Olinda has valuable colonial houses, architecture, history and carnival

Olinda em Pernambuco
Olinda in Pernambuco

Olinda in Pernambuco is one of Brazil’s most important historical cities, Olinda brings together valuable colonial houses and hosts one of the liveliest festivals of Carnival in the country.

It is at the same time the city of friars and nuns, of wild revellers, of fast-talking child guides, of plastic artists and popular musicians; it is also a place to contemplate the sea and the sun-drenched coconut groves revealed by its belvederes, from where you can also see the capital of Pernambuco, just 7 kilometres away.

Founded by the Portuguese grantee Duarte Coelho in 1535, plundered and burnt with the Dutch invasion in 1631 and rebuilt during the Pernambucan Restoration in 1654, Olinda is divided into two parts: the low, flat, seaside, today a dormitory city for those who work in Recife, and the upper part, which is historic and declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1982.

Olinda de Pernambuco - Merian, Matthaus, 1634
Two plans of the Portuguese sugar colonies in Brazil during the Dutch invasion in 1630. The top view shows the city of Olinda with two figures in the foreground displaying a cloth on which are displayed the key with fourteen building names. Below, an offshore view shows the Dutch fleet attacking the harbour and fort. An unusual problem.

Despite its title, the city suffers from the effects of undue property development and disorganised urban growth in its surroundings, as well as the advance of the sea, which day by day compromises its buildings.

Walking the beautiful hillsides of Olinda requires willingness and a little patience and caution – tourists are often harassed by street vendors and guides.

Olinda’s beaches, with infrastructure, are usually very crowded, and the promenade invites a good walk.

Mapa centro histórico de Olinda PB
Map historical centre of Olinda PB

The architecture of Olinda emerges among the splendours of tropical nature. The ocean appears in the background, behind the towers and coconut trees. Between the alleys, tropical vegetation fills the hill.

Videos about “The Tourist Spots of Olinda PB”

Sightseeing spots of Olinda PE

1. MIRANTS

There are marvellous views all over the city: in the backyards of restaurants, in alleys, at the end of every slope, you can see houses, trees and the sea.

Two viewpoints are quite traditional: the Church of Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia and the Alto da Sé, both reached on foot via the ladeira da Misericórdia – the fun is to climb it backwards (watch out for the uneven cobblestones!) to see the landscape “grow” little by little.

The Sé hillside is less steep, but doesn’t have the same charm.

At the top is the church of Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia, in front of which are winding benches.

From there, visitors can see the famous four corners of Olinda (the point where the city’s four main streets intersect: Ladeira da Misericórdia, Rua Bernardo Vieira de Melo, Rua Prudente de Moraes and Rua do Amparo) and the cluster of houses permeated by tall coconut and mango trees with frondos tops; the church towers followed by the sea and, further away, the harbour and the city of Recife, with a stretch of the Capibaribe River.

The Alto da Sé, one block away, is the highest point in Olinda. There, where Duarte Coelho built his long-vanished house, you have the best view of neighbouring Recife.

You can see the roofs of the old houses and the towers of the churches of the Upper Town.

The suggestion is to watch the sunset in the late afternoon and stroll around the Alto da Sé market, where you can savour crunchy tapioca or freshly baked curd cheese.

2. RUA DO AMPARO

Rua do Amparo em Olinda PE
Rua do Amparo in Olinda PE

The traditional street of Amparo concentrates ateliers, museums and shops.

3. OLINDA MARKETS

Mercado da Ribeira in Olinda PE
Mercado da Ribeira in Olinda PE

According to legend, Mercado da Ribeira was a slave trading point. This is not true; only fruit and vegetables were sold in the old building of the 19th century.

Nowadays, there is a market with sixteen boxes offering handicrafts and works by local artists (Rua Bernardo Vieira de Melo, s/n, Varadouro).

The Eufrásio Barbosa Market, at the entrance to the city, was the site of the Royal Customs House, where products from Europe were sold in the 17th century.

Today, it houses craft shops, snack bars and houses selling various foods, as well as a 250-seat theatre, home to the maracatu Nação Pernambuco, which opens on weekends for performances by local groups (largo do Varadouro, s/n, Varadouro).

