Downtown Rio de Janeiro is marinated in Brazilian history. It was here that one of the first Portuguese expeditions to the Americas made landfall in Brazil. As we recounted in our Rio Part I post, these explorers were a little confused. When they sailed past Sugarloaf Mountain and entered Guanabara Bay in January 1502, they thought they were entering the mouth of a huge river. Hence the name Rio de Janeiro, River of January. Over the ensuing centuries, what is now downtown Rio de Janeiro was ground zero for the Portuguese Empire, a refuge for the Portuguese royal court, and Brazil’s capital city for almost 200 years following independence.
Here are our favorite discoveries in downtown Rio de Janeiro and the historic district. Usual note: Photos are in galleries. Just click on the first one to see full versions of each.
Downtown Rio de Janeiro Walking Tour
We are huge fans of free walking tours (you pay only a tip at the end), and the tour of downtown Rio de Janeiro with Free Walker Tours did not disappoint. We started our tour in Carioca Square, the heart of the Zona Central. From there, we strolled through the Zona Central, Cinelandia, and Lapa districts.
Chafariz (Drinking Fountain) do Mestre Valentim and Praça XV de Novembro
Built in 1789, this landmark fountain once supplied drinking water to Rio citizens and ships docked immediately in front of it (the bay waters once came right up to the fountain). The fountain was designed by Valentim da Fonseca e Silva, better known as Mestre Valentim. A famed Brazilian sculptor and urban planner, his works can be seen all over Rio de Janeiro.
The white building directly behind the fountain in the photo is the Imperial Palace, fronting Praça XV de Novembro. The palace housed the Portuguese Royal Family when they relocated to Rio in 1808, escaping Napoleon’s armies. The plaza, named for the date of Brazil’s independence from Portugal, is considered the epicenter of Rio’s European history (here’s some more info about this beautifully preserved area).
Confeitaria Colombo has been the go-to spot for Cariocas with a sweet tooth since 1894. Here you’ll find gorgeous Parisian-style architecture and a dazzling array of sweets and savories to snack on. Don’t miss the brigadeiros! (For more on this yummy treat, visit this blogger’s article.)
Travessa do Comércio
The Travessa is one of Rio’s oldest streets, paved with cobblestones and lined with stately colonial homes. The houses today are decidedly shabby, but it seems there’s some revitalization going on. Keep walking up the Travessa and you’ll find a whole pedestrian thoroughfare of cozy bars and restaurants – a great place for happy hour or a quick bite.
From the Praça XV, walkers can access the Travessa do Comércio through the Arco do Telles, a picturesque archway dating to the 18th century. The Arco de Telles offers a pedestrian passageway to the Travessa from the plaza.
Walking west, we reached Cinelandia – so named because the pretty plaza was once lined with movie theatre after movie theatre. Even today, Cinelandia is considered Rio’s theatre district, anchored by the gorgeous and ornate Municipal Theatre completed in 1909.
Lapa is considered downtown Rio de Janeiro’s most bohemian neighborhood, filled with bars, music clubs, and galleries. Lapa is anchored by the Carioca Aqueduct, built in the 18th century to carry water from the Carioca River to the downtown area. At the other end is one of Rio’s most famous tourist attractions, the Selaron Stairs (see Street Art section below). Another striking sight in Lapa is the cone-shaped Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Sebastian, built to resemble a Mayan pyramid.
Two Literary Landmarks
We love libraries and literarture-themed points of interest almost as much as we love cemeteries. Here are two that are not to be missed in downtown Rio de Janeiro.
National Library of Brazil
Located in the Cinelandia district, this gorgeous building has the distinction of being the largest library in Latin America and the 7th largest in the world. The library was founded by King John VI of Portugal in 1810 after the Portuguese Royal Family decanted to Rio, and it still houses something like 60,000 books brought over by John VI. The current 1910 building recently underwent an extensive renovation, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.
The Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading
This fantastic library contains the largest collection of Portuguese literature outside of Portugal itself – about 350,000 titles. The elaborately carved wooden bookcases that soar to the vaulted ceiling evoke a fantasy world – so much so that Harry Potter fans liken it to the Hogwarts library. It’s a must-see!
