Originally named Vila Rica ("rich town"), this 18th-century hill town 60 mi/100 km southeast of Belo Horizonte was once the wealthiest gold-mining center of Brazil. (The name Ouro Preto means "black gold.") We think it's a must-see, particularly for architecture and history buffs.
Unlike many other colonial towns in Brazil, Ouro Preto's privileged location—in a valley surrounded by steep mountains—means its center has been unaffected by encroaching modern buildings and skyscrapers. Strolling through the cobblestoned streets lined with baroque churches and impressive mansions is like stepping back in time. Its churches in particular are quite magnificent. Among the highlights are the Igreja de Nossa Senhora de Pilar (much of it covered in gold leaf) and the Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis, a masterpiece of Brazil's genius baroque sculptor, Aleijadinho.
There are also some interesting museums, including the Museu de Oratorio (with a fabulous collection of oratories) and the Museu da Escola de Minas (containing 25,000 gems and mineral samples). Since it is also a university town, Ouro Preto has a vibrant nightlife and cultural scene.
The town can be seen as a day trip from Belo Horizonte, but we recommend at least a day and night in Ouro Preto, just to absorb its special atmosphere. Nearby Mariana, filled with baroque churches, is also a gem. The terrain there is relatively flat, so those who have difficulty walking might find it an alternative to steep Ouro Preto.
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