Downtown Rio de Janeiro – Best Tips of Centro Rio
One of the main places we visit when we travel somewhere is exactly the CENTER of the city. This is where the markets, points of interest, financial life and many other spaces are. In the city of Rio de Janeiro is no different! Most tourists ask us: what to do in downtown Rio de Janeiro?
The city center is my favorite place here. The area is full of things to see, do and eat! The area is also relatively small so you can visit the sites by foot. In this post, I’ll talk about downtown of Rio in general, and give some recommendations of places everyone should visit during their stay!
Maybe you don’t even suspect Rio de Janeiro is very important to the history of Brazil. Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, and since then the country has seen three different capitals. The first one was Salvador in Bahia, Northeast of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro was the capital for almost 200 years (1763 until 1960). In 1960, the capital moved to Brasilia.
Besides being the capital of Brazil for two centuries, Rio was once the capital of a European country too! The Portuguese Royal Family moved to Rio in 1808, escaping Napoleon’s revolution, and took the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro. And it was in the city center that they lived for many years.
After the arrival of the royal family, everything changed. Many historical facts happened in this part of the city, which marked important periods for the country. Some of the buildings that were used by the royal family can still be visited, such as the Imperial Palace.
Another example is the Legislative Assembly that functioned as the Main Parliament and still follows as one of the most symbolic buildings on First March Street. The center has many other secrets!
We already know that downtown of Rio is a region rich in history and with several colonial buildings with fascinating stories behind them. To learn about these stories, we invite you to take our Free Walking Tour pelo Centro e Lapa. In our link has all the information about this wonderful tour! Take a look.
INFORMATIONS ABOUT DOWNTOWN OF RIO DE JANEIRO
You probably have heard that downtown of Rio de Janeiro has a bad reputation among travelers and cariocas. But what is it really like? It’s dangerous? Safe? Something between the two? Well, the downtown area of Rio is full of commercial offices and shops, so during business hours (weekdays: 9am – 6pm, Saturdays: 9am – 2pm) it is packed with people.
A good rule for Rio is, when there are several people, the area is safe for you too. Outside business hours you will not find anything open and the streets are empty. But the precautions are the same as in any other central area of a city.
We already reassured you and now is the time to talk about the most interesting points in this region to know, among historical sites, bakery and many interesting museums!
PLACES THAT CAN (AND MUST) BE VISITED
We started with the dearest of cariocas and tourists too. The Colombo Bakery is historic, with ancient architecture, where several decisions about the future of Brazil were made by the elite and the politicians who always frequented it. There are room options for you to have a snack or even a meal (of course our Free Walking Tour Rio de Janeiro takes a quick stop there).
One of the points with some cultural attractions of the City Center is in Cinelandia. In this square we find the Fine Arts Museum, the wonderful Municipal Theater and the National Library. We’ll tell you about each one of them.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
The museum was designed to host the National School of Fine Arts in 1908. Today is the institution that has the largest and most important collection of Brazilian art of the nineteenth century, concentrating a collection of seventy thousand items among paintings, drawings, engravings, sculptures, objects, documents and books. It is certainly a point worth visiting. More information at the National Museum of Fine Arts website
The Municipal Theater is part of a renovation by a mayor who transformed Cinelândia Square in downtown of Rio de Janeiro. One of the most beautiful art and music venues in the country. There are 2 ways to get to know the Theater: one of them is to buy the guided tour that lasts about 45 minutes and costs R$ 20,00 (R$ 10,00 for students) or choose an attraction, to take the curiosity of how it is inside!
There are presentations with very affordable values! More information at the Municipal Theater website
In the same Cinelândia Square, we can find the National Library, which is a spectacle. Impossible not to tell a little of the history of Brazil to explain the National Library. Remember that in 1808 the royal family moved to Brazil?! Well, the National Library was created to replace the old Royal Library, and when Dom João came here, he brought much of his collection, with about 60,000 copies!