Two Standout Museums
If you visit any museums in Rio, visit these two. They are across the street from each other, so a perfect day is to visit one, have lunch at Casa do Saulo in the Museu do Amanhã, and then visit the other.
The Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow)
The futuristic Museu do Amanhã is self-described as an applied sciences museum that explores the opportunities and challenges humanity will be forced to tackle in the coming decades. A visit to this hands-on, interactive museum puts one in a reflective mood – we humans have done so much to destroy our planet, our only home – but leaves space for hope. It’s equal parts sobering and inspiring.
Upon approaching this museum, we twigged on something: The soaring, modernistic design made us think of the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain. Sure enough, the Museu do Amanhã was designed by Santiago Calatrava, one of the architects of the Valencia complex.
The Museu de Arte do Rio (Art Museum of Rio)
The eclectic Art Museum of Rio joins two architecture styles – a 1910 palace and a much more modern building that was once a bus station. Connecting both is a soaring, modern canopy (don’t miss the city views from the roof). The exhibit halls are mostly in the palace building and contain interesting displays of folk and modern art – with a focus on Brazil’s indigenous and African heritage.
The Street Art
The street art of Rio is some of the most vibrant we’ve ever seen. It’s been helped along by a measure passed on 2014 that legalized murals and paintings on many types of property. There’s even a quasi-government agency, Eixo Rio, that liaises with the city’s street artists to promote and encourage public art installations.
We Are All One (The Ethnicities)
This fabulous mural was created by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra for the Rio Summer Olympic Games in 2016. Spanning a 190-meter wall, the mural features the faces of indigenous people from five continents. At one time, it was billed as the world’s largest street art installation by a single artist (not sure if that’s still true). Here’s more info on this fantastic work of public art. Although the colors have faded over 7 years, it’s well worth a visit.
The Selaron Stairs
Located in Rio’s Lapa district near downtown, the Selaron Stairs are a must-see for any Rio visitor. The art was created in the 1990s by Jorge Selaron, a Chilean artist, who settled in a small house at the top of the stairs after traveling the world. Selaron started small, looking to beautify the concrete steps by his house with colorful ceramic tiles. The project grew and grew, and soon visitors from all over the world were donating tiles from their places of origin. The Selaron Steps connect Lapa with the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood above (although we were told that getting to Santa Teresa via the steps is not very safe for tourists).
Tragically, Selaron was found dead on the steps in 2013 of an apparent suicide (although some say foul play was involved). But his remarkable art lives on and has been designated a city landmark.
More cool Rio street art:
Other Tips for Exploring Downtown Rio de Janeiro
Restaurants. Super Bar a Casa do Chapolin in Cinelandia is a great lunch stop, with fantastic hand-shaken caipirinhas. When you’re visiting the museums, check out Casa do Saulo in the Museu do Amanhã – specializing in seafood and cuisines from the Brazilian Amazon. But probably our favorite Rio de Janeiro dining experience was Hachiko, located on the second floor of a picturesque colonial building just southwest of the Praça de Novembro. Specializing in Japanese delicacies and sushi, Hachiko offers a tasting menu that intersperses exciting fusion dishes with traditional sushi and sashimi. Dish after fabulous dish kept coming out of the kitchen, long past what seemed like the end of the tasting menu. We just kept eating, eating, eating! It was soooo good.
Getting around. Almost all of the sights we mentioned in this post are within easy walking distance of each other, but downtown Rio de Janeiro is also well-served by public transportation. The city’s almost-new VLT light rail system travels to many of these sights including Cinelandia, Centro (Carioca), and the Ethnicities mural. It also connects to Rio’s subway system for accessing further-flung locations like Copacabana Beach. And it’s super-inexpensive.
Check out our previous Rio de Janeiro post for things to do and see beyond downtown Rio. And for lots more about Brazilian cuisine, culture, and language, read our tips for first-time visitors to Brazil.