São João del-Rei MG – Tourist Attractions, History and Architecture

Modern buildings mix with colonial relics in São João del Rei, whose history begins at the end of the 17th century.

In 1713, the village founded by bandeirantes on the banks of the River Mortes was elevated to the status of a town with its current name, in honor of the king of Portugal, Dom João V.

São João del-Rei MG
São João del-Rei MG

The city prospered thanks to mining and, unlike the others, survived its decline by turning to agriculture, livestock and commerce.

The price of this economic growth was the loss of some of its colonial buildings.

Today, São João del-Rei is a bustling and active city.

The Baroque style is present in the churches and buildings of the historic center, which can be visited on foot;

Baroque architecture that harks back to the colonial style of the state’s gold-mining era in the 18th century, São João del-Rei is a city that exudes art, culture and history.  

History of São João del-Rei

In search of emeralds, Fernão Dias Pais Leme’s flag was forced to spend the rainy season in Serra Negra in 1674, where it founded the first settlement in Minas Gerais – Ibituruna, twelve leagues from the present-day city of São João del Rei, to which the municipality belonged until 1922.

The auriferous gravels of the Rio das Mortes basin, which “whistled along the path trodden by the bandeirantes”, revealed the region’s large gold deposits. The first settlers of São João Del Rei were from São Paulo.

At the end of the 17th century, Tomé Portes Del Rei, coming from Taubaté, settled on the banks of the River Mortes, a place they called “Porto Real” because it was a passage for all ships, and the first settlement began. In 1702, however, Tomé Portes Del Rei, who had been granted the right to charge for passage on the River Mortes since 1701, died.

He was succeeded by his son-in-law Antônio Garcia da Cunha.

Until 1703, the town’s importance stemmed from its position as a connection point with the Sertões do Caeté and the region of the Carmo, Ouro Preto and Sabará mines. Between 1703 and 1704, the Portuguese Manuel João de Barcelos discovered rich patches of gold at the edge of the hills and the São Paulo explorers Pedro do Rosário and Lourenço da Costa began their work there.

Outsiders and adventurers began to flock to the area.

And on the slopes of the mountains, now known as Morro da Forca, the Paulistas built the first church, consecrated to Our Lady of Pilar. Thus, due to its geographical position and its wealth of gold, the town of Rio das Mortes was born.

In the war between the Paulistas and the Emboabas, still at the beginning of the 18th century, the Rio das Mortes arraial was strongly shaken by the death and removal of the Paulistas, from whom the mines were usurped.

Despite these struggles and disputes, the settlement continued to prosper.

On July 8, 1713, the town was created and named after King João V and Tomé Portes Del Rei.

Tourist Attractions of São João del-Rei MG

1. Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar

Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar em São João del-Rei MG
Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar em São João del-Rei MG

Bárbara Heliodora and Tancredo Neves were baptized in its font.

Built in 1721 to replace a chapel burnt down during the Emboabas War, it underwent a process of expansion at the beginning of the 19th century, when its façade was renovated to neoclassical lines.

The Baroque opulence can be seen in the grandiose gilded woodwork of its six altars, which are profusely worked; on the first altar on the right, for example, there is an image of Saint Michael adorned with diamonds and emeralds; more than two hundred kilos of gold were used for the image of the patron saint. Getúlio Vargas Street, Center.

2. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário em São João del-Rei MG
Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário em São João del-Rei MG

Built between 1708 and 1709.

It has undergone several renovations, including the construction of a second bell tower in 1936.

Its main attractions are the image of the patron saint on a richly carved throne, the carving of the crossing arch and the altarpiece of the high altar.

The images were sculpted by the master of Cajuru – a name attributed by researchers to an 18th-century artist of unknown identity who worked in the region.

Embaixador Gastão da Cunha Square (Largo do Rosário), s/n.

3. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo em São João del-Rei MG
Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo em São João del-Rei MG

What stands out most about this church, built between 1732 and 1785, are its octagonal towers.

