Rio was a key settlement in Portugal’s empire: magnificent churches and fine colonial-era streets attest to the imperial wealth lavished on the city, though by the late 1800s it was already divided into haves and have-nots. During the 20th century the city saw an influx of immigrants, explosive favela growth, the rise of a military dictatorship, and loss of prestige when Brasília replaced it as the nation’s capital. Recent times have brought Olympic glory, followed by bankruptcy and far-reaching corruption.

The Portuguese Arrival

In the 15th century Portugal, ever infatuated with the sea, began the large-scale explorations that would eventually take Portuguese explorers to the coast of Brazil in 1500. A little over a year later Gonçalo Coelho sailed from Portugal, entering a huge bay on the other side of the world in January 1502. It was his chief pilot, Amerigo Vespucci, however, who would name the bay. Mistaking it for a river (or possibly making no mistake at all, since the old Portuguese ‘rio’ is another word for bay), he dubbed it Rio de Janeiro (River of January).

Indigenous Peoples

The indigenous Guarani and Tupinambá (better known as the Tupi) had a large presence all along the Atlantic coast, with as many as a million people living in what is now Brazil. Though little is known of the original inhabitants (save apocryphal accounts by early Portuguese explorers), these indigenous peoples lived in distinct tribes numbering between 400 and 2000 in each settlement. They were semi-nomadic, and had a varied diet from hunting, fishing and gathering as well as farming (with cassava the most important crop).

The Portuguese saw the indigenous people as raw manpower for their empire, and quickly enslaved the region's original inhabitants and set them to work on plantations. Dying in large numbers from introduced diseases, the Tupinambá had died out completely by the 17th century. To fulfill their growing labor demands, the Portuguese then turned to Africa.

Africans in Brazil

The Portuguese began forcibly bringing people from Africa into the new colony shortly after its founding. Most were brought from Guinea, Angola and the Congo, and would constitute some three million people brought to Brazil over its three-and-a-half centuries of human trafficking. The port of Rio had the largest number of slaves entering the colony – as many as two million in all. At open-air markets, these new arrivals were sold as local help or shipped to the interior, initially to work on the thriving sugar plantations and later – when gold was discovered in Minas Gerais in 1704 – to undertake back-breaking work in the mines.

In Rio, enslaved people were forced to work mostly in domestic roles as maids and butlers and out on the streets as dock workers, furniture movers, delivery people, boatmen, cobblers, fishermen and carpenters. Among the worst jobs was transporting the barrels of human excrement produced in town and emptying them into the bay.

As Rio’s population grew, so too did the number of slaves brought in; labor was also needed for the expanding coffee plantations in the Paraíba Valley. By the early 19th century, African slaves made up two-thirds of Rio’s population.

Children born into mixed backgrounds (ie to slave and slave-owner parents) were largely accepted into the social sphere and raised as free citizens. This contributed considerably to creating Brazil’s melting pot of racial backgrounds. While escape attempts were fewer in Rio than in the more brutal climate of the Northeast, some attempts were made. Those seeking freedom often set their sights on quilombos (communities of runaway slaves). Some of these were quite developed – as was the case with Palmares, which had a population of 20,000 and survived through much of the 17th century before it was wiped out by federal troops.

Abroad, Brazil was under pressure to outlaw slavery, and trafficking in human cargo was eventually banned in 1830. This move, however, did nothing to improve the lives of slaves already in Brazil, who would have to wait another two generations to gain their freedom. Despite the ban, shipment of human cargo continued well into the 1850s, with 500,000 slaves smuggled into Brazil between 1830 and 1850. The British (out of economic self-interest) finally suppressed Brazil’s trafficking with naval squadrons.

Pressure from home and abroad reached boiling point toward the end of the 19th century until finally, in 1888, from the steps of the Royal Palace overlooking Praça Quinze de Novembro, slavery was declared to have been abolished. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to end slavery.

Rio's Early Days

In order to get the colony up and running, the Portuguese built a fortified town on Morro do Castelo in 1567 to maximize protection from European invasion by sea and indigenous attack by land. They named their town São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, in honor of patron saint Sebastião and his namesake King Sebastião of Portugal. Cobbled together by the 500 founding cariocas (residents of Rio), early Rio was a poorly planned town with irregular streets in the medieval Portuguese style. It remained a small settlement through the mid-17th century, surviving on the export of brazilwood and sugarcane. In Rio’s first census (in 1600), the population comprised 3000 indigenous, 750 Portuguese and 100 blacks.

