What to See in Rio de Janeiro’s Centro District

Elaborate gold designs accent bright white walls inside a light-filled church.

The elaborate interior of the Igreja Nossa Senhora de Carmo da Antiga Sé. Photo © Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca of Catedrales e Iglesias, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The Centro refers to Rio’s historic downtown commercial district. Narrow cobblestoned alleys, grand baroque churches, turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian-inspired avenues and architecture, and the ubiquitous high-rises and urban chaos of a 21st-century megalopolis make up a bewildering if often fascinating patchwork. Although some areas are sorely neglected, many museums and cultural centers have opened or have been revamped as part of an effort to revitalize the area. Meanwhile, stylish bistros have joined some of the city’s most traditional bars and cafés. As an antidote to the upscale beach culture of Zona Sul, pockets of the Centro are quite interesting, particularly if you want to get a sense of Rio’s rich past.

Despite the traffic, navigating the area is quite easy on foot. Centro is also well served by buses from both the Zona Sul and Zona Norte (take anything marked “Centro,” “Praça XV,” or “Praça Mauá”) and by Metrô (the most convenient stations are Cinelândia, Carioca, Uruguaiana, Presidente Vargas, and Praça Onze).


Sights in Centro

Although during the day and into the early evening Centro is usually jam-packed, at night and on weekends the area is as quiet as a ghost town and quite unsafe to stroll around. If you’re thinking of taking in an exhibition or performance during these times, it’s best to take a taxi.

Praça XV, Paço Imperial, and the Arco do Telles

Praça XV

Historically, Praça XV comprised the symbolic heart of Centro, and since most buses pass by this large plaza, it’s a practical point from which to begin exploring the area. Its full name, Praça XV de Novembro, refers to November 15, 1899, the day when Brazil’s first president, Manuel Deodoro de Fonseca, stood and declared Brazil to be a republic. Many significant historical events have taken place here—among them the crowning of Brazil’s two emperors, Pedro I and Pedro II, and the abolition of slavery in 1888.

Paço Imperial

Praça XV’s original name was Largo do Paço because it served as a large public patio to the stately Paço (Palácio) Imperial (Praça XV de Novembro 48, tel. 21/2215-2622, 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free). Built in 1743, the palace was a residence for Portugal’s colonial governors. It then housed the Portuguese court itself when Dom João VI fled Napoleon’s forces in 1808. When the royal palace moved to the Palácio da Quinta da Boa Vista (today the Museu Nacional), the Paço Imperial continued to host receptions and events. Today, it houses interesting temporary exhibits of contemporary art. Overlooking the internal courtyard is a lovely café and restaurant, the Bistrô do Paço, as well as a book and CD store and a small cinema that shows independent and repertory films.

Arco do Telles

Directly across Praça XV from the Paço Imperial, you’ll notice an impressive arch that leads down the Beco de Telles, a cobblestoned alley lined with elegant 19th-century buildings. Wandering down this street and the equally narrow and atmospheric Travessa do Comércio, Rua Visconde de Itaboraí, and Rua Ouvidor allows you to get a sense of what Rio was like in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, these twisting streets are home to a vibrant collection of restaurants and bars where workers from the neighborhood congregate for a quick lunch or an after-work beer or caipirinha.

Igreja Nossa Senhora de Carmo da Antiga Sé

Igreja Nossa Senhora de Carmo da Antiga Sé

Across Rua 1 de Março from Praça XV is the Igreja Nossa Senhora de Carmo da Antiga Sé (Rua Sete de Setembro 14, tel. 21/2242-7766, 7 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free). Constructed in 1761, it served as Rio’s principal cathedral until 1980. Many of the city’s major religious commemorations—including Emperor Pedro I’s coronation and the baptisms and marriages of Emperor Pedro II—were celebrated here. Although the exterior retains little of its original facade, the interior is a rococo feast with altars richly decorated in silver and a splendid panel of Nossa Senhora do Carmo. Serious history buffs (and those with a penchant for kitsch) might want to check out the soundand- light show, in which a holographic priest recounts the church’s history (1:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri., noon and 1 p.m. Sat., 12:30 and 1 p.m. Sun., R$8). A small museum displays vestiges of the original 16th-century chapel along with a crypt containing selective remains of Brazil’s “discoverer,” Pedro Álvares Cabral (10 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$5).

Cultural Centers

Cultural Centers and the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Candelária

As you walk along Rua Visconde de Itaboraí, you’ll encounter several particularly impressive buildings. These former administrative palaces underwent inspired renovations in recent times and now operate as dynamic cultural centers. Most of the (usually very engaging) art exhibitions are free, as are many of the musical events. Built in 1922, the Espaço Cultural dos Correios (Rua Visconde de Itaboraí 20, tel. 21/2253-1580, noon–7 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) was formerly the headquarters of Rio’s postal service, and there is still a small post office should you have the urge to send a postcard. A great café overlooks the adjacent Praça dos Correios, where live musical performances frequently take place.

Dating from 1816, the Casa França-Brasil (Rua Visconde de Itaboraí 78, tel. 21/2332-5120, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) was Rio’s first neoclassical construction and originally served as the city’s main customs building. Aside from temporary art exhibits, there is a small bookstore and a charming French bistro.

