Capital Appreciation: Board a Bus for the Best Way to See Brasília

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Donald Weber VII / Corbis

Oscar glory When it comes to design, Brasília is in a category of one

Brazil's first republican constitution, written in 1891, mandated that the nation's capital be moved from coastal Rio de Janeiro to the more centrally located interior. If you've ever been to Rio and savored the picturesque paradise of its climate and beaches, you can understand why political leaders dragged their feet for more than 60 years before complying. In the 1950s, reformist President Juscelino Kubitschek finally started construction of Brasília, almost 965 km northwest of Rio on a dry plateau called the Planalto do Brasil.

Five decades after its inauguration in 1960, Brasília (pop. 2.5 million) largely remains a planned and placid city for the federal workforce — and no one's idea of a rival to Rio. Still, the capital has one wonderful thing to recommend it: the stunning Modernist architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian master who designed many of the city's most important buildings, from the Palácio do Planalto (the presidential headquarters) to the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Because of Niemeyer, Brasília is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. And now that Brazil is a major economic player in the world, Brasília is finding new ways to showcase his and other architectural treasures for business and government visitors, whose numbers have grown dramatically in recent years.

One of the best ways to take in not only Niemeyer's edifices but also newer aesthetic marvels like the Ponte JK (JK Bridge, named for Kubitschek and completed in 2002) is the Brasília City Tour. For $14, the double-decker bus, starting from the Torre de TV (Television Tower, which is an ideal place to view the city from above), offers a two-hour guided outing along the main boulevard, the Eixo Monumental (Monument Axis) and Lake Paranoá, and includes some 18 sites. Among them: the Picassoesque columns of Planalto; the celestial, hyperboloid curves of the cathedral; the elegantly soaring lines of the Ponte; the dome-and-saucer whimsy of the National Congress complex; the majestic arches of the Palácio Itamaraty (Foreign Affairs Ministry); and the inverted arches and gardens of the Palácio da Alvorada (the presidential residence) on Paranoá.

There are four tours Monday through Wednesday, from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and six from Thursday through Sunday between the same times. Before the tour you might also want to check out the huge scale model of the city at the Espaço Lucio Costa to appreciate its pioneering urban planning. When you're done, round out the day by catching the sunset with a chope (cold Brazilian lager) or caipirinha (cachaça and lime) at the Pontão do Lago Sul, a "pontoon" inlet on Paranoá's south shore that's home to a host of topflight bars and restaurants.

Lakeside in Brasília might not be Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. But if you take the City Tour, you might find yourself thanking Kubitschek for heeding his constitution — if only because his journey to the Planalto do Brasil led to the marvels of Niemeyer and an architectural tradition befitting a 21st century emerging power like Brazil.