Ouro Preto was bumped to a World Unesco Site in 1980, the first Brazilian city graced with such an honour. Built on the skeletons of 270 underground mines and on the backs of the slaves that excavated them, this is one of the best places to explore Brazil’s colonial past.
The original name for Ouro Preto was Vila Rica or, in English, ‘Rich Village’, where the Portuguese flocked for their chance of Brazil’s ‘El Dorado’ riches. During this gold rush, the name switched to Ouro Preto, meaning black gold, as a layer of iron oxide would blacken the city’s gold.
Nowadays, the city has a prestigious university, which is littered with university hall accommodations called Repúblicas. It also attracted a hefty handful of artists there to soak in the inspiring landscapes.
Ouro Preto is a touristic, countryside city of 75,000 inhabitants. This guide will cover what you should see, do, buy, and eat in Ouro Preto.
What to do in Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais
Visit Ouro Preto’s 17th Century Churches
São Francisco Church on Largo de Coimbra in Ouro Preto Historic Center
São Francisco church is enlaced with intricate religious paintings and sculptures dating from the 1700s. The author of many of these works of art was Aleijadinho. Born in 1738, baroque artist Aleijadinho is known for his pedra-sabão sculptures, wood carvings, and paintings. Pedra-sabão is a soft stone found in Minas Gerais that lends itself to easy sculpting. This rock entwines throughout the church in intricate baroque religious depictions.
Aleijadinho was born to Isabel, a slave, and the Portuguese, Manuel Francisco Lisboa, who was also an artist. Being bi-racial, Aleijadinho could not sign his work, though his fame grew throughout Minas. He is considered the most celebrated Brazilian baroque artist.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of this church is its hand-painted ceiling. It depicts Nossa Senhora dos Anjos (Our Lady of Angels) ascending away from Earth. It was painted over 9 years by Manuel da Costa Ataide.
Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Pilar on Praça Monsenhor Castilho Barbosa, 17
This church has over 400kg of gold hand-painted onto the lush interior. A dedication to Nossa Senhora do Pilar. This refers to a moment when the Virgin Mary appeared to the Apostle James while seated on a pillar, hence the church’s name – Our Lady of the Pillar. This golden church is something to behold.
Guignard House Museum and Gallery (Museu Casa Guignard)
Brazilian painter Guignard lived out his last years in Ouro Preto. And this is where a museum stands in his honour. You can also visit his grave in the cemetery of São Francisco Church in the historic center.
Guignard spent much of his childhood in Europe with his mother and German stepfather. There, he moved into the European art scene, rubbing shoulders with Picasso and Matisse.
Guinard is well-known for his landscape paintings, but later in his career, he devoted himself to illustration. In this gallery dedicated to Guinard in Ouro Preto, you can gaze at his over 100 letters written and illustrated from 1932 to 1937 to his love interest, Amalita and her sisters. Apparently, he never sent them.
Opening Times: Tuesday to Friday: 12 PM to 18 PM. Saturday, Sunday, and holidays: 9 AM to 15 PM.
Address of Museu Casa Guignard: Rua Conde de Bobadela (Rua Direita), 110 – Ouro Preto
Museum of “Inconfidência”
In 1789, a group from Minas tried to lead a revolution against the Portuguese. It failed. Read about Tiradentes and How to Wrangle Two Independence Days in our post. Brazilians still celebrate the failure, however, as a national holiday. The Museum of “Inconfidence” was named after that uprising. Interestingly, it is located in Ouro Preto’s former jail. The very place they locked up Tiradentes (the revolution leader) until they executed him.
Opening Times: Tuesday to Sunday: 10 AM to 18 PM.
Ticket cost: R$10
Museum Address: Praça Tiradentes, 139 – Centro Histórico
Visit an Old Mine in Ouro Preto
Historically, there are 270 mines perched under the streets of Ouro Preto. A handful of those are still open and preserved for guided tours. Watch out as the tunnel ceilings are low, and the accompanying narrative is dismal. Mining and the gold rush are a dark part of our past.
Chico Rei Mine
The total area of this mine is 8 km², including 175 open galleries dug three levels deep.
Mina do Chico Rei is located on Rua Dom Silvério, 108 – Antônio Dias.
Open Times: Monday – Sunday, 8 AM – 5 PM.
Entrance Fee: around R$30.
Santa Rita Mine
The Santa Rita Mine dates back to the 18th century. It is located next to the archaeological site of Padre Faria. It has approximately 115m open for visiting, though the excavation site is extensive, and an end has never been located (due to dangerous and precarious tunnels).
Mina Santa Rita is located on Rua Santa Rita, 171 – Padre Faria.
Open Times: Closed on Mondays. Tuesday – Saturday, 9 AM – 6 PM. Sunday 9 AM – 1 PM. You can also book night tours, accompanied by haunting tales of the Mine’s past.
Entrance fee: around R$30.
What to Buy in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais
Precious Stones and Jewellery
Some of the honeycomb mines of Ouro Preto are still mined today on a small scale. Ouro Preto stocks refined stones in jewelry stores across the city and rough precious stones you can take to a jeweler of your choice.
Around Tiradentes Square, there are large concentrations of these jewelry stores. So you can find the rocks you’re looking for!
Stone Artisanal Handicrafts Typical of Minas Gerais
Pedra-sabão (soap-stone) is softer than marble and granite and malleable to carve. The tradition of carving soapstone was carried over by slaves from the Monomopata Empire. This empire was spread between the current positions of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, regions that were also bursting with soap-stone.
The Feirinha de Pedra-Sabão (or the Soapstone Market) faces the São Francisco church. The open-air stalls are a trove of clocks, mini-fountains, plates, and mugs carved in this typical Mineiro style.
The Feirinha de Pedra Sabão market is open daily, 8 AM – 6 PM.
What to eat in Ouro Preto
Fogão a Lenha – Firewood Cooking Mineiro Style
A traditional cooking method in Minas Gerais is simmering pots over real wood stoves. Stewing for hours, the food absorbs a delicious caramelized, smokey flavour. These restaurants are set up in one of two ways: an all-you-can-eat fee or a per kilo price of what’s on your plate. The buffet includes greens, beans, meat, and some ambiguous animal parts you can take or leave.
There won’t always be labels for the food, but going in blind might be an even greater experience for your taste buds anyway.
Feijão Tropeiro – Refried Beans and Pork Rice
Feijão Tropeiro is a power food. Mixing bacon, pork sausage, refried beans, and kale with rice, this is the dish to power you up all those hilly Ouro Preto streets.
Suggested Restaurants in Ouro Preto Historic Downtown
Bené da Flauta: near São Francisco Church, this restaurant has views across the hills of Ouro Preto.
Escadabaixo Bar e Cozinha: has a maze of inside and outside seating offering drinks, hearty meals, or snacks (petiscos).
The Logistics of Getting to Ouro Preto
Ouro Preto is two hours by road to Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais. Rent a car and drive yourself to Ouro Preto from Belo Horizonte or catch a coach from the BH Terminal Central. The bus is about R$60 each way and can be bought on this website.
Driving from Rio de Janeiro to Ouro Preto takes about 6 hours. Catching a coach will take about 9 hours and cost R$250 each way. Buy bus tickets to Ouro Preto here.
Stay in a hotel in the historical center of Ouro Preto. This is an exceptionally hilly town. You want to be close to the action. If you are driving into Ouro Preto, check if your hotel has parking or a valet service. There is almost nowhere to park in the center of Ouro Preto.
We stayed in Pousada Classica just off the main Tiradentes square. It has parking, a free breakfast, and complimentary afternoon cakes with tea!