The Corcovado mountain, Cristo Rendetor (Christ the Redeemer), Sugar Loaf Mountain, Copacabana and Ipanema beach, even the more recently added Escadaria Selaron (multi-coloured tile stairs) – if Rio one thing, it is full of iconic tourist sites.
But what else should visitors see in this buzzing Brazilian city to find its real vibe? I think there are two distinct sides of the city – away from the key tourist sites and photo opportunities – one of old European grandeur from times gone by and the other – a Samba beat street party in close-knit communities, distinctly Brazilian.
Museums and Galleries
Teatro Municipal – built in 1909, this is the premier and most beautiful theatre in Brazil. Inspired by the Paris Opera, its walls are inscribed with European and Brazilian artists. It overlooks the wide Cinelândia Square. One to visit to see some classical architecture in this otherwise very modern city.
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes – The fine art museum of Brazil is a must for any art lover. Huge paintings of wars fought with Brazil’s neighbours in 19th-century and beautiful modern sculptures – I could have spent a whole day here looking around all the rooms. It hosts many of the old Portuguese Royal collection which never returned to Portugal with the King when he left Brazil in 1821.
Confeitaria Colombo – this is a stunning french style cafe in the Centro area, with huge high ceilings, large hanging mirrors and an incredible selection of pastries and desserts. Founded in 1894 it must be one of the oldest surviving cafes in Rio and is steeped in old-style decadence – from stained glass windows to suited waiting staff. It is the perfect places for a passion fruit tart after a heavy day of museums and art galleries.
Rio Scenarium – Set over three levels, this antique filled, wooden floored samba club has more beats than you can shake your booty too. Perfect for people-watching, it has areas for the musicians and more professional dancers but after a couple of caipirinhas, it is only right to have a go alongside them! It has an international reputation for a reason, it really is great fun!
Arcos Da Lapa – This is a huge street party in the Lapa neighbourhood. I must admit, when the taxi pulled up and pointed to an alley, in a part of town we weren’t staying in, with big crowds on the streets… I really had my reservations. You do have to be safety conscious in Rio, but it shouldn’t stop you having fun. Starting on Rua Joaquim Silva, Friday night is an open party with hundreds, possibly thousands of locals and tourists gathering for a live samba and jazz party under the stars. Be aware of yourself and your belongings…but otherwise, enjoy the music and get chatting to some locals.
As tempting as it is to stay on the beach, there are some great places further to see away from the sand.
Santa Teresa – located at the top of Santa Teresa hill, this area was a haunt for artists, politicians and academics in centuries gone by. In the 21st century, its fortunes declined and many of the huge mansions are still boarded up. However, the area still has artistic roots with street art covering its winding narrow streets and don’t worry – it is considered a safe area and there are hostels catering for tourists and travellers. The district is now having a renaissance and is a great base for exploring another side of the city to the beaches – particularly for access to Lapa.
Favela – it is possible (and safe) to visit the favelas with a guide, and there are plenty of ½ day tours available if you would life to see this side of urban mega-city life. I did one to Rocinha – the largest in the city. While some people might disregard a tour like this as poverty tourism, I learnt a lot about the togetherness of the communities here, as well as how they are self-policed, how they use resources, make a living and what the government is doing to help. Yes, it isn’t perfect and of course, there are problems, but many of the people living here have done for decades and congregated iron shacks have been replaced by brick and tile houses. There are schools, medical services, play areas and shops – everything you would expect to find in an established neighbourhood. And just in case you needed another reason to visit, they also have excellent acai bowls (like a berry ice-cream) which are delicious!
Ipanema – Hostel: The Mango Tree, Prudente de Moraes, 594
Santa Teresa – Hostel: Bossa Rio Hostel, Rua Joaquim Muritinho, 531