The main attraction of Paraty is its historic core, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with beautifully preserved colonial architecture. In contrast to the ornate baroque opulence of Ouro Prêto, Paraty was a port, a working-class kind of town. The architecture is simple and colonial. Even the churches and municipal buildings seemed to have been built more for daily use than as a statement of wealth.
Paraty first grew in importance in the 1800s when it became the main shipping port for the gold from the mines of Minas Gerais. The gold was transported down windy trails and cobblestone roads from Ouro Prêto to the coast, where it was loaded on ships sailing for Portugal. Once gold became scarce, Paraty switched to coffee, but with the abolishment of slavery in 1888, that too dried up and Paraty faded to near oblivion; the population fell from 16,000 in its glory days to 600 in the early 1900s. From a heritage perspective it was the city's saving grace.
In 1966 the historic colonial center of Paraty was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To preserve its unique pre-modern character, cars were banished from the old colonial core. In the heart of the city it's pedestrians only. Radical as that may sound, it actually works rather well. Boat tours of the surrounding islands leave from the dock in the city center. Day trips into the surrounding hills include transportation.
The region surrounding the city adds much to Paraty's quiet beauty. The hills are still mostly covered in lush green coastal rainforest, and the waters around Paraty, dotted with 65 islands, are tropical turquoise, warm, and crystal clear, perfect for snorkeling, swimming, or scuba diving. If you only have time to visit one of the historic towns, Paraty makes a fine (long) 1-day or easy overnight destination from either Rio or São Paulo.