Why Is Brasília the Capital of Brazil?

(Last Updated On: March 3, 2020)
Why Is Brasília the Capital of Brazil?

Founded on April 21, 1960, Brasília is one of the youngest capitals in the world. Most tourists love visiting the capital of Brazil because of its fresh, modern look—not even realizing that Brasília was specifically planned to be this way. There was a lot of collaborative thought, joint planning, and execution when it came to building this centrally located city.

The birth of this predetermined capital actually had a much larger purpose than simply being a beautiful tourist destination. Let’s look into why building Brasília as Brazil’s capital was such an important move for the country.

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The Capital of Brazil

The land that makes up present-day Brazil was claimed by the Portuguese Empire on April 22, 1500, after the arrival of a fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral. The Portuguese encountered various indigenous tribes after their arrival, but were able to set up their first permanent settlement in 1532. Full-scale colonization began in 1534, when the territory was divided up into the 15 autonomous Captaincy Colonies of Brazil.

In 1549, the city of Salvador was founded on the Bay of All Saints, the largest bay in Brazil. As one of the oldest European cities in the Americas, Salvador’s growth as a major port was driven by the slave trade and sugarcane industry. Salvador would serve as the capital of Brazil from 1549 until 1763, when it was replaced by Rio de Janeiro. 

In the early years after Salvador’s founding, sugar was the main crop that drove Brazil’s economy forward. But in the late 17th century, gold and diamonds were discovered in Minas Gerais, a colony to the south of Salvador. 

At the time, the sugar industry in Brazil had already been in decline. This was largely due to steep competition from Brazil’s Dutch neighbors, who produced sugar at a higher rate and cheaper cost. With sugar in less demand, Brazil’s mining industry began to take over. Thus, Rio de Janeiro quickly became a more important port for exporting wealth (i.e. gold and precious stones).

Moving to Rio de Janeiro

In 1763, Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the new capital city of Brazil, but it was not the most well-thought-out geographical change. The city found itself vulnerable to naval attacks, and also faced issues caused by poor urban planning. Brazil had been a largely agrarian country for most of its history, and the city had trouble building the foundations necessary to foster development.

In the 19th century, Napoleon and his army invaded Portugal, and the Portuguese royal family fled Lisbon and made Rio de Janeiro the capital of Portugal. This made Rio the only European capital outside of Europe, which caused some rifts between the Brazilian people and those in power.

Why Is Brasília the Capital of Brazil?

Talks of moving the capital of Brazil from Rio de Janeiro go back to the 19th century. In fact, an article from the country’s first republican constitution of 1891 even stated that the capital should be moved to a more central location.

In the 1940s, the Brazilian government found themselves searching for a new capital city location in an effort to better unify the country. However, Brazil’s central interior was rural, and lacked the prominent cities suitable to dub a metropolitan capital. It was clear a new city would need to be built.

In 1955, Juscelino Kubitschek was elected President of Brazil. Upon taking office, he fulfilled a campaign promise by initiating the planning and construction of a new capital city. A site atop the Brazilian highlands in the country’s center-western region was ultimately selected, as it lacked historical ties and was primarily a barren rural land.

Lucio Costa was best known as the “main creator” of the master plan of Brasília. He partnered with Gregori Warchavchick to modernize the architectural plans of the new capital before Brasília was born. These two men are greatly responsible for the new tourism boom that Brazil experienced due to the city’s modern buildings and stunning architecture. 

The decision to relocate the capital brought more uniformity for the country, provided a central meeting place for the country’s leaders, and also ended up boosting the Brazilian economy with increased tourism. 


Now that you know more about the capital of Brazil, how about checking out the stories behind some other global cities?

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 216 Articles
Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.