Brasilia is one of the major examples of the 20th century´s modern movement in architecture and urban planning.
The city officially became Brazil´s capital on April, 1960. Four years before, it didn´t even exist. At that time, President Juscelino Kubitschek commisioned Lucio Costa (urban planner), Oscar Niemeyer (architect) and Burle Marx (landscape architect) to build a new city from scratch.
Lucio Costa drew the Plano Piloto, in which Brasilia is shaped like an airplane (or a bird). There´s a wide north-south axis for transportation. Around this are the residential zones, divided into blocks, each with its own churches, shops, schools etc. At the tip of the east-west axis there are formidable government buildings, like the Congress and the Itamaraty Palace.
The city was planned for 500.000 to 700.000 people. More would have to live in sattelite cities, which are abundant now because of Brasilia´s 2 million population.
Map of BrasiliaLoad map
I have always associated modernist architecture with minimalism and utility, but also with grittiness and to some extent, urban decay. It did not help that modernist architecture originated brutalism, which is another architectural style that I did not appreciate until recently. Visiting Brasilia has changed all of that—this is the place where I finally got to understand and even admire this architectural movement. The previous reviews pretty much said everything about the history, OUV, and logistics of visiting Brasilia, but I thought I'd add another review by sharing my experience visiting the city at the end of September 2022.
I flew from Belo Horizonte to Brasilia and from above, you could really appreciate the distinct shape of the city. Most of the government and cultural buildings of interest are built along Eixo Monumental (the main axis), while residential buildings are located in the wings. The areas adjacent to the axis on both sides are organized into sectors, which are named after the type of establishments they contain (e.g., Setor Comercial, Setor Bancario, and Setor Embaixadas). The city is bounded by Lago Paranoá and Parque Nacional de Brasilia to the east and northwest, respectively. Additionally, the international airport is situated in the south wing.
The first day was spent roaming around:
- Museu Nacional da República – shaped like a spaceship or the planet Saturn cut in half. Exhibits local contemporary and edgy art.
- Catedral Metropolitana – arguably the most iconic modern religious structure in Brazil just by its shape, to think that Niemeyer’s original sketch of the cathedral looks like a kid's doodle. The stained glass, sculptures of the angels and evangelists, and bell towers are the highlights of this structure.
- Biblioteca Nacional de Brasilia – I like how the library is boxy and rectangular, a complete contrast to the buildings next to it.
I focused my second day visiting the government offices around the Praça dos Três Poderes and the Esplanada dos Ministerios, which overall is a huge area to walk around. I doubt that the interiors of the government buildings can be visited at the moment following the Brazilian Congress attack and protests in January 2023. I will keep my eye on succeeding reviews for updates.
- Palácio do Planalto – the stilt-like columns and neat horizontal lines make this building a thing of beauty.
- Supremo Tribunal Federal – located on the other side of the plaza, opposite the Palácio do Planalto.
- Palácio do Itamaraty – home of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The arches and reflecting pools define this building. The interior may be visited by booking a tour through firstname.lastname@example.org, although I did not get any response and they seemed to prioritize groups over individuals.
- Palácio da Justiça – kinda resembles Palácio do Itamaraty but with water cascading down from the massive gutters that jut out of the façade.
- Congreso Nacional – a funny futuristic ensemble of two bowls (one is upside-down) and two tall wafers. My absolute favorite!
After a rather exhausting day, I spent the night watching a little samba performance at the hostel (it was the owner’s birthday) while enjoying a big bowl of açai. I then spent the final day relaxing and roaming around the area of my hostel, although I was told to be extra cautious as my visit was at the height of the 2022 Brazilian general election campaign. All I could remember, however, was that the central bus station was chock-full of passengers, vendors, and supporters of various candidates who brought their own marching bands to accompany the merriment.
Brasilia is indeed an impressive, uniquely designed city, and I agree with Wojciech that Niemeyer, Costa, Marx, and friends must have had a field day in planning and developing the city. However, I did not like that the city is not really pedestrian-friendly, although I understand that construction focused on the use of cars and thus, roads were built to scale. Unfortunately, I was not able to check some of the other sights, such as the Palácio da Alvorada, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, the TV tower, and some residential buildings. I guess these are another reason to come back to Brasilia.
A lot has been written on this site about Brasilia so it is difficult to add something extra. In short, we just loved our short visit there. Brasilia is perhaps the world's largest example of urban planning - four years before it was built, there was nothing but an idea.
