36 Hours


Credit...Far left: Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times and Seth Kugel for The New York Times

DESPITE the modernistic monuments by the legendary Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s retro-futuristic capital city — erected on an expanse of dry plains in central Brazil in the late 1950s and ’60s — has generally drawn few visitors who didn’t have business with the federal government. But as Brazil’s economy booms and its world influence increases, Brasília is coming of age, gaining a new museum here, a cool bridge there, top-shelf restaurants everywhere. Brasília is also safer and calmer than Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, unless you count the stress of trying to understand its maddening address system. Adding to the charm are awe-inspiring sunsets, samba hot spots and something even the greatest urban planners in the world couldn’t have given it upon its inauguration in 1960: a half-century of tradition and history.


4 p.m.

Start in the heart of the “Pilot Plan,” the original planned city, where three Niemeyer-designed buildings house the three branches of Brazilian government around Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Square). They’re all classic, curvy Niemeyer: the Planalto Palace, where Brazil’s first female president works; the Federal Supreme Court; and towering over both, two sky-scraping office towers and the accompanying convex and concave domes where the National Congress sits. Stroll up the esplanade past the pale green ministry buildings to one of the most recent works by Niemeyer (who is still at it at age 103): the 2006 Honestino Guimarães National Museum (SCS, Lote 2; 55-61-3325-5220) where you can see the work of contemporary artists from around the world.

6 p.m.

The sunset in Brasília is beautiful from just about anywhere, but the best place of all to catch it is at the Ermida Dom Bosco (QI 29, Lago Sul), a Niemeyer-designed shrine across the artificial Lake Paranoá from the Pilot Plan. The lookout attracts a daily crowd that melts away once the sun is gone. Don’t follow the masses: stick it out with the stray couples (and coconut water vendors) and catch the stunning oranges and reds and lavenders that fill the sky about 20 minutes later.

8 p.m.

The most popular evening activity for all local residents is to eat, drink and talk at the hyper-social bars that serve young and old, straight and gay, beer-lovers and caipirinha aficionados alike. Perhaps the most traditional of all the watering holes is 55-year-old Beirute (CLS 109, Bloco A; 55-61-3244-1717), seamlessly mixing the older regulars with a young gay crowd; the food, as you might expect, runs Middle Eastern, including the football-shaped minced-meat and bulgur snacks known in Portuguese as kibes (from 3.50 reais, or $2 at 1.7 reais to the dollar). Two other favorites are Libanus (CLS 206, Bloco C, Loja 36; 55-61-3244-9795), younger and a bit more raucous, and Boteco (CLS 406, Bloco D, Loja 35; 55-61-3443-4344), a spirited Rio de Janeiro-style bar erected, in classic Brasília juxtaposition, across the parking lot from a supermarket. Waiters bring around trays bearing snacks to choose from; the most famous is the coxinha de camarão (7.90 reais), a shrimp version of Brazil’s staple bar snack, chicken croquettes.


9 a.m.

“Soupie” is how the Brazilians pronounce SUP, the abbreviation for stand-up paddle surfing, a sport involving you, a surfboard and a paddle. And you’ll need to pronounce it the way they do if you want the staff member at the gate of the Clube Naval (SCES, Trecho 2, Conjunto 13) to let you through to the lakeside base of Clube do Vento (55-61-8124-8596; clubedovento.com). For a mere 25 reais, you’ll soon be paddling out into Lake Paranoá toward the stunning Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge with its three criss-crossing arches, which opened in 2002 and immediately became a city landmark.


Just about every Brazilian city outside the northeast has a healthy number of migrants from that cuisine-rich and financially poor region, but only Brasília has a branch of the northeast-based Mangai (SCE Sul; 55-61-3224-3079; mangai.com.br), a palace of regional cuisine where diners pick and choose from a buffet of 80 or so main dishes (heavy on the pork and squash and manioc) and 40 or so desserts. Payment is by weight (46.90 reais per kilogram), a typical Brazilian restaurant scheme; about 35 reais will get you a full plate, a dessert and a fresh fruit juice. Also included: hammocks on the porch overlooking Lake Paranoá to take a postprandial rest.

2 p.m.

