Rio De Janeiro Guide: Free Attractions And Things To Do

Doug Gray, The Daily Telegraph, March 27, 2014

These recommendations, and hundreds more, can be found in the free Telegraph Travel Guides app . The app features expert guides to destinations including Paris, Rome, Rio, New York, Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro, with Edinburgh, Barcelona and Venice among those to be added in the coming weeks.

Biblioteca Nacional

Built at the start of the 20th century, the imposing National Library is the biggest in Latin America and listed by UNESCO as one of the ten biggest libraries in the world. Though its beginnings lie in the volumes and periodicals brought over by the Portuguese royal family in 1810 and 1811, today it has an official role to house every Brazilian book published, with the collection today standing at close to ten million titles. But there is more than just books. The library also holds a history of Brazilian music from Villa-Lobos to Tom Jobim, photos and correspondence from the former royal family and an archive of major newspapers. Anything outside of the general collection is strictly for research only, but the building's glorious interior makes a guided tour – held in English on weekdays at 1pm, reservations essential – worthwhile on its own.

Avenida Rio Branco 219, Centro

Catedral Metropolitana

Love it or hate it, there is no denying that Rio’s Metropolitan Cathedral is quite the architectural statement, making it an essential stop on a tour of historic Centro. Built during the military dictatorship, the 75 metre-high cone is all the more alarming when compared with the elegant arches of Lapa’s aquaduct close by, but once inside it is hard not to fall under its spell. Thrusting stained-glass windows and the cross of Jesus dangling just above the altar, held aloft by six steel cables, are impressive, and with a capacity of 20,000 (5,000 seating), the 10am Mass on Sundays is a rousing affair.

Avenida Chile 245, Centro

Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil

The former central office of the Banco do Brasil is popularly known as simply the CCBB. On the top floor is a museum dedicated to the pecuniary history of Brazil's national bank, even preserving the boss’s old office in all its dark, leathery grandeur. The first three floors host the most popular exhibitions in the city, ranging from famous Brazilian sculptors and painters to international retrospectives and in-depth histories of specific art forms – the CCBB is the one Rio museum where I always check the programming each month. The building is also a joy to behold, and although the café is disappointing, there is a decent book and CD shop on the ground floor.

Rua Primeiro de Março 66, Centro

Fabrica Bhering

As part of the region’s massive redevelopment project, this spectacular former chocolate factory had a compulsory purchase order slapped on it. But a successful petition meant that Bhering and its community of over fifty artists and businesses lived to fight another day. Now a listed building, it has helped Santo Cristo become something of a hub for the creative industries, with its studios occupied by some of the most dynamic young artists in the city. The building is open to the wandering public, but some artists will invariably be more approachable than others. However, few aren’t willing to at least quickly show their latest works, and there remains the possibility of picking up something by the next great Brazilian painter. The ground floor also houses a clothes shop and furniture store.

Rua Orestes 28, Santo Cristo

Instituto Moreira Salles

This is far and away Gávea’s cultural high point. The home of the Moreira Salles Institute is a modernist delight, and it houses key items from the former banker’s vast collection of photographs and books, and features entertaining exhibitions of celluloid-related pioneers and mavericks. A ten-minute walk from the bus stop up into the leafy, residential neighbourhood, the institute is an envious setting. Every Saturday at 5pm a free concert, dance performance or art workshop is held for children, and the cinema is regularly given over to retrospectives of great names from the world of film. The café does a good line in sandwiches and refreshments, best taken on a table outside by the suitably modernist pool; a full afternoon tea is on offer on Thursdays (R$80).

Rua Marques de São Vicente 476, Gávea

Jockey Club

Gávea’s 1920s racetrack is one of the more incongruous sights to behold for anyone gazing down on the city from Corcovado mountain. Next to the Lagoa and smack in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in the country, the Jockey Club hosts regular meetings throughout the week regardless of the fact hardly anybody goes. It may have fallen out of fashion among Cariocas, but for tourists looking for a wet-weather plan, it’s a grand day out. Wear trousers and closed footwear (trainers are fine) to get free entrance into the smarter of the two main stands right in line with the finishing post. Placing a bet couldn’t be easier, and the beautiful marble foyer downstairs is where the gambling takes place.

Praça Santos Dumont 33, Gávea

Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

For such an unsung wonder of Rio’s landscape, the lagoon that borders Jardim Botânico, Humaitá, Ipanema, Leblon and Gávea is a truly magical place. It's filled by run-off from the green hills above its northern shore; in the 1920s the canal that now divides Leblon and Ipanema was built to improve the flow of water in and out. At 7.5km in circumference, the tree-lined path at the lake’s edge is busy with walkers, joggers and cyclists at the weekends, and decent restaurants and bars can be found in clusters on the north-east and western edges. The water itself is used for water-skiiing and by sailboats and a fleet of swan-shaped pedalos. Pollution continues to be an issue, so it's best to avoid falling in.

North of Ipanema and Leblon, south of Jardim Botânico and Humaitá

Paço Imperial

Built in the 1800s on the edge of Praça XV and a stone’s throw from Guanabara Bay, the Imperial Palace was the royal residence of King John VI of Portugal before becoming the seat of power of Pedro I. After years of neglect, in 2011 it was finally restored to something like its former glory, albeit adapted for its new purpose as another important cultural centre in the region. But its grandeur remains intact: the building is best approached from the far side of the square for maximum impact. The upstairs gallery space hosts regular exhibitions by some of the bright young things of the Brazilian contemprary art scene, and there are coffee shops, restaurants and an excellent bookstore – I love to comb through the piles of second-hand books and scores of Brazilian music CDs.

