Things to Do in Brazil to Discover Your Heritage

January 8, 2021  - by 
Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro with Christ Redeemer and Corcovado Mountain. Brazil. Latin America, horizontal

You can travel to many places in Brazil to discover and celebrate your Brazilian heritage, whether your ethnic background is indigenous, Portuguese, African, East Asian, Middle Eastern, or any combination of these! Explore your heritage with these incredible things to do in Brazil.

Over hundreds—even thousands—of years, Brazil has been home to many cultures and peoples. Today, their stories are layered in the culture, architecture, art, food, and traditions of this South American nation.

So much history lives in Brazil that several historic city centers have been named as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Other unique historical places, such as mining towns, plantations, and refugee villages, also preserve important stories. Here are just a few destinations in Brazil that celebrate the heritage of its immigrant and indigenous peoples.

Manaus: Heart of the Amazon

The vibrant city of Manaus lies in the heart of the rainforest, where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões join to form the mighty Amazon River. At the Museu da Amazônia, visitors can survey the rainforest from the treetops and learn more about natural and human history in the area.

Manaus, a place to visit in Brazil

From Manaus, many tours head deeper into the Amazon; some include a visit to a settlement of the Dessana tribe. The Museu do Indio (Museum of the Indian) preserves the stories of local indigenous cultures, and the Museu do Homem do Norte (Museum of Northern Man) celebrates the histories of both past and contemporary residents.

Many buildings in Manaus preserve the legacies of European contact, which began in 1499 but became more permanent with the building of the Fort of São José da Barra do Rio Negro in the 1600s. Get a glimpse of the colonial era at the Catedral Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Conception), originally constructed in 1695 and rebuilt after an 1850 fire.  

Experience the gilded era of European settlement (1890–1920) at the Teatro Amazonas opera house, or stroll past the ornate customs house, lighthouse, and floating dock on the banks of the Rio Negro. Dine at one of the many Lebanese or other ethnic restaurants, and learn about immigrant groups who flocked to Manaus.

Explore your Brazilian heritage by searching for records about your ancestors and learning about migrations that affected them.

Salvador de Bahia: The Pelourinho

The Portuguese colonial capital of Brazil, Salvador de Bahia, was founded over 500 years ago and became a major seaport. The historic city center is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the Pelourinho section of the city center, enjoy beautiful churches, convents, palaces, and brightly colored houses, some dating to the 1600s. Several military fortifications built during the 1500s and 1600s also remain in Salvador, testaments to the realities of colonial power struggles.

Salvador de Bahia

UNESCO recognizes Salvador de Bahia as the site of the first slave market in the Americas. Beginning in the 1550s, people from various places in Africa, including Angola and Mozambique, were captured and forcibly brought to work in Brazil’s sugar plantations.

Today, Salvador residents are still predominantly of African origin, and the city’s foods and music reflect this heritage. Learn more about African Brazilian heritage at the Afro Brazilian Museum in Salvador.

Ouro Preto: A Mining Town

The town of Ouro Preto, north of Rio de Janeiro, was founded in the 1700s and became the center of the rich gold mining district of Vila Rica. Its isolated, mountainous location left the town isolated, and its original baroque architecture has been well-preserved, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Travelers can wind through cobblestone streets lined with colonial churches, squares, homes, bridges, and public buildings. Particularly fascinating is a theater built in 1769—one of the oldest in the Americas, and still in use today.

Ouro Preto. A favorite thing to do in Brazil is visit this mining town.

To more fully appreciate the experiences of many early residents, including enslaved Africans, go underground. Workers toiled long, dark, dangerous hours in the mines. The former Mine du Veloso has been converted into an exhibition mine. On a guided tour, you can learn (in English or Portuguese) about the daily lives and ingenious techniques used by miners.

Rio de Janeiro: Rich with Heritage

One of the world’s biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro is also recognized by UNESCO as “staggeringly beautiful.” Many of the most popular tourist attractions tell stories of the people who came before. For example, the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks the city was built to celebrate the Christian heritage of many Brazilians. Sugarloaf, the best landmark from which to view the city, towers over the 17th-century Fort São João, now renovated and open to the public.

Free walking tours of the city, led by knowledgeable guides, help visitors better understand the roles of both Portuguese and Africans in the city’s history. Visit the Museu Histórico Nacional (National History Museum), which houses important historical buildings, museum exhibits, and a library dedicated to Brazilian history and culture. For a more somber commemoration, walk along the Valongo Wharf archaeological site, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, where hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans landed when they arrived in Brazil.

Fazendas and Quilombos: Legacies of Slavery

For centuries, Brazil’s economy relied on the enslaved labor of millions of people on plantations, in gold and diamond mines, on cattle ranches, and more. Today, various places across the country bear witness to their experiences. Some fazendas (plantations) still in operation today open their doors and share their histories with visitors. Fazenda Tozan is one such place. Originally a sugarcane plantation, it was acquired by a Japanese immigrant family and is now a coffee farm.

Other destinations that reveal Brazil’s history are the many quilombos scattered around the country. These were villages established by refugees from slavery and further populated by others who joined them. Perhaps the best known is the quilombo of Palamares, an isolated region inland to which escapees fled during the 1600s. Learn more about quilombos and specifically about Palamares at the Quilombo dos Palmares Memorial Park.

Celebrate your Brazilian heritage by sharing traditional recipes on FamilySearch.org—and the stories and memories that go with them.


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Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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