The capital of Brazil for many years, Rio de Janeiro has been the architectural setting for the beautiful, the functional and the avant-garde. Today you can see a sweeping range of styles that span the 17th to the 20th centuries in buildings that often vie for attention alongside one another. The 21st century has brought new eye-catching designs to Rio, with the arrival of several ambitious projects by renowned international architects.

Colonial Rio

Vestiges of the colonial era live on in downtown Rio. Some of the most impressive works are the 17th-century churches built by the Jesuits. The best examples from this, the baroque period, are the Convento de Santo Antônio and the Mosteiro de São Bento. The incredibly ornate interiors, which appear to drip with liquid gold, show little of the restraint that would later typify Brazilian architecture.

The artist mission (a group of artists and architects chosen to bring new life to the city) that arrived from France in the early 19th century introduced a whole new design aesthetic to the budding Brazilian empire. Neoclassicism became the official style and was formally taught in the newly founded Imperial Academy. The works built during this period were grandiose and monumental, dominated by classical features such as elongated columns and wide domes. Among the many fine examples of this period are the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, the Theatro Municipal and the Casa França-Brasil – considered the most important building from this period. The Casa has a few curious features: its alignment to the cardinal points, the large cross-shaped space inside and its monumental dome.

The end of the 19th century saw the continuation of this trend of returning to earlier forms and featured works such as the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (Royal Reading Room). Completed in 1887, the room's design was inspired by the much earlier Manueline period (early 1500s), with a Gothic facade and the highlighting of its metallic structure.

The 20th Century

During the 20th century Rio became the setting for a wide array of architectural styles, including neoclassical, eclectic, art deco and modernist works. During the same period Rio restored some of its colonial-era treasures (others fell to the wrecking ball), becoming one of Latin America’s most beautiful cities.

This did not happen by chance. As capital of Brazil, Rio was viewed as a symbol of the glory of the modern republic, and one of Rio’s most ambitious mayors, Pereira Passos (in office from 1902 to 1906), lavished European-style neoclassical buildings on the urban streetscape.

Mayor Passos envisioned Rio as the Paris of South America, and he ordered his engineers to lay down grand boulevards and create manicured parks, as some of Rio's most elegant buildings rose overhead. One of the most beautiful buildings constructed during this period was the elegant neoclassical Palaçio Monroe (Monroe Palace; 1906), a recreation of a work built for the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. The Palaçio Monroe sat on the Praça Floriano and housed the Câmara dos Deputados (House of Representatives). Unfortunately, like many of Rio’s beautiful buildings, it was destroyed in 1976 in the gross ‘reurbanization’ craze that swept through the city.

The fruits of this early period were displayed at the International Exposition held in Rio in 1922. This was not only the showcase for neocolonial architecture and urban design; it also introduced Brazil's most modern city to the rest of the world. Another big event of the 1920s was the completion of the Copacabana Palace, the first luxury hotel in South America. Its construction would lead to the rapid development of the beach regions.

Rio’s 1930s buildings show the currents of modern European architecture, which greatly impacted upon the city’s design. Rio’s modernism was born along with the rise of President Vargas, who wanted to leave his mark on federal Rio through the construction of public ministries, official chambers and the residences of government officials. The Ministry of Education & Health, the apotheosis of the modernist movement in Brazil, is one of the city’s most significant public buildings, as it’s one of the few works designed by French architect Le Corbusier, in conjunction with several young Brazilian architects. (Another Le Corbusier–influenced design is the Aeroporto Santos Dumont, completed in 1937.)

The 1930s was also the era of the art deco movement, which was characterized by highly worked artistic details and an abundance of ornamentation. Good specimens include the central train station and the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) on Corcovado.

Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer is one of the giants of 20th-century architecture. Working in the firm of Lúcio Costa, Niemeyer and Costa championed the European avant-garde style in Brazil, making a permanent impact on the next 50 years of Brazilian design. Costa and Niemeyer collaborated on many works, designing some of the most important buildings in Brazil. One of their early successes was their Ministry of Education & Health (built between 1939 and 1943). It was one of Brazil's finest 1930s modernist designs, and a unique collaboration with famed Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

In Rio, Niemeyer and Costa broke with the neoclassical style and developed the functional style, with its extensive use of steel and glass, and lack of ornamentation. The Museu de Arte Moderna (inaugurated in 1958) and the Catedral Metropolitana (begun in 1964) are good examples of this style. One of the most fascinating modern buildings close to Rio is the Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC) in Niterói. Its fluid form and delicate curves are reminiscent of a flower in bloom (though many simply call it spaceship-like). It showcases its natural setting and offers mesmerizing views of Rio. The MAC is a pivotal part of the Caminho Niemeyer (Niemeyer Way), a collection of seven buildings scattered along the waterfront in Niterói.

Niemeyer, whose designs are known for their elegant curves – the female form was one of his inspirations – became famous for his work designing the nation's capital. He was a longtime Rio resident, and remained passionate about architecture and quite active in the field until his death in 2012 at the age of 104.

A lifelong communist, Niemeyer spent much of the 1960s and '70s in exile due to the military dictatorship. His political affiliations also prevented him from working in the US during the Cold War.

Architectural Icons

  • Copacabana Palace The neoclassical gem that came to represent a glitzy new era.
  • Arcos da Lapa The 18th-century aqueduct is a widely recognized landmark that also lies at the epicenter of Rio’s resurgent music scene in Lapa.
  • Maracanã Football Stadium Brazil’s temple to football and its largest stadium, freshly made over for the 2014 World Cup.
  • Museu do Amanhã Santiago Calatrava’s striking building on Praça Mauá is a symbol of Rio’s waterfront renaissance.
  • Theatro Municipal The flower of the belle époque and the costliest opera house constructed outside Europe.

Recent Projects

The huge amount of investment that poured in for the 2016 Olympic Games led to many new developments around the city.

In 2013 Rio officially inaugurated the Cidade das Artes (City of the Arts) in Barra da Tijuca. The controversial project, originally slated to open in 2008, ran significantly over budget (the projected R$86-million cost eventually ran to over R$500 million). The ultramodern 90,000-sq-meter complex houses a high-tech, 1800-seat concert hall, as well as theaters, a chamber-music hall and a terrace with picturesque views over Barra. Designed by the Pritzker prize–winning French architect Christian de Portzamparc, the building is the new base of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra.

The revitalization of Rio's derelict port area has also seen a host of new developments. The Rio Museum of Art on Praça Mauá cleverly joins two existing buildings – one a neoclassical early-20th-century mansion, the other a modernist building (and former train station). The unusual juxtaposition serves as an apt metaphor for the mix of classical and contemporary works inside. It opened in 2014. Nearby, the dramatic Santiago Calatrava–designed Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) juts into the water, with a cantilevered roof and a sculptural facade for which Calatrava is so well known. It opened in late 2015.

The cutting-edge Museu da Imagem e do Som (Museum of Image and Sound) will bring a bold new look to Copacabana's boxy, skyscraper-lined waterfront. The design, by New York architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (the team behind the famous High Line in Manhattan), integrates the building into its dramatic setting – between seafront and hilly backdrop. Public access, outdoor ramps and open-air space (including a rooftop amphitheater) will ensure that the building is accessible to all. It is loosely scheduled to open in late 2020.

Old-World Masterpieces

  • Real Gabinete Português de Leitura
  • Mosteiro de São Bento
  • Igreja de NS do Carmo da Antiga Sé
  • Convento de Santo Antônio