People don’t often talk about the beauty and value of Rio de Janeiro’s historical heritage. Mention Rio, and images of idyllic beaches, beautiful people, and relaxing in the sun probably come up. But the city has another side to see, thanks to its historical legacy. See this extraordinary beauty up close by taking a walking tour of Rio’s historical downtown.
A private Rio walking tour is the best way to get to know the city that until a few decades ago was the cultural, economic, and political capital of Brazil (from 1764 to 1960), and that of the Portuguese Empire from 1822-1889. It is important to highlight the restoration of the tangible and intangible heritage of the port area and historic city centre, started by the city government in 2009 through a programme called Porto Maravilha. This programme has given this historic area a new breath of life, helping attract hundreds of tourists who come to discover another face to the Marvellous City, making them fall in love with Rio.
Cinelândia: architecture, art and glamour to start
Our Historical Downtown Rio Walking Tour started in Ipanema (in the South Zone) with a short Metro ride to Cinelândia station. Emerging out of the subway, one has the feeling of having arrived in a totally different Rio de Janeiro to the Zona Sul: workers rush around in suits and formal office wear, making the beach seem thousand of kilometres away.
The charm in this first attraction of the tour is in the details. This part of town is called Cinelândia and is framed by Plaza Marechal Floriano Peixoto. It got its name during the 20s when the city’s most important cinemas and theatres were clustered here. The Cine Odeon is still standing here, recently remodelled, along with some other important architectural masterpieces of the city: Câmara Municipal, the National Library, the National Museum of Fine Arts, Federal Justice Cultural Centre, and of course the beautiful Municipal Theatre.
After stopping at this important landmark in Rio, the walking tour of downtown Rio continues down the street Araujo Porto Alegre. There is plenty to distract you, as life springs from every corner, with eclectic architecture where the city’s colonial past meets the botecos, barzinhos, per kilo restaurants and street vendors that are part of the modern culture of the Marvellous City.
Praça XV: The imposing Tiradentes Palace, Paço Imperial and other Carioca beauties
The next big attraction you’ll see on the walking tour is Tiradentes Palace. We’ll leave its history a mystery for when you visit because it’s as interesting as its architecture, which dates back to 1926. It’s worth pausing here for a moment to take photos of the façade, tiled floors, Roman columns, and modernist sculptures. The rich detail of this building begs a closer look to appreciate all the intricate features.
Right next to this Palace is the Paço Imperial. A beautiful colonial-style house converted into a cultural centre, this building was once home to the Portuguese monarchy in the eighteenth century. Both buildings are located around Praça XV – Plaza Fifteen of November. This square functioned as the main entry point into the city until the twentieth century. You can find many other buildings of historical interest around here, including the Stock Exchange and the Arco do Teles – a colourful and picturesque passage that links the square to Rua do Ouvidor.
Discovering Rua do Ouvidor, religious architecture and Confeitaria Colombo
Rua do Ouvidor is one of the great curiosities to be found in Rio de Janeiro. Its minimalism and colonial simplicity are in surprising contrast to the impressive architectural monuments of Praça XV. To get here, you walk through Arco de Teles and Travessa do Mercado, and enter the narrow cobbled streets where you’ll find colourful bars and restaurants, aged houses and a church full of old religious legends.
This is the church of Nossa Senhora da Lapa dos Mercadores, a beautiful colonial building built in 1747, which, according to legend, had a statue of the Virgin of Nossa Senhora da Lapa until it was hit by a cannonball during a battle, hurling it to the ground where it miraculously survived, breaking no more than a finger. As proof, today you can see the cannonball and missing finger in the sacristy of the virgin!
After learning about this religious history, we continued on to a more commercial and contemporary part of Rua do Ouvidor. We made a beeline for the famous Confeitaria Colombia. This bakery is famous not only for its delicious pastries, but because of its 100 years of history, keeping alive the Carioca Belle Epoque, with its marble walls, Belgian mirrors and many items from its history which adorn the café, suspending it in time.
After recharging our energy with a delicious coffee and a snack, we were ready to continue our journey with our charismatic guide, eager to discover more about the history of this fascinating city.
Largo do Carioca, Lapa Arches and the Selarón Steps to end with art and passion
Largo do Carioca is a large square where the Carioca Metro Station is. This busy square is an important part of the city and provides an interesting snapshot of ordinary life in Rio. From here you can see the monastery of San Antonio, – located on a hill bearing the same name – the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio with its interesting design, and the Arcos de Lapa.
We decided to continue from here to Arcos de Lapa, also known as the Carioca Aqueduct, built in 1750 to supply water to the city. From there, we continued just a bit further to the famous Escadaria Selarón (the Selarón Steps), work of the late Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. Starting in 1990, he decorated the stairs piece by piece with tiles from all over the world.
After taking our pictures on the famous steps, we made our way back toward Cinelândia station where we started this tour. On our way, we spontaneously made a stop at the first public park in Rio de Janeiro, Passeio Público, built in 1783 by renowned artist of the Brazilian colonial period, Mr. Valentim da Fonseca e Silva.
Technical details of the Historical Downtown Rio Walking Tour
- The private tour was 3.5 hours long;
- We recommend you bring water, sunscreen and comfortable shoes;
- This is a private tour so the route can be adapted to your interests. It is not comparable with the free walking tours, as this is a professional service run by a specialised tour guide;
- Downtown Rio is surrounded by many old churches, which is great for lovers of architecture and religious history. We specifically asked the guide to skip over the La Candelaria Church and the Metropolitan Cathedral as these were visited during the Rio Full Day City Tour. Instead, we spent more time at the Selarón Steps and Passeio Público;
- Downtown Rio is an area with a lot of activity during the weekdays, which doesn’t impact the tour. On the contrary, for safety reasons and to get a sense of the city, this is the best time to take this tour, as the downtown area is very quiet on weekends;
- The guide will drop you off at the entrance to the metro station to take the subway back to Zona Sul, or will accompany to your doorstep if you request.
By: Nohelia Sanchez / Adapted by: Nicole Eberhard