By Milli Legrain, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Nestled in the hills of the Serra dos Órgãos, the glorious old imperial city of Petrópolis can be found just an hour’s drive from downtown Rio. Founded in 1843 by Emperor Dom Pedro II as he sought refuge from the summer heat, the city boasts streets lined with the kind of stunning pastel-colored mansions and quaint iron bridges that would rival any historic European city.
A definite European feel pervades, thanks to the German, Portuguese and Italian immigrants who, lured by the alpine landscape, followed the royal courtiers, setting up restaurants and bars, and the breweries that still produce some of the state’s favorite beers.
The Museu Imperial, the former neoclassical palace built for Dom Pedro II, is the place to start any visit. Converted in 1943 into a perfectly preserved snapshot of the royal family, today every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8PM, the palace grounds come alive with an open air show that tells of the rise and fall of the imperial family.
The city’s other must-see buildings are largely concentrated along Rua da Imperatriz and Avenida Koeler, including the Rio Negro Palace, former abode of a coffee plantation owner that became an official federal residence and a favorite retreat of President Getúlio Vargas. To the north of Praça Liberdade stands the Palácio de Cristal, a replica of London’s famous, fire-destroyed Crystal Palace, brought over in sections from France before being assembled and inaugurated in 1884. Still occasionally used to host music shows, an event held by Princess Isabel in 1888 celebrated the abolition of slavery in Brazil.
The simple summer house of Santos Dumont, better known as A Encantada, has also become a museum in its old age, this time in homage to Brazil’s father of aviation. A replica of his most infamous invention, the first self-propelled airplane known as the 14-bis, is perched on a square of the same name nearby.
For ardent Beer lovers, the Cervejaria Bohemia was the source of all of production of one of the finest brews in the state until recently, when it became a state-of-the-art museum on the site of Brazil’s oldest brewery. The Terezopolis and Itaipava beers are also brewed nearby.
To get away from the hustle and bustle of the city center (this is, after all, a city of 300,000 inhabitants), everything from mountain bike rides to hikes and caves are ready for exploring and can be accessed via the city’s official tourist website (destinopetropolis.com.br). Better still, take a bus to the magnificent Serra dos Órgãos, from where the more adventurous can attempt the three-day hike from Petrópolis to Teresópolis (only recommended with a professional guide).
For those spending the night, Franco-Brazilian owned Pousada 14 bis offers a range of quiet rooms with great views starting at R$90 per person complete with an excellent breakfast. The staff are very helpful and the grounds boast a swimming pool and even a small museum dedicated to Santos Dumont.
Buses from Rio’s Rodoviária Novo Rio (R$20) leave for Petrópolis bus station every 15 minutes, and it’s worth remembering that, on the way up, seats on the left hand side offer spectacular views. Take the number 100 or 107 bus to the Center of Petrópolis (30 minutes) or treat yourself to a taxi (R$25).