Santa Teresa Neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro Brazil

Santa Teresa
••• Rodrigo Soldon/Flickr/CC 2.0

 Santa Teresa holds a special place in  Rio de Janeiro's affections. Santa, as it's known locally, is a hilltop district steeped in the past, an artsy bairro that although not too close to the beach is endowed with countless vantage points and home to a loving, combative community that's always eager to defend its cultural heritage.

Santa Teresa History

In 1750, sisters Jacinta and Francisca Rodrigues Ayres obtained permission from the colonial government of Rio de Janeiro to start a convent in a chácara on Morro do Desterro, or Exile Hill.

They devoted the convent to St. Teresa of Avila.

One of the factors that boosted the development of Santa Teresa was its preserved situation during the cholera epidemics which decimated about 200,000 people in Rio de Janeiro in the second half of the nineteenth century.

That's also when the first steam-powered tram line started. In 1892, the Carioca Aqueduct, also known as the Lapa Arches, began to serve as a viaduct for the new electric tram system.

In the next few decades, Santa Teresa would see a growth in the number of pleasant chácaras and luxury homes, often positioned in a way to make the most of the privileged views of Rio de Janeiro and Guanabara Bay.

Santa Teresa and Lapa

The image of the Santa Teresa tram running on the Lapa Arches has long been a reminder of the ties between the district and neighboring Lapa, which were intensified in the first half of the twentieth century.

Both districts lured intellectuals and artists.

Great names of Brazil arts, music and poetry enjoyed drinking at Lapa's cabarets or attending Santa Teresa soirées.

Today, you'll discover those ties as you go back and forth between Santa Teresa's art studios, restaurants and cultural venues and the great Lapa nightlife.

Santa Teresa went through a decadent phase before being revitalized by local organizations.

What to See and Do in Santa Teresa

One of the most famous Santa Teresa attractions is another physical connection between Santa Teresa and Lapa: the stairway created by Selarón (1947-2013), a Chilean artist who moved to ​Brazil in 1983. The staircase was also where the artist's body was found on January 10, 2013.  Selarón's death followed a period when, according to the artist, he had been receiving death threats from a former collaborator. Yet, suicide has never been completely ruled out.

One of the best examples in Brazil of an artist's dedication to a continuous work of art, the 125-step Selarón staircase features mosaics which were periodically changed and renewed thanks to a special technique developed by Selarón.  It starts behind Sala Cecília Meirelles, a Lapa cultural venue. It ends at the Santa Teresa Convent, the district's birthplace.

Some of Santa Teresa's architectural attractions can only be seen from the outside, at and around Santa Teresa's largos, or squares. The Santa Teresa Convent, and the Ship House (Casa Navio, 1938) and Valentim Castle (Castelo de Valentim, late nineteenth century), near Largo do Curvelo, are well-known landmarks.

Largo dos Guimarães is Santa Teresa's busiest area, with most restaurants, bars and art studios.

Nearby Largo das Neves, the last tram stop, also has popular bars and the Nossa Senhora das Neves Church.

High up on the Santa Teresa hill are some of the most picturesque cultural centers in Rio de Janeiro. ​Parque das Ruínas (Ruins Park) emerged from what was left of Laurinda Santos Lobo's home. She was at the center of Santa Teresa cultural life until her death in 1946. The cultural center has fabulous 360-degree views. It hosts exhibits and shows.

Centro Cultural Laurinda Santos Lobo (Rua Monte Alegre 306, phone: 55-21-2242-9741), which occupies a vintage Santa Teresa house, pays homage to this outstanding woman and hosts several exhibits.

On the same street, Centro Cultural Casa de Benjamin Constant was the home of Brazil's greatest republicanist. The museum and its grounds are a perfect example of a typical Santa Teresa chácara.

Museu da Chácara do Céu is a top attraction for anyone who enjoys private art collections and house museums - and it also has breathtaking views.