4. MUSEUM OF SACRED ART OF PERNAMBUCO

The Museum of Sacred Art of Pernambuco in Olinda is very well located at the top of the Cathedral, the 16th century building was once a Chamber, official residence of the bishop, college, barracks and shelter for nuns.

MUSEU DE ARTE SACRA DE PERNAMBUCO
MUSEU DE ARTE SACRA DE PERNAMBUCO

Inaugurated on 11 April 1977, the Museum of Sacred Art of Pernambuco (Maspe) is housed in one of the first buildings of the town of Olinda, the old Town Hall, founded by Duarte Coelho in 1537. In 1676, when Olinda was elevated to the status of a city, the building served as the Episcopal Palace for its 1st Bishop, Dom Estevão Brioso de Figueiredo.

The former Palace of the Bishops of Olinda, belonging to the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife, underwent several adaptations throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, serving as a collective residence for religious, a college and army barracks during World War II. On its façade, you can see the old episcopal coat of arms and a UNESCO plaque, dated 14 December 1982, declaring Olinda a World Cultural Monument.

Privileged for its location and spaciousness, the former Bishops’ Palace was transformed by the Pernambuco Historical and Artistic Heritage Foundation (Fundarpe) into a space for the exhibition and study of sacred or religiously inspired art.

Maspe’s fixed collection, which began to be built from more than a hundred pieces donated by the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife, today brings together objects of worship such as popular and processional saints, reliquaries, custodies and religious paintings. One of the highlights of this collection is the collection of ancient scholarly images, polychrome and gilded, dating from the 16th century.

Its collection includes colonial paintings made by Indians, in workshops run by the Jesuits in Bogotá, Cuzco, La Paz, Quito and other colonial cities, as well as wooden, clay and plaster images sculpted by popular artists.

There is a room dedicated to old maps and a list of Olinda’s monuments. The museum offers guided tours. Rua Bispo Coutinho, 726, Alto da Sé.

5. MASKS AND BONUSES

papier-mâché masks
papier-mâché masks

The colourful papier-mâché masks created by Master Julião depict human figures with exaggerated features, animals or devils with remarkable horns.

The family of the artist, who died in the late 1990s, continues to produce the masks, which are often seen on the faces of revellers playing in the middle of Olinda’s Carnival, or even inside homes as a decorative piece.

They can be found at the Julião das Máscaras workshop (Av. Joaquim Nabuco, 1102, Varadouro).

The giant dolls, produced mainly by the artist Silvio Botelho, are another tradition of the Olindense Carnival.

They are on average 3.6 metres tall and weigh up to 50 kilos. The studio is closed, but the artist accepts orders; the dolls, which cost around RS 3,000 each, take a week to be ready ((Rua do Amparo, 45, Carmo).

The Museu do Mamulengo, located near the Ribeira market, has a collection of great cultural value, consisting of more than seven hundred dolls (Rua São Bento, 344, Varadouro).

See History of Olinda Carnival and its giant dolls

6. THE CARNIVAL THROUGH THE WOODS OF OLINDA

Samba schools, troças, bears, afoxés, rural and national maracatus, groups of caboclinhos, puppet blocks and various groups alternate in the Carnival of Olinda, dragging about 2 million revellers through the historic streets of the Upper City.

The fun starts in the morning and stops at dawn. It is estimated that there are around 350 groups, each with its own orchestra, motifs, colours, profile, day and time to parade – the complete programme, which is ready about a fortnight before the party, is circulated in hotels, inns, restaurants and public spaces.

The town hall has divided the city into themed centres (frevo, maracatu) that can change their names each year. Traditional groups include Pitombeira dos Quatro Cantos, Elefante, Vassourinhas, Lenhadores, Grêmio Lítero Recreativo Eu Acho é Pouco, Enquanto Isso na Sala de Justiça and Bacalhau do Batata, which closes Carnival on Wednesday.

Monday is the day of the maracatus meeting, which starts in the Cidade Tabajara neighbourhood towards the slopes of Olinda. The colourful costumes include papier-mâché masks from Julião das Mascaras’ studio, as well as individual productions that evoke everything from superheroes to world personalities.

The giant puppets are an attraction in their own right. One of them, the Midnight Man, created in 1932, opens the party at midnight on Saturday.

