Postcard from . . . Brazil: Belo of the ball

Barely an hour by air northwest of Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte has never been much of a tourist destination. The chief appeal of the industrial capital of Minas Gerais – whose name translates unpromisingly as “general mines” – has been as the gateway to the colonial towns of Ouro Preto and Tiradentes.

But, while the benefits of hosting the Fifa World Cup are hotly disputed across Brazil, the announcement in 2009 that six matches, including a semi-final, would be played here, seems to have presaged all sorts of change for the good.

Rogério Fasano, the modish restaurateur and hotelier whose eponymous properties in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have earned a reputation as those cities’ optimum places to stay, is opening a hotel (though probably not until 2016, by which time the airport might finally be refurbished). Close by, a new concert hall, home to the thriving local philharmonic orchestra, is under construction. In 2010, the area around Praça da Liberdade, the elegant central garden square, was designated a cultural district – the largest such development in Brazil. Since then, 11 new museums and cultural spaces have opened (and more are promised), in what were once grand municipal buildings in the area.

The former treasury, for instance, has become a museum of regional history, art and literature; the old education ministry succeeds quite captivatingly in explaining the region’s mining and metal industries; a venerable hospital is devoted to folkloric traditions and crafts. The civil servants, meanwhile, have moved out to a dazzling white-concrete and black-glass campus, Cidade Administrativa (Administrative City), that you pass on the way to the airport. It was one of the last projects designed by the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died, aged 104, in 2012.

Come June, the world’s TV cameras will have much in the way of handsome cityscapes to linger on during match preambles. The principal stadium, the Mineirão, and its older adjacent sibling, Estádio Independência (where the celebrated footballer Ronaldinho still turns out for his current club, Atlético Mineiro), stand on the edge of Pampulha, a sylvan suburb that has grown up around a vast man-made lake. The area was commissioned in the 1940s by the city’s mayor, Juscelino Kubitschek, who later became president of the nation and saw Brasília designated as its capital.

Where the Cidade Administrativa was one of Niemeyer’s latter projects, Pampulha was one of his earliest. It comprised – somewhat improbably for a diehard communist – a yacht club, a casino and the striking concrete church of São Francisco de Assis. Inspired by the undulations of the surrounding hills, it is faced in blue and white tiles in the style of traditional Portuguese azulejos, painted by the artist Candido Portinari to depict birds, fish and scenes from the life of the saint. It was so controversial that when construction was completed in 1943, the Catholic Church refused to consecrate it. Now, though, it is sufficiently well-loved to feature on a Fifa Brazil 2014 poster. Kubitschek also recruited the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who later conceived the patterned promenades that define Rio’s Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, to design the wooded lakeshore. Etched with cycle paths, it is home to capybaras (imagine a long-legged semi-aquatic guinea pig crossed with a large dog) and more obviously-lovely white egrets.

Pampulha is very much worth the detour, not least en route to Xapuri, one of Belo Horizonte’s many atmospheric restaurants. It specialises in Minas cooking, held to be the finest in Brazil. (Minas is also revered for its cachaça, the aromatic rum-like cane spirit, so the caipirinhas are superb too.) It isn’t always subtle or refined – hearty stews in hollowed-out pumpkins, accompanied by unfamiliar tubers such as taro and roots like manioc; pancakes of nutty tapioca flour filled with white cheese or sweet shredded coconut – but it is delicious. As is the outstanding steak served in every churrascaria (try Adega do Sul), where waiters carve gigantic sword-like skewers of spit-roasted meat directly on to your plate.

Food and football aside, the few tourists who fly here tend to be en route to Ouro Preto and Tiradentes, with their clusters of exuberantly baroque buildings, paid-for by the gold that was mined hereabouts. Others are headed to Inhotim; 2,000ha of hilly land that the mining tycoon Bernardo Paz has had tamed into sublime botanical gardens. Filled with pavilions, it houses one of the largest and greatest collections of contemporary art I’ve ever seen.

I had come for a conference, but I’d say Belo Horizonte was well worth a weekend visit on its own merits. Certainly the delegates accompanying me from Rio and São Paulo – most of them new to the city – were won over. It felt so calm, they said. So courteous. So civilised. So safe. A lot of them sounded ready to move.

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