Perhaps no country was better suited to such a task than Brazil. First, the disproportions in the development of the coast and the interior of the country were huge then. Secondly, the most outstanding architects with the vision, knowledge and experience needed to implement such an ambitious project came from Brazil. It also seems that the country has had a climate that allows for the implementation of such bold, utopian assumptions.
I imagine the delight of Lucia Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Roberto Burle Marx and others - few architects in history have had such a great field to show off, being able to let their imagination run wild in an almost unlimited way.
The gentlemen did not stop at copying the solutions known earlier and created the city not even for their times, but for times that were yet to come (some people claim that they still had not come). The city was built on the plan of a flying condor or a plane, with residential districts located along the wings, and public buildings in the body. At the top of this corps - the head of a condor or the nose of the plane - there is the Three Authorities Square (Praça dos Três Poderes), with the seat of the Congress, the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court building. The artificial lake of Paranoa and Brasilia National Park, a fragment of a real rainforest just a few kilometers from the center, were to be used for relaxation. In the city, everything had its order and plan, and residential districts were built in the same way. But the most important thing is that the city was built with car traffic in mind, forgetting about the needs of pedestrians - in the 1950s it was an extravagance or an expression of excessive optimism, because even today we know that transport cannot be based solely on car traffic.
As we came to Brasilia by car, we can confirm that the city is perfect for motorists. The only downside was the wide, but almost constantly jammed entrance alleys, where traffic was calmed down by dozens of speed cameras. Brasilia in general seems to confirm the claim that no matter how wide you build the streets, at some point they will get jammed.
You can also reach the city center via wide avenues without having to worry about parking - there are plenty of parking spaces inside. Suffice to say that by parking several times in different parts of the city, I not only found a spot quickly, but I did not even pay a single centavo for parking.
We started our tour from an unusual place, a great white pyramid that is the building of the Temple of Good Will (Templo da Boa Vontade), an ecumenical temple serving all religions. You are not allowed to wear shorts, but the nice guards provided long trousers and a skirt for free. The floor is arranged in the form of a snail, with black and white fields. Visitors are advised to walk around the black squares in a counterclockwise direction to the center and then return clockwise over the white squares. The place is an amazing conglomerate of major religions, and in the temple shop you can buy various amulets, crystals, but also accessories important for Muslim, Christian, Hindu and even ancient Egyptian deities.
The next temple we visited was not ecumenical, but due to its fame, many non-Christians certainly visited it. It is one of the most famous monuments in Brasilia - the Dom Bosco Sanctuary. It is said that the patron of the temple, St. John Bosco, at the end of the 19th century, had a dream in which he saw a great modern city… and the location might correspond to today's Brasilia. The prophecy turned out to be self-fulfilling - President Juscelino Kubitschek knew the prophecy of St. John Bosco and that is one of the reasons why he ordered Brasilia to be situated where it is now. And John Bosco patronizes an absolutely outstanding temple in the city of his dreams
After the Dom Bosco Sanctuary, it was time for the crème de la crème of our visit, Esplanada dos Ministerios and Praça dos Três Poderes. Unfortunately, these beautiful buildings were closed to visitors this time, so we could only admire them from the outside, usually parking on the extreme lane of the 8-lane esplanade. We had to cross it a few times as pedestrians, which was quite a difficult feat - we had a choice of either bending to the closest (read - at least half a kilometer away) lanes with lights, or counting on luck when changing the lights. It's not really a pedestrian city. But in all other respects it is delightful and has no equivalent elsewhere in the world.
Brasilia was my entry point into South America when I visited back in April 2016, and it remains one of the most unique cities I've ever visited. My family and I took a taxi tour around for a few hours, and it only took a few hours to be sold. The Cathedral, Dom Bosco Sanctuary, Praca dos Tres Poderes, and the Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge were probably the greatest highlights, but the city as a whole is a masterpiece in modern architecture and urban planning. I don't think any other city in the world was composed so meticulously, specifically, and distinctly. And while some say that Brasilia is a failure in urban planning, I beg to differ. Even though the entire city is uniformly modern, I wasn't ever bored walking around, although that may partially be because of my excitement to be in South America for the first time. Sure, it's a pretty spread-out city, but walks here felt even more pleasant and safe than walking in Rio de Janeiro did. It's not totally ideal for all citizens, but I heard nothing negative about it from its inhabitants. They definitely have reason to be proud of their city. All of this isn't to say that Brasilia is without flaws. The fact that we saw almost all of the city's highlights within a few hours does show that this is no historical city that I could explore for days. Though the variety of different buildings is great, from the sculpture-like government buildings and the beautiful stained glass architecture of the churches to the elegant palaces and blocky highrise buildings, they do all look somewhat alike, almost completely white and modern. But it is the bold character of the city. Brasilia is less than a century old, after all. And with such a young age comes less history to explore and less culture to have developed in a site. Nevertheless, Brasilia is an undeniably special work of art, and it's serving as the capital of a world power the way it was always meant to be.
