As Rio de Janeiro  revs up to play host to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, the city has gone gangbusters. New constructions, renovations, and revitalizations are taking place not to mention the much-talked-about bringing of peace to many of the city’s favelas where special police pacification units have dislodged drug dealers and brought about a degree of security to the city’s lofty morros that has transformed them into hot spots (in the fashion, not criminal, sense).
Rio has always been a Cidade Maravilhosa, but these days, Cariocas’ newfound sense of pride and potential in their city is palpable. Rio is once again an “it” city – unfortunately, with prices to match. It’s official; there’s no longer an “off-season” in Rio. Count on beach hotels being both full and overpriced and upscale restaurants taking a large bite out of your food budget. And yet, for those open to alternativas, you can still enjoy Rio to the hilt without going into debt.
Here’s how to meet the Budget Challenge and enjoy 8 Days in Rio de Janeiro for under US$1,200 (excluding air fare):
Part I of this post offers an itinerary that covers the first 4 days within the city of Rio itself, while Part II will cover the remaining 4 days, spent in Paraty , an alluring colonial town surrounded by beaches and mountains, located in the southern extreme of Rio de Janeiro state.
The easiest way to bust your budget in Rio is by forking out reais for a beachfront room with a view. Those who opt for beachfront hotels with non-beach views can often receive significant discounts. If you’re willing to stay a block or two back from the beach, things get even cheaper.
In coveted Ipanema and Leblon, it’s hard to find digs in between the extremes of hostel and luxury. However, Ipanema Beach House , a combination hostel-guesthouse located in a charming old art deco house with a garden and pool, boasts some small and simple, but cheery double rooms that attract professionals along with backpackers. The new Leblon Spot Design Hostel , is also a good choice. Aside from classic bunk bed dorms, Rio’s first ever “design hostel” features five low-key, but originally decorated suites. While not dirt cheap, you can save by making meals in the kitchen (although CT Boucherie, a newly opened charcuterie/bistro owned by top chef, Claude Troisgros is located on the ground floor).
If you’re willing to swap the beach for a slice of Carioca authenticity, you can find great deals in the lovely, residential neighborhoods of Flamengo, Botafogo, Laranjeiras, and Santa Teresa. Charming and completely untouristy Laranjeiras is home to the Ananab Guesthouse , a home-away-from home that occupies a turn-of-the-20th-century hilltop house. In the lofty, bucolic, and quietly hip hood of Santa Teresa, there is no shortage of charming guesthouses lodged in renovated mansions. A good choice is Castelinho 38 , which occupies a delightfully Hollywood-esque castle, complete with turrets and towers and a jungly garden.
Accommodations for two at the above addresses will cost you around R$200 a night. If you spend 4 nights in Rio, you’ll be able to keep your accommodations costs at under R$800 (or US$450).
Most flights from North America arrive in Rio’s Tom Jobim International Airport (aka Galeão) early in the morning, allowing you to take advantage of the entirety of your first day. Instead of hopping a taxi, jump aboard one of the comfy executive buses operated by Real (R$9) which depart at 30-minute intervals and cut through Centro before continuing along the oceanfront avenidas of Flamengo, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon, stopping at hotels along the way (where you can easily get a cab to your final destination).
Once you’ve checked in to your accommodations, pamper your jet lag by taking to Ipanema beach to acclimatize yourself and get used to your surroundings (mountains, beaches,and bikinied and sunga-ed Cariocas in relaxation mode). Refresh yourself with an água de coco, ice cold cerveja (beer) and/or caipirinha sold right on the beach along with some of some light-as-air Globo biscoitos, made of manioc starch and hawked by passing vendors.
Take time out for a lunch break at a healthy neighborhood per kilo joint such as Delírio Tropical , in Ipanema, which will cost around R$20, and then do some boutique browsing along Avenida Visconde de Pirajá, stopping for a gourmet cafezinho at Armazém do Café  (with four Ipanema locations).
In the late afternoon, wander down to Praia do Arpoador and join the throngs watching the sunset. Then head to a botequim (neighborhood style local bar) for happy hour drinks and petiscos (appetizers) such as bolinhos de bacalhau (crunchy codfish balls) or caldo de feijão (velvety black bean soup); if ordered in succession, these can easily serve as dinner. Count on spending R$20-40, depending on your hunger and thirst.
Appealing and unpretentious is Bracarense , in adjacent Leblon, whose bolinhos de aipim com camarão (crisp balls of deep-fried pureed manioc filled with shrimp and creamy Catupiry cheese) are justly famous.
Spend a leisurely morning catching up from your night flight, lolling around a pool, or on the beach. If you’re not already in Laranjeiras, head there and drop in for lunch at the unassuming neighborhood Bar do Serafim for hearty home-cooked fare such as bacalhau and rabada (oxtail stew) with watercress (R$20-30).
From here you can easily walk through the leafy bairro of Cosme Velho, stopping at the picturesque Largo do Boticário before catching the train up to Corcovado  (R$36) for a view of the city sparkling in late afternoon light.
