Only an hour’s drive north from Rio, the summer getaway of the Brazilian emperor and his family still provides a welcome refuge, offering—aside from imperial trappings—cool respite, fine food, and mountain scenery. Upon visiting this idyllic region, Dom Pedro I was so enchanted by the majestic landscapes and moderate temperatures that he drew up plans for a villa. However, it fell to his son, Pedro II—who founded Petrópolis (named after his imperialness) in 1843—to actually build his dream house, which, in keeping with the emperor’s lofty ambitions, ended up as a full-fledged royal palace. Exploring Petrópolis by foot is easy, but if you’re feeling lazy, or romantic, or both, you can also hire a horse-drawn carriage, available in front of the Museu Imperial.Not wanting to be out of the loop, barons, counts, and marquises came flocking to construct elegant mansions. The town’s alpine climes also attracted numerous German immigrants, which explains the Bohemian influence present in the architecture as well as the hearty German food and pastries available at local bars and bistros. If you’re seeking tranquility, you’ll find more of it during the week, since weekends (particularly in the summertime) fill up with Cariocas.
Exploring Petrópolis by foot is easy, but if you’re feeling lazy, or romantic, or both, you can also hire a horse-drawn carriage, available in front of the Museu Imperial. Having a car, while not essential, is a bonus since you can easily go zooming off to nearby towns and take in a fuller range of natural attractions. Many appealing (and luxurious) lodges are hidden in beautifully remote spots, as are many gourmet restaurants.
Information & Getting There
Petrotur (tel. 0800/024-1516) operates several kiosks throughout town, including at the Rodoviária (8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily) and at the Palácio de Cristal (Rua Alfredo Pacha, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun.). The website offers information in both Portuguese and English.
From Rio (1.5 hours), Única/Fácil (tel. 21/2263-8792) provides bus service to Petrópolis’s spanking new bus station, the Terminal Rodoviário Leonel Brizola (tel. 24/2249-9858). From here, connect to a local bus to get to Centro (R$2) or take a cab (R$25). Buses leave approximately every 15 minutes. The 90-minute ride costs around R$16. By car from Rio, take BR-040, which offers a splendid if hair-raising hour-long drive through the mountains (beware of rain and crowded weekend rush hours).
Most of historic Petrópolis lies beyond the somewhat congested commercial center, concentrated in a bucolic cluster of streets lined with 19th-century mansions and laced with tree-shaded canals. Many of the most splendid casas are on the main street of Avenida Koeler.
Surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens, the elegant neoclassical pink edifice that functioned as Dom Pedro II’s summer digs now houses the Museu Imperial (Rua da Imperatriz 220, tel. 24/2245-5550, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$8). After replacing your shoes with soft-soled slippers, you can glide around the gleaming parquet floors and inspect the myriad regal trappings whose highlights include Dom Pedro I’s golden scepter and Dom Pedro II’s fairy tale–like crown encrusted with 639 diamonds and 77 pearls. From the ceremonial throne room and the ornate dining room—where the elaborately set table makes you feel as if hungry royals could show up at any minute—to the stables and even the royal commode, the palace gives you a rare day-in-the-life glimpse of an emperor in the tropics. At night a sound-and-light show (8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., R$20) illuminates the palace facade. Even if you don’t understand the Portuguese narration, the music and setting create a beguiling atmosphere.
Catedral de São Pedro de Alcântara
The imposing French neo-Gothic Catedral de São Pedro de Alcântara (Rua São Pedro de Alcântara 60, tel. 24/2242-4300, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily), with its 70-meter (230-foot) tower (you can climb to the top—169 stairs—for R$8), wasn’t completed until 1939. Aside from its somber aura and lovely stained-glass windows—depicting scenes from poems written by the multitalented Dom Pedro II—its main attraction is the marble, bronze, and onyx Imperial Mausoleum housing the mortal remains of Dom Pedro II, his wife, Dona Teresa Cristina, and their daughter, Princesa Isabel.
Palácio de Cristal
The Palácio de Cristal (Rua Alfredo Pacha, tel. 24/2247-3721, 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) is a striking iron-structured glass palace that was made in France and assembled in Brazil for Princesa Isabel. The princess held fashionable balls and parties here, the most memorable of which occurred in 1888, when she gave out letters of liberation to slaves before signing the Lei Áurea, which officially ended slavery in Brazil. Isabel’s husband, the Conde d’Eu, used the palace as a hothouse, where he cultivated orchids. In modern times, it is used as a stage for theatrical and musical events.
Casa de Santos Dumont
Brazilians have long snubbed their noses at the Wright Brothers. As far as they’re concerned, the first human being to take to the skies in a plane was Alberto Santos Dumont, who in 1906 completed the first nonassisted flight in his plane, which he baptized 14-Bis. Flying machines aside, Santos Dumont was an avid builder and inventor. He designed the gracious house known as Casa de Santos Dumont (Rua do Encanto 22, tel. 24/2247- 3158, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$5). Aside from his personal effects, the house displays various other inventions, among them an alcohol-heated shower and a bed that can be transformed into a desk.
Slightly outside of the center, most easily reached by car or taxi, the Palácio Quitandinha (Av. Joaquim Rola 2, tel. 24/2245-2020, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., R$5) is an impressive if slightly jarring Norman-style palace that was built in the 1940s to house the largest and most glamorous hotel-casino in all of Latin America. While it attracted the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, and Lana Turner, its days as a luxury gaming den were short-lived; in 1946 gambling was outlawed in Brazil, and the casino was transformed into a posh apartment complex. Today, it functions as a SESC events center. You can explore its surprisingly vibrant interior—the work of famed American decorator and Hollywood set designer Dorothy Draper, who irreverently colored the walls in tones of shocking pink, scarlet, and turquoise, reminiscent of a Technicolor movie. Note that the lagoon out front is shaped like Brazil.
Casa de Petrópolis
The former home of José Tavares Guerra, nephew of the Barão de Mauá, the Casa de Petrópolis (Rua Ipiranga 716, tel. 24/2231-8718, noon–6 p.m. Thurs.–Tues., R$6)—also known as the Casa da Ipiranga—is a Victorian mansion whose architecture was inspired by Guerra’s early years spent living and studying in England. Guided tours are offered of the sumptuous interior with its crystal chandeliers, brocade-covered walls, marble fireplaces, and polished jacaranda furniture. The lovely gardens were a favorite strolling spot of Dom Pedro II.
Other Petrópolis palaces of note aren’t open to visitors, but their exteriors are worth a look. These include the pretty pink Palácio Princesa Isabel (Av. Koeler, 42), home of the imperial princess, and the grand Palácio Rio Negro (Av. Koeler, 255), built by the Barão do Rio Negro, a rich coffee planter. After he sold it, the house became the official summer residence of Brazil’s presidents. The Casa do Barão de Mauá (Praça da Confluência 3) was home to the Barão de Mauá—one Brazil’s most famous entrepreneurs, he founded the Banco do Brasil and was the man behind the construction of the nation’s first railroad, linking Rio and Petrópolis.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.