Set between mountain ridges near the southern end of the Serra do Espinhaço, São João del Rei affords a unique look at a cidade historica that didn’t suffer a great decline when the gold boom ended in the 1800s. Present-day São João has the unselfconscious urban vitality of a modern city, which can come as a welcome contrast to the preserved-in-amber quality of neighboring Tiradentes. Downtown there are plenty of high-rises and other trappings of 21st-century Brazil, yet around every corner lurk unexpected colonial surprises. The historic city center, which is protected by Brazil’s Landmarks Commission, features two good museums, several of the country’s finest churches and some gorgeous old mansions – one of which belonged to the late and still popular never-quite-president Tancredo Neves. Floodlights illuminate the churches every night, adding to the city’s aesthetic appeal.
São João is bisected by the Córrego do Lenheiro – really just a glorified creek in a concrete channel. Two lovely 18th-century stone bridges serve as convenient landmarks, roughly delineating the boundaries of the colonial center.