This is part two of my Rio de Janeiro travel guide, featuring the remaining downtown sights and suggested bike routes. Click here for the first part. To see where these places are, see this Google Map.
Downtown hosts many great sights, but you should take care what day you go. It is busy and safe on workdays during working hours, but it empties out at night and weekends, at which point it resembles the abandoned streets of a post-apocalyptic nightmare complete with marauding gangs of bandits.
All of these places are within easy walking distance or short taxi rides. Two or three days should be enough to see it all.
These now famous steps were an ordinary flight of outdoor steps until Selarón, an artist whose house faced the steps, decided to glue colourful tiles to the steps. People first ridiculed him, but then saw the beauty in what he was doing, and it became a tourist attraction. The tourists started bringing him tiles from all over the world. I even saw a couple of Swedish tiles (“Välkommen till vårt hem” och “God Jul”). The steps are indeed beautiful, and it is fun to check out the crazy tiles along the long climb.
Fiscal Island is a small island in Rio, located next to a navy base and owned by the Navy. The island is just big enough to fit a small pastel-green castle that look completely fake, but isn’t. It was used as a customs house, but its greatest claim to fame is as the host of the last big party thrown by the Portuguese monarchy, six days before the monarchy was thrown out and replaced by a republic. Inside one of the castle’s towers is a quaint chapel, and outside is a pretty nice view of Rio, but that is about it.
Tickets are bought at the Naval Museum.
Culture: Fine Arts, Theatre, Library and CCBB
For those rainy days, the fine arts museum, the municipal theatre, the national library and the Cultural Centre Bank of Brazil are worth a visit. The first three are located on the same square. The CCBB lies near Fiscal Island.
I’m not much for fine arts museums, but I was pleasantly surprised by the one in Rio. It is housed in a beautiful old colonial building, and the art is varied and impressive.
The municipal theatre became something of a scandal as the cost of renovating the hundred year-old building shot through the domed ceiling. Don’t make the investment a waste of money and go see this gorgeous theatre. The guided tours let you see most parts of the building, including the seriously grand staircase.
The theatre is all bling, and in comparison, the nearby National Library is a bit drab, but the content and history of the library is more impressive. The starting collection of books were brought to Rio as the Portuguese ‘Emperor’ fled Portugal (afraid of Napoleon), bringing his beloved books with him. The library is today a research facility, and the guides are mighty proud of the work being done within.
There is a CCBB in most large cities across Brazil. I visited them in Sao Paolo, Belo Horizonte and now Rio, and each very well worth my time. The exhibits change often, so I won’t go into how frickin’ awesome the ancient money exhibit was that I saw there. (500 B.C. coin! And no, B.C. does not stand for BitCoin.)
Metropolitan Cathedral and Monastery
If you fall into sin in Rio de Janeiro – congratulations. Still, if you need some balance to it all, visit the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Monastery of Santo António.
The former is definitely an odd one. It looks almost entirely nothing like a cathedral. In fact, the concrete cone was inspired by the Mayan pyramid temples. Why anyone building a cathedral would base their design on a heathen temple of human sacrifice beats me, but it sure does look … different. Inside is one giant open space that makes you feel tiny, which is probably the idea. Four broad vertical strips of stained glass run from the ground to the apex where they join in a white cross.
The monastery is worth a quick visit, if only to see the main church hall where the overarching guiding principle was ‘use more leaf gold’. Not as much as a doorknob escaped the finishing touch of King Midas. Gaudy does not begin to describe it.
St. Teresa and Carioca Aqueduct
Rio’s beauty all comes from 1) the landscape and 2) the time spent at the gym by the locals. None comes from the dull concrete buildings that make up the city. The exception to this is Santa Teresa, a neighbourhood up in the hills and surrounded by favelas. Old gorgeous buildings, cobbled streets and a lack of concrete make it feel almost European. And, it is lively, full of restaurants, bars and happy people.
You used to be able to take a tram to Santa Teresa from downtown, but it is now broken. The journey would have taken you across the Carioca Aqueduct in the Lapa district, and this beautiful white structure is still worth a visit.
Rio has a ‘pick-up-and-ride’ bike system. It is basically free, but requires you to have a Brazilian cell phone. If you are staying for a while, it is well worth buying a Brazilian SIM (I got one from TIM.). You need to check the bikes before picking them up as a few will be broken, but for the most parts, the system worked well.
There are a couple of easy yet beautiful cycle routes that I recommend you try out.
North of Ipanema lies an enormous lagoon. A cycle path runs the entire circumference. It is an easy ride that will take on hour or so.
The Beaches and more
The best day to do this cycle ride is Sunday, as the road that runs along the coast is closed off for normal traffic, and taken over by cyclists, skateboarders, etc.
Start at the far end of Ipanema, and cycle along the beach, on to Copacabana beach and finally Leme beach. Park your bike here and walk along the path that runs a short way out along the tall cliff-side, and admire the youngsters diving into the sea. This is also a good place for a Caipirinha before continuing.
Take the tunnel north (there is a cycle path in the middle) and follow the cycle path towards Urca, then turn north at the marina and continue along the coast along the beaches, parks and marinas all the way up to the airport.
Before the airport, turn left and cycle to the ferry terminal where you can catch a ferry to Niteroi, enjoying the view of Rio from afar. It isn’t the most exciting ride in the world, but if you’ve got the spare time, and you are nearby, why not?