On Tuesday there is the traditional Meeting of Puppets, when other members of the family can be seen parading with frevo orchestras: the Woman of the Midday, from 1967, the Son of the Midnight Man, from 1980, the Boy and the Girl of the Afternoon, from 1974.

7. CASA DA RABECA DO BRASIL

The Casa da Rabeca space in Olinda is housed in the workshop of mestre Salustiano, or simply mestre Salu, a profound connoisseur of Pernambuco’s popular culture; his father, Manuel Salustiano Soares, was the founder of the traditional Maracatu Piaba de Ouro group.

Mestre Salu, responsible for the preservation of rural maracatu, coco, cirandas and caboclinhos, promotes the traditional meeting of baque-solto and baque-virado maracatus during the Olinda Carnival.

The Casa da Rabeca has a vast programme of concerts with popular artists all year round, especially forró pé-de-serra groups and repentistas. Rua Curupira, 340-B, Cidade Tabajara.

8. CHURCH AND MONASTERY OF SAO BENTO

IGREJA E MOSTEIRO DE SÃO BENTO
IGREJA E MOSTEIRO DE SÃO BENTO

The Church of St Benedict in Olinda with its heavy jacaranda doors, the church is among the richest in Olinda: the high altar has beautiful cedar carvings gilded in gold, and the ceiling panel tells the story of the life of St Benedict.

The sandstone columns that support the heavy choir, the well-crafted pulpits and the elaborate sacristy are also striking.

The complex, predominantly Baroque in style, was built at the end of the 16th century, burnt down by the Dutch in 1631 and restored in 1761. In the 19th century, the building housed one of the first law schools in the country.

On Sundays at 10am, the 27 monks open the church doors and accompany the mass with Gregorian chant. Rua de São Bento, s/n, Varadouro.

See History and Architecture of the Monastery of São Bento in Olinda PE.

9. CIRCUIT OF THE ARTS

On the hillsides of Olinda are the studios of various artists, some of whom have a history that is intertwined with the history of art in the country. Some of them receive visitors at pre-established times; others, by prior appointment.

10. IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DA GRAÇA E SEMINÁRIO DE OLINDA

IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DA GRAÇA E SEMINÁRIO DE OLINDA
IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DA GRAÇA E SEMINÁRIO DE OLINDA

Duarte Coelho built it as a chapel in 1552. It was donated to the Jesuits so that they could catechise the indigenous people and build the Royal College of Olinda, known as the “Coimbra of the Americas”, which took place in 1575. Burnt down by the Dutch, the church was restored in 1660.

The Archdiocesan College, the Faculty of Architecture, the School of Agronomy and the Archdiocesan Seminary, where Father Antônio Vieira taught, still operate on the site. Despite the interventions, the complex is a rare example of 16th-century architecture.

Its side altars are the oldest stone constructions in Brazil. The visit, always restricted to a few spaces, can be monitored, provided it is booked in advance. Rua Bispo Coutinho, s/n, Alto da Sé.

See History and Architecture of the Seminary of Olinda and Church of Nossa Senhora da Graça in Olinda PE.

11. CONJUNTO DO CONVENTO DE SÃO FRANCISCO

CONJUNTO DO CONVENTO DE SÃO FRANCISCO
CONJUNTO DO CONVENTO DE SÃO FRANCISCO

The Franciscans began erecting the building in 1585 and gradually expanded the facilities.

The complex, which comprises the church of Nossa Senhora das Neves, the chapel of São Roque and the convent, suffered damage from the Dutch invasion and was remodelled in the 17th century.

In the cloister, inside the convent, the chapter room stands out, the only room remaining from the original convent, decorated with Portuguese tiles in blue, yellow and red, which form the great wealth of this ensemble, also adorning the church, the convent corridors and the chapel.

Inside the church, the coffered ceiling with paintings of the Holy Family from the 18th century and the tile panels narrating the life of Our Lady, including one showing the circumcision of Jesus, are impressive.

At the back, the sacristy is worth a look, with beautiful carvings on the luxurious rosewood chest. In the chapel, connected to the church, you can see the details of the carvings. Rua São Francisco, 280, Carmo.

See also History, Construction and Architecture of the Franciscan Convent of Olinda.

