How Brasília came to be
The Brazilian JK, Juscelino Kubitschek the 21st President, went down in history for his ambitious “50 years in 5” project (50 anos em 5). A motto nodding at his government’s efforts to develop Brazil each year of his mandate the equivalent of 10 years of regular economic and social progress.
Some say he achieved it, but at a cost. In current money, economists estimate the construction of Brasília – JK’s most celebrated legacy – at US$83 billion. The rush to complete such a feat within one mandate vastly inflated investment. Increased by outlandish decisions like flying slabs of concrete by airplane, rather than the conventional method – first building a road. The roads came later as a web of tracks would eventually connect the remote capital to its people.
Brasília lies within the coordinates that Italian Saint Dom Bosco dreamt in 1883 would be a “utopian city.” In 1960, JK completed the new capital, redistributing the power to the center of the country. He had managed to lift the capital from the elites in Rio de Janeiro and rebuild it in the savanna, 1200KM northeast from Rio.
I’ve flown into Brasília from all directions: over the thunderstorms of the Amazon, across the marshlands of the Pantanal, up over the rolling hills of Minas Gerais and across the dry Sertão of the Northeast. The ambition to unify Brazil by dragging the capital Northwards was perhaps symbolic, but I believe it also managed to cash in on its diversity, which spreads out like a web in all directions from the new capital, Brasília.
Usually there are two reason to visit Brasília. You are gripped by the tumultuous politics of Brazil (perhaps even dragged into it) or you are intrigued by the futuristic architecture. Brasília was designed from the gardens upwards. With 50s curves, art deco shapes and sweeping bodies of water that contrast against the orange soil of the Brazilian cerrado (woodland savanna).
Instead of a downtown built from a splattering of businesses and shops, Brasilia centers around the ministries, congress and other government buildings. All connected by a series of underground tunnels – not unlike a secretive organization. Stretching out of the government hub are the two wings, Asa Sul and Asa Norte. From above Brasília resembles an airplane.
The buildings in the two wings vary, but each follows rigid architectural regulations. In Asa Sul, where we always stay, the apartment blocks are balanced on 50’s style columns. This leaves a communal sheltered area meant for residents to enjoy the outside in community with one another. Each building is also flanked by a small glass box where a doorman sits and surveys the area, collects deliveries and buzzes in the residents from the apartment block that towers above him.
Each superblock consists of seven of these column-balancing buildings. Scattered between superblocks is a designated “commercial” area, with shops, restaurants, churches, supermarkets and sometimes schools or health centers. The superblocks ascend in number streaming from the central hub, supposedly ensuring that each superblock would be self-sufficient. But not quite.
Getting Around Brasília
The businesses didn’t gather in the center of the city, as there isn’t one, instead they snatched up rental space where they could. The reality is monotonous rows of identical buildings and the need to travel to get to better shops or restaurants. It’s not unlike the US West, where space isn’t an issue, but a car is a necessity to avoid stretches of deserted sidewalks.
It also has some other problems of course. The modern construction of the capital, which boasts UNESCO World Heritage status has made prices skyrocket. Less well-off citizens live in the peripheral borders of the city, whilst Brasília remains the playground of politicians, public servants and wealthy business owners.
A car would be very helpful when visiting Brasília. The public transport is Brasília’s underground metro/ subway or the buses. However, depending on your accomodation and destination you will still walk significant distances relying soley on public transport. At night you can easily catch an uber for a small price (or during the day). Remember there is a zero drinking policy with driving in Brazil.
What to do in Brasília
Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx.
Visit the Brazilian Congress
The Brazilian Congress (Palácio do Congresso) was designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, as was much of Brasília and more than 600 buildings worldwide. This pivotal building features two central twin towers, flanked by two domes. The larger dome which is turned upwards belongs to the house of representatives, supposedly turned upwards to hear the ideologies, trends, worries and passions of the people. Whereas, the smaller dome facing downwards houses the Senate, symbolizing a space for reflection, balance and valuing the weight of experience and maturity.
- The congress offers free guided tours every 30 minutes Friday-Sunday (in Portuguese)
- Tours are from 9:00AM to 17:30PM.
- Mondays and Thursdays, you can pre-book onto an arranged tour (possible in English, French or Spanish).
These tours are a fascinating way to learn about the design of both houses, the connecting underground tunnels, the paintings, the tiles, and other curiosities. For instance the employee who for the last 17 years has carved out a design of the Brazilian flag on the carpet of the senate every fortnight!
Visit Brasília’s Botanical Garden
Brasília’s Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden) covers a vast area of Brazilian savannah, known as the cerrado which is the natural foliage of the ecosystem around Brasilia. This offers an opportunity to see tapirs, hummingbirds, as well as rarer more elusive species, like curl-crested jays, hedgehogs, anteaters and ocelots.
