Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, the town’s history is linked to the sugarcane industry. Rebuilt by the Portuguese after being looted and burned by the Dutch, the harmonious balance between the buildings, gardens, churches, convents and chapels all contribute to Olinda’s charm.
The exceptional ensemble of landscape, urbanism and architecture found in the Historic Center of the Town of Olinda is an eloquent reflection of the prosperity nourished by the sugar economy.
Founded in 1535 on hillsides overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on Brazil’s northeast coast, close to the isthmus of Recife where its port is situated, Olinda served from the last years of the 16th century onward as one of the most important centers of the sugarcane industry, which for almost two centuries was the mainstay of the Brazilian economy.
This former capital of the Portuguese administrative division (capitania) of Pernambuco became the symbol of sugar and of the wealth it procured. Its historic center today is marked by a number of architecturally outstanding buildings set in the lush vegetation of gardens, hedgerows and convent precincts, a mass of greenery bathed in tropical light with the sandy shore and ocean below.
Rebuilt by the Portuguese after being looted and burned by the Dutch, Olinda’s existing historic fabric dates largely from the 18th century, although it incorporates some older monuments such as the 16th-century church of São João Batista dos Militares. Olinda became a remarkable nucleus, first as an economic, architectural and artistic center, and later as a center for the renewal of ideas.
The harmonious balance between its buildings, gardens, convents, numerous small passos (chapels) and about twenty baroque churches all contribute to the Historic Center of the Town of Olinda’s particular charm. It is dominated by the Catedral Alto da Sé, the former Jesuit church and college (now the church of Nossa Senhora da Graça), the Palácio Episcopal, the Misericórdia church, the convents of the Franciscans, Carmelites and Benedictines, and various public buildings ranging from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The studied refinement of the decor of these architectural works contrasts with the charming simplicity of the houses, many of which are painted in vivid colors or faced with ceramic tiles. All are located in an informal web of streets and alleyways and set within a lush tropical forest landscape overlooking the ocean that differentiates this town and gives it its unique character.