The most important fortresses of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Forte Santa Cruz, the Copacabana Fortress and the Fortaleza São João are the mighty cornerstones of a chain of defences designed to protect the port of Rio from invaders during Brazil's colonial period.

The Portuguese and the Brazilian military built a series of massive bulwarks in Guanabara Bay over the past centuries. Some of them can be visited. Their time-honoured walls tell of the emperors and kings of colonial times, hotly contested treasure ships and historic battles.


Forte Santa Cruz - largest fortress in South America

As the largest fortification in South America, the Santa Cruz da Barra fortress towers over Niterói in Guanabara Bay off Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - © byvalet / Shutterstock
© byvalet / Shutterstock

The Santa Cruz Fortress, the largest fortress in South America, is located in close proximity to Rio de Janeiro in the city of Niterói and has been one of Brazil's national monuments since 1939.

Together with the fortresses Fortaleza de São João and Forte Tamandaré da Laje, the Santa Cruz fortress formed the central defence system for the port of Rio in Guanabara Bay at the time of colonisation and the Brazilian kingdom.

The fort was built in 1584 by the Portuguese, at that time still under the name "Bateria de Nossa Senhora da Guia" (literally: "Fortress of Our Lady of Guidance"). It has had its present name since 1612. In the following decades, it was constantly expanded, above all to secure the gold and diamond transports from Minas Gerais to Lisbon.

During its operation, the Santa Cruz fortress repelled numerous attacks, including mainly from the French and the Dutch. At peak times, the guns and garrison numbered 740 cannons, 10 mortars and almost 6,000 men.

The last cannon shot from the Santa Cruz fortress was fired in 1955, but this was only a warning shot intended for the cruiser Tamandaré.

Visit to the Santa Cruz Fortress

In 2002, the Santa Cruz da Barra fortress near Rio de Janeiro was extensively renovated and now shines in its former glory, Brazil - © Celso Diniz / Shutterstock
© Celso Diniz / Shutterstock

The Santa Cruz Fort is still occupied by the military and open to visitors. Every month, around 3,500 visitors take advantage of this offer to experience the mighty bulwark on its prominent rocky outcrop from the inside. This makes the fortress the most visited sight in Niterói behind the Museum of Contemporary Art. Guided tours through the huge area of 7,000 square metres take place every hour and last about 45 minutes.

In 2002, the Santa Cruz da Barra fortress was extensively renovated and now shines in its old splendour. The three construction periods from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries can still be traced.


The Santa Barbara Chapel dates back to the first period (the current building was constructed in 1912), the watchtowers, the cistern and the dungeon to the second, and the magazine, the courtyards and galleries to the third.

There is also a sundial from 1820 with Roman numerals carved into the limestone, a torture chamber and the execution wall.

Famous prisoners of the Santa Cruz Fortress of Rio

The Santa Cruz Fortress in the bay of Rio de Janeiro once served as a prison and held great figures of Brazil's history - © Celso Diniz / Shutterstock
© Celso Diniz / Shutterstock

The Santa Cruz Fortress also once served as a prison, holding great figures of Brazilian history, such as the Italian guerrilla Giuseppe Garibaldi, President Juscelino Kubitschek, explorer and statesman Jose Bonifacio, rebel leader Bento Gonçalves, or the Brazilian author and military engineer Euclides da Cunha.

In the summer of 1922, the soldiers of Santa Cruz fought fierce battles with the Copacabana Fort during the Tenentismo uprisings of young officers.

Forte de Copacabana - Rio under Fire

The historic Copacabana Fort on Rio de Janeiro's famous beach of the same name now functions as a tourist destination and museum, Brazil - © f11photo / Shutterstock
© f11photo / Shutterstock

Steeped in history, the Copacabana Fortress is located at the southern end of the famous Copacabana beach and is open to visitors. A small chapel once stood in its place, housing a statue of the Virgin of Copacabana, the patron saint of the "original" Copacabana in Bolivia.

At the 2016 Summer Olympics, the Fortress was involved in the road cycling event, the swimming marathon and the triathlon.

