How To Visit The World’s Second Largest Church In Aparecida, Brazil
Published July 25, 2020
Most travelers probably know that the world’s largest church is St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but did you know that the second largest isn’t even in Europe at all? On the contrary, it can be found in a tiny town about 170 km northeast of São Paulo, Brazil! Santuário Nacional de Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida) is a truly awe-inspiring structure not only for its size (it can seat 30,000 people), but also for its uniquely modern architecture.
In fact, this gargantuan cathedral isn’t hundreds of years old. It was actually completed in 1980, and the architects clearly wanted to combine traditional building elements with more innovative artwork and interior designs.
This post will feature a bit of background information, followed by a review of the interior of the Santuário Nacional as well as a number of attractions around it. Scroll down further to see some additional tips. For information about other things to do in the town of Aparecida, check out this separate post! Despite being small, Aparecida is a unique town worth visiting for a few days if you can.
A Bit of History
So why might this small town that has almost no name recognition outside of Brazil be home to a church big enough to be on the world record list? It all dates back to a small statue of the Virgin Mary that was reportedly found by fishermen hundreds of years ago. In fact, the name of the town (Aparecida) literally means “Appeared,” referring to the statue being discovered.
That particular statue, with its distinctive regal shawl, gold crown, and dark skin is a cultural icon of the town and can be seen everywhere. Seriously, if you spend just two days in Aparecida, you’ll probably see Our Lady of Aparecida hundreds of times, on business advertisements, on bumper stickers, in gift shops, lit up on street lamps, etc. The town of Aparecida, the Basilica inspired by what many would say is a divine discovery, and the religious history of the region combine to form a fascinating and unique experience unlike anywhere else I’ve been before.
The Interior of the Cathedral
The church’s basic design consists of a huge central altar area with four different seating sections extending perpendicularly from it. This more or less forms a square cross floor plan, although additional smaller enclaves are nestled between each main section for more people to sit in. The center of the sanctuary and the massive dome is undoubtedly my favorite part of the church.
As you can see, this church is not pretending to be centuries old. Everything about it, from the bright colors and modern artwork to its glossy tiles suggests that the Basilica is a modern wonder of architecture. The extensive use of brick on both its interior and exterior helps to emphasize this as well while also contributing to its unique blue and orange color scheme.
Patterns and Tiles
Be sure to take a couple moments to appreciate the beautiful tiles that can be found throughout the sanctuary. Much of the artwork here is inspired by nature: bird, plant, star, sun, wave, and even frog motifs adorn the towering walls of the church. This beautifully balanced combination of natural elements and geometric patterns might be a reference to the Garden of Eden.
The Seating Areas
Although the four areas where the congregation would sit are made mostly of brick, all of them boast a giant arched stained glass window that changes its shade of blue depending on where the sun is in the sky. That’s another amazing thing about the Basilica: a striking amount of natural light illuminates the sanctuary at all times of day. Sunlight passing through these windows bathes entire portions of the church in a sapphire glow, giving the whole place a very relaxing vibe.
The cathedral’s interior also has a couple of smaller, sequestered areas that may or may not be open depending on which day you visit.
I visited the Santuário Nacional de Nossa Senhora Aparecida about half a dozen times during my stay in Aparecida, and this little area located on the church’s northeast corner wasn’t open every time I went. When I saw it for the first time, I loved the low lighting and all the candles along the wall. Be sure to check it out if you can!
Things to See Around The Church
At this point, you’ve only seen half of what the Santuário Nacional has to offer. Its massive grounds have a number of other interesting attractions you won’t want to miss!
The actual cathedral building
As you can probably already tell, the exterior of the church is also a sight to behold. You could easily spend half an hour walking around it and admiring it from all angles. Although its exterior is much more traditional from an architectural perspective than the art and decor inside, the sheer size and scale of the structure is one reason you’ll want to see it from as many vantage points as possible.
The bell tower
Unlike most churches, the Basilica’s bells aren’t hidden in the upper reaches of any steeple or dome. Instead, the standalone bell tower is located on the very corner of the church lot closest to town.
The pedestrian bridge into town
(Passarela da Fé)
A long elevated pathway connects the Santuário Nacional to the town center. This is not the main entrance to the Basilica, but it is one quick and easy option if your hotel or accommodation is located near the entrance in town. The point where the path connects to the church can be found right here.
Although this passarela is probably the quickest way to walk from the cathedral into town or vice versa, I don’t think it’s open at night. However, the town of Aparecida is pretty easy to navigate because it’s so compact.
This walkway also offers pretty incredible views of the town, as well as the surrounding mountains and countryside.
Morro do Presépio
A picturesque little garden on a hill complete with a collection of statues, a waterfall, and a pond can be found behind the Santuário Nacional. This is also a great place to take photos of the church, especially during the early evening when softer natural light helps illuminate the church’s western-facing side.
The gift shop
The cathedral also has a gift shop, and although it’s worth browsing, there are dozens of other souvenir shops in town that will probably offer better deals. I talk a bit about gifts in my post about Aparecida, which you can read here.
The clock tower and museum
Unfortunately the observatory at the top of the church’s massive clock tower was closed due to COVID-19, but I’d love to come back someday post-pandemic and see what can only be a stunning perspective of the church’s dome and rooftop.
Bontur Bondinhos Aéreos
Last but not least, Aparecida is home to a cable car. This was also closed due to the pandemic, but if it’s open during your visit, check it out and let me know how the views are from it!
This cable car connects the Basilica to Morro do Cruzeiro, a hill overlooking the town which is home to another observatory shown in the picture below.
Tips & FAQs
There is no entrance fee.
I was never charged to enter the cathedral or the grounds. Unless there’s a special event or something else going on, the Santuário Nacional should be free to visit. However, I would expect to pay a fee to ride the cable car.
How to Arrive (on Foot)
Why is it so empty in these pictures?
Since I spent time in Aparecida during the COVID-19 pandemic (July 2020), I was one of only a handful of people to be on church grounds whenever I visited. I made a one-day return trip from a neighboring town in August 2020, and it looked like things had already opened up quite a bit more even one month later. I’ve been told that under normal circumstances, the cathedral is a very popular and often crowded attraction.
Where to Stay
As a long-term traveler, Airbnb is my go-to, especially since they almost always offer weekly and monthly discounts. I found a beautiful Airbnb for a great price shown below.
To search for Airbnb listings in Aparecida (or anywhere in the world), feel free to use the widget below!
Learn about what else the town of Aparecida has to offer!
The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida is reason enough to visit this little town, but Aparecida has more to offer than its religious centerpiece. To learn a bit more about the town and its other attractions, check out my other blog post! Among other things, Aparecida offers some beautiful scenic views as well as a uniquely ‘country’ vibe.
Now that you know about the second largest church in the world, is it going on your post-pandemic bucket list? If you love architecture, religious history, and art, I can’t recommend it enough. What do you think of the Santuário Nacional de Nossa Senhora Aparecida? Leave a comment below and let me know! Stay caffeinated, friends and travelers!
This post was published on July 25, 2020