Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Walking Tour of Centro

Centro is Rio de Janeiro's financial center, a commercial district of sleek skyscrapers and traffic-filled boulevards. These modern buildings are juxtaposed with baroque churches, historical plazas and former imperial buildings, making Centro a great place to see Cariocas (native inhabitants of Rio) from many different walks of life.

The district is surprisingly walkable, thanks to a number of pedestrian-only areas and broad sidewalks that line Centro's main boulevards. Below is the route my family and I decided to take, starting at Estçacão Cinelândia to the south and ending at Estação Uruguaiana.

We began our exploration at Praça Floriano (visible as you exit Cinelândia Station), a plaza named in honor of Floriano Peixoto, second president of Brazil.

Meu irmão e eu

Overlooking the plaza is the Biblioteca Nacional, the largest library in Latin America, with a remarkable rare book collection that includes two original Mainz Psalter Bibles.

Biblioteca Nacional

To the north lies the opulent Theatro Municipal, built in 1905 in the style of the Palais Garnier in Paris. It is the home of Rio's opera, orchestra and ballet companies.

Theatro Municipal

Continuing north, we walked along Avenida Rio Branco to the necoclassical Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. The fine arts museum houses the sizable portion of the Portuguese Royal Collection that stayed in Brazil after Dom João VI's transfer of the royal court as well as 20,000 other pieces ranging from medieval paintings to contemporary Brazilian art.

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes

We then turned left on Avenida Almirante Barroso and, after passing Carioca Station, arrived at Largo da Carioca, a public square with a bustling outdoor market.

Largo da Carioca

On the hill to our left was the baroque Igreja São Francisco da Penitência, dating from 1726. Next to it stands the Convento de Santo Antônio, built between 1608 and 1615.

Igreja São Francisco da Penitência e Convento de Santo Antônio

After passing through the plaza, we walked around the corner to Rua Gonçalves Dias and stopped for coffee at Confeitaria Colombo, a magnificent Victorian tearoom dating from the late 1800s that transports you back to Rio during the Belle Époque—complete with stained-glass windows, brocaded mirrors and marble countertops. Incidentally, the crowd of immaculately coiffed Cariocas reminded me a bit of the ladies of Houston.

The first-floor salão, complete with huge mirrors imported from Belgium in 1894
One of the dessert displays

After filling up on cafézinhos, we walked east on Rua Sete de Setembro, passing through the central business district. Here's a picture I took facing north while crossing Av. Rio Branco:

Almost got run over by angry Brazilian motorists while taking this shot

(Here we made a brief detour to a charming lunchtime spot that—despite its ambience and our guidebook's claim that the offerings are muito gostoso—was rather unremarkable.)

Continuing east a few blocks on Rua Sete de Setembro, we arrived at Praça Quinze de Novembro, a site that was first inhabited by a convent of Carmelite fathers in 1590. The square was renamed after Brazil declared independence on November 15, 1822. Praça Quinze de Novembro was also the site of the coronation of Brazil's two emperors as well as the abolition of slavery.

Buildings adjacent to the plaza

Overlooking the plaza is the Paço Imperial, originally built as a governor's residence and later used as the home of Dom João and his family.

Overlooking the plaza is the Paço Imperial

Behind the Paço Imperial stands the stately Palácio Tiradentes, former seat of the National Congress until the transfer of the capital to Brasília in 1960. (When the National Congress was shut down in 1937 under the Vargas dictatorship, the building housed his Department of Press and Propaganda.) Tiradentes Palace today serves as the home of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro.

Palácio Tiradentes

We then crossed Praça Quinze de Novembro and walked north through the Arco de Teles and along Travessa do Comércio, one of Centro's oldest lanes. The winding alleyway is lined with numerous open-air bars and charming restaurants.

Travessa do Comércio
Continuing north
Art installation at the end of the lane

Next, we turned left onto Av. Presidente Vargas and spotted the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária, the largest and wealthiest church of imperial Brazil. Originally constructed in the late 16th century, the baroque masterpiece was rebuilt between 1775 and 1894 using limestone shipped from Lisbon.

Igreja NS da Candelária

After resting in the cool interior of the church, we continued west along Av. Presidente Vargas to Uruguaiana Station, the final stop on our half-day walking tour.

Buildings on Avenida Presidente Vargas