History of the Copacabana Fort

In 1987, the coastal defences of Rio de Janeiro were withdrawn and with them the occupation of the Copacabana Fort was dissolved, Brazil - © Su Justen / Shutterstock
© Su Justen / Shutterstock

In 1908, the Brazilian military built a modern defence facility here to protect the beach and the harbour entrance of Rio de Janeiro. Construction was completed in 1914. The two gun towers, called "André Vidal" and "Duque de Caxias", were equipped with Krupp cannons with a firing range of over 20 kilometres.

Several 180° swivel-mounted rapid-fire cannons completed the Copacabana Fort's fearsome arsenal. It was not until 1987 that the coastal defences of Guanabara Bay were withdrawn and with them the occupation of the Copacabana Fort was dissolved.


Tenentismo riots in Rio de Janeiro

In the summer of 1922, however, the fort's cannons were turned against the city itself when the first revolt of the Tenentismo uprisings happened on 5 July. Young officers who were dissatisfied with the situation in the Old Republic of Brazil pointed the cannons at Rio - the response from the Forte Santa Cruz opposite was not long in coming at that time.

The Brazilian government also had its two warships São Paulo and Minas Geraes brought up. The combined salvos that rained down on the fortress, landing at least two sensitive hits, forced the rebels to surrender after only half an hour.

Museu Histórico do Exército (Historical Army Museum)

At Copacabana Fort, you can experience the inside of a real military fortress and learn about the history of the army in Rio. At the Museu Histórico do Exército, the Army Museum of the Copacabana Fort, you can trace the different eras and events of the Brazilian army, although Brazil's involvement in the two world wars is only mentioned in passing. The Historical Army Museum at Copacabana Fort is one of our top 10 museums in Rio de Janeiro.

Also of interest are the historic artillery pieces on display in an idyllic park on the seashore. Together with the Lage and Imbui forts, the Copacabana Fort is also the only one in the world where the domes with the Krupp cannons can still be seen.

Fortaleza de São João - Insider Tip with a View

The São João Fortress near Rio de Janeiro is open to visitors, but only by appointment and on guided tours, Brazil - © Iuliia Timofeeva / Shutterstock
© Iuliia Timofeeva / Shutterstock

The mighty São João da Barra fortress was once one of the most important defences of Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio de Janeiro, but is almost an insider's tip compared to the well-visited Forte Santa Cruz in Niterói.

The bastion is located in Urca at the foot of Morro Cara de Cão ("Dog's Head Hill") and is therefore also known as the "Urca Fortress".

Construction of the São João da Barra Fortress

The São João Fort in the bay of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is still used by the military as a training centre - © Attila JANDI / Shutterstock
© Attila JANDI / Shutterstock

The star-shaped fortress was built in the 16th century at the behest of the Portuguese King Sebastian, under the direction of Estácio de Sá, for protection against the French. In 1872, under the government of Dom Pedro II, it was expanded, more strongly fortified and equipped with additional men and cannons. Until 1991, the position on the coast was kept ready for defence.


Visit to Fort São João - by appointment only

The tour of São João Fort reveals fascinating insights into the founding history of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - © Celso Diniz / Shutterstock
© Celso Diniz / Shutterstock

The fortress is open to visitors, but only by appointment and on guided tours. Both admission and guided tours are free of charge.

São João da Barra can be reached from Copacabana and Ipanema by bus 511, and line no. 513 starts in Botafogo. Parking is also available at the fortress area (but must be registered in advance).

Tip: There is little shade in the fortress, large parts of the tour take place in the open air. For this reason, it is best to choose the early morning hours for a visit to the São João Fort and in any case have sufficient sun protection with you!

The tour of the São João Fort takes about 1.5 hours and reveals fascinating insights into the founding history of Rio de Janeiro. From the "birthplace of Rio", the tour starts through the impressive castle gate into the actual fortress, where historic cannons are a reminder of the former defensive fortifications.

Exhibitions and a small museum present the history of the fortress and the city, as well as the current use of the bulwark. It is still used today by the military as a training centre where soldiers prepare for the Military Olympics and other sporting competitions.

The view that the São João Fortress has to offer is absolutely stunning. The view falls over the entire Guanabara Bay, Corcovado with the statue of Christ in the Tijuca forest and the skylines of Botafogo, Flamengo and the old town of Rio de Janeiro. The view of Rio is similar to that from Sugar Loaf Mountain, but the city is a lot closer.

Tip: The perfect end to the tour is a lunch or coffee at Bar Urca, a small restaurant on the first floor with a magnificent view.