The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB (Rua 1 de Março 66, tel. 21/3808-2020, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) is a splendid neoclassical building. Since the 1920s it has served as the headquarters for Banco do Brasil (which explains the convenient presence of ATMs in the foyer). Banco do Brasil is a major patron of the arts, and the CCBB’s magnificent interior welcomes most major national and international art exhibits as well as musical and theatrical performances that travel to and throughout Brazil. With a bookstore, café, and decidedly regal tea salon, it is also a favorite meeting point for Cariocas to browse, nibble, sip, and simply hang out.

Igreja Nossa Senhora da Candelária

Across Rua 1 de Março from the CCBB you can’t miss the monumental Igreja Nossa Senhora da Candelária (Praça Pio X, tel. 21/2233-2324, 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–noon Sat., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sun., free), located on the site of Rio’s first church. Begun in 1775, the present church took over 100 years to complete, which accounts for its eclectic mixture of baroque and Renaissance elements. The interior is filled with a splendid and multihued array of marble, along with decorative elements such as doors made from finely wrought bronze. Ceiling panels recount the legend of the original church’s construction by a shipwrecked captain whose life was miraculously saved.

Igreja do Mosteiro de São Bento Located north of Praça Mauá, the Igreja do Mosteiro de São Bento (Rua Dom Geraldo 68, tel. 21/2206-8100, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, guided visit R$5) is Rio’s most magnificent example of baroque architecture. Crowning the Morro de São Bento, this 17th-century monastery is devoted to Nossa Senhora de Montserrat. The austere facade masks a startlingly lavish interior featuring delicately carved naves and columns, altars embellished with flocks of expressive angels, and cherubs covered in gold dust. Instead of being blindingly ostentatious, the excessive gold has a warm and burnished hue, the result of soft lighting used to preserve the precious artwork (which include some exceptionally fine sculpted saints and painted panels). On Sunday morning you can take part in the 10 a.m. mass in which the Benedictine monks chant Gregorian hymns accompanied by the church organ. Make sure you arrive early if you want a seat. The oasis-like cloisters can only be viewed on special occasions such as Palm Sunday and Corpus Christi. At other times, the monks have the leafy courtyard all to themselves. Access to the monastery is via an elevator located at Rua Dom Geraldo 40.

Espaço Cultural da Marinha and the Ilha Fiscal

Espaço Cultural da Marinha and the Ilha Fiscal

Heading back toward Praça XV, along the waterfront is the Espaço Cultural da Marinha (Av. Alfred Agache, near Praça XV, tel. 21/2233-9165, noon–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free). Its collection of antique maps, navigating equipment, and buried treasure rescued from sunken ships in the Baía de Guanabara offers an engaging glimpse at Brazil’s maritime history. Kids, in particular, will have fun clambering about on the World War II–era torpedo destroyer and a cool 1970s submarine, both moored outside the main building.

From here, you can take a guided trip by boat or minibus across the bay to the Ilha Fiscal, the site of a neo-Gothic castle that housed a customs collection center. The extravagant construction resembles something out of a fairy tale: It was here that the last legendary royal ball of the Brazilian empire was held—one week before the declaration of Brazil as a republic. Boat trips depart at 1, 2:30, and 4 p.m. Thurs.–Sun. Sept.–Mar. and 12:30, 2, and 3:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sun. Apr.–Aug. Tours (R$10) last 1.5 hours.

Largo and Rua da Carioca

Largo and Rua da Carioca

The bustling area around Largo and Rua da Carioca is filled with a maze of interesting cobblestoned streets—some of them closed to vehicles; pockets here still capture the flavor of 19th- and early-20th-century Rio. Largo da Carioca itself is usually packed with outdoor vendors. From this square, you will immediately be impressed by the monumental hillside complex consisting of the Igreja de São Francisco da Penitência and the Convento de Santo Antônio.

Convento e Igreja de Santo Antônio

Built in the early 1600s to house Franciscan monks, the Convento de Santo Antônio (Largo da Carioca, tel. 21/2262-0129) is one of Rio’s oldest surviving buildings. Although most of the church was modified, you can admire some baroque works and a finely wrought sacristy panel of blue-and-white Portuguese azulejos (ceramic tiles) illustrating the life of Santo Antônio. Currently undergoing renovation, it can only be visited during mass. Many of the convent’s paintings, sculptures, and ceramic tiles work are original, but to see them you’ll have to make an appointment.

Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência

Far more impressive than the convento is the interior of the Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência (Largo da Carioca, tel. 21/2262-0197, 9 a.m.–noon and 1–4 p.m. Tues.–Fri., R$2), one of Rio’s most sumptuous baroque jewels. You’re sure to be blinded by the sheer amount of pure gold on display—400 kilograms (880 pounds), to be precise. While the church itself took 115 years to build (construction began in 1657), the last 30 years were almost exclusively dedicated to covering the beautifully sculpted cedar altars and naves in gold.