Today the National Library is among the 10 largest libraries in the world by UNESCO and the largest in Latin America. It’s beautiful! It has guided tour in Portuguese, English and Spanish. It’s free, but you need to bring a photo document. On the National Library website the information is always up to date!
Still in this area there are some other interesting sights to visit. Take a look:
BANCO DO BRASIL CULTURAL CENTER
If you like theater or alternative films, visit the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center also known as CCBB. The place is one of the most visited cultural centers in the world! The plays and movies cost between R$ 5 and R$ 15 and exhibitions are free.
CAIXA CULTURAL CENTER
Another, not well know, but certainly worth a visit is the Caixa Cultural Center. They show a wide range of independent films, art exhibitions and eventually host live music events!
REAL PORTUGUESE READING OFFICE
The Royal Portuguese Reading Office, is a must for anyone who likes to read. A 19th century library has the largest collection of Portuguese literature outside Portugal. In addition to books, you can observe cultural items such as Portuguese paintings. Did I mention the impressive neo-Gothic style of the building? The library was once considered the 4th most beautiful in the world!
NACIONAL HISTORICAL MUSEUM
The National Historical Museum is the interior of an old fortress, located next to XV Square. The permanent exhibition of the museum explains the history of Brazil since the indigenous tribes until the present day. You will learn about Portuguese colonization, and the development of Brazilian society. The museum also houses some temporary exhibitions. Tip, on Sundays admission is free! Other days is R$ 10,00 whole and R$ 5,00! As the name implies, the museum tells the story of Brazil in a very rich way!
In the port area of Rio de Janeiro we have some other museums that should be visited, as well as a mural that was made for the Olympics in the city. Look:
MUSEUM OF TOMORROW
This was the last museum to be inaugurated in Rio de Janeiro! There are always exhibitions on science, technology and the environment. It opens from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 18:00 (pay attention, the last entry is until 17:00). It costs R$ 20 whole and R$ 10 half. A nice tip is to download the museum app (it’s free) and very well done. Then you see the exhibitions, confirm information and schedule your trip! Tip: The museum offers free guided tours to his visitors. See here all the details of the Museum of Tomorrow.
MAR – MUSEUM OF ART OF RIO
This museum has a very modern architecture and is a good choice for those who want to know better about Rio de Janeiro! On Tuesdays the museum is free for everyone! If you plan to go another day, take a look at MAR website, as there are several ways to save and even get free. On normal days it costs R$ 20 full and R$ 10 half.
TIP: If you don’t have time to visit the museums on the free day, you can buy the combo: MAR (Museum of Art of Rio) + Museum of Tomorrow for R$ 32,00 whole and R$ 16,00 half.
There are several graffiti murals in the Port Zone! The highlight is Eduardo Kobra‘s panel made for the Olympic Games, where the artist portrays the 5 ethnicities of the world! This is the largest graffiti in the world made by one artist! If you pass by, be sure to visit it!
This is the largest marine aquarium in South America, with many beautiful and interesting species. If you want to visit it, the aquarium is open until 18h, with the last entries at 17h. More information at AquaRio website.
The Port Zone is characterized as one of the most important places in the country when it comes to African cultural heritage in Brazil, as the place was the arrival point of most slave ships from Africa! If you would like to read more about the Rio de Janeiro Port Zone see our post on this topic: Rio de Janeiro Port Zone.
We also have a very interesting tour in this region which is the Free Walking Tour of the Olympic Boulevard, but it is worth mentioning that the tour is done only in English!
The city center also has many churches, if you like this type of visit, see two very interesting:
MONASTERY OF SÃO BENTO
Founded in 1590, the Monastery and its accompanying church, the Abbey of Our Lady of Monserrate, are one of the most precious historical and architectural monuments in Rio de Janeiro, completely covered in gold. It is a place of silence and peace in the midst of Rio’s unrest. The visitation takes place from Monday to Sunday, from 07h to 18h. Free entrance.
