Founded in 1693 as a gold-mining camp, CURITIBA was of little importance until 1853 when it was made capital of Paraná. Since then, the city's population has steadily risen from a few thousand, reaching 140,000 in 1940 and some 1.8 million today. It's said that Curitiba is barely a Brazilian city at all, a view that has some basis. The inhabitants are largely descendants of Polish, German, Italian and other immigrants who settled in Curitiba and in surrounding villages that have since been engulfed by the expanding metropolis. On average, curitibanos enjoy Brazil's highest standard of living: the city boasts social and transport facilities that are the envy of other parts of the country. There are favelas, but they're well hidden and, because of the cool, damp winters, appear sturdier than those in cities to the north. As elsewhere in Brazil, the rich live secluded in luxury condominiums, but even these are a little less ostentatious, and need fewer security precautions, than usual.
Many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings have been saved from the developers who, since the 1960s, have ravaged most Brazilian cities, and there's a clearly defined historic quarter where colonial and nineteenth-century buildings have been preserved. Much of the centre is closed to traffic and, in a country where the car has become a symbol of development, planners from all over the world descend on Curitiba to discover how a city can function effectively when pedestrians and buses are given priority. Thanks in part to the relative lack of traffic in the city centre, it's a pleasure just strolling around and, what's more, you can wander around the city, day or night, in safety.
One result of its being so untypical of Brazil is that few visitors bother to remain in Curitiba longer than it takes to change buses or planes. At most, they stay for a night, prior to taking the early morning train to the coast. But it deserves more than this: although there's some truth in its reputation of northern European dullness, Curitiba's attractive buildings, interesting museums and variety of restaurants make a stay here pleasant, if not overly exciting.