Belo Horizonte: Be Surprised!

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Belo Horizonte
Casa Kubitschek, an architectural gem of Belo Horizonte. (Photo credit: Carla Hunt)

Brazil’s famous Gold Towns are the crown jewels of Minas Gerais, a southeastern state known for its gold mines, its colonial history and its place as a foodie hotspot for flavor-filled comfort food. The gateway to these historic towns is Belo Horizonte, the state capital, surrounded by the Serra do Curral mountain range. Now, I’ll bet you didn’t know that: Belo Horizonte is Brazil’s first planned city (late 19th century); that this small, lively metropolis is also recognized as the World Capital of Bars—home to the greatest number of botecos (neighborhood pubs) serving up crafted beers and artisanal cachaca, (the sugarcane rum national spirit); that Belo stages one of the top Brazilian carnavals (March 1-5, 2019), moving more than 400 parade blocks. Who knew?

This traveler, like most foreign visitors en route to the gold towns, had twice landed in Belo Horizonte, then drove right on without staying to discover a delightful, welcoming and interesting metropolis recently spruced up before the World Cup came to town in 2014 and sporting new museums and a burgeoning arts scene. Recently, I was invited by the Beltur tourism office to get to know this destination, whose official slogan is “Belo Horizonte—Be Surprised.” And I was. Here are a few reasons why.

An Architectural Hub
The city has a unique treasury of early buildings by Oscar Niermeyer, Brazil’s master architect whose modernism style first flourished in Belo Horizonte’s Pampulha Modern Ensemble, an architecture project whose many constructions are dotted around a grand lagoon. Not to miss is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, his modernist masterpiece with an undulating roof and a facade of Portuguese azulejos-style blue tiles depicting scenes from the saint’s life. Equally engrossing is Niermeyer-designed Casa Kubitschek, topped by a roof the shape of butterfly wings. Now a museum, it was once the holiday home of the then-mayor of Belo Horizonte and was the first joint project of Niermeyer and the legendary landscape architect, Roberto Burle; years later they cooperated in designing the new capital of Brasilia.

A Cultural Center
Niemeyer is also the architectural talent behind the Palacio das Artes, the most important cultural center of the city, and his most recent and daring project, completed in 2010, is the enormous Tancredo Neves Administrative City, a futuristically designed complex of buildings which enables all government facilities to be based in one space. Also new to the arts scene is a host of new museums housed in ornate, turn-of-the-century mansions, such as the Museu de Moda, the first public fashion museum in Brazil, that showcases a creative and thriving fashion industry; it’s just one stop on the downtown Circuito Cultural museum trail that starts at fountain-studded Praca da Liberdade. And certainly stop in at the Museum of Arts and Crafts, occupying two historic railroad stations connected by a tunnel.

Street Markets Abound
This market maven found it easy to fall in love with Belo’s Mercado Central, an institution in city life and a daily event jam packed with stalls that are better organized and friendlier than most urban markets in South America. And indeed here, you’ll find everything from peppers to parrots to perfume to finely macramaed shalls. Free tastings abound among the purveyors of Minas Gerais’ top specialties: a fiesta of mostly white cheeses and extra-special cheese breads, colorful sweets galore, and super-fine cachaca from dozens of distilleries. Another market of note is the Sunday-only Feira de Arte e Artsanato, a street fair packed with clothing, jewelry, street food and fun.

Mercado Central Belo Horizonte
Fruit stand at Mercado Central. (Photo credit: Carla Hunt)

Culinary Delights
Pack your appetite when staying in Belo Horizonte, which bills itself as the capital of Brazilian comfort food. The signature staple is farofa de andu, a well-seasoned mix of toasted cassava flour and andu beans served with rice; a more complex version adds eggs and fried kale, accompanied by beef or chicken. Light snacks at a boteco bar may be pork scratching and pineapple sauce, while the real restaurant thing might be soft dried meat served inside a roasted pumpkin. And a favored dessert, a Romeo and Juliet—guava paste served with a slice of Minas Gerais cheese.

An Art Draw
Forty miles from Belo, art goes wild at Instituto Inhotim, rightly ranked as one of the world’s finest contemporary art centers. Sprawled over 3,000 acres is fantasy landscape of spectacular outdoor sculptures and architecturally fabulous pavilions filled with top-tier, avant-garde artworks. All are improbably scattered among lush tropical gardens, manmade lakes, wooded slopes and open fields. This is a dreamworld for both art and nature lovers for it is also home to one of the finest botanical collections on the planet. Plan for at least a full-day here, with time out to partake of the bountiful buffet luncheon of mineiro specialties in the onsite restaurant.

Accommodations & Airfare
The big hotel news gaining primetime attention for the destination is the newly-debuted Hotel Fasano Belo Horizonte, an elegantly stylish, five-star addition to a city with mostly a three- and four-star hotel inventory. A member of the Leading Hotels of the World, the Fasano sports 55 rooms and 22 suites, plus a spa, pool and fitness center. Onsite is the Gero Italian restaurant, as well as the Caretto bar whose cachaca menu includes 23 Brazilian brands (fasano.com/br/hoteis). My home away from home was the eSuites Savassi Toscanini whose 144 spacious guestrooms, come with a mini-bar, TV and free Wi-Fi. An excellent breakfast is included in the room rate, as well as use of the onsite gym. Well located, eSuites is within walking distance of Liberdade Square (verthoteis.com.br).

LATAM, Azul Airlines and GOL Airlines serve Belo Horizonte with just-over-an-hour flights from Rio and Sao Paulo. For additional information, visit Beltur at belohorizonte.mg.gov.br.

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