With its excellent harbor and good lands for sugarcane, Rio became Brazil’s third most important settlement (after Salvador da Bahia and Recife-Olinda) in the 17th century.

The gold rush in Minas Gerais had a profound effect on Rio and caused major demographic shifts on three continents. The rare metal was first discovered by bandeirantes (raiders and hired slave-hunters) in the 1690s, and as word spread gold seekers arrived in droves. Over the next half-century an estimated 500,000 Portuguese arrived in Brazil and many thousands of African slaves were brought in. Rio served as the port for the flow of people and commerce to and from the Minas Gerais goldfields.

In the 18th century Rio morphed into a rough-and-tumble place attracting a swarthy brand of European immigrant. Most of the settlement was built near the water, where Praça XV (Quinze) de Novembro stands today, beside rows of warehouses, with noisy taverns sprinkled along the main streets. This was a rough city full of smugglers and thieves, itinerants and assassins. Smuggling was rampant, with ships robbed, sailors murdered, and bribes given to the police. Gold flowing through the city meant that pirates were a constant menace. Adding a note of temperance were the religious orders that came in small bands and built Rio’s first churches.

Rio Under Royal Rule

In 1807 Napoleon’s army marched on Lisbon. Two days before the French invasion, 40 ships carrying the Portuguese prince regent (later known as Dom João VI) and his entire court of 15,000 set sail for Brazil under the protection of British warships. After the initial landing in Bahia (where their unkempt state was met with bemusement), the royal family moved down to Rio, where they settled.

This had momentous consequences for the city, as the king, missing the high culture of Europe, lavished his attention on his new hometown, envisioning a splendid, European-style city. European artisans flooded in. The British, rewarded for helping the king reach Brazil safely, gained access to the country's ports, and many Anglo traders and merchants set up shop in the town center. Anti-Napoleon French also arrived, as did other Europeans. When the German prince and noted naturalist Alexander Philipp Maximilian arrived in Brazil in 1815, he commented on the many nationalities and ethnicities he encountered.

Dom João VI fell in love with Rio. A great admirer of nature, he founded the botanical gardens and introduced the notion of sea bathing to Rio's inhabitants. At Caju he had a special pier built with a small tub at the end, in which he would immerse himself fully clothed as the waves rocked gently against it. (His wife, Carlota Joaquina, bathed in the nude.) This was long before Copacabana was opened to the rest of the city, remaining a virgin expanse of white sand framed by rainforest-covered mountains, reachable only by an arduous journey.

With the court came an influx of money and talent that helped build some of the city’s lasting monuments, such as the palace at the Quinta da Boa Vista. Within a year of his arrival, Dom João VI also created the School of Medicine, the Bank of Brazil, the Law Courts, the Naval Academy and the Royal Printing Works.

Dom João VI was expected to return to Portugal after Napoleon’s Waterloo in 1815, but instead he stayed in Brazil. The following year his mother, mad Queen Dona Maria I, died, and Dom João VI became king. He refused demands to return to Portugal to rule, and declared Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. Brazil became the only colony of the Americas ever to have a European monarch ruling on its soil.

Five years later Dom João VI finally bowed to political pressure and returned to Portugal, leaving his 23-year-old son Pedro in Brazil as prince regent. In Portugal the king was confronted with the newly formed Côrtes, a legislative assembly attempting to rein in the powers of the monarchy. The Côrtes had many directives, one of which was restoring Brazil to its previous status as a subservient colony. Word was sent to Dom Pedro that his authority had been greatly diminished. According to legend, when Pedro received the directive in 1822, he pulled out his sword and yelled, ‘Independência ou morte!’ (‘Independence or death!’), putting himself at the country’s head as emperor Dom Pedro I.

Portugal was too weak to fight its favorite son; meanwhile, the British had the most to gain from Brazilian independence and would have come to the aid of the Brazilians had a conflict ensued. Without spilling blood, Brazil had attained its independence and Dom Pedro I became the head of the Brazilian ‘empire’ (despite Pedro’s claims, Brazil was a regular monarchy, not an empire, since it had no overseas colonies).

Dom Pedro I ruled for only nine years. By all accounts he was a bumbling incompetent who scandalized even the permissive Brazilians by siring numerous illegitimate children. He also strongly resisted any attempts to weaken his power by constitutional means. Following street demonstrations in Rio in 1831, he surprised everyone by abdicating, leaving power in the hands of his five-year-old, Brazilian-born son.

