It will take you a full day at minimum to visit Brasília’s architectural marvels. Although most are located along the Eixo Monumental, its length, coupled with the inevitably scalding sun, means you’ll have to combine walking with buses and taxis to get from one end to the other. Even so, wear sunscreen, carry mineral water, and dress lightly (although not skimpily—no flip-flops, shorts, tank tops—since many of the sights you’ll be visiting are government buildings with dress codes).
It’s best to start at the tail end of the Eixo Monumental. From the lofty height of Praça do Cruzeiro, you are treated to an impressive view down the Eixo toward the Esplanada dos Ministérios. Surveying the scene is a monumental bronze statue of Juscelino Kubitschek (JK) inside a curving half shell.
An appropriate beginning to your exploration of Brasília is to pay homage to its founder at Niemeyer’s Memorial JK (Praça do Cruzeiro, tel. 61/3225-9451, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$6). Constructed out of white marble, its resemblances to an Egyptian pyramid are hardly coincidental. This reverent museum and shrine was inaugurated in 1981, five years after Kubitschek’s untimely death in a car accident. Upon entering, your eyes alight on the gold Rolex and identity documents found on the former president’s person when his body was removed from the crash. Aside from his library, you can inspect Kubitschek’s personal objects, clothing (JK was a notorious dandy), and a mint-condition 1973 Ford Galaxie he tooled around in. A rich collection of photographs, portraying the president’s life and the construction of his dream capital, provides an excellent overview of the city’s foundation and early years. Upstairs, the mortuary chamber, where Kubitschek’s body rests in a black marble sarcophagus, is illuminated by colorful beams filtered through a roof of stained glass. This striking piece was designed by artist Marianne Peretti, who contributed many works to Brasília. Particularly moving is the simple epitaph engraved on JK’s tomb: “O Fundador” (The Founder).
Memorial dos Povos Indígenas
Niemeyer’s cylindrical Memorial dos Povos Indígenas (Praça do Buriti, tel. 61/3344-1157, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, free) imitates the traditional round dwellings of the Bororo Indians. The curving interior shelters an impressive collection of indigenous art—baskets, jewelry, weapons, hammocks, and feather headdresses—the majority made by groups from the surrounding Planalto region, especially around the Rio Xingu. Particularly striking are the ceramic vessels made by the Warao people, intricately decorated with bird and animal motifs. Near the museum café, you’ll encounter some authentic and very attractive pieces for sale by local Indians.
Torre de Televisão
From the Memorial dos Povos Indígenas, you’ll need to grab a bus or taxi down the Eixo Monumental to get to the Torre de Televisão (tel. 61/3323-7944, 8 a.m.8 p.m. daily, free). From the viewing deck, a third of the way up Lúcio Costa’s 224-meter (735-foot) television tower, you’re treated to incredible 360-degree views of the city, which are particularly bewitching around sunset. On the main floor, a small crafts market, held on the weekends, is a good place to pick up regional handicrafts.
Teatro Nacional Cláudio Santoro
Cross the Eixo Rodoviário, and on the north side of the Rodoviária you’ll come face to face with another Niemeyer pyramid, housing Brasília’s prestigious Teatro Nacional Cláudio Santoro (tel. 61/3325-6105, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri.). Dazzling from the outside, its glass-covered surface permits natural light to suffuse the lobby, where art exhibitions are displayed. The lateral facades embossed with a sea of white cubes and rectangles are the work of Athos Bulcão, while the surrounding gardens featuring native plants are by Roberto Burle Marx. In the foyer, the lyrical bronze statue O Contorcionista (The Contortionist) is by noted sculptor Alfredo Ceschiatti. Three separate auditoriums host theatrical productions as well as concerts, dance, and ballet performances. Guided tours are available.
Museu de Valores
An easy 15-minute walk south from the Rodoviária, you can’t miss the towering skyscrapers of concrete and dark glass that house the Edifício-Sede do Banco Central. At the rear of the Central Bank building, the Museu de Valores (SBS, Qd. 3, Bl. B, tel. 61/3414-2099, 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 2–6 p.m. Sat., free) traces Brazilian history via its many monies: from the first coins minted in Portugal to the remarkably stable (and increasingly valorized) real of today. The most fascinating section is devoted to a history of gold in different forms, ranging from the ingots featuring the emperor’s official stamp to the largest gold nugget ever found in the world, a 61-kilo (135-pound) chunk that was uncovered in the Amazon region.
