Originally a mining town founded at the start of the gold and diamond rush, at the end of the 17th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was one of Brazil’s most progressive cities at one time, claiming great historical significance as the largest gold mining center of the Americas, and the capital of Minas Gerais state until 1897—where the country’s first steps for independence were taken. Out of its great mineral wealth, Ouro Preto became the treasure trove of Baroque gems is it today, its most splendid feature the 18th century art and architecture found atop a steep hill of knotted cobblestone streets and nestled at the feet of the surrounding Serra do Espinhaço mountains.
A stroll through the town offers a grand display of beautifully-preserved churches—many notable for their religious art and Baroque architecture, which are highly reflective of the Barroco Mineiro style: elaborately-carved doorways, richly-painted interiors generously adorned with sculptures, and perhaps too generously overlaid with gold leaf; as well as chapels, colonial palaces, museums, historical monuments, bridges, and fountains, that all make this town one of the finest examples of South American (Portuguese) colonial and Baroque architecture. Included amongst these gems are some of the finest works of Aleijadinho, colonial Brazil’s greatest artist, including such masterpieces as São Francisco de Assis (St. Francis of Assisi) and Nossa Senhora do Carmo.
To get a feel for the local life in this lively university town, visit Praça Tiradentes, the bustling central square—named after the former resident Tiradentes, a martyr of the republican liberation movement who is considered a national hero. There are also monuments and a nice selection of shops and cafés to be visited.