Brazil then suffered a turbulent period of unrest that finally ended in 1840 when 14-year-old Dom Pedro II took the throne. Despite his youth, his reign stabilized the country and ushered in a long period of peace and relative prosperity. Industrialization began with the introduction of the steamship and the telegraph, and the king encouraged mass immigration from Europe.

Dom Pedro II’s shortcomings during his half-century of rule were a bloody war with Paraguay (1864–70) and his slowness in abolishing slavery. He was well liked by his subjects, but eventually they had had enough of the monarchy, and he was pushed from power in 1889.

The Belle Époque

Rio experienced boom days in the latter half of the 19th century. The spreading wealth of coffee plantations in Rio state (and in São Paulo) revitalized Brazil’s economy, just as the city was going through substantial growth and modernization. Regular passenger ships began sailing to London (1845) and Paris (1851), and the local ferry service to Niterói began in 1862. A telegraph system and gas streetlights were installed in 1854. By 1860 Rio had more than 250,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in South America.

For the wealthy, the goal of creating a modern European capital grew ever closer, as the city embraced all things European – with particular influence from the customs, fashion and even cuisine of Paris. The poor, however, had a miserable lot. In the 1870s and 1880s, as the rich moved to new urban areas by the bay or in the hills, Rio’s marginalized lived in tenement houses in the old center of town. There conditions were grim: streets were poorly lit and poorly ventilated, with a stench filling the narrow alleyways.

Rio’s flood of immigrants added diversity to the city. On the streets you could hear a symphony of languages – African tongues, Portuguese, English, French – mixing with the sounds of the bonde (tram), the clatter of mule-drawn carts, and the cadence of various dances, from maxixes to lundus, polkas and waltzes, interpreted by anonymous performers.

The city went through dramatic changes in the first decade of the 20th century, owing in large part to the work of mayor Pereira Passos. He continued the work of ‘Europeanization’ by widening Rio's streets and creating grand boulevards, such as Av Central and Mem de Sá. Building the biggest of these boulevards, Av Central (later renamed Rio Branco), required the destruction of 600 buildings; the elegant thoroughfare became the Champs-Elysées of Rio, full of sidewalk cafes and promenading cariocas.

Passos also connected Botafogo to Copacabana by building a tunnel, paving the way for the development of the southern beaches. Despite his grand vision for Rio, his vision for the poor was one of wide-scale removal from the city center – a short-sighted policy that would dog the Rio (and Brazilian) government for the next 80 years. The cortiços (poor, collective lodgings) were breeding grounds for deadly outbreaks of smallpox, yellow fever and typhus. Sighting the widespread health and sanitation problems, the city destroyed thousands of shacks. With no homes, the poor fled to the hills, later creating some of the earliest favelas (slums, informal communities). The city also exterminated rats and mosquitoes and created a modern sewerage system.

By the time Passos’ term ended in 1906, Rio was the belle époque capital par excellence of Latin America. Its only possible rival in beauty was Buenos Aires.

The Origins of the Favela

In the Northeast terrible droughts in the 1870s and ’80s, coupled with the decline of the sugar industry, brought economic devastation. Offering a vision of hope, Messianic popular movements gained support among Brazil’s poor. The most famous was led by Antônio Conselheiro (Antônio the Counselor), an itinerant preacher who had wandered for years through the backlands prophesying the end of the world, defending the poor and antagonizing the authorities. He railed against the new republican government and in 1893 eventually settled with his followers at Canudos, in the interior of northern Bahia. Within 1½ years Canudos had grown to a city of 35,000.

The republican government sensed plots in Canudos to return Brazil to the monarchy. After the first attempts to quiet Canudos failed, the government sent in a federal force of 8000 soldiers – many of whom hailed from Rio – in a war of extermination that nearly wiped out every man, woman and child. The settlement was then burned to the ground to erase it from the nation’s memory.

The soldiers and their wives – some of whom were survivors taken from the Canudos massacre – returned to Rio, where they were promised land in exchange for their victory. The government, however, reneged on the promise. The soldiers, who had camped out in front of the Ministry of War, then occupied the nearby hillside of Morro da Providência.

Oddly enough, as the first tenants put up makeshift shelters and settled in, they came across the same hardy shrub they had found in the arid lands surrounding Canudos. Called ‘favela,’ this plant caused skin irritations in all who came into contact with it – according to some accounts, the shrub even helped repel the army’s initial invasions. Over time, hillside residents began calling their new home the Morro da Favela (perhaps in hopes that the plant would protect them from invaders), and the name caught on. Within a generation the word 'favela' was used to describe the ever-increasing number of informal communities appearing around Rio. These communities quickly gathered a mix of former slaves and poverty-stricken inhabitants from the interior, who came to the city seeking a better life.