Tip: The Monastery Monk Choir is a reference in Gregorian chant, and can be attended at 10am Sunday Mass.
METROPOLITAN CATHEDRAL OF SAN SEBASTIAN
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio is a must visit! From the outside, if you don’t know, you can’t guess it’s a cathedral. It looks more like a Mayan pyramid. But once you enter, you will get the idea. Pay close attention to the detailed windows, full of colors and Catholic symbols.
SHOPPING IN THE CENTER OF RIO DE JANEIRO
But we know that not only from the cultural side lives a city. If you are thinking about shopping? Maybe souvenirs? Or something for you? What are the best places in the Center for shopping? Downtown Rio has several fairs, temporary or permanent, that sell crafts, clothes, antiques and electronics.
Check out the fairs below:
The Antiques Market is held every Saturday at XV Square. Every week antique collectors come here to sell all sorts of interesting old things. You’ll find books, cameras, home decor, clothes, shoes, pocket watches, furniture… basically everything that’s old!
The Lavradio Fair is organized only on the first Saturday of the month. So if you’re lucky enough to be in Rio during the first weekend of the month, don’t miss this fair! Lavradio Street is in Lapa, where you will find traditional restaurants, art galleries and design shops.
During the event, the street is closed to traffic and is only accessible by pedestrians. In this market you can find great art and crafts, clothes of independent brands, vintage items, traditional instruments of Brazilian music.
The Lavradio Fair is also an important gastronomic and cultural center. Samba and capoeira shows, local bands and food stall.
SAARA is a very different place from the ones we mentioned before. Firstly, it’s open from Monday to Saturday, so you have more flexibility to know. The stores are located at the Uruguaiana subway stop and is divided into different blocks, which are all focused on selling different items.
At Saara, you can find just about anything you can imagine at a cheap price. Worth a go if you are looking for Havaianas, sarong, cheap party favors, electronics, fake brand clothing or carnival costumes!
After visiting many museums and shopping you got hungry, right? Rio is a mix of cultures, habits that reflects the Brazilian gastronomic variety!
GASTRONOMY IN THE CENTER OF RIO DE JANEIRO
For those who like acarajé, beware! the best acarajé in Rio, in my opinion, is sold in a stall in Largo da Carioca. It’s called Acarajé da Cida, and you can find them from Monday to Saturday from 11am to 7pm. For those who do not know what acarajé is: it looks like a hamburger, but the pasta is made from mashed beans and fried in coconut oil.
Then add pepper, prawns and vatapá. Wait, what? Vatapá? Yes, vatapá is a spicy sauce made of ginger, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, cornmeal and cashews.
Not sure what to eat? Look for a kilo restaurant, downtown of Rio is full of them! And it’s very normal to see cariocas eating their meals in this type of restaurant. Go for this carioca way.
Guys, we know that in a single post it is impossible to describe all the activities you could perform in downtown Rio de Janeiro.
This little list here will leave you other cool tips:
1 The first and most important tip: seek to walk and be where there are people, avoid alleys and places with little movement;
2 Right in the center, in Largo da Carioca, there is the Church of St. Anthony, the Museum of Sacred Art and a convent that can be visited and is very worthwhile;
3 You can pass in Praça XV, very important in the Imperial period in Brazil, since the Portuguese Royal Family lived in Paço Imperial, space that is located in the square and it is possible to visit it (this is one of the points in our tour of Centro and Lapa too);
6 At night the main tip is to avoid going out with valuables and important documents, prefer copies of the documents and if possible only cash to have fun;
7 Near Arcos da Lapa there are two venues that often receive concerts by famous artists, they are Circo Voador and Fundição Progresso, just follow their website and stay tuned on what will happen on the days you visit the city;
What did you think of our tips about downtown of Rio de Janeiro? Have you met any of these sights?
I hope the post helps to organize your visit! There is so much to do in downtown of Rio de Janeiro, and I personally consider the area unexplored, considering it’s richness!