Esplanada dos Ministérios
Approaching the Praça do Três Poderes along the Eixo Monumental, you’ll first be confronted with the Esplanada dos Ministérios, an enormous corridor of 17 identical government buildings facing each other from opposite sides of the street. At the very beginning of the Esplanada, you’ll find two of Niemeyer’s most recent works, the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) and the Museu Nacional (tel. 61/3325-5220, 9 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun.). Completed in 2006, both buildings constitute the last of the architectural complexes that were part of Niemeyer’s original plans. The gleaming dome-shaped museum, whose cavernous interior features the architect’s signature swirling ramps, is only open for temporary art exhibitions.
Catedral Metropolitana de Nossa Senhora da Aparecida
One of Niemeyer’s undisputed masterpieces is the Catedral Metropolitana de Nossa Senhora da Aparecida (tel. 61/3224-4073, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.–Fri., 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.). Built on the spot where Brasília was inaugurated, the cathedral’s graceful hourglass structure consists of 16 reinforced concrete columns whose thorny tips thrust skyward. The columns provide support for the immense panes of stained glass designed by Marianne Peretti that make the subterranean church seem bathed in heavenly light. The cathedral seems small from the outside. However, once inside you’ll be amazed by the soaring spaciousness enhanced by the clean lines and use of white marble. Paintings by Athos Bulcão and a panel depicting the Way of the Cross by modernist painter Emiliano Di Cavalcanti are on display, but the most striking contribution is the three floating angels suspended in the air. They are the work of Alfredo Ceschiatti, who also designed the statues of the four apostles near the entrance. Try to contain any oohs and ahs—the acoustics are such that a word muttered in a low voice can be clearly heard from 25 meters (80 feet) away.
At the end of the Esplanada do Ministérios lie two of Niemeyer’s most famous works: the Palácio Itamaraty and the Palácio da Justiça. Housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Palácio Itamaraty (Esplanada dos Ministérios, tel. 61/3411-8051, guided visits daily, free) is a disarmingly elegant fusion of classicism and modernism. The exterior is impressive enough: Its raw concrete arcades sheltering a glittering glass box are reflected in pools of water that surround the construction like a moat. The island gardens featuring Amazonian plants were designed by Roberto Burle Marx, while the stunning abstract sculpture O Meteoro (The Meteor), whose interlocking pieces represent the earth’s continents, was carved by Bruno Giorgi from 4 tons of Carrara marble. Don’t neglect to take a tour inside. The sprawling, open interior with its garden courtyards is a veritable who’s who of 20th-century Brazilian artists. Sculptures by Alfredo Ceschiatti, Victor Brecheret, and Lasar Segall and paintings by Cândido Portinari and Alfredo Volpi are a few of the works that decorate the vast salons furnished with plush Persian carpets and exquisite antiques. Guided visits are 40 minutes long and need to be reserved in advance. If you can only tour one government building, this is one you shouldn’t miss.
Palácio da Justiça
Facing the Palácio Itamaraty, the Palácio da Justiça (tel. 61/2025-3216, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) is similar in style but less impressively grand than its counterpart. Housing the Ministry of Justice, its architectural highlight is six waterfalls pouring down from the building’s facade into a surrounding pool.
Praça dos Três Poderes
At the western end of the Eixo Monumental, the Praça dos Três Poderes corresponds to the head of the bird (or cockpit of the airplane) as laid out in the Plano Piloto. The nexus of government power is concentrated around the vast plaza itself in the buildings housing the três poderes (three powers)—the executive (Palácio Planalto), legislative (Congresso Nacional), and judicial (Supremo Tribunal Federal) branches. The fantastic Niemeyer constructions in which they are housed are widely considered to be the most splendid examples of modernist architecture in the world.
Before exploring them, take a quick glance at the Espaço Oscar Niemeyer (tel. 61/3324-9763, 9 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.), where the architect’s sketches are on display, and the Espaço Lúcio Costa (tel. 61/3325-6163, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily), where you can see the original plans (in Portuguese and English) that won Costa the commission to design Brasília, along with a gigantic maquette of the city that gives a great overview of the Plano Piloto. Also interesting is the Panteão da Pátria (tel. 61/3325-6244, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun.), which honors national heroes in a building shaped to conjure up a dove.
Guarding the praça is Bruno Giorgi’s famous bronze sculpture, Os Candangos, which has become a symbol of the city. Candango was an expression that referred to the thousands of poor workers, mostly from the Northeast, who were hired to build Brasília and who subsequently settled in the favela-like suburbs that surround the city. Originally it was a derogatory term that African slaves applied to the Portuguese during colonial times. Over the years, however, the pejorative connotation has evaporated, and today all native residents of Brasília are called Candangos.