Boom Days, Reform & Repression Under Vargas

At the end of the 19th century, the city’s population exploded because of both European immigration and internal migration (mostly former slaves from the coffee and sugar regions). By 1900 Rio boasted more than 800,000 inhabitants, a quarter of them foreign born (by contrast, São Paulo’s population was 300,000).

Following Passos’ radical changes, the period from the early 1920s to the late 1950s was one of Rio’s golden ages. With the inauguration of some grand luxury resort hotels (the Glória in 1922 and the Copacabana Palace in 1923), Rio became a romantic destination for Hollywood celebrities and international high society, with Copacabana its headquarters. In some ways Rio’s quasi-mythic status as a tropical arcadia spans its entire history, but in the 1940s and '50s its reputation as the urban Eden of Latin America was cemented as the world was introduced to Carmen Miranda, a Rio icon.

This was also when radical changes were happening in the world of music, and when Rio was beginning to celebrate its ‘Brazilianness,’ namely its mixed heritage and race. Sociologist Gilberto Freyre’s influential book The Masters and the Slaves (1933) turned things upside down as Brazilians, conditioned to think of their mixed-race past with shame, began to think differently about their heritage – as an asset that set them apart from other nations.

The 1930s was the era of President Vargas, who formed the Estado Novo (New State) in November 1937, making him the first Brazilian president to wield absolute power. Inspired by the fascist governments of Salazar in Portugal and Mussolini in Italy, Vargas banned political parties, imprisoned political opponents, and censored artists and the press.

Despite all this, many liked Vargas. The ‘father’ of Brazil’s workers, he created Brazil’s minimum wage in 1938. Each year he introduced new labor laws to coincide with Workers' Day on May 1, to keep Brazil's factory workers sweet. His vision for Brazil was not to increase the country's output but to improve the level of education among all Brazilians.

The Military Dictatorship

The world's fascination with Rio was severely curtailed during the rise of the military dictatorship of the 1960s. The era of repression began with press censorship, the silencing of political opponents (sometimes by torture and violence) and an exodus of political activists abroad (including musicians, writers and artists). There were numerous protests during this period (notably in 1968, when some 100,000 people marched upon the Palácio Tiradentes). Even Rio's politicians opposed the military regime, which responded by withholding vital federal funding for certain social programs.

Despite the repression, the 1960s and '70s witnessed profound changes in the city, with the opening of tunnels and the building of viaducts, parks and landfills. In the realm of public transportation, modernization was on the way. In the 1970s builders connected Rio with Niterói by means of a bay-spanning bridge, while beneath the city the first metro cars began to run.

Meanwhile, the Zona Sul saw skyscrapers rising over the beaches of Copacabana and Leblon, with a shift of the wealthy to places further from neglected downtown Rio. The moving of Brazil's capital to Brasília in 1960 seemed to spell the end for Centro, which became a ghost town after hours and retained none of the energy of its past. By the 1970s its plazas and parks were dangerous places, surrounded by aging office towers.

The center of old Rio remained a bleak place until around 1985, when Brazil held its first direct presidential election in 20 years. With the slow return to civilian rule, cariocas turned their attention to sadly abandoned parts of the city, like downtown. Over the next decade citizens, particularly local shop owners, launched a downtown-revitalization campaign, sometimes collecting money by going door to door.

By 1995 it was clear that the drive had been a success. Whole blocks in downtown received much-needed facelifts. Handsomely restored buildings attracted new investment, with new shops and cultural centers opening their doors alongside publishers and art galleries. And nightlife returned to Lapa.

Divided City

The latter half of the 20th century was also an era of explosive growth in the favelas, as immigrants poured in from poverty-stricken areas of the Northeast and the interior, swelling the number of urban poor in the city. The Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) began to lose its gloss as crime and violence increased, and in the 1990s it became known as the Cidade Partida (Divided City), a term that reflected the widening chasm between the affluent neighborhoods of the Zona Sul and the slums spreading across the region's hillsides.

As Rio entered the new millennium, crime remained one of the most pervasive problems afflicting the city. Violence continued to take thousands of lives, particularly in the favelas: in 2008, more than 800 people were killed by police during gun battles between law enforcement and drug traffickers (12 police officers were also killed that year). Rio's middle and upper classes seemed mostly resigned to life inside gated and guarded condos, while poverty and violence surged in the nearby slums.

