An 11-year-old boy exclaims, “Wow! Cool!” His response is not to a video game or the latest viral meme on social media. This is his reaction to a view, to a city and to an assemblage of 1950s architecture.
Fifty-five years after Brazil unveiled its new capital on a site which, just four and a half years earlier, had been highland scrub, this sleek, spacious city remains strikingly futuristic (albeit in a retro, Jetsons kind of way). Brasília retains the capacity to capture the imagination and to prompt visitors young and old to gaze in amazement and exclaim, “Wow! Cool!”
From 246 feet up, we gaze the length of Eixo Monumental, the long, broad, grass park that forms the main downtown axis. The ministerial buildings, sternly regimented on each side, are flanked by the glossy skyscrapers of the commercial districts.
At face value, this is a serious, government city — a place for high-level meetings and conventions and a place to do business and lobby for political influence. Yes, it’s all that. But as we discover on our after-business stay, it’s also one of the most family-friendly cities in Brazil.
We perch on the observation deck of the Torre de TV, accessed for free by elevator. From here we gain a sense of the city’s unique layout. The technological optimism of the jet age inspired Brasília with a layout that deliberately mimics an airplane.
The Eixo Monumental represents the fuselage. Stretching away from us on both sides we see the curved, swept-back wings, inlaid with avenues and highways. Behind us, the Convention Center serves as the tailplane. Two miles in front of us, shimmering in the heat-hazed distance, the Praça dos Três Poderes (Plaza of Three Powers) represents the cockpit, with the Congresso Nacional (Parliament), the Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Court) and the Palácio do Planalto (the Presidential Office).
We return to ground level, stock up on drinks and snacks at the food court at the base of the tower, then set off to walk the length of the axis. The first stop lies within sight to our right: the Complexo Cultural da República (Cultural Complex of the Republic), one of the last masterpieces (opened in 2006) of the man responsible for many of Brasília’s incredible buildings, the architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Of the two buildings in the cultural complex, the Museu Nacional exhibits the most breathtaking exterior, painted dazzling white with a shape that resembles a half-sunken planet Saturn; an external ramp echoes the planet’s famous rings. Unfortunately, the contents of the museum (mainly exhibitions of contemporary art) don’t live up to the venue.
Immediately beyond the museum sits one of Niemeyer’s most iconic buildings — indeed, one of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century — the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, or the Cathedral of Brasília.
We approach the cathedral between imposing statues of the four evangelists. Inspired by the crown of thorns, the building features 16 white concrete columns sweeping up and then curving out at the top.
Initially we don’t see the entrance, but then we abruptly find ourselves descending a ramp directly into the circular nave. A luminous canopy of stained glass drapes above us in swirling patterns of blue and turquoise and light brown. We are immersed in colorful light. The inevitable refrain: “Wow! Cool!”
Back outside, we walk the remainder of the axis to the Congresso Nacional, another spectacular Niemeyer ensemble. When it first opened, before the advent of health and safety regulations, the public could walk up a ramp directly onto the building’s roof. However, with no safety barriers around the edge, it is now deemed too dangerous, and access is restricted. There are guided tours of the interior, and one can pre-book admission to the public gallery for parliamentary sessions.
Our walk culminates at the vast plaza behind the parliament building. Again the works of Oscar Niemeyer surround us — the Supreme Federal Court and the Presidential Office. All of his buildings reveal his predilection for curves. (He said he was inspired by Brazil’s shapely women.) A 330-foot pylon towers above it all bearing the national flag, languidly flapping in the midday breeze.
This entire city serves as a monument to Brazilian national pride. Brasília, conceived as a utopia, until recently was insulated from many of the problems, especially rampant crime, blighting other Brazilian cities.
Sadly, that is no longer the case. Pickpocketing is rife in the popular tourist areas, and visitors should use ATMs with extreme caution; skimming and mugging are common. Ideally, only use ATMs inside banks during business hours.
Be especially alert when traveling with your family. Distractions such as child tantrums or stopping to read a map can provide opportunities for pickpockets. Throughout our stay, we try to remain vigilant without being paranoid.
But we don’t allow security concerns to prevent us from mingling with ordinary Brazilians. In the afternoon, we head to the Parque Nacional de Brasília, close to downtown, a 69,000-acre remnant of the woodland and tropical savannah that cloaked the high plateau before the city was built.
From the forest trails we spot howler monkeys bouncing through the canopy. After working up a sweat on our short hike, we cool off in one of the park’s natural mineral pools, immensely popular with local families. Though be warned: Brazilian women often favor barely-there bikinis that Oscar Niemeyer would certainly have approved but can render a usually talkative 11-year-old boy goggle-eyed and dumbstruck.
Besides the Parque Nacional, Brasília’s other great natural attraction is not actually natural. Lake Paranoá, forming a spidery crescent around the eastern side of the city, results from a dam created during the city’s construction. As well as helping supply the city with water, it provides a range of leisure activities, including kayaking and windsurfing.
We enjoy the lake more sedately, boarding a catamaran in late afternoon for a sundowner cruise. As so often in this beautifully designed city, there is no sense of being in the middle of a major metropolis. Tranquility reigns.
The sun declines and the sky ignites with the vibrant colors of a tropical sunset. We watch spellbound, inevitably resorting to the two words that have defined our visit to Brasília: “Wow! Cool!”
Brasília Info to Go
A small number of international flights arrive at Brasília–Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport, located seven miles south of downtown. Most international visitors arrive on domestic flights via São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport, Brazil’s main international hub.
Where to Stay in Brasília
Brasília Palace Hotel The Oscar Niemeyer-designed hotel offers 156 rooms on the shore of Lake Paranoá, part of a three-hotel complex neighboring the Brazilian president’s official residence. SHTN – Trecho 01, Lote 01 $$$$
Cullinan Hplus Premium Enjoy convenience and personalized service in these compact, apartment-style rooms in a good downtown location within walking distance of many main attractions. SHN Quadra 04, Bloco E $$$
Royal Tulip Brasília Alvorada The second of the three hotels in the lakeside complex (the third is the Golden Tulip) boasts a horseshoe design, facing the lake. A courtesy shuttle bus connects to downtown (10 minutes) and the airport (15 minutes). SHTN – Trecho 01, Conjunto 1B, Bloco C $$$$
Restaurants in Brasília
Brazilian American Burgers This friendly, family-run establishment not far from downtown serves prime Brazilian beef American-style and free ice cream for dessert. CLSW 301, Bloco C, Loja 98, ED. Dakota Shopping $$
Churrascaria Pampa You’ll want to sample at least one churrascaria (barbecue steakhouse) while in Brazil, and this huge 800-seat eatery, between the airport and downtown, is one of the most popular. Industry Workshops in South Carrefour beside ParkShopping $$
Restaurante Aquavit A little out of the way but worth the effort. Under the direction of Danish chef Lau Cederholm, the menu fuses traditional and contemporary, Brazilian and international, in an attractive lakeside setting. SML – Trecho 12, Conjunto 01, Casa 5 $$$$
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