Cidade Velha is Belém ’s oldest neighborhood. To this day, it retains many lovely colonial buildings with adobe walls and red-tiled roofs. Wandering around its narrow, atmospheric streets is a pleasurable experience, although the area should be avoided at night and on Sundays.
It was here—around the early-17th-century Forte do Presépio (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão 117, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/4009-8828, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2, free Tues.)—that the city sprang to life. From this fortress overlooking the Rio Guamá, the Portuguese jealously guarded the entrance to the Amazon  while launching conquests deeper and deeper into the jungle. The enormous cannons perched upon the ramparts are proof of their defensive zeal.
Inside the fort a small but interesting museum (somewhat ironically) pays homage to the local Tapajós and Marajoara Indians that thrived here before the arrival of the Portuguese. Among the artifacts unearthed in archaeological sites are some wonderful examples of pre-Colombian pottery, notably vessels made by the indigenous peoples of Ilha de Marajó .
It wasn’t long before the Portuguese had settled in. With the wealth earned from the sugar trade, aristocrats built sumptuous mansions along the waterfront. One of the grandest was the Casa das Onze Janelas (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, tel. 91/4009-8821, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2, free Tues.), built by sugar baron Domingos da Costa Barcelar in the late 1600s. From the onze janelas (11 windows) of his pale yellow mansion, Barcelar and his rich cronies sipped tea and watched as slaves loaded up boats with sugar and unloaded European goodies that would allow them to live in the jungle without sacrificing style and comfort.
Today, the mansion is a cultural center that juggles a permanent collection of Brazilian modernists with temporary exhibits of contemporary art. The sweeping balcony once haunted by sugar barons is now occupied by a fashionable bar, Boteco das Onze, where Belenenses and tourists alike snack on coxinhas de carangueijo (tender crab pastries) and watch the sun set over the river.
The picturesque Praça Frei Caetano Brandão (also known as the Praça da Sé) is anchored by the twin-towered Catedral da Sé (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/3223-2362, 8 a.m.–noon and 2–6 p.m. daily). It was designed by Italian architect Antônio José Landi, who had numerous commissions in Belém . The interior is an unremarkable mishmash of baroque and neoclassical styles with a lot of glossy marble imported from Italy.
Also on the praça is the early baroque Igreja de Santo Alexandre. Built by local Indians, it features some delicate woodwork. The church, along with its annex, the former archbishop’s palace, houses the Museu de Arte Sacra (Praça Frei Caetano Brandão, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/4009-8802, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$4, free Tues.), which exhibits a collection of religious paintings and carved wooden saints.
Just around the corner, on a pretty little street, the Museu do Círio (Rua Padre Champagnat, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/4009-8846, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2) conjures up the pageantry and frenzy (both sacred and profane) of Círio de Nazaré , Belém’s most important popular and religious festival. Aside from gazing at photographs of the processions, you can also admire the artistry of emblematic objects such as embroidered banners, images of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, and feather-light toys made of miriti, an Amazonian palm, made especially for the festa by caboclo artisans from a tiny town in the Paraense interior.
Nearby, on Praça Dom Pedro II you’ll see two magnificent palaces that conjure up Belém ’s late-19th-century days of rubber glory. Once the city hall, the Palácio Antônio Lemos is an elegant neoclassical construction with a striking powder blue and white facade. After being abandoned, it later underwent restoration. It currently houses municipal government offices along with the Museu de Arte do Belém (Praça Dom Pedro II, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/3283-4687, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$1), whose permanent collection of paintings is less impressive than the palace itself. The interior is a Versailles-worthy series of courtyards and grand salons decked out in crystal chandeliers, bronze and marble statues, and beautiful belle epoque furniture. Slippers are provided so you won’t scratch the gorgeous parquet floors.
Next door, the gleaming white Palácio Lauro Sodré is another edifice that was designed by Antônio Landi in the 1770s. The former residence of Pará ’s governors, it now lodges the Museu do Estado do Pará (Praça Dom Pedro II, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/4009-8838, 1–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$4, free Tues.). Once again, aside from some exquisite furniture, the rather musty historical artifacts are less interesting than the palace interior. The ground floor reception salons overlooking the praça (where good temporary exhibits are often held) are particularly opulent, as is the grand marble staircase leading upstairs to older and more sedate rooms where you’ll find the permanent collection.