World at a Glance: Pretty Petrópolis (Day out Rio)

In Rio de Janeiro and want to get out of town for a day? Away from the beaches and party atmosphere of Copacabana?


Didn’t think so.

But if you change your mind, and want some fresh mountain air and a bit of old world culture to boot, may I suggest a trip to Petrópolis? Here are three things you can see and do in Brazil’s charming and elegant imperial city.

1. Palácio Quitandinha

Palácio Quitandinha is the biggest casino in Latin America. All glamour, fame and fortune back in the day when casino games were legal.

More interestingly, is the Rio Treaty that was signed here at Palácio Quitandinha in 1947: the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR in Spanish), a defence pact for the western hemisphere. Like the often mentioned Article 5 of the Washington Treaty in these warring days, the Rio Treaty stipulates that an attack on one is to be considered an attack on all. Unlike the NATO treaty, and to the dismay of the USA, several signatories have withdrawn from the Rio Treaty. Curiously (I think), Argentina isn’t one of them. Why curiously? Well, during the Falklands War in 1982, the USA chose NATO over TIAR. And by extension, the UK over Argentina.

2. Museu Imperial

Brazil’s most famous museum?

Museu Imperial is located in what was once the summer palace of Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s last emperor. Walking through is a bit like time travelling to Victorian times – or I should perhaps say Pedrovian times: about 8000 well-preserved imperial items: furniture, chandeliers, sculptures, clothes and jewellery, including the emperor’s crown. It is often voted Brazil’s best museum.

3. Catedral de São Pedro de Alcântara

Catedral de São Pedro de Alcântara

Inside the cathedral, Dom Pedro II rests in eternal peace. The emperor ruled Brazil for 58 years, beginning at the tender young age of 5! During his time, Brazil was a parliamentary monarchy with political stability, freedom of speech and dynamic economic growth. Civil rights were upheld. He was loved by the people, and was known as O Magnânimo, the magnanimous one.

Sadly, that didn’t stop him from being ousted by a gang of military leaders who seemed to think a republic run by a dictator would be better; the first of many coups d’état in Brazil. (What is it with Latin American countries?). In 1889, the imperial family was exiled to Europe; two years later he died in Paris. 20 years after his death, his and his wife’s remains were returned to Brazil. You can see their mausolea and life-size statues in the cathedral.

As you no doubt will have guessed, the name of the cathedral, as well as of the city, is in honour of Dom Pedro II.

What else?

Petrópolis has more on offer, of course, including Palácio de Cristal, a lovely structure inspired by the ones in London and Lisbon, where the last of Brazil’s slaves were freed on Easter Sunday in 1888. Outside the university is a pretty flower clock, and Fábrica de Chocolate produces lots of the delicioso. Then there is the picturesque A Encantada, the quirky house (now museum) of eccentric Brazilian aviator and inventor Alberto Santos Dumont. And there’s Casa Stefan Zweig. The Austrian writer was the world’s most popular author and playwright in his time. Zweig fled Nazism and settled here. He wasn’t the only Germanic to do that; every July, Petrópolis hosts a German festival known as Bauernfest, celebrating the German settlers. (Think beer. And chocolate.)

So there you have it: three tips for Brazil’s Imperial City. And a wee bit more. Also, this little slice of Petrópolis landscape:

As you might be able to tell by these less than stellar photos, this was in the pre-digital era. I’d been traipsing about South America for a while, and was somewhat single-minded when I arrived in Rio. It was all about Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon – because, you know, life is a beach! The little road trip – about one hour from Rio – up into the mountain to this town that I had never even heard of, came as a bit of an unexpected extra treat. And now you have heard about it, too.