A red one, a pink one, a teal one—all squished together. Welcome to Olinda where the colorful homes welcome visitors to one of the cultural centers of Brazil just 20 minutes outside of Recife.

The area’s picturesque situation, with the clear blue water and lush vegetation, won over Duarte Ceolho, who founded the city in 1535. Ceolho, a Portuguese nobleman working in sugarcane, also appreciated Olinda’s strategic location at South America’s easternmost bulge into the Atlantic ocean. At one point he exclaimed from the top of the hills, “O beautiful situation to build a town!”

But this Latin American paradise was destroyed when the Dutch sacked and burned the city in 1630. The Portuguese ousted the Dutch in 1654, but most structures in the city had to be rebuilt. Out of the flames of destruction came colonial architecture that today has earned Olinda the title of the best-preserved colonial city in Brazil along with the first Brazilian capital of culture.

Contrasting with the simplicity of the houses lining the streets, over 20 Baroque-style churches pierce the skyline with their heaven pointing spires. More than one of these churches have stories behind their construction that are just as fascinating as the architecture. For example, the Church of Miracles was supposedly built over the location where a cow miraculously found water during a drought. When the cow’s owner found him, the whole town rejoiced at the discovery of the much-needed water. The city survived, and the miracle was memorialized by building a church. Many of the churches of Olinda have similarly fascinating stories.

These background stories and the architecture of the Olinda churches intrigue many visitors every year. In your wanderings through the picturesque streets of Olinda, be sure to not miss these three churches.

Catedral Alto da Sé

Catedral Alto da Sé, also known as Church of the Savior of the World, looks down from a hilltop and marks the highest point of Olinda. Duarte Coelho most likely made his famous statement about the beauty of Olinda on this hilltop. The back courtyard of the church is open to the public, and from this vantage point, visitors can take stunning pictures of the city and its meandering streets stretched out below.

The church is one of the many reason this city’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Construction began in the late 1530s and by 1676 it had become the cathedral of Olinda. Originally the church served as a Jesuit monastery and college.

If you take the time to attend a service there, take a moment to appreciate the religious art that fills the niches. And be sure to notice the columns that were originally built with rock from the nearby reef.

Mosteiro de São Bento

The next stop on this brief Olinda church tour is the Monastery of Saint Benedict. The dramatic centerpiece of the monastery is the massive cedar altarpiece. The beautiful curves, florid details, and intricate designs are covered in gold. The dimensions alone are awe-inspiring, measuring 13.6 meters high, 7.9 meters wide, and 4.5 meters deep. The gilded piece even caught the attention of the Guggenheim Museum and was dismounted from its home in Brazil for the Brazil: Body and Soul exhibit in New York in 2001.

Now that the altarpiece is safely back home, visitors to Olinda can continue to admire the piece along with the imposing rosewood doors, sandstone columns, and carved cedar walls of the monastery.

Next to the church itself, but still inside the complex, is the building where the first law school of Brazil was established in 1828. Although law classes are no longer held there, it remains a significant landmark for Brazilian law.

Igreja do Rosário

Behind the white, rather plain walls of this church lies a fascinating story that explores the issues of slavery and race in Brazil. Just the name, Church of the Rosary of the Black Men of Olinda, begins to tell the history of this structure.

The church was built in the late 1600s when slavery was in full force in Brazil. Black slaves weren’t allowed inside churches, so they would gather around outside. Many slaves in Brazil integrated Catholic beliefs with their native traditions. Eventually, freed black slaves were allowed to form brotherhoods that built churches such as this one. The Church of the Rosary is the first of several Brazilian churches built by black brotherhoods.

During a restoration project in 1988, professionals found the original paintings on the wall. They had been crafted to resemble the gold and precious gems found in other churches that the brotherhood could not afford to place in theirs.

As the revelers dance in front of a backdrop of colorful street art and in between colorful masterpieces of architecture, the theme of Olinda’s yearly art festival seems appropriate. “Olinda, arte em toda parte.” Or in other words, “Olinda, art is everywhere.”

—Heather J. Johnson

Photos by Prefeitura de Olinda