Colonial cities near Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Streets of whitewashed 18th-century houses with deep-blue or yellow window frames line steep and winding streets leading to lavishly decorated churches with Manueline façades and rich gilt interiors. Behind lies a backdrop of grey granite hills and green forests, still filled with tiny marmoset monkeys and flocks of canary-winged parakeets. The colonial gold-mining towns of southern Minas are the highlights of any visit to the state: islands of history and remnant forest in an otherwise dull agricultural landscape. Most lie south of Belo Horizonte and many people choose to visit them on the way to or from Rio. However, they make a far more charming and restful base than Belo Horizonte and we would recommend spending your time here, with just a quick stop in the capital on the way north or south.

Ins and outs

The cities fall into three groups: south of Belo Horizonte (Ouro Preto, Mariana, Congonhas do Campo, São João del Rei and Tiradentes); east (Sabará and Caeté); and north (Diamantina and Serro). All of the southern towns are on the main Rio highway (Ouro Preto being the closest to the state capital and São João del Rei the furthest from it). The towns to the east are on the main highway to Espírito Santo. Those to the north are a longer journey from Belo Horizonte, off the inland route to Bahia.

The most famous of the towns is
Ouro Preto
. It can be visited in a day trip from Belo Horizonte, however one day is not enough and the town is a much more interesting and pleasant place to stay than the capital.
Mariana
is easy to see in a day trip from Ouro Preto. The spectacular Aleijadinho church in
Congonhas do Campo
, further south, requires only a few hours to visit and is now reachable by a new highway. There is no need to stay overnight.
Tiradentes
, further south still, is the prettiest, best-preserved and most visited of all the cities but feels somewhat touristy and twee. Nearby,
São João del Rei
is more decrepit but very much a real city. They are linked at weekends by a 30-minute steam train ride and daily by frequent buses.
Sabará
and
Caeté
, to the east of the capital, can be visited as an easy day trip from Belo Horizonte or on the way to Espírito Santo.
Diamantina
and
Serro
are far to the north, on one of the routes to Bahia from Belo Horizonte, and are easiest to see as a stopover en route to Bahia.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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