Between its jaw-dropping topography—miles of sandy beaches, granite peaks—rich biodiversity, and a cultural renaissance, the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) offers frugal travelers plenty to do.
The 125-foot Christ the Redeemer statue was created from soapstone and concrete to commemorate the centennial of Brazil’s independence in 1922. Most visitors pay about $22 to ride a cog train (tickets must be purchased online) up to the statue's perch atop Corcovado Mountain for a sweeping panorama of Rio’s breathtaking land-meets-seascapes. But adventurous (and thrifty) types can hike to the Cristo via a jungle path from Parque Lage, a 19th-century estate turned public park at the foot of the mountain. Build time into your visit to explore the park’s rambling English gardens, cool caves (including one with an aquarium lining its walls), and free art exhibitions.
Rio’s other iconic vista is viewed from Sugarloaf, a 1,300-foot granite mountain rising up from the mouth of Guanabara Bay. Although it's also accessible by foot, it's not for the average day-hiker. If you've left your climbing gear at home, a ticket to ride the glassed-in cable car up to the monolith costs about $25. Many visitors qualify for half-price fares, including those age 6-21 (children under six go free) and adults age 60 or older. Visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon on weekdays to avoid long lines.
It’s not free, but the $2 USD admission to the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden is one of the city’s best values. Created in 1808 by Prince Regent Dom João VI, who later became the king of Portugal, the 340-acre park welcomes visitors with an avenue of towering royal palms, some of which date back a hundred years. Don’t miss the orchid house, boasting some 2,000 varieties; the bonsai and cherry trees in the Japanese Garden; and the giant Amazonian water lilies. Keep an eye out for toucans.
Inspired by Maya pyramids, the Catedral Metropolitana (or Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian) in historic Centro never fails to elicit opinions of its modern conical design. Peek inside for a look at its soaring stained-glass windows or come for Sunday Mass at 10 a.m.
Former headquarters of the country’s central bank, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, known as CCBB, now houses art galleries, cinemas, theaters, a bookstore, and a café. Peruse the free rotating art exhibitions—previous shows include a multimedia installation by Laurie Anderson—or relax in the atrium and bask in the building’s neoclassical architecture.
Opened in the city’s revitalized port area in time for the 2014 World Cup, the Museu de Arte do Rio combines old and new architecture—a onetime palace built by Emperor Dom João VI and a modernist art school—united by a wavy roof crafted by Carnival floatbuilders. Tour a chronological history of the city as rendered by artists and see rotating shows like “Guignard and the Orient, between Rio and Minas,” a look at works by Brazilian artist Alberto da Veiga Guinard that were inspired by his interest in China. Admission is free on Tuesdays.
On Wednesdays, admission to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC)-Niterói is free. The Oscar Niemeyer-designed building—some have likened its modernist saucer shape to that of a UFO—is worth the trip alone. Past shows include “The Network Project,” a collaborative sculpture that welcomed contributions from visitors.
The funky enclave of Lapa is ground zero for the city’s vibrant street art. Check out the wall mural near Circo Voador, a collaboration of 16 local artists, and the majolica-tiled stairway by Chilean artist Jorge Selaró that connects the district with the Santa Teresa neighborhood.
Can’t make it to Carnival? Get a taste of the festivities at one of the city's many samba schools, where parade participants practice their moves on Saturday nights starting in September and continuing up to the big event in February. Rehearsals are free, but budget for taxi fare since several of the top schools, such as Mangueira’s Palacio do Samba, are off the beaten path for visitors.
Hemmed by 25 miles of beaches, Rio is paradise for little sand-castle builders. The most tot-friendly stretch is Leblon Beach, particularly the Baixo Baby area, a reserved section with changing tables, toys, and a fully equipped playground.
On warm days, families flock to the parks around Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in the middle of the city to stroll the path around the lagoon and let their kids hit the playgrounds. Bikes and paddleboats are available for rent. Stick around on summer evenings for occasional live music and forró dancing.
Food & Drink
You’ll find Instagram-worthy displays of tropical fruits and exotic flowers at the nomadic fresh markets (feira livre) held each morning in a different neighborhood of the city. Ask your host for exact locations or listen for the calls of the vendors who love to shout about their produce.
Cariocas (Rio locals) eat on the cheap at street or beach vendors, where snacks like milho verde (corn on the cob) and skewers of grilled meat called espetinhos can be found for less than a dollar.
Leave the summer reading at home: Rio beaches are all about seeing and being seen, and with some 25 miles of shoreline, there's a spot for everyone. Head to Copacabana to watch beach volleyball or soccer, or try paddleboarding. Arpoador is a hot spot for surfers. Hike the trail up to Arpoador Rock to watch the sun set over the Dois Irmãos peaks. Ipanema—made famous by the eponymous bossa nova song—attracts a young, hip crowd. On Sundays, the avenues that line the beaches are closed to cars, fueling the festive atmosphere (you’ll find souvenirs and local crafts at the Hippie Fair in Ipanema’s General Osório Square from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). If crowds aren’t your thing, there’s more room to stretch out at Grumari Beach, a one-hour drive from Ipanema.
Sprawling over 3.5 percent of Rio’s territory, Tijuca National Park is the largest urban forest in the world. The land was decimated by timbering and coffee cultivation in the 17th and 18th centuries but was reforested in the 19th century. Today it hosts hundreds of plant and animal species, including armadillos and capuchin monkeys. Nature tours abound, but it’s possible to explore on your own. Trek trails to several panoramic lookouts, including Pedra Bonita, or make the challenging climb to the stunning granite dome of Pedra da Gávea.