Olinda is about 10 km north of Recife and was originally the main colonial settlement in the Captaincy of Pernambuco. Founded in 1535 by Duarte Coelho Pereira it was formally given the status of a town in 1537, while nearby Recife was a mere fishing village.

This area had been the home to various warring indigenous populations before the first, French, explorers arrived. The Portugese arrived in their turn and exploited the inter tribal conflicts to their own advantage and firmly established themselves on the hills which are now the site of Olinda.

First picture of Olinda. Detail from Dutch engraving from 1644 -Recife History Museum

Sugar cane was the basis of the economy, together with the slave trade, and by the early 1600s Olinda had established itself as a colonial stronghold of the Portugese Empire. However, Portugal was not what it once was and between 1580 and 1640 was part of the Iberian Union when the monarchies of Spain and Portugal were combined.

The Dutch took full advantage of this reduction in Portugese influence and invaded Pernambuco in 1630. They burned Olinda in 1631 and took over Recife as their main stronghold and capital of New Holland, re-naming it Mauritsstad, fortifying the islands controlling the entrance through the reef and the port. The Dutch presence only lasted about 14 years during which time they had extended their influence widely in North Eastern Brasil. By the time they were ousted by the Portugese, Olinda had lost its importance and Recife gained pre-eminence.

Alto da Sé

The highest point in Olinda was the Igreja da Sé until 1934 when the water tower, the Caixa d’Agua, was built. A bit of a monstrosity but the views from on top are fantastic.

Museum of Sacred Arts of Pernambuco

One of the earliest imports to South America was Catholicism. Initially, religious statues were brought from Portugal until local copies began to appear and local craftsmen began to produce their own work. The big distinction being that the faces of the locally made statues tended to have less European and more indigenous features and the museum was hosting an exhibition of black African saints during our visit.

Igreja de Nossa Sehhora da Conceição

Mosteiro de São Bento

The monestary was founded by the Benedictines in the earliest days of Portugese colonisation but was destroyed in 1631 by the Dutch. The current monastery and church were built between 1660 and 1761. In 1998 it was made a ‘minor Basilica’ by the Pope. It is a very impressive building and the magnificent altar was actually removed and displayed in the US fairly recently!

Street views in Olinda

Unlike too many places in Brasil there is actual active renovation in progress in Olinda, rather than the usual boarded up ruin and the associated vague aspiration. Building were actually being repaired and renovated, cleaned and painted; and it shows.

Igreja do Carmo

Our visit to historic Olinda was really enjoyable and worth braving the afternoon heat. The whole place has a very relaxed atmosphere; our Uber driver told us that the town had been practicing for Carnaval since before Christmas!!! The views from the top of the hill are amazing and the streets and buildings in the old parts of town are clean and colourful, giving the place a real Nordestino atmosphere.

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