Feeling thirsty for a little culture in Rio de Janeiro’s urban tropical jungle? Our Rio-based writer is here to reveal her favourite fun things to do in the “Cidade Maravilhosa”. Get ready for some original ideas and well-kept secrets…
So you have ticked all the tourist boxes? Christ the Redeemer… check. Sugarloaf… check. Ipanema Beach… check. With the language barrier and lack of alternative tourist materials, how does one truly penetrate Rio de Janeiro? I have personally been diving deep into this city for years and have discovered that the most delicious memories come from moments spent in its sub-context. From libraries with 16th century scripts, Italian cafés in old casinos and Samba warehouse parties, the “other side” of Rio is truly its best side.
1# A Piece of Brazilian Music History
Literally translated to the “Flying Circus”, Circo Voador music venue has a history deep seated in Rio’s cultural past. It opened for the first time on Ipanema Beach 35 years ago. Since then, the venue has had a dramatic past including being shut down by the Mayor, traveling around Brazil as a Gypsy Venue and finally settling in Lapa where it remains until today. Circo Voador hosts some of the country’s most authentic and beloved Brazilian musicians. From MBP to bossa nova, pop and rock to funk, their calendar’s taste is eclectic. Best part of all, most shows allow you to pay a half price admission if you bring 1 kilo of non-perishable goods as a donation. To step inside a real Carioca’s night out, after the show go around the corner for a late night Brazilian meal at Botequim Os Ximenes.
2# Local Brazilian Football Match
Experience the passion that defines Brazil. If you ask any Brazilian their top two favourite things in life, be rest assured that it would include their family and their football team (in no particular order). There are four major teams in Rio de Janeiro: Botafogo, Vasco, Fluminense and Flamengo. There are several stadiums all over the city and the suburbs, but the two grandest are Maracanã and Nilton Santos. But do not think you are going to enter calmly and sit in your assigned seats. The energy is high from the get go with live drums both on the streets and inside the stadiums, with two-storey-tall team flags being waved by fans and free flowing beers. This is all designed to keep the crowd singing (literally). In Brazilian fashion, the dates and times are not often announced until the week of the game, so find someone in the know to score you a ticket and help you navigate the complicated public transport needed to arrive. Bromelia Rio (that’s my company!) offers a host of local tours such as Local Football Tours that include joining in the pre-game festivities outside the stadiums with the fans, train tickets and game passes. (When you write to me mention Urban Travel Blog and be sure of extra VIP treatment!).
3# A Royal Portuguese Reading Room
Stepping into the doors of the Royal Portuguese Reading Room (Real Gabinete Português de Leitura) is like stepping into a chapter of Harry Potter. The building was originally founded in 1822 by the Portuguese who wanted to bring their literature to the new Brazilian Empire. This Gothic-Renaissance designed landmark, hosts the largest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal, which line the towering, rainbow book shelves. The collection of nearly 400,000 books could be easily passed up, if one did not know where this library was located. Nestled in a small backstreet of Central Rio, its unassuming exterior is the complete opposite of the sensory stimulation awaiting you inside. Do not be afraid to be nosey, there is also classic furniture and art pieces peppered throughout the entire building but not necessarily on display in the main room.
4# Bird Cemetery on a Car-free Island
Evidently the only one of its kind in the world, the bird cemetery on Paquetá Island is curious and unusual. Located 45 minutes on a passenger ferry off of Praça XV in downtown Rio, this pedestrian-only island is a destination in and of itself. Its charming dirt roads can all be explored in a single afternoon; however, I highly recommend splurging on the 1 hour Golf Cart Island tour. It will take you into the nooks and crannies of this peacefully wild island. Inaugurated in 1888, the bird cemetery was begun to express the community’s love for birds and the freedom of the spirit characteristic of Paquetá. The tradition goes, that the dead bird’s owner checks if there is available space among one of the identical graves and places their pets in one that has room (because over time the bodies decompose making room for new ones). Since legislature surrounding the domestication of birds has changed over the years, there has been a significant decrease in fowl funerals.
5# The Art Deco Itahy Building
This hidden gem is the epitome of Brazilian Art Deco Architecture in Copacabana. The Itahy building, originally designed in 1932, blends several styles of the decade. The bright green, patina-ed entrance is topped by an “Indian-Mermaid-Caryatid” and defined by sleek aerodynamic lines typical of the architectural movement. Designed by Brazilian immigrants, raised in Europe, the building demonstrates how the architects were able to appreciate the native style of Brazil whilst blending it with fashionable Parisian ones of time time. For example, the frame of the entrance resembles that of the famous Printemps French Department Store while the inside features tiled floors that mimic ocean waves and walls with relief carvings of algae and marine life.
6# Italian Cafe in a former Casino
Once the highlights of Rio de Janeiro’s social scene in the pre-war era, the Casino in the neighborhood of Urca still remains a local landmark. The 1946 Federal ban on Casinos closed its doors, but not before Urca’s most famous resident, Carmen Miranda, was discovered there by a big shot Hollywood Agent. The location was reincarnated as a major TV studio in the 1960s and more recently as a Brazilian-Italian Fashion Institute. On a warm summer day, all the locals flock to the tiny beach out front of the Casino which provides a picturesque view of the Guanabara Bay. Tucked inside the Institute is a café and restaurant opened to the public. With large bay windows, Italian quality capuccinos and artisan pizzas, it still surprises me that you can always score a seat anytime of day.
7# Largest Mural in the World
Defined by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest mural, “Todos Somos Um” was commissioned for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and realised by Eduardo Kobra. Fifteen metres tall by one hundred and seventy metres wide, it is an incredible message about the world’s various ethnicities and their natural beauty. Located off the Praça Mauá Square in downtown Rio, the mural comes at the end of a small strip of other raw, local street art. The colours alone are an incredible aroma for the senses, but their juxtaposition in the middle of port warehouses, dilapidated colonial buildings, the ultra-modern Museum of Tomorrow and the newly installed overground VLT public transport system, shows the beautiful contradiction that defines Rio de Janeiro.
To discover the Kobra mural on a bike tour, along with other parts of the 2016 Olympic legacy, and some great vistas of Rio’s bays and beaches check out this tour by Urban Adventures. Otherwise, book this street art walking tour via Get Your Guide that takes you to the mural as well as other top artistic sights like the Selaron steps.
Bonus Tip: Samba Warehouse Party
Rio is Samba. Samba is Rio. While the week of Carnival and its celebrations is the ultimate Brazilian holiday fantasy, the months leading up to it offer incredible opportunities to partake in all the practice parties. Each Samba School (official group of musicians/dancers) hosts a weekly rehearsal to build the momentum of local support. Located in the centre of the city, in an enormous open warehouse, Unidos da Tijuca remains one of my all time favourite schools. While it always ends up in the top 5 Carnival winners, it still hosts authentic rehearsal parties. The bright blue-and-yellow themed school often begins its practices around midnight. A wee piece of advice: take a good afternoon nap so you can come ready to Samba hard and enjoy Caipirinhas until the early hours of the morning. And by the way, if you’re coming to Carnival proper get in contact with me via my website and I’ll reserve your tickets and be your guide
Can’t get enough of Rio? Then wander over to Lauren’s Long Weekend guide to the Samba city, where she share her tips on attractions, restaurants, bars and even more cool things to do.