I'm with Ian - Brasilia fascinates me! I loved the brazen confidence that that Niemeyer showed in his design for Brazil's new capital in the 1960's. I love the pomp and circumstance that you can nearly always find in the Eixo Monumental area. I especially love sitting in the Catedral Metropolitana and just staring at the glass. In my opinion, Brasilia can be well accomplished in a long day with a lot of walking. The Praça dos Trés Poderes is the center park-like area with the key buildings surrounding the long plaza.
If you just want to hit the most important spots, take a taxi (15 minutes without traffic), Uber or bus from the airport to the Biblioteca Nacional. From there, you can walk along the south past the Museu Nacional, Cathedral Metropolitana and on down the hill to the Congresso Nacional building and then the various palacios and monuments. At the giant flag, turn and head back up the hill to the Teatro Nacional. At a minimum, try to visit the Cathedral, Congresso and the Panteão de Patria e da Liberdade Tancredo Neves with the eternal flame and amazing view back up toward the Biblioteca.
The Praça is especially beautiful at night when the buildings are all lit up.
You can join a walking tour or just get a map from your hotel or visitors center and walk the area on your own. If you have time, don't miss the Santuario Dom Bosco - about 1km from the Biblioteca.
In August 2018, I visited Brasília. The city is particularly inhospitable to pedestrians, so I engaged a local guide with a car, Juan Luis Hermida, one of the very best I have ever encountered. Atheist Oscar Niemeyer achieved the apotheosis of his nearly eight-decade architectural career with the Cathedral of Brasília, which was completed in 1970, a dozen years after its cornerstone was laid in 1958. In 1990, the cathedral’s outer roof was lined with stained glass, now filling the ineffable place of worship with color and light, where the nave is overlooked by three angelic statues. The city was created on a grand scale, more for automobiles than pedestrians, so the streets and plazas were generally devoid of people, except for a few protesters in front of the Palace of the Supreme Court calling for the release of Lula, the former president, from prison so he can run in the election scheduled for October 2018.
Some people will hate Brasilia, but I am unapologetically going to state I thought it was awesome. Brasilia contains some of the finest buildings I have ever visited, and in the Planalto Palace (for exterior) and the Itamaraty Palace (for interior) perhaps the two most beautiful I have ever seen. I was originally going to qualify that by saying "most beautiful modernist building" but I really can't think of any other buildings I have thought to be more perfect. The clear simple elegance of the forms is then enhanced by playful, almost baroque flourishes such as the flared columns or exquisite spiral staircase.
As a fan of modernist architecture and especially of Oscar Niemeyer's work I am predisposed to liking this site, throw in that it was my first South American WHS, my personal site visit 250, and that I have a couple of politics degrees to give context to the buildings, then things were very much stacked in favour of a tour around the Brazilian capital. However even my high expectations were surpassed, the fact that the majority of them were open and welcoming on free guided tours really added to our enjoyment.
Now I fully appreciate not everyone will share my enthusiasm for the work of Oscar Niemeyer, nor be as able to gloss over some of Brasilia’s failings. However the sheer quantity of world class structures in one city will hopefully entertain even those not fully enthralled by minimalist repetition.
The one thing that came as a surprise was how nice the residential aspects of the city felt, (I admit I had already mentally drafted a section on the failure of the urban plan and its lack of thought for human inhabitants). We went off to explore the southern wing on our first night, making use of the new metro system. The large housing blocks seemed very welcoming and came with lots of communal resources in their immediate surroundings. Then we started to get an idea of how everyday life worked. Every few blocks there were high streets with shops, bars and some surprisingly trendy restaurants, it turns out hipster burger joints are as big here as they are in Kreuzberg, Flagstaff and Brixton.
There are some downsides; the big distances, reliance on taxis, grim area between metro station and southern hotel district, most food options being in shopping malls!?! However as the saying doesn't go “Brasilia wasn't built in a day” and hopefully as the city evolves these issues can start to be rectified, the metro line is a good start.
