axis (Eixo Monumental) and its landmarks, from the President Kubitschek Memorial to the towers of the governmental complex.
An observation deck at 74 meters is open to the public free every day, and on Sundays, a craft market takes place at its base. South of the Axis is the popular Sarah Kubitschek City Park, an expansive green space with ponds, theme rides, cafés, sports fields, concert space, and weekend flea markets
Address: Eixo Monumental, Brasilia, Planalto Central
10. Memorial dos Povos Indígenas (Museum of Indigenous People)
This outstanding collection of native Brazilian art and artifacts not only records pre-colonial native culture but celebrates the living traditions of Brazil's indigenous peoples today. Historical and present-day implements - pottery, baskets, weapons, paddles, and feather headdresses - join art works created especially for the museum in a collection considered one of the best in South America.
In designing the unusual round building patterned after a traditional Yanomamö round house, Oscar Niemeyer consulted with Yanomamö shamans and elders for authenticity. The museum shop is an excellent place to find handmade native crafts.
Address: Esplanada dos Ministérios, Brasília, Planalto Central
Where to Stay in Brasília for Sightseeing
We recommend these centrally located hotels in Brasília near the city's famous landmarks, monuments, and museums:
- Windsor Plaza Brasilia Hotel: This luxury high-rise hotel features an inviting pool and hot tub, free buffet breakfast, and a sauna and gym.
- Windsor Brasilia Hotel: For a mid-range option, this hotel is a great choice. It's located near a shopping mall and the property features modern decor, indoor pool, and spa with sauna.
- Grand Mercure Brasilia Eixo: This property is known affordable rates, proximity to shops, a restaurant, friendly staff, and contemporary style.
- Brasilia Apart Hotéis: For budget conscious travelers, this high-rise hotel offers good value with an outdoor pool, on-site restaurant, and free parking.