Between the Esplanada dos Ministérios and the Praça dos Três Poderes lies Brasília’s most instantly recognizable symbol: the 28-story twin towers flanked by two giant bowl-shaped cupolas that make up the Congresso Nacional (tel. 61/3216-1771, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily). The convex (right side up) bowl is where the 500-member Câmara de Deputados (House of Representatives) convenes, while the concave (upside-down) bowl houses the 80 members of the Senado (Senate). Both were originally designed so that the public could hang out on top of them; these days only the Polícia Militar have this privilege. You can, however, take an hour-long tour of the sweeping marble and granite salons decorated with tile panels by Athos Bulcão and paintings by Di Cavalcanti. If the chambers are in session, you can check out the senators and deputies in action. A gift shop in front sells surprisingly cool Congresso T-shirts and souvenirs.
Supremo Tribunal Federal
On the southern side of the Praça dos Três Poderes, the elegant Supremo Tribunal Federal (tel. 61/3217-4037, 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun.) houses the Brazilian Supreme Court. Guarding the entrance is the striking granite sculpture A Justiça (The Justice) by Ceschiatti. Tours of the interior last 30 minutes.
Palácio do Planalto
On the northern side of the Praça, the Palácio do Planalto (tel. 61/3411-2042, 9:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sun.) is where the president works, which is why you can only visit the interior (including his office) on Sunday during 30-minute free guided tours. The majestic exterior is notable for its mingling of straight and curving lines and for the ramp leading up the entrance, by which newly inaugurated presidents literally ascend to power (on a day-to-day basis they enter through a back door). During the week, you can observe the changing of the guard at 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. or take in temporary exhibits in the main hall.
Palácio da Alvorada
To see where the president lives, visit the Palácio da Alvorada (SHTN, tel. 61/3411-2317, 3–5 p.m. Wed.), a quick 15-minute taxi ride north from the Praça dos Três Poderes. It sits along the northern shore of Lago Paranoá. The name (alvorada means “dawn”) was supplied by Kubitschek himself, who often referred to Brasília as a “new dawn in Brazil’s history.” The first of Niemeyer’s Brasília buildings to be completed (in 1958), the president’s official residence is also one of the most beautiful: The harmonious fusion of glass, white marble, and mirrorlike pools is offset by expansive green gardens and an immaculate soccer field (added at the request of President Lula). Tours (including a visit to the chapel, dining room, library, and gardens) are only available on Wednesday (tickets are distributed from 2 p.m. on). Otherwise, you’ll have to be content to gaze at the ensemble from behind the guarded gates (make sure you get your taxi to wait for you).
Beyond the Plano Piloto
Should you have more time at your disposal, there are several interesting attractions located off the main axes of the Plano Piloto. They are linked to Brasília’s notorious mystical element, which adds an interesting counterpoint to its culture of political wheeling and dealing. The city’s mysticism stems from the 1883 vision that came to an Italian priest named Dom João Bosco of a new civilization that would rise up around a lake situated between the 15th and 20th parallels. Kubitschek was a big Bosco devotee, and when his gleaming city of the future rose up (somewhat miraculously) on the shores of an artificial lake, it wasn’t long before various cults and New Age groups claimed the area as their utopia.
Santuário Dom Bosco
Often eclipsed by the Catedral Metropolitano, the Santuário Dom Bosco (W‑3 Sul, Ad. 702, Bl. B, tel. 61/3223-6542, 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 7 a.m.–noon and 2–8 p.m. Sun.) is equally splendid. The slender concrete columns of its boxlike shell function as frames for the immense floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows whose intricate mosaic motifs are rendered in 12 tones of blue. During the day, the effects of the sun’s rays shining through the azure glass are quite dazzling. At night, an equally impressive spectacle is provided by the gargantuan central chandelier fashioned out of 7,400 individual crystals of Murano glass.
Templo da Boa Vontade
Located 8 kilometers (5 miles) south of the Eixo Monumental, the Templo da Boa Vontade (SGAS, 915, Lt. 75/6, tel. 61/3245-1070, temple 24 hours daily, Egyptian room and gallery 10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily) is a pyramid topped with an enormous 21-kilogram (46-pound) crystal. Aside from its visual splendor, it is reputed to be the largest crystal rock in the world capable of attracting pure energy. Created by the Legião da Boa Vontade (Goodwill Legion) with the objective of promoting peace and unity among “earthly and celestial beings of all races, philosophies, religious and political creeds, and even atheists and materialists,” the temple includes a meditation space, an art gallery, a sumptuously outfitted Egyptian Room, and a sacred fountain whose healing natural waters receive the energies of the giant crystal. To get here, take the 105 or 107 buses from the Rodoviária.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.