Rio de Janeiro from a Local: Districts, Sights, Tips and Restaurants - Part II

I am originally from Rio de Janeiro and while home visiting my family, I decided to become a tourist in my own city and go check out some of Rio’s distinct neighborhoods and tourist spots.

This is a following article to my Rio de Janeiro from a Local - Part I, as I ended up going to more places than I originally thought and gathered a lot of information about my hometown while exploring several of its lively Bairros (neighborhoods). 

Bairro: Barra da Tijuca

Barra, as we commonly say, has a special place in my heart since is the neighborhood in which I grew up and spent all my life while living in Rio.

It is a considered a newer area compared to the other districts I have written about - development in Barra started in the late 70’s – and you can see that change very well today as it resembles a lot like Miami.  

But do not let the “new-developed-area-thing” take you away: Barra is absolutely stunning due to its natural beauty, being hugged by mountains on one side and a 12km stretch of blue sea on the other.  Praia da Barra (Barra Beach) is where I spent many of my summers, sunbathing, cycling, eating and drinking coconut water from the several kiosks that dot along its shore.

If you enjoy big Malls, Barra is also the place to be! Not far from the beach is Barra Shopping Mall, considered one of the largest in Latin America and a wonderful place to just walk around, as it offers a plethora of shops and a wealth of dining options.

Tip: If you are not tired of malls after strolling in Barra Shopping, not far from it is a brand new high-end, contemporary mall called Village. It houses mostly top of the line brands and expensive restaurants and you can get to it with a free bus shuttle from Barra Shopping.

Bairros: Catete – Centro (Downtown)

On the other end of the spectrum from Barra, the districts of Catete and Centro are in the heart of town and where Rio actually started.  Portuguese navigators anchored in the nearby Guanabara Bay in January 1502 and mistakenly named the region “Rio de Janeiro” (January River) – The bay is actually an oceanic inlet and not the beginning of a river as they believed it at the time.

There is a lot to do between these two districts and you could spend several days here, especially if you want to visit the nearby historical Santa Teresa Neighborhood. Here are a few spots I visited while exploring downtown and Catete:

Museu da República - Palácio do Catete: A beautifully restored 19th century palace, surrounded by green gardens in the middle of a grayish area of the city. The palace, now a museum, is famous for being the home to former President Getúlio Vargas and where he committed suicide in the 1950’s.

Praça Mauá: Located in downtown, facing the vast Guanabara Bay, this large plaza has been completely revitalized for the Rio 2016 Olympics. The lively area now features several food options and stunning new museums such as the Museu do Amanhã and the Museu de Arte do Rio.

Mosteiro de São Bento: Built in the 17th century atop of Morro de São Bento, the simple monastery from the outside hides a striking baroque interior decorated in gold. It is located just next to Praça Mauá.

Paço Imperial, Praça XV and Travessa do Comércio: Paço Imperial is a former 18th century Portuguese Royal Palace and now remodeled into an excellent museum in the heart of Centro. It is surrounded by Praça XV, a large square where Brazil declared itself a Republic on November 15, 1822. Just next to it is the cobblestone street Travessa do Comércio, housing several lively restaurants and drinking spots.

Museu Nacional de Belas Artes: This National Fine Arts Museum is one of the country’s principal institutions, focusing mainly on Brazilian paintings and sculptures with over 20,000 artifacts.  

Biblioteca Nacional: Located right next to the Fine Arts Museum, this immense neoclassical library is home to over 9 million volumes and several rare books. It is worth to make a quick visit to see its impressive archive rooms, reading rooms and its map collection.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária: Its opening times are irregular, so if it is open – go in! Once the largest church of Imperial Brazil, Candelária is still the most celebrated church in Rio with a massive interior covered in marble of various colors alongside strikingly detailed paintings.

Rua da Alfândega: Also known as Saara, this very busy, popular shopping area in Centro incorporates several blocks of pedestrian-only shops overflowing with discounted merchandise. The entire area is essentially uninhabited on weekends, so go during the week!

Tip: Like Saara, Centro is not the best place to visit during the weekend as the area becomes empty without its usual day-to-day workers. Since Rio has many of their tourist attractions, especially museums, closed on Mondays, it is best to explore Centro from Tuesday through Friday.

Special Mention – Must Go Tourist Spot

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) is by far one of the major tourist sites in Rio as well as the whole of Brazil. The 38 meter tall statue sits atop of the 700 meter-high Corcovado Mountain and has been listed as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

The best way to reach it is by taking a 20 minute tram up to the summit and after a few flight of stairs, you will see the statue surrounded by 360 degree views of Rio de Janeiro.


The Wrap-Up: As a local, I always tell anyone who wants to go to my hometown to do their research before they set-off: When they want to go? (It gets really hot in the summer!), trip costs (conversion rates favors foreigners but hotels can be quite pricey), security (what are the safest areas and taking care of belongings) and food (most is fine, but some can be upsetting for an untrained digestive system!). Nevertheless, this former Brazilian capital offers a fascinating history, alongside a diverse architecture, culture and lifestyle. Rio’s privileged location offers spectacular natural landscapes that still wonders me every time I go back home.

The Best Way to Get Around: You will walk a lot in Rio - everyone does - but using taxis are the best way to get from one place to the other. Public transportation is abundant in the city, but if you want to really defeat the crazy traffic and make good timing, cabbies are the way to go. 

The Part I: I accumulated a lot of handy information while being a tourist at home, so I decided to write two posts about the trip: Go to my Rio de Janeiro from a Local - Part I for more tips, sights, restaurants and different neighborhoods to explore!

The Restaurants in Centro (Downtown):

Bar Luiz: Opened in 1887 and a jewel of Rio, specializing in German food. Must haves: Bolo de Carne (Brazilian meatball made with shredded beef) alongside their iconic potato salad. Other options are their well-known Kassler (smoked ham chop) as well as their iconic sweet, cerveja preta (black beer)

Confeitaria Colombo: Located along the busy, pedestrian street Rua Gonçalves Dias. This historical patisserie was founded in the late 1800's and it is a major spot for locals seeking a traditional flair and for tourists who seek to revel at its beautiful interior.

The Restaurants in Barra:

Chocolates Kopenhagen: It is a specialty chocolate shop inside Barra Shopping offering some of the best chocolates you will find in Rio. Try their espresso as well!

Fiammetta: Large Italian restaurant located in Rio Design Shopping Center. Try their Brazilian traditional Calabresa Sausage pizza or their Crapese pizza. Top it off with some great Brazilian beer - Bohemia - the first beer in Brazil!

Beco do Alemão: A delicious buffet restaurant serving traditional Brazilian dishes. I grew up coming here with my family… try to avoid weekends because the place gets packed!!

Cervantes Bar e Restaurante: Located in Via Parque Mall, they brand themselves with the motto, “The king of sandwiches and cold meats”. However, I would recommend ordering their Milanese beef - It is utterly delicious and you will need to share it with someone since it is huge!

- Want to see the full trip and plan your next? Check out our Brazil Two Week Itinerary!