12. IGREJA E CONVENTO DE NOSSA SENHORA DA CONCEIÇÃO

IGREJA E CONVENTO DE NOSSA SENHORA DA CONCEIÇÃO
IGREJA E CONVENTO DE NOSSA SENHORA DA CONCEIÇÃO

The precious building, now in the care of the Dorothean sisters, was used by ladies in the 16th century. It is only open to the public during mass times.

After being burnt down by the Dutch, the church, built in 1585, was rebuilt in 1675 and converted into a convent. The paintings on the ceiling, which depict stages in the life of Our Lady, stand out.

Also noteworthy is the baroque image of Our Lady of the Conception, painted in gold, polychrome and with a silver crown. Largo da Misericórdia, s/n, Alto da Sé.

13. IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DO MONTE

IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DO MONTE
IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DO MONTE

The Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte, built in 1540, is located in an elevated area 55 metres above sea level. Hence it did not suffer much damage during the Dutch invasion.

The stone arch that frames the entrance door is striking.

The simple interior has no ceiling and the roof structure is exposed. The austere altar holds the image of St Benedict. Today, thirty Benedictine nuns live there.

The suggestion is to visit the church at 5pm, when the nuns sing and, at the side door, sell their traditional bricelets (very thin layers of dough made with wheat, folded like paper to form a puff pastry).

The Swiss recipe is transformed into something verging on the sacred thanks to the delicacy of the dough. Orders can be taken. Praҫa Nossa Senhora do Monte, s/n, Bultrins.

14. IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DA MISERICÓRDIA

IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DA MISERICÓRDIA
IGREJA DE NOSSA SENHORA DA MISERICÓRDIA

Also called the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Luz, it was built in 1540, next to the Santa Casa de Misericórdia. Burnt down during the battles against the Dutch, it was restored after the expulsion of the invaders.

Its interior is characterised by the Dom João V-style carving on the pulpit and altar, as well as the panelling on the ceiling depicting passages from the life of the Virgin Mary and the baptismal font in Portuguese stonework.

It is maintained by the Benedictine sisters, who sing at the daily 6pm masses. From the churchyard there is a beautiful view of Olinda. Rua Bispo Coutinho, s/n, Carmo.

15. CATEDRAL DA SÉ

CATEDRAL DA SÉ EM OLINDA
CATEDRAL DA SÉ

Catedral da Sé is the main church of Olinda, the Cathedral of the See, or  Igreja de São Salvador do Mundo – the patron saint of the city – has gone through several phases.

The first building, small and made of mud, dates from 1540; in 1584 a stone and lime church was erected, which was torn down by the Dutch and restored in 1656.

After extensive restoration work throughout the 20th century, a new building project restored the 16th-century layout.

The stages are recorded in drawings and photos displayed on the side wall of the church. Inside, the 17th-century tile panels stand out; next to the high altar is the tomb of Dom Hélder Câmara, former Archbishop of Olinda.

From the outside you can enjoy one of the most beautiful views of Olinda and Recife. Curia: Ladeira da Sé, s/n, Carmo.

Details of the architecture and history of Olinda Cathedral.

See The oldest churches in Pernambuco and the first church in Brazil

History of Olinda PE

The historic centre of Olinda preserves the urban layout and landscape of the town founded in 1535 by Duarte Coelho Pereira, when the Portuguese began their occupation of Brazil.

Frans Post - Vista de Olinda em 1662, Brasil
Frans Post – Vista de Olinda em 1662, Brasil

1. inscription on the World Heritage List

The architectural, urban and landscape ensemble of Olinda was inscribed in the Books of Fine Arts, the Historical and the Archaeological, Ethnographic and Landscape in 1968.

On 17 December 1982, the city was inscribed by UNESCO on the World Cultural and Natural Heritage List.

2. Occupation of Brazil

Olinda was founded in 1537 by Duarte Coelho Pereira, the first Donatory of the Captaincy of Pernambuco.

Tradition has it that the name of the town came from an expression of delight by Coelho at the landscape seen from the top of the hills: “O beautiful place to found a villa”.

The Portuguese chose the site to host the government, following the Mediterranean tradition of towns located on elevations, as a means of defending them militarily. A few kilometres to the south, in the present-day city of Recife, the port was located.

The historic centre of Olinda faithfully preserves the urban fabric, landscape and site of the town founded in the first half of the 16th century, when the Portuguese began to occupy the land discovered in 1500.

The urban layout is informal, characteristic of medieval Portuguese settlements, and its charm is intensified by the landscape and location.

