The most impressive way to approach BELO HORIZONTE is from the south, over the magnificent hills of the Serra do Espinhaço, on a road that winds back and forth before finally cresting a ridge where the entire city is set out before you. It's a spectacular sight, as Belo Horizonte sprawls in an enormous bowl surrounded by hills, a sea of skyscrapers, favelas and industrial suburbs. From the centre, the jagged, rust-coloured skyline of the Serra do Espinhaço, which gave the city its name, is always visible on the horizon – still being transformed by the mines gnawing away at the "breast of iron".
Despite its size and importance, Belo Horizonte is little more than a century old, laid out in the early 1890s on the site of the poor village of Curral del Rey – of which nothing remains – and shaped by the novel ideas of "progress" that emerged with the new Republic. Belo Horizonte was the first of Brazil's planned cities and is arguably the most successful. As late as 1945 it had only 100,000 inhabitants; now it has twenty times that number (forty times if one includes the city's metropolitan hinterland), an explosive rate of growth even by Latin American standards. While it may not be as historic as the rest of the state, it's difficult not to be impressed by the city's scale and energy. Moreover, Belo Horizonte's central location and proximity to some of the most important cidades históricas (Sabará is just outside the city, Ouro Preto and Mariana only two hours away by road) make it a good base for exploring Minas Gerais.
The central zone of Belo Horizonte is contained within the inner ring road, the Avenida do Contorno ; the centre is laid out in a grid pattern, crossed by diagonal avenidas, which makes it easy to find your way around on foot. The spine of the city is the broad Avenida Afonso Pena , with the rodoviária at its northern end, in the heart of the downtown area. Just down from the rodoviária along Avenida Afonso Pena is the obelisk in the Praça Sete , the middle of the busy financial district; a few blocks further down Afonso Pena are the trees and shade of the Parque Municipal . A short distance south of the centre, the Praça da Liberdade , Belo Horizonte's main square, is dominated by a double row of imperial palms and important public buildings; the chic residential area of Savassi , with its restaurants, nightlife and boutiques, lies southeast.
The only places beyond the Contorno you're likely to visit are the artificial lake and Niemeyer buildings of Pampulha , to the north, the Museu Histórico Abílio Barreto to the southwest and the rambling nature reserve of Mangabeiras , on the southern boundary of the city.