The altars are painted white; the elegant decoration, without excesses, is typical of the second phase of the Baroque.

The rich soapstone work on the façade, depicting Our Lady surrounded by cherubs, dates from the 19th century. Largo do Carmo, s/n.

4. Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Mercês

Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Mercês em São João del-Rei MG
Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Mercês em São João del-Rei MG

In 1853, a renovation altered the façade and floor plan of the old chapel, built in the first half of the 18th century and belonging to the Brotherhood of Mercy, made up of the so-called “pardos”.

With a side tower set back a little from the body of the building, the church has elegant and sober lines.

Note the superb rosewood and leather pews in the chancel. Alto das Mercês, s/n.

5. Igreja de São Francisco de Assis

Igreja de São Francisco de Assis em São João del-Rei MG
Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis

From a distance, you can see the grandiose cluster of imperial palm trees that frames this church in

which predominates in the rococo style and is one of the most important religious monuments in the country.

The rounded building was begun in 1774, according to Aleijadinho’s original design; however, the master builder Francisco de Lima Cerqueira made several changes.

Aleijadinho was responsible for the beautiful stone carvings on the façade, the design of the altarpieces and the

image of Sâo Joao Evangelista in the sacristy.

Museu do Estanho em São João del-Rei MG
Tin Museum in São João del-Rei MG

The side altars are in natural color because gold was already scarce when they were finished, and an immense Baccarat crystal chandelier illuminates the nave. Praça. Frei Orlando, s/n, Center.

6. Tin Museum

John Somers, a pewter objects factory established in São João del-Rei since the 1960s, brings together utilitarian, decorative and religious pieces from Brazil and Europe.

The collection includes objects collected from European ships that sank off the Brazilian coast in the 17th century. Avenida Leite de Castro, 1150, Fábricas

7. São João del-Rei Regional Museum

Museu Regional de São João del-Rei em São João del-Rei MG
Museu Regional de São João del-Rei em São João del-Rei MG

Housed in a huge manor house dating from 1859, the museum has an extensive collection of furniture and objects from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The marble images representing the continents and an exquisitely decorated litter stand out. Severiano Resende Square

President Tancredo Neves Foundation

The memorial to Tancredo Neves, the city’s illustrious son, is housed in an 18th century house.

The nine rooms retrace his career through documents, photos, videos and speeches.

Rua Padre Jose Maria Xavier, 7, Centro.

8. Railway Museum

Museu Ferroviário em São João del-Rei MG
Museu Ferroviário em São João del-Rei MG

The museum is housed in the station of the Oeste-Minas Railroad, where you take the train to Tiradentes.

The collection includes parts, equipment and photos, as well as old wagons and a collection of eleven Baldwin steam locomotives. Av. Hermílio Alves, 366, Centro.

10. City tours

Mixing old and new buildings, São João del-Rei is very pleasant, with good surprises that reveal themselves on a walking tour.

Ponte do Rosário São João del-Rei
Ponte do Rosário São João del-Rei

It is interesting to pay attention to the rich details of the façade of some colonial buildings in the historic center, such as

  • Solar dos Neves (pça. Emb. Gastão da Cunha, 98).
  • Solar dos Lustosa (pça. Emb. Gastão da Cunha, 54), the Solar da Baronesa de Itaverava (rua Getúlio Vargas, 238), with its beautiful lacy iron balcony.
  • Casa do Barão de Itambé (pça. Barão de Itambé, 17).
  • Ponte do Rosário – in 1800 the “rosário bridge” was built, with the Rosário Church on one side and the Tancredo Neves Memorial and São Francisco Church on the other.
Chafariz da Legalidade em São João del-Rei MG
Chafariz da Legalidade em São João del-Rei MG

Also worth appreciating are the more modest single-storey houses, such as those on Rua do Rosário, the chapels of the Passion Steps scattered around the city and the Legality fountain (Praça do Expedicionário), the only example of the stone fountains so common in colonial cities.

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