Praça XV, Centro
00 55 21 2215 2622

Parque Lage

The Lage family built the magnificent, Italian-inspired mansion on the edge of the Tijuca hills in the 1920s, surrounded by verdant gardens rather less kempt than their illustrious neighbour, the Jardim Botânico. The house is now an arts school and gallery with a growing number of cutting-edge displays (and, indeed, graduates), with easels dotted around the attractive central pool. Here, too, is a fine café, but it is the gardens, packed with picnicking families at weekends, that deserve special attention. As well as a gloomy aquarium, there are trails galore, one of which leads all the way up to Corcovado for those with the stomach for an occasionally testing, 90-minute hike.

Rua Jardim Botânico 414, Jardim Botânico

Pedra do Sal

Close to Rio’s rapidly developing port is an important slice of the city's history. Originally the site of a Quilombo village (descendants of which remain here today), Pedra do Sal (Salt Rock) became known as Little Africa, a place where the slaves gathered and where samba was born. Today, the African influence remains strong, both in music and religion. At the foot of the huge, sloping rock, a live samba party takes place from around 7pm every Monday night, filling the air with the sweet strains of classic songs that have their roots right here. Next door, the Morro da Conceição hill is the site of the first settlement of the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the architecture and atmosphere has a timeless beauty despite its chequered past.

Rua Argemiro Bulcão, Saúde

Santa Teresa

Thanks to two nuns who set up a convent devoted to Santa Teresa of Avila in 1750, and a cholera epidemic that forced the city's well-to-do citizens into the hills to escape the disease, Santa Teresa as we know it today is one of the most beguiling of all Rio’s neighbourhoods. Its rickety tram was taken out of service in 2011 after a tragic accident, leaving frustrated locals without their main mode of transport and tourists without a unique slice of bygone Rio. Come for its eminently walkable and charming leafy streets, the wildly eclectic architecture, unusual restaurants and classic bars. A cinema, tram museum and several boutiques can be found around main square Largo do Guimaraes, and don’t miss the Amazon-inspired food of Espírito Santa or the locals’ favourite drinking hole, Bar do Gomez.

Largo do Guimaraes, Rua Almirante Alexandrino, Santa Teresa

Mosteiro do São Bento

As the Port Zone all around it undergoes a comprehensive facelift, one corner of Centro remains quietly untouched and magnificent in its holy splendour. Not that you would know it from the entrance, a nondescript room with tired posters on the walls. But enter the lift, push number five, and uncover the gold-plated opulence of the São Bento Monastery. Founded in 1590 by Bahian monks, it might not exude splendour from the outside, but the baroque motifs and rococo carvings, all drenched in gold, soon inspire once inside. Coincide a visit with the monks' Gregorian chanting (7.30am and 6pm on weekdays, 10am on Sundays), and witness something truly magical.

Rua Dom Gerardo 40, Centro

Escadeira Selarón

Mystery surrounds the death of the personable Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, whose self-proclaimed ‘madness’ was the constant tiling and re-tiling of the public steps that link Lapa and Santa Teresa. The 65 year old’s charred body was found there in January 2013, fuelling conspiracy theories about his death. But the mysterious end to an eccentric life will, along with his enduring art, keep the myth of the man alive in his absence. Invariably to be found chipping away the old or adding on the new, Selarón received the tiles as gifts from all over the world, creating a glorious patchwork that reaches up the walls, regularly featuring a pregnant female figure whose identity he never revealed. A visit is almost as essential as a trip to Sugarloaf, but be careful of pickpockets operating in the area.

Rua Joaquim Silva, Lapa

Sítio Roberto Burle Marx

Intrisically tied with the look and feel of much of Rio, Roberto Burle Marx was the last century's foremost landscape artist in Brazil, responsible for creating the tropical splendour of Flamengo Park and the iconic, swirled promenade of Copacabana. His home in Guaratiba was a former banana plantation that slowly became a plant nursery and beautiful gardens, in which shades of green were preferred to the seasonal nature of flowers. The simple house where Marx loved to entertain remains perched in the middle, his prolific art on plentiful display and his uncomfortable-looking bedroom preserved as it was on the day he died. A hearty, two-hour tour takes in idyllic ponds and vast trees, as well as a workshop converted into a gallery space. A peaceful break from the Rio norm, best followed by a trip to nearby Prainha beach.

Estrada Roberto Burle Marx 2019, Barra de Guaratiba

Parque Nacional da Tijuca

Dominating the Rio landscape, Tijuca Forest was given National Park status in 1961 and, though not as developed as more famous parks around the world, it is nevertheless a remarkable refuge so close to the city. Climbing up by taxi from Jardim Botânico, the first jewel is the Vista Chinesa, a belvedere that pays homage to the immigrants who helped replant the forest after it had been destroyed by the development of coffee plantations. From here, the astonishing view over the city hints at what is to come much further in to the park. The main drop-off point is at Praça Afonso Viseu, from where the pretty pink Mayrink chapel, waterfalls and caves can all be found on the straightforward five-hour round-trip hike to Pico da Tijuca. At 1,022 metres, it's the highest peak in the forest, and from the summit, the likes of the Maracanã and Pedra da Gávea make for good sight-spotting below.

Praça Afonso Viseu, Estrada da Cascatinha 850, Alto da Boa Vista

These recommendations, and hundreds more, can be found in the free Telegraph Travel Guides app . The app features expert guides to destinations including Paris, Rome, Rio, New York, Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro, with Edinburgh, Barcelona and Venice among those to be added in the coming weeks.

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