Brasilia, the nation's capital, was constructed from scratch in the late 1950s, carved out of the land 575 mi/925 km northwest of Rio de Janeiro. Located near the geographical center of the country, it replaced Rio de Janeiro as the capital in 1960. Built in only three years under the direction of Brazil's leading architects, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, and landscaper Roberto Burle Marx, Brasilia was intended to draw development to the country's interior.

The city was laid out in the shape of an airplane (a modernist metaphor): Government and administrative buildings form the cockpit and fuselage, and residential and shopping areas fill in the wings. The city was planned for a maximum population of 500,000, with space set aside in every residential block for apartments, restaurants, shops and services. No provisions were made, however, for the great mass of nongovernment workers (more than 1 million in number) who provide services to the city and who live in several "satellite communities" (more commonly referred to as slums).

In addition, there are a few other details that weren't very well-planned. For instance, even though the temperature is often blazing, there's little shade, and every building must be air conditioned. It's also a city that's convenient only if you have a car.

Unless you're particularly interested in modern architecture, don't go out of your way to visit Brasilia—especially at the expense of some of the country's other attractions. If you do go, one or two days will be ample time to see some of the more impressive buildings that have earned it a place on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites: the Palacio do Congresso (National Congress Building), Palacio do Planalto (presidential mansion and offices), Palacio da Justica (Supreme Court, with its artificial waterfall) and the Palacio de Itamaraty (Foreign Ministry). For a nice view of the main buildings, go to the Praca dos Tres Poderes (Square of the Three Powers—referring to the legislative, executive and judicial branches). Afterward, see the impressive National Cathedral, built in the shape of a crown with angels suspended within.

You'll find a good view of the city atop the main television tower, where you'll be able to see that the city is indeed shaped like an airplane. If you have more time, visit the national museum (historical displays and a comprehensive modern firearms collection).

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