Petrópolis, Brazil: Strong on History and Nature

  • Alexandra Branscombe
  • 14 January 2014

While Brazil’s mega-cities gear up for heavy tourist influx during this year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, other cities remain largely unaffected, even those with strong historic and cultural qualities. This is exactly the case for Petrópolis, a city seemingly hidden in the mountains where adventures and eye-catching delights await thrill seekers and history buffs.

Serra dos Órgãos in Brazil

Waldyr Neto has published two guide books (in Portugese) for the trails around Petrópolis and the Serra dos Órgãos in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Flávio Varricchio

Lacking the aggressive tourism practices found in Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis is delightfully free of pressure. Visitors here find a more wholesome and native Brazilian experience, whether it involves walking the same cobblestone streets that the Brazilian imperial family once did or gazing out at the Atlantic Rainforest from the top of a mountain.

The Imperial City

Only an hour’s drive from the city of Rio along a scenic road through the Atlantic Rainforest, Petrópolis is a popular destination for adventurous Brazilian nature lovers, but often missed by international visitors. Named after Dom Pedro II, the second Emperor of Brazil, Petrópolis proudly displays its historical charm. The original cobblestone streets still wind through the city center, lined by colonial-era mansions and Neo-Gothic cathedrals. The most iconic of the latter is the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Alcantara, which dates back to 1884 and is recognizable at night by its blue-lit steeple. Guarded by its vaulted ceiling is the final resting place of Dom Pedro II; his wife, Dona Teresa; and their children – the last reining imperial family of Brazil.

The Veu da Noiva, Serra dos Órgãos National Park, near Petrópolis, Brazil

The Veu da Noiva is a popular day hike in the Serra dos Órgãos National Park near Petrópolis, Brazil. It is also the location of natural pools and waterfalls fed by mountain springs. Photo courtesy of Waldyr Neto

Just down the road, precisely in the center of the city, is the royal family’s Imperial Palace, now a museum. On weekend nights, the museum features a special som-e-luz (sound-and-light) program, a display of light projections and music that tells the history of the Brazilian royal family. Though the program is only presented in Portuguese, a spontaneous tourist would enjoy it anyway.

A more peculiar museum is the house of Alberto Santos Dumont, Brazil’s father of aviation and the first man to design and fly a plane completely solo. A brilliant aeronautical engineer, Dumont was also highly superstitious and his Petrópolis home has a number of charming eccentricities. After visiting this small museum, a traveler can walk around the corner to the Cervejaria Bohemia, a brewery, for a chopp (beer on tap) and tour the newly renovated facility. On weekends there is live samba or other traditional Brazilian music at the outdoor bar.

Petrópolis is a refreshing and quiet retreat from the heat and fast-paced rhythm of Rio de Janeiro. For this reason, the mountain city does not boast many nightclubs or fancy discos, preferring charming, retrofitted restaurants for eating and drinking wine while enjoying the fresh evenings.

Trekking and Hiking

A short drive from Petrópolis are glorious places for hiking and adventuring, such as one of Brazil’s most beautiful natural wonders: the Serra dos Órgãos (Range of Organs), named for the way the mountains resemble the pipes of a cathedral organ rising into the sky. The most famous of these, though far from the tallest, is the Dedo de Deus, or “Finger of God,” the trip to which follows a combined trekking and rock-climbing trail that rises to 1,651 meters above sea level.

The Serra dos Orgãos mountains are located within the appropriately named Serra dos Orgãos National Park, which covers 118 square kilometers of mountain terrain. A plethora of fantastic adventures await here, including easy hikes to cold mountain springs, day-long treks that pass waterfall after waterfall, and a famous multi-day trip that traverses this park of rolling tropical mountains all the way to Teresópolis, Petrópolis’ sister city.