The government's response failed to solve the problem. Crack troops were sent in to take out drug lords, but the heavy-caliber raids often claimed innocent lives. This left many residents with a deep-rooted disdain for the police. Declaring war on the favelas was clearly not working; after the police had left, drug lord in hand (or more likely dead), there was always someone else to take his place.

A New Dawn

As a result of a worsening situation, Brazilian officials began to take a new approach. In 2007 President Lula (full name Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva), who astutely saw the link between poverty and crime, announced that Rio’s favelas would receive US$1.7 billion to invest in running water, sanitation, roads and housing. He visited the Cantagalo favela, a first for a Brazilian president. He later told a reporter that such investment – providing adequate services for the people – was the only way to combat drug lords.

On the local level, police began implementing a new approach to dealing with drug traffickers in the favelas. Led by a new wing called the Pacifier Police Division, they would drive the drug lords out as they had done before, but then some police officers would stay behind in the community. In 2008 the Dona Marta favela became one of the first to be ‘pacified,’ and millions of reais were invested in the community, repairing or sometimes replacing houses, improving sanitation and adding a new football (soccer) pitch – though the most dramatic improvement was adding a new funicular railroad that saved residents the 788-step slog to the top of the favela. The strategy proved remarkably successful, and was later implemented in about 20 other favelas around Rio, benefiting an estimated 400,000 residents. The success of the pacification program stems in large part from cooperation (and funding) by all three levels of government – municipal, state and federal. Working with President Dilma Rousseff (Lula's successor) was Eduardo Paes, Rio’s popular mayor (elected to his second term in 2012), and Sergio Cabral, the state governor. Both were instrumental in carrying out Rio’s favela improvements, as well as in developments affecting other facets of the city (notably in infrastructure and civic projects surrounding the 2016 Summer Olympics).

Corruption & Economic Woes

Despite Cabral’s successes (the homicide rate also declined substantially while he was governor), his second term ended in disgrace. Street protests erupted in 2013 over rising bus prices and the extravagant funds being lavished on stadiums, while many residents felt that poor services had become the norm. There were also allegations of corruption, and Cabral was later arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role in a vast bribery scandal.

Local residents, for the most part, had mixed feelings about Rio’s state of progress. While there had been some improvement to social services, formal trash collection and the opening of over 150 new schools, violent crime remained a problem. Unfortunately the problems grew substantially worse in the months following the Olympics. Rio state, on the edge of bankruptcy, cut funding on security, social projects and public works. Joblessness skyrocketed, and violence returned to once peaceful favelas.

On the whole, very few locals benefited from the expensive Olympic preparations. Unsurprisingly, those hit hardest were favela residents. According to the book SMH 2016: Removals in the Olympic City, a staggering 67,000 people were evicted from their homes between 2009 and 2013. Amnesty International and other rights organizations have protested the tactics employed: the forcible removal of families, while police disperse the crowd with pepper spray, followed by bulldozers that quickly demolish the buildings.

Following the arrival of the army in Rio in 2018, police and military violence against residents has been a growing concern. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has had some devastating consequences. In 2018, a fast-moving fire destroyed one of the country's most important and best-loved archaeological collections inside the Museu Nacional. Lack of funding to better maintain the site was blamed for the disaster.

Historical Sites

  • Paço Imperial The former imperial palace was home to the Portuguese royal family.
  • Praça Quinze de Novembro Named after the date Brazil declared itself a republic (November 15, 1822), this plaza has witnessed several key occasions, including the crowning of two emperors and the abolition of slavery.
  • Travessa do Comércio This narrow alley is a window into colonial Rio, with 18th-century buildings converted into bars and restaurants.
  • Pedra do Sal Open-air gathering spot for live music in what was once the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture in Rio.
  • Museu Histórico Nacional Set in the 18th-century royal arsenal, this museum houses Rio’s best assortment of historical artifacts.
  • Jardim Botânico Prince Regent Dom João VI ordered this verdant garden to be planted in 1808.
  • Museu da República Formerly known as the Palácio do Catete, this mansion was Brazil’s presidential residence from 1896 to 1954. Getúlio Vargas, the last president to live here, died by suicide in one of the upstairs rooms.
  • Praça Floriano Centro’s picturesque main square has long been the meeting ground for popular demonstrations, including student uprisings against the military dictatorship in the 1960s and victory celebrations following World Cup finals.
  • Garota de Ipanema In this famed spot Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes penned ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’ whose international success was a major moment in the history of bossa nova.