No colonial-era churches in this town. Instead, Brasília’s houses of worship fit right in with the modernist theme. You’ve already caught a glimpse of Niemeyer’s National Cathedral near the ministries, now it’s time for a visit to what must be the bluest church in the world, the Dom Bosco Sanctuary (SEPS, Quadra 702; 55-61-3223-6542; santuariodombosco.org.br), completed in 1970. Its 50-foot-high Gothic arches are filled in with 12 tones of blue stained glass, casting the interior (and its 2.75-ton chandelier and cedar cross) in haunting submarine tones. From there, continue south to the drastically more modest Igrejinha de Fátima (EQS 307/308; igrejinhadefatima.org), the city’s first church, also a Niemeyer special.

4 p.m.

Late-afternoon samba is a Saturday tradition in town, and while the bars that host it may not be much to look at, the cold beer, a warm crowd and a hot band render the soulless venues atmospherically irrelevant. The hottest place these days is Cadê Tereza (CLS 201, Bloco B, Loja 1; 55-61-3225-0555; cadeterezabar.com.br), named after a Jorge Ben Jor song whose title means “Where’s Tereza?” The likely answer to that question: If she didn’t get there early enough, she’s probably in line. Who knows if the new hot spot has staying power, so a safe backup is the longtime classic Calaf (SBS, Quadra 2, Bloco S; 55-61-3325-7408; calaf.com.br), which brings unexpected weekend life to the otherwise abandoned Southern Banking Sector.

9 p.m.

Dress up and head to one of Brasília’s most elegant and unusual restaurants. Aquavit (SMLN, Trecho 12, Conjunto 1, Casa 5; 55-61-3369-2301; restauranteaquavit.com). There, the chef and owner Simon Lau Cederholm will greet you as if you were attending a dinner party at his house. And in fact, you are: the Denmark native opened the restaurant in his own home (which he designed; he’s also an architect) in 2005. The set menu is a mix of Danish cuisine, French technique and Brazilian ingredients. On a recent night the five course prix-fixe (192 reais, wine extra) included both a cold soup of cucumber with smoked salmon and a locally made cheese, which the chef whips and serves with cashew nuts and cashew fruit, an abundant crop in the region.


9 a.m.

The idea of a true French patisserie on the bland commercial blocks in Brasília is almost as counterintuitive as having a McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. But they both exist. The superior of the two is Daniel Briand Pâtissier & Chocolatier (SCLN 104, Bloco A, Loja 26, 55-61-3326-1135; cafedanielbriand.com), a breakfast- and brunch-lover’s dream. Breakfast platters start at 24.90 reais. Or order their elegant pastries, buttery croissants with housemade jams, fresh-made quiches or varied pâtés à la carte.

10:30 a.m.

Head back to the Praça dos Três Poderes for a tour of the Planalto Palace, the work space of President Dilma Rousseff. The public spaces are filled with Brazilian art and modernist furniture by the celebrated Brazilian designer Sérgio Rodrigues. But that’s not all: you can also see the room where the cabinet meets, and even peek into the president’s office.


There’s barely a trace of poverty or even of the working class in Brasília. But that’s an illusion: the poorer residents of the Federal District live in “satellite cities,” dense clusters of high-rise apartment buildings that dot Brasília’s horizon. For a taste of life as it is really lived, head 30 minutes out of town to Ceilândia, where the central feira, or market (Avenida Hélio Prates between Via M Um and Via M Dois) hums Wednesday through Sunday. For about 7 reais, food stands offer huge plates of northeastern specialties — the real organs and bone marrow of it. Under the same roof you’ll find bakers, fruit sellers, discount clothing, tobacco salesmen and butchers. If Brasília is a modern Brazilian dream, Ceilândia is modern Brazilian reality.


Tryp Brasil 21 (SHS, Quadra 6, Conjunto A, Bloco F; 55-61-3218-4700; tryphotels.com) is one of many perfectly comfortable business-style hotels in the South Hotels Sector; weekend rates are steeply discounted and run as low as 196 reais (about $114) for a double.

A half-step down in comfort but several steps up in style and history is the Brasília Palace (SHTN, Trecho 1, Conjunto 1; 55-61-3306-9100; plazabrasilia.com.br), with doubles from 239 reais. Situated away from the bustle near the presidential residence, it looks as if it had stepped right out of the ’60s, though the rooms have been renovated.

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