The best time of year for multi-day mountain excursions in Serra dos Orgãos National Park is between April and September, according to trekking expert and guide Waldyr Neto. Neto, who has published two trail books (only sold in Portuguese), prefers these months as the “mountain season” because of the low humidity, low risk of rain and cool temperatures. Day hikes to popular waterfalls (like the Veu da Noiva aka Bride’s Veil) are also excellent from October to March, the hot and rainy season during which adventurers can enjoy the cold mountain water.

The Dedo de Deus, Serra dos Órgãos, Brazil

The Dedo de Deus is the iconic silhouette of the Serra dos Órgãos, the trip to which is a popular trek for medium and advanced hikers and rock-climbers in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Waldyr Neto

Getting to the national park from Petrópolis is fairly simple, even without a car. The Bonfim bus line from the Correas Terminal passes the park entrance (ask the driver to stop there). A trail map can be purchased at the entrance, but tourists are encouraged to hire a guide for overnight backpacking trips, as some of the trails on top of the mountain are unmarked and not easily discerned on the map.

Staying in Petrópolis

Accommodation in Petrópolis is becoming more diverse by the year. Many Brazilians choose to stay in “pousadas,” quaint and historic bed-and-breakfasts that are often secluded and have an attached spa or restaurant. While pousadas are relaxing and beautiful, the prices can be high for backpackers. A more economical option – itself an historical landmark – is Hostel Samambaia, an environmental institute and brand-new hostel in Petrópolis.

Morro Açu backpacking campsite, Petrópolis, Brazil

The hike to Morro Açu is one of the most popular for mountain climbers around Petrópolis, Brazil. While the trek can be done in a day, the Morro Açu backpacking campsite is most popular as one stop on a multi-day journey. Photo courtesy of Waldyr Neto

Samambaia was constructed in the 1700s as a post for drovers traveling on the Royal Road, making it one of the oldest landmarks in the area. With high ceilings, tall windows, large wooden beams and rustic stone floors, it is easy to imagine the colonial period during which it was constructed. Visitors can take in the historical chapel and walk through the botanical gardens, both part of the educational environmental institute facilities. New amenities include a swimming pool and the first mountain biking course built in Petrópolis, making this hostel perfect for outdoors lovers in need of a quiet break from the city. The hostel is also located along the route to the Petrópolis entrance of the Serra dos Órgãos National Park.

International tourists are attracted to Rio for the nightlife and famous beaches, but tourists more interested in local travel know that Petrópolis, rich in both cultural and natural history, is an affordable destination for the adventurers and nature lovers.

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Alexandra Branscombe

Alexandra Branscombe is a science writer whose passion for adventure has fueled a career in freelance writing and translating. She is the climate change journalist for Generation Progress, and also covers technology, ecology, conservation, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture for various publications. Read more of her work by clicking Read More Here below or follow her on Twitter at @alibranscombe.
Alexandra Branscombe
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adventure travel, architecture & landmarks, Brazil, cities, ecotours, local knowledge, mountains, museums, national parks, personal experience, South America, whl.travel,

5 Responses to “Petrópolis, Brazil: Strong on History and Nature”

  1. Oliver says:

    Stunning shots! This seems to be a marvellous region for hiking indeed. I also quite like the approach, even though tourism is always kind of a tightrope walk, being able to make and break a place…

  2. Lovely blog! Thanks for connecting with us on Twitter, Ethan! Keep up the great work and travel safe! Oh… and all the best in the New Year! 🙂

    • Ethan Gelber (Editor) says:

      Really appreciate your input HHH (is it Jon or Ania who wrote)? Happy New Year to you both and may your thumbs continue to bring great returns.

  3. Good coverage for a beautiful place. The tourist traffic needs to be directed to such lesser known but good places for sustainable tourism.

    • Ethan Gelber (Editor) says:

      Thanks for your thought, Purushottam. I couldn’t agree more (which is why we do what we do here at The Travel Word)! Would you be willing to tell us a little something more about your good places in your own voice?

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