I really loved Brasilia, whilst its exceptionally friendly and welcoming population is fighting to humanise its massive scale, the astounding beauty of many of its major buildings is enough for me to put this amongst the best world heritage sites I have visited.
[Site 9: Experience 7]
Where else in the world you have the executive, legislative and judiciary powers holding office on the same square? It's all happening on the Praca dos tres Poderes in the Brazilian capital. A few meters away is the Itamarati, a marvellous modern building that houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.The purpose-built federal capital of Brazil succeeded Rio de Janeiro in 1960, and was laid out by Professor Lucio Costa in the shape of an airplane, with many buildings designed by Brazil's most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer. All planned, all organized.For instance on Esplanada dos Ministerios, you can find 19 tall ministry buildings where people go to work. The appartment buildings where they live were planned just next door. But the most impressive sites for me were 2 churches: The Sanctuary of Dom Bosco with its multi blue stained glass windows ranging from shades in light blue, to indigo, to marine blue and depending on the day light, it can be an extraordinary atmosphere inside this church; the other one is the Cathedral Metropolitana, a hyperboloid structure,constructed from 16 concrete colums, weighting 90 tons each.Inside you can see 3 aluminium angels suspended from the ceiling; the altar was donated by Pope Paul VI.The capital has been declared a World Heritage site in 1987. Brasilia has very little fancy restaurants, if you imagine that all the embassies are located here. Bar Beirute is a funny place. Middle East cuisine with Brazilian entertainment, its a GLS location and the beer is icecold! On our last day in Brasilia we were lucky: walking towards the Nacional hotel with our luggage, a local guy was hiding in the bushes along the sidewalk.But a police patrol was nearby, and they jumped over in full combat gear, arresting the suspect within seconds. I think the capital is a safe place, as the police knows very well what's going on.
Before I visited Brasilia,
I knew next to nothing about it.
I just knew it was the new capital of Brazil
Built somewhere in the middle of the country.
That its plan and architecture was eclectic...
But no more than that.
I had never heard of Juscelino Kubitschek,
The "bossa nova" president
Under whose tutelage the city was established;
Nor of Lucio Costa, the brilliant city planner,
Nor of the heroic artists, nor of the tireless workers.
Yes, Oscar Niemeyer I'd heard mentioned
But I had no knowledge really of what greatness
He's accomplished; not even that he's Brazilian!
...I accepted an invitation suddenly from out of the blue,
An invitation to visit Brasilia.
And now I know about Brasilia,
Not nearly enough but enough to know
That it's a place where you feel alive! Impassioned!
By its innovative ways, its buildings of epic grandeur;
By the ebullient energy and humanistic spirit
Of the beautiful brasilienses: gracious, delightful, spontaneous!
The sky is sapphire blue in Brasilia, the earth carnelian red;
Bold buildings soar in the brightest of whites!
Not shy pastels, but primary colors, making a statement!
The shapes, the curves, the four-leaf clover roads, the bridges of fantasy,
The pyramidal, the concave and convex, the rounded U.F.O.-like buildings,
The Cathedral like hands in prayer holding the miracle within.
I know about Brasilia now.
I know where it gleams like a dream of a mythical city.
I can tell you how to get there.
You'll be glad you came.
This is a strange city, that cannot be compared to any other in Brazil (or the rest of the world). To be honest: the first thing that came to my mind was that they dropped an atomic bomb here. It must have happened in the early 1970s, in a Bucharest-like city. The people are slowly starting to return now, occasionally you see one or two moving about the fields.
To see some of the architecture, I joined a 3-hour bus tour. We visited 9 places of interest. The most impressive I found was the Sanctuario Dom Bosco. When you step inside this church, you´re surrounded by a blue light shining through the many glass-tiled windows.
The other buildings are a lot soberer. Some are beautiful in their simplicity (like the Church of Our Lady of Fatima), others are quite depressing (like the highrise buildings that were built for the ministries).
Brasilia is strange place. A planned city, created from nothing when the Brazilian government decided to move the capital inland, in an attempt to develop the interior of the country, Brasilia is in the shape of an airplane and most buildings downtown are built in a modernist style (read white and somewhat spartan looking). That said, some of the architecture and planning schemes are fascinating and after spending several days in Rio beforehand, Brasilia is like an oasis of calm. The extreme planning of the city, however, prevents it from feeling particularly "lived in" and the great distances between buildings (again based on modernist conception of cities) makes it difficult to get around quickly.
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