Discover Ouro Preto’s Golden History

Nestled in the green, rolling hills of central Brazil, the charming streets of Ouro Preto match the beauty of their surroundings. From a hill above town we saw the red terracotta rooftops of this 18th century gold rush city rise and fall as they follow the undulating landscape. Ouro Preto’s golden history has left us with a wonderful historic centre that is a delight to explore.

Ouro Preto is the quintessential colonial town. Cobblestone streets are adorned with one and two-story whitewashed homes with colourful wooden doors and window frames. Elaborate fountains on street corners take these streets to the next level of cuteness. The streets climb up and down the small hills as they meander their way though the mountain town. From the top of each hill you get a glimpse of the next street and are enticed to continue your walk.

When gold was found in the Serra do Espinhaço mountains around Ouro Preto the race was on. Prospectors rushed to the area to search for this valuable mineral. Miners initially established a tent city, but as the amount of gold mines grew so did the amount of people moving in. By the early 1700s this hillside spot became a village and was called Vila Richa (Rich Village). It had been nicknamed Ouro Preto (Black Gold) by locals because of a layer of iron oxide which gave the gold a dark appearance. When the village grew to become a city, its name officially became Ouro Preto and it became one of the wealthiest cities in Brazil. It was even capital city of the state of Minas Gerais for a while. At its peak Ouro Preto had close to 110,00 residents. Today that number has dwindled to less than 75,000.

Eventually the gold in the mines was exhausted and people slowly began to move out. When the capital was moved to Belo Horizonte in 1897, Ouro Preto lost its prestige, wealth and much of its population. Unlike many boom-and-bust cities though, Ouro Preto didn’t completely disintegrate. The buildings were never torn down, they were merely abandoned. Of course they had a lot of wear and tear from years of neglect, but a refurbishment in the 2010s brought them back to life. Between the verdant hills surrounding it and the restored heritage buildings, Ouro Preto is a great place to spend a couple of days exploring.

In addition to the gold mines, Ouro Preto holds another notable piece to Brazil’s history. Praça Tiradentes, is a large open square in the middle of town. It was named after the man who led an unsuccessful uprising against Portugal in 1789. A statue of him has a prominent position in the centre of the square.

On one end of the large plaza the baroque building that once served as both city hall and jail, now houses the Museum of Inconfidência. Its exhibits are dedicated to those who fought in this first uprising. Brazil eventually received their independence in 1822.

The museum’s pretty central clock and bell tower are only overshadowed by the interesting soapstone figures perched on the four corners of the roof. They represent the cardinal virtues; Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortress.

At the other end of the square a large fortress-like building served as the governor’s palace but now holds the miner’s museum. In between the two are heritage buildings with colourful door frames and juliet balconies. Today they are used by shops to sell crafts, artwork, soapstone carvings and trinkets. The traffic that is allowed to run through the square though, causes it to lose a bit of its charm.

As with most Portuguese colonial towns, there are many churches in historic Ouro Preto. Just beyond the main square is one of the most impressive. Igreja de São Francisco de Assis has striking soapstone relief sculptures above its large green door. It is the work of one of Brazil’s famous artists, Antônio Francisco Lisboa, who was born in Ouro Preto. The rounded bell towers add another unique look to this pretty church.

It felt as if there were a church on the top of every hill. As we walked throughout the town we came across many of them.

We loved the round design of Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary). Similar to the blue church we saw in Pelourinho Square in Salvador, this one was was built and paid for by slaves and freemen. A few blocks away, Nossa Senhora do Carmo has a beautiful interior with blue azulejos tiles on its walls.

During the gold rush, the Portuguese sent as much as 800 metric tons of gold from Ouro Preto’s mines to Portugal. Apparently locals weren’t happy about this so instead they used the gold to decorate their churches. This was the only place where the gold would be protected from being sent to Portugal.

The gold mines are all closed now but you can take a tour of the underground tunnels. After visiting the mines of Potosi in Bolivia, we didn’t feel the need to visit another mine.

Getting to Ouro Preto   

This mountain city is 2 ½ hours south of the state capital Belo Horizonte where there is an international airport. It is 8 hours north of Rio de Janeiro. Ouro Preto can be reached from either city by bus or car.

You can also take the train to and from Rio, but it takes more than 12 hours. A better option is to take the train to the nearby heritage city of Mariana. We wish we had known about this town earlier so we could have visited it as well.

Where to stay

Ouro Preto is definitely ready for tourists with many hotels, hostels and inns in all price ranges. Try to stay near Praça Tiradentes as the old city spreads out in all directions from there. Most of the restaurants are within a few blocks of the main square.

Coming Next – Beautiful Rio de Janeiro

To read about our other adventures in Brazil click here.

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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