By Briana Seftel
From sandy beaches to samba, Rio de Janeiro beckons visitors from around the world. While Brazil on a budget is possible, the big city appeal of Rio means it can get expensive. But have no fear; there are plenty of ways to see the sights without spending a dime.
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Rio’s residents, known as "Cariocas,” practically live on the beach. Sun up to sun down, you’ll catch everyone from kids to grandmas soaking in the sun on popular beaches like Copacabana, Ipanema and Arpoador. If you’re not feeling the crowds, head to Grumari Beach, about an hour drive from Ipanema.
2. Morro da Urca
Located in the neighborhood of Urca, Morro da Urca (Urca Hill) is a great place for a forest walk where you might encounter Rio’s resident monkeys. From the park entrance at the north end of Praia Vermelha, take the short and easy path to the top, where you’ll see the cable car leading to the famous Sugar Mountain.
3. Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil
A bank may not seem like the most obvious place for art, but you’d be surprised. At this former bank turned cultural center, you can catch free exhibitions, a cinema, two theaters and a permanent display of the evolution of currency in Brazil.
4. Parque Lage
Tucked away in the Jardim Botanico neighborhood, Parque Lage might be Rio’s best-kept secret. Surrounded by the Tijuca forest, the park is home to English-style gardens, lakes, and a beautiful mansion that houses the Escola de Artes Visuais (School of Visual Arts) where you can catch regular free exhibits and occasional performances.
Travel tip: If you’d like to see Christ the Redeemer without the cost, you can reach it by hiking the challenging jungle path from Parque Lage.
5. Arcos da Lapa
Seemingly out of place in the south Rio neighborhood of Lapa, the Arcos da Lapa (Lapa Arches) is an aqueduct built in the 18th century. Today, the aqueduct serves as a popular location for street vendors and lively nightly samba performances.
6. Tram do Santa Teresa
Hop on the bright yellow tram from the center of Rio to the hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Built in 1877, the tram is the oldest electric railway in Latin America. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the tram, you can visit the Museu do Bonde.
7. Escadaria Selarón
Straddling the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods, Escadaria Selarón is a staircase covered in more than 2,000 pieces of colorful tiles, mirrors and ceramics by the Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón. Meant as a tribute to his adopted city, the steps have become a landmark in the city and a popular photo op among tourists.
8. Pedra do Sal
Literally meaning “Rock of Salt,” this historic plaza is known as Rio's Little Africa. Originally home to a quilombo village, it’s now one of the best places to see live samba and choro music. Catch nightly performances here Monday to Friday and see an authentic slice of Rio life.
9. Mosteiro do São Bento
Located on the Morro de São Bento (St. Benedict Hill) in downtown Rio, the Monastery of São Bento was founded by Benedictine monks from the state of Bahia in 1590. Admire the art nouveau iron gate before entering the church to gawk at the rosewood altars covered in gold.
10. Royal Portuguese Reading Room
Hidden in plain sight in Rio’s city center, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room contains the largest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal. Opened in 1887, the library’s Gothic-Renaissance style is a true visual feast and was made to evoke the style popular at the time.
11. Paço Imperial
Built in 1743, Paco Imperial (Imperial Palace) served as the residence for the governors of colonial Brazil until 1938. One of the most important buildings in Brazil, today it is home to a cultural center hosting temporary art exhibitions, as well as a library.
12. Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow)
The Museum of Tomorrow sure looks like it’s from the future. Opened in 2015 in Rio’s port district ahead of the Summer Olympics, the museum aims to raise consciousness on the future of our planet. Focusing on ideas rather than objects, it is a thought-provoking place to spend a couple of hours. The museum is free on Tuesdays.
13. Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon
Nestled at the foot of Corcovado Mountain, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon is known as the “Heart of Rio de Janeiro.” A natural sparkling blue lake, locals love to come here to hike, bike, jog or just meet up along its banks. It’s also the home to the Flamengo football club, and you’ll likely encounter fans going to and from a game or just casually playing a pick-up game.
14. Tijuca National Park
The largest urban forest in the world, Tijuca sprawls from the center of Rio and into the surrounding area. While Christ the Redeemer is by far the park’s most popular landmark, there is so much more to discover within its lush green landscape. Enjoy a serene hike through well-paved paths, see a waterfall or two or simply take in the stunning vistas.
15. Hippie Fair Crafts Market
Taking place every Sunday at General Osorio Square in Ipanema, this street market is the perfect place to pick up handmade crafts and eat delicious food from the Bahia region. Set up in the 1960s by a group of hippies, the market has become a cultural institution in the city.