Real Gabinete Português de Leitura

Real Gabinete Português de Leitura

From the Largo da Carioca, walk down Rua da Carioca to Praça Tiradentes, and then take a right on Avenida Passos. At the intersection with Rua Luís de Camões, you’ll come upon the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (Rua Luís de Camões 30, tel. 21/2221-3138, www.realgabinete.com.br, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free). The unusual facade with its stylized sailors’ knots, seashells, and Moorish motifs is typical of Manueline style, which was popular in Portugal during the reign of Manuel I (1495–1521). Inside is one of the largest libraries of works in the Portuguese language. It’s worth taking a peek at the stunning reading room with its mile-high ceilings, jacaranda tables, and seemingly endless polished wood bookshelves reminiscent of a medieval library.

Cinelândia and the Theatro Municipal

Cinelândia

Walking south from Largo de Carioca along Rua Uruguaiana, your path will intersect with Avenida Rio Branco, one of Centro’s major thoroughfares. Early 20th-century photos reveal it to be a grand European-style avenue flanked with imposing neoclassical buildings and shaded by a canopy of trees. It was here that the city’s artists, intellectuals, and fashionable elite came to promenade. Originally called Avenida Central, it cut a swath of modernity through the labyrinth of crumbling mansions, flophouses, and brothels that had dominated the district since colonial times.

Although most of this traffic-laden avenue has been disfigured by ugly modern high-rises, the stretch that opens up onto the monumental Praça Floriano has retained many of its magnificent buildings, among them the Theatro Municipal, the Biblioteca Nacional, and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. It gives an impression of how grand Rio must have been in the early 20th century.

The area encompassing Praça Floriano is known as Cinelândia: In the 1930s, ambitious plans existed to turn this elegant plaza into a Carioca version of Broadway—only instead of theaters, movie palaces were built, including Rio’s first cinemas. Only one of these glamorous art deco palaces is still intact—the Cine Odeon Petrobras—while the rest were snatched up by churches, such as the Igreja Universal de Deus (Universal Kingdom of God). The many cafés scattered around Praça Floriano still draw an eclectic mixture of Cariocas who drop by during happy hour.

Theatro Municipal

If, when you first set eyes on the Theatro Municipal (Praça Floriano, tel. 21/2332-9134), you immediately think of Paris, it’s probably because this grand theater was modeled after Paris’s Opéra Garnier. Since 1909, Brazil’s premier theater has played host to some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and opera, dance, and theater companies. The recently restored interior is a feast of marble, bronze, and gold with ample glitter provided by gilded mirrors and crystal chandeliers. Onyx banisters line the grand marble staircase, and there are some wonderful mosaic frescoes and stained-glass windows. If you’re without the time or inclination to take in a performance, take a guided tour (R$10), offered hourly 1–5 p.m. weekdays.

Biblioteca Nacional and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes

Biblioteca Nacional

The largest library in Latin America, and the eighth largest in the world, Rio’s Biblioteca Nacional (Av. Rio Branco 219, tel. 21/2220-9484, 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat.) boasts some 13 million tomes—the first of which were brought to Brazil by Dom João VI in 1808. Completed in 1910, the building is an eclectic fusion of neoclassical and art nouveau styles. You don’t have to be a serious bibliophile to opt for a guided tour (R$2) of the grandiose interior; 40-minute tours begin at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. (in English), and 3 p.m. Monday–Friday.

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes

Adjacent to the Biblioteca is yet another imposing neoclassical temple—this one devoted to art. The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (Av. Rio Branco 199, tel. 21/2240-0068, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Fri., noon–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$5, free Sun.) housed Rio’s national school of fine arts before being converted into a somewhat somber museum. It has a modest collection of European works, but you should really focus your attention on the national collection, which provides an excellent overview of 19th- and 20th-century Brazilian painting. Displayed chronologically, highlights include early–mid-20th-century painters who, departing from European influences, experimented with new and distinctly Brazilian styles and subject matter. Among those represented are Anita Malfatti, Cândido Portinari, Lasar Segall, and Alfredo Volpi. An interesting gallery displays Brazilian folk art. The museum hosts traveling exhibitions as well.

Museu Histórico Nacional

Museu Histórico Nacional

A 10–15-minute walk east of Praça Floriano will bring you to the Museu Histórico Nacional (Praça Marechal Âncora, tel. 21/2550- 9224, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 2–6 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$6, free Sun.). This sprawling museum occupies three historic buildings: the 17th-century Forte de Santiago, an 18th-century arsenal, and an ammunitions depot. As such, there is ample space to showcase the 250,000 artifacts on display, ranging from carriages to canyons. Amid this vast collection are some truly precious objects, like the pen that Princesa Isabel used to sign the Abolition of Slavery in 1888. There are also marvelous glass vials and medicine bottles from the imperial pharmacy, Emperor Dom Pedro II’s throne (and a chess set owned by his father, Pedro I), and the largest coin collection in Latin America. The collection does a fine job of illustrating Brazil’s rich history, dating from the arrival of the first Europeans in 1500 to the declaration of the republic in 1889. If you’re looking for an introduction to Brazil’s past, a visit to this museum is highly recommended.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.


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