Back down to Earth, for an unpretentious, low-key night out, hop a bus to nearby Urca and install yourself at Bar Urca , an informal 1930’s boteco located in the shadow of Pão de Açucar where you can nibble pastéis and grilled sardines (the second-floor dining room serves main dishes) while staring out at the bewitching sea views (estimate R$20-40 for food and drinks). If you’re in a restless mood, hop in a cab and head to Casa da Matriz , in nearby Botafogo. Located in a sprawling old house, this funky club/lounge/gallery hosts some of the most happening parties in town (cover: R$15-30), courtesy of an eclectic roster of DJs and a styling, alternative (and fairly youngish) crowd.
Head to Centro to visit a museum or two (although there are dozens) as well as historic landmarks such as Cinelândia, the Theatro Municipal , the Biblioteca Nacional , the Paço Imperial (the former imperial palace) and a wealth of baroque churches, among them the jaw-droppingly, gold festooned Igreja da Ordem da Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência, entrance to most of which are free. Also free are the cluster of cultural centers lodged in monumental historic buildings, which host intriguing exhibits of Brazilian art along with pocket shows and concerts. Clustered together amidst a labyrinth of winding old streets, the Espaço Cultural dos Correios , Casa França-Brasil  and the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil  are three of the most interesting.
Many museums and cultural centers have wonderful cafés, but an absolutely essential coffee pit stop is the lavish belle époque Confeitaria Colombo , which gives an impression of how grand life much have been if you were an aristocrat in turn-of-the-20th-century Rio.
For lunch, head to Villarino , the stylishly retro delicatessen/whisky bar where Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Morais first laid eyes upon each other (it subsequently became their clubhouse). No nonsense daily lunch specials hover around R$15. Another good budget alternative is Sírio e Libanês , a Middle Eastern eatery located in the art of Rio souk-like Saara district where lunch with cost R$20-30. Great fun for treasure seekers, this neighborhood of pedestrian-only cobblestoned streets is full of little shops selling everything from discount clothes to Carnaval paraphernalia.
From Centro, take the bonde (trolley) up to idyllic Santa Teresa. Wander the labyrinthine streets, check out the private art collection housed at the delightful Museu Chácara do Céu  (R$2), and then stop for a drink at Bar do Mineiro , a classic neighborhood haunt where you can sample cachaças from Minas Gerais and nibble on sun-dried beef and pumpkin pastéis. If happy hour stretches into dinner time, sample the much touted feijoada. Depending on your thirst and appetite, count on spending R$15-40. For a more upscale, but still affordable and more romantic dinner alternative, head to nearby Espírito Santa , a renovated house with sweeping city views where you can dine on dishes featuring ingredients such as taperabá and cupuaçu from the chef’s home state of Amazonas. Estimate spending around R$60.
For those with energy to spare, the bars and clubs of Lapa are just a quick downhill cab ride away. Both Carioca da Gema , and Clube dos Democráticos , are classic spots to get your samba groove on. Cover charges hover around R$20-30.
Start the morning off with a long, leisurely walk down the entire crescent-shaped length of Copacabana beach, from Leme to the Forte da Copacabana. Feel free to stop along the way at a beach kiosk for an água de coco or a peek inside the legendary Copacabana Palace Hotel .
You can’t come to Rio and not have at least one insanely healthy meal at a bar de suco (juice bar). Although they’re a dime a dozen in the Zona Sul, die hard juice-a-holics swear by BB Lanches  and Bibi Sucos , both located in body-conscious Leblon. Choose from fresh-squeezed juices and pulps from throughout the land and then compose your own healthy (not to mention gargantuan) sandwiches featuring ingredients such as smoked turkey breast and creamy Mineiro cheese. Expect to pay well under R$15.
After lunch, it’s only a quick bus ride (or leisurely walk) through Gávea to the Jardim Botânico  (R$5). Created by eco-emperor Dom João I, who planted the park’s signature double row of imperial palms, this 340-acre oasis mingles native Atlantic forest, lagoons festooned with giant lily pads, and over 8,000 plant species. Adjacent to the Jardim Botânico is the Parque Lage, whose winding paths snake through the lush tropical landscape that covers the slopes of Corcovado. The palatial mansion built by wealthy industrialist Henrique Lage houses an Alhambra-esque courtyard with a café where you can enjoy coffee and cakes on tatami mats surrounding a blue pool.
If you want to splurge on big gastronomic meal in Rio, you’re within spitting distance of Roberta Sudbrack , the eponymous restaurant owned by the woman considered by many to be the most innovative contemporary chef in Brazil. Sudbrack builds her daily menus around fresh Brazilian ingredients. Prices range according to the number of courses, but are definitely lofty. Expect to spend at least R$200. If you don’t want to break your budget, fortunately, you’re also only a few minutes away from another Carioca institution: Braseiro da Gávea . Located across from Gávea’s race track, this always lively boteco is beloved for its charcoal-grilled chicken served with fries, icy cold beer, and lively atmosphere; on weekend in particular, it’s an after-hours hot spot for Zona Sul’s young blood. You can get away with spending R$20-40.