- Open 900AM-17:00PM Tuesday-Sunday
- R$5.00 to enter (approx. $1.40)
- Two restaurants offered:
Café Jardim Bom Demais serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and snacks located beside the main parking area. The restaurant also serves up brunch on blankets and small tables designed for guests to sit on the floor and eat.
Caliandra Café is situated around the corner facing one of the small lakes. It serves up more sophisticated food, inspired by Brazilian, African and European ingredients.
Ciliandra Café Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/caliandra_cafe/
Check out the Torre de TV & Feira Nordestino
For the best view of The Congress visit the Torre de TV (TV tower). There is an elevator that takes you up for free. Both day and night offer unique 360 degree views. The room also features tiles by Athos Bulcão, the same artist who designed the tiles inside the Brazilian congress, amongst other buildings.
In front of the tower there are fountains that exhibit a light show every 30 minutes from midday onwards.
Behind the TV tower is a Northeast Fair featuring food and artesanal products from the Northeastern region of Brazil. The fair is open Tues-Thurs between 9:00AM-17:00PM and Friday -Sunday until 18:00PM.
Visit 3 Brasília Churches
Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília
Brasília Metropolitan Cathedral was also designed by Oscar Niemeyer and the 16 concrete columns that circle the church symbolise two hands stretching up to heaven. The cathedral’s full name is Nossa Senhora Aparecida, Brazil’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary, that appeared in São Paulo in 1717 and performed several miracles. Inside, the modern stain glass designs immitate the 50s curves that are so often spotted around the city.
Igrejinha, meaning little church, is a small open plan church located between 307/308 Asa Sul. A gem of art and officially the first building to be completed in Brasília, this little chapel is well worth a visit. The building itself is shaped like the habit of a nun, designed once more by Oscar Niemeyer. The roof, which is the shape of a dove, represents the Holy Spirit.
The tiles on the outside of the church are again by Athos Bulcão. The blue paintings inside the chapel were applied much later and are the work of Brazilian painter Francisco Galeno. Read more about Brazilian painters you should know here.
Since the chapel remains open most day, you can wander in and see the art work. Igrejinha visiting hours are the following:
- Monday 9:00AM – 21:00PM
- Tuesday-Saturday 6:00AM – 20:00PM
- Sunday 6:00AM – 21:00PM
Santuário Dom Bosco
Santuária Dom Bosco is a church dedicated to the Italian Saint who prophesized the emergence of Brasília in 1883. Inside, the stain glass windows tinted in shades of blue bathe the space into azure hues. It is quite spectacular.
Opening hours of Santuário Dom Bosco are as follows:
- Monday – Saturday 7:00AM – 19:00PM.
- Sunday 7:00AM – 20:00PM
Go to City Park (Parque da Cidade Dona Sarah Kubitschek)
Nestled in the center of the capital Parque da Cidade covers an impressive 420 hectars, offering a space for Brasilienses (people from Brasília) to step away from the formal, bustle of business.
Amongst the attractions on offer are public BBQs (take your own meat and coal), beach tennis and volleyball courts, football pitches, tennis courts, playgrounds, shared cycling/ jogging lane, Kart racing track and more!
As a visitor to the city, this park is a great chance to spot owls native to the savanna vegetation. The owls make their nests in holes in the ground, where they stand guard fiercely day and night. You can also see many falcons known as carcarás in Portuguese, from the indigenous language of Tupi. Rent a bike from one of the many stations around the park from Friday-Sunday and cycle around looking out for the owls and other Brazilian birds. Renting a single bike is R$6/h and a double bike is R$12/h.
Live Music in Brasília
Clube do Choro
Brasília’s Choro Club is a space dedicated to live music, as well as a Choro school for musicians wanting to learn this unique Brazilian music. Choro, also known as Chorinho, features the guitar, flute, tambourine and cavaquinho (a 4-string Portuguese instrument).
At Clube do Choro there are performances almost every night. Use this website for a list of the upcoming shows at Clube do Choro. Purchase tickets at the box office between 10:00AM and 22:00PM Monday – Friday and Saturdays after 19:00PM. Or buy via the website: www.clubedochoro.com.br
The cost of tickets is R$40 (US$10) or half price for students and seniors.
Feitiço Mineiro is a restaurant and bar specializing in live music. Also the restaurant serves up a buffet of traditional Mineiro food (from the state of Minas Gerais). Watch out how much you choose though because you pay by weight of your plate.
Municipal Theatre and Brasília’s Stadium
Since Brasília is the capital, most cultural events and tours ensure they make a stop here. Therefore, check out the websites of the Stadium and Theatre for interesting concerts or games during your stay.