On the elevations, the entire built ensemble is surrounded by vegetation. Planted in the streets, gardens and backyards, fruit trees such as coconut palms, mango trees, jackfruit trees, sapodilla trees and others give the site its dominant value as an urban centre immersed in green mass, in tropical light, with the beach and the ocean at its foot.

Olinda’s own distinctive character lies in this landscape ambience, which identifies it throughout its history.

3. The sugar cane cycle

The cycle of sugar cane transformed Olinda into one of the most important centres of Colonial Brazil. With the conquest of Pernambuco by the Dutch in 1630, the city was burnt down and the capital transferred to Recife.

Since the last years of the 16th century, Olinda has become one of the most important centres of the sugar cane cycle, benefiting from the high price of the product on the international market in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1612, it centralised the production of the 99 sugar mills of Pernambuco, while Bahia, the seat of the General Government of the Colony, had only 50.

Sugar, which made Olinda rich, also motivated the Dutch invasion. In dispute over the monopoly of the product, the Dutch West India Company invaded the town and occupied it militarily in 1630.

A year later, deeming it to be inappropriately located – not only because it facilitated the Portuguese reaction but also because of its distance from the harbour – the Dutch abandoned it and set it on fire, moving to Recife.

Its ruins were left with admirable testimonies, such as the paintings by Frans Post (1612-1680), one of the first artists to record the tropical landscape of Brazil.

Once Portuguese rule was restored in 1654, Olinda and Recife began to dispute the political hegemony of the Captaincy.

Sugar producers and religious orders sought to return the administration to the old seat, in opposition to groups interested in maritime trade, who favoured Recife.

The former won the dispute and Olinda returned to the seat of the Pernambuco government. The reconstruction of Olinda took place slowly over the next 100 years.

In 1676, Olinda became the head of the Bishopric of Pernambuco and was raised to the status of a city.

New churches sprang up and the original ones, built at the beginning of the 16th century, almost all of which had been damaged by the fire of 1631, were restored.

Located on the seafront, the city sits on eight hills interconnected at their tops by steep streets and slopes, and communicating near the Capibaribe and Beberibe rivers.

4. Urban layout

The colourful houses, characteristic of the colonial Portuguese settlement, and the magnificence of its white churches, stand out against the intense green of the tropical vegetation and the tourmaline blue of the sea.

The breeze that moves the coconut groves bathed in the intense tropical light makes Olinda an unforgettable place.

The urban layout is informal, characteristic of Portuguese villages of medieval origin, and its charm is intensified by the landscape and location.

On the elevations, the entire built ensemble is surrounded by vegetation. Planted in the streets, gardens and backyards, fruit trees such as coconut palms, mango trees, jackfruit trees, sapodilla trees and others give the site its dominant value as an urban centre immersed in green mass, in tropical light, with the beach and the ocean at its foot.

Olinda’s distinctive character lies in this landscape setting, which has characterised it throughout its history.

The streets follow the ridges, the contour lines, or climb the slopes, sometimes along the lines of greater acclivity. They have formed and remain to this day winding, linking the churches, convents and main buildings.

Sometimes they are defined by the façades of the houses, which extend continuously, and sometimes they are delimited by the walls that surround yards and gardens, and are irregular in their layout, width and intersections.

Alongside the houses – most of which are simple, but admirably integrated into the whole – stand remarkable churches, both for their architectural value and for the quality of their decorative elements, such as altar carvings, paintings, tile panels, etc.

These buildings were constructed from the 16th century onwards by the religious missions that settled there.

The residential architecture combines 17th-century elements, with their lattice balconies, with 18th- and 19th-century elements, with tile coverings, and neoclassical elements from the beginning of the present century.

The characteristics of popular architecture in Olindense have become striking: a manifestation of the culture inherited from Portugal and adapted to Brazilian conditions, they have acquired their own character and continuity over time.

The changes in form and use, which bear witness to the evolutionary process of the complex, were made without sacrificing the original urban setting and the relationship of landscape integration.

Landscape and art come together admirably in Olinda. The richness of the 20 baroque churches and convents, remarkable for their architecture and the quality of their decorative elements, is added to the simple houses with tiled façades and lattice balconies.

Tourism and Travel Guide of Olinda in Pernambuco

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