Map: Centro, Rio de Janeiro

The forest-covered mountains and sweeping beaches that frame Guanabara Bay attracted their first foreign visitors in January 1502, when Portuguese navigators weighed anchor here and dubbed the region “Rio de Janeiro (January River).” A colony was later founded—it thrived and in 1763 became the colonial capital of Brazil. In the 19th century, Dom João VI ruled the Portuguese Empire from prosperous Rio de Janeiro (it was the only time a European monarch ruled from a New World colony). This walking tour takes you through the buildings, squares, and alleyways that comprise Rio’s historical center.

Start at (1) Palácio Tiradentes (on Rua Primeiro de Março, between Rua São José and Rua da Assembléia), home of the Rio de Janeiro state Assembléia Legislativa (Legislative Assembly). Inaugurated in 1926, this elegant building is named after a martyr and dentist (Tiradentes means “tooth puller”) who fought for Brazilian independence. Visit the cultural center inside.

Cross Rua da Assembléia and go inside the (2) Paço Imperial, passing through the Arlequim music store. (Praça Quinze de Novembro, on the corner of Rua Primeiro de Março and Rua da Assembléia.) “This is where Dom João VI became king, and his son and grandson, emperors.”—Ferdinando Bastos de Souza, author, Rio’s Landmarks Guide.

Go outside to (3) Praça Quinze (Rua Primeiro de Março and Rua da Assembléia), the gateway to colonial Rio. In the middle of the dilapidated square you’ll find a statue of Paraguayan War hero General Osório, forged from the bronze of Paraguayan cannons. Walk to the far side of the square and pass through the 18th-century (4) Arco do Teles (Praça Quinze de Novembro), at the entrance of (5) Travessa do Comércio, an alleyway lined with fine examples of colonial architecture. “Before hitting the limelight, Carmen Miranda lived in house number 13.”—Ferdinando Bastos de Souza.

At the end of the alley you come to the bustling (6) Rua do Ouvidor. Visit (7) Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Lapa dos Mercadores (Rua do Ouvidor 35), or buy a souvenir at one of the neighboring shops. Follow the alley opposite the church to (8) Centro Cultural dos Correios (Rua Visconde de Itaboraí 20). An old pantograph-type elevator takes visitors to the regular exhibitions.

Next, follow the cobblestoned Rua Visconde de Itaboraí to (9) Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil (Rua Primeiro de Março 66), an elegant venue with theaters, a cinema, and halls for art and photo exhibits. Finally, cross Avenida Vargas and end your walking tour at (10) Igreja da Candelária (Praça Pio X). Some highlights are the bronze doors, marble interiors, and stained glass windows. “This church was born from the promise of a sea captain who survived a brutal storm.”—Ferdinando Bastos de Souza. You’ll see the whole story painted on the ceiling of the main nave.

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