© iStock / Gilberto_Mesquita
© iStock / Gilberto_Mesquita

The picturesque center of Olinda: a UNESCO world heritage site

4 minutes to read

As I mentioned in previous articles, Pernambuco was significant during the first years of the colonization of Brazil, having its economy based on sugarcane commerce. Although Recife held the Port and the economic protagonism, the city of Olinda was chosen to be the Capital of the State. For defense issues, the town was built on hillsides overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, close to the isthmus of Recife, where is its Port. Today, still very well preserved, the city center holds an amazing cultural life and beautiful architecture, and it is considered a UNESCO world heritage city. Also, Olinda, in 2006, was the Brazilian Capital of Culture. Going there is like traveling back in time, back to the colonial period. I hope you enjoy! 

Historical background

Let us start from the beginning: The history. Founded in 1535, the city was the home of the Portuguese aristocracy. Olinda was the richest city in Colonial Brazil between the 16th century and the first decades of the 17th century. It was known as the "Little Lisbon," given the comparable aspect to the Capital of Portugal. Olinda was so important that it was the seat of colonial Brazil between 1624 and 1625. It remained prosperous until the Dutch invasion of the Captaincy of Pernambuco,  years later. After the conquest, to demonstrate power, the Dutch army set Olinda on fire and started building their own houses in the new capital (Recife), which was then named New Holanda. After Pernambuco was conquered by Portugal, Olinda was once again the headquarter of the captaincy, but this did not last long. Without the influence of the past, the lords of Recife started a battle against Olinda's aristocracy. Being victorious, they claimed the title of 'Capital of the State', which has not changed until today.

© iStock / zoroasto
© iStock / zoroasto

Start your trip at Carmo Square

In Olinda's city center, there are several spots to go. Of course, to discover 100% of the region you have to walk by yourself, but I will give you some tips here. When you go to Olinda Center by car or public transportation, you will eventually start your trip at Carmo Square. There are not many ways to go to the center, and that one is, in fact, the main entrance. The tip here is to start from Carmo and do the rest of this route on foot

© iStock / zoroasto
© iStock / zoroasto

Sightseeing options

At the square, you will find the Carmo Church (or Igreja do Carmo de Olinda), one of the biggest ones in Olinda. It started to be constructed around 1580. The Dutch partially destroyed it in 1631, and after the expulsion of the invaders, it was totally reconstructed until 1726. Another spot that could interest you in Olinda is the Basilica and the Monastery of São Bento. There, not too far, in the town hall of Olinda, you will find the famous street 15 de Novembro: it offers the best view over Recife's skyscrapers (it is where most of the carnival pictures are taken).  

Igreja do Carmo de Olinda
Igreja do Carmo de Olinda
Praça do Carmo, s/n - Carmo, Olinda - PE, 53120-090, Brasil
© Fábio Jardelino
© Fábio Jardelino

Sé hill, one of the city's highest spots

As I said, Olinda was built on hills, so be prepared to walk all the way up and down at the hillsides streets. But I guarantee that the trip is worth it. One of the highest spots in Olinda is the Sé hill (or, Alto da Sé, in Portuguese), where you will find the Misericórdia Church, which also held the building of the first hospital in Brazil, which was inaugurated in 1540. But before going all the way up there, you have to pass by the Ribeira Market, another essential touristic spot in Olinda. There, Portugueses used to trade spice, products, and even slaves. 

© Prefeitura de Olinda / Passarinho
© Prefeitura de Olinda / Passarinho

 The best views of the region

At the Sé hill, you will find the best view of the region. From there you have a perfect view of the city of Recife and from the whole coast of both cities, Recife and Olinda. The place is so amazing that on February 26, 1860, a comet was observed from there: it was known as the Comet Olinda, the first one to be discovered in Latin America. After that, the Observatory of Olinda for studies of the stars was built there, and it is a place you definitely have to visit. Just some meters further away, you can find the Olinda Panoramic Elevator, connected at the building where Water Tank of the city was. The place offers an excellent 360º panoramic viewpoint of Recife and Olinda. Although you have to pay to go up, the fee is not more than five reais (or so, 1 euro).

© Prefeitura de Olinda
© Prefeitura de Olinda
Olinda Panoramic Elevator
Olinda Panoramic Elevator
126 - R. Bpo. Coutinho - Amaro Branco, Olinda - PE, 53020, Brasil
Mercado da Ribeira
Mercado da Ribeira
R. de São Bento, S/N - Carmo, Olinda - PE, 53020-080, Brasil

Carnival in Olinda

© Prefeitura de Olinda / Arquimedes Santos
© Prefeitura de Olinda / Arquimedes Santos

Olinda may not be the Capital of the State, but is still an important city for Pernambuco and Brazil. Despite the beautiful and well conserved colonial architecture, Olinda is one of the biggest cultural centers in Brazil. Home of several artisans, painters, music bands, the city holds a big event every year. The  Carnival: it is an amazing five-days party where you can walk around all the streets of Olinda, in a wave of color, joy, people, and music. From Carmo to Alto da Sé, passing through Quatro Cantos and Ribeira market, the beauty of the Carnival in Olinda is the freedom you have while walking around the city, following some music band. It is a unique experience.

I could keep writing more than twenty pages, and it still would not be enough to describe everything Olinda is. There is one reason why Olinda is a UNESCO world heritage site: it is because this place is simply amazing.

Quatro Cantos (Olinda)
Quatro Cantos (Olinda)
R. Prudente de Morais, 483 - Carmo, Olinda - PE, 53020-140, Brasil

The author

Fabio Jardelino

Fabio Jardelino

I was born in a big city back in Brazil, called Recife, but I realized that it was not big enough for me. I lived around in Brazil, then abroad and currently, I'm in Europe, but always when I have a chance, I go back to Brazil to enjoy my wonderful country. Also, I want to give a little of this Brazilian Experience to you, through my articles and pictures.

Stories you might also like