Visiting rio was my dream since I studied portuguese language at university. I only knew the basics about the city that probably most of the travelers do: Rio is dangerous! Copacabana is the beach of rio where sexy guys and girls hang out. It’s a huge city with lot of dancing and parties. And while I managed to experience all this (maybe except the sexy people), this magical city gave much more. In this guide you’ll learn about the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro on a budget.
Disclaimer: I had the feeling stated in the post title as soon as we stepped out to the street on the day we arrived, after a few hours of sleep, and this feeling never left me.
How much time to spend in Rio?
Rio is surely a vibrant metropolis where one can easily spend weeks enjoying touristy and local stuff alike. We spent here 1 week (the place where we remained the longest so far) and still felt that there’s so much more to see and do. By the end of our stay we felt like having settled a bit (thanks to our super couchsurfing host, André who let into his home for longer than originally requested). And as stingy travelers, it was important to find the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro while on a budget.
Where to go in Rio?
Rio consists of many neighborhoods but there are only a few that worths a visit. The best areas are Santa Teresa, Lapa, Centro and the beaches: Copacabana, Botafogo, Leblon, Ipanema and Flamengo. To avoid potentially seedy areas and be close to attractions, I recommend to stay at one of these areas.
Santa Teresa and Lapa are hipster neighborhoods with rundown houses, colourful decoration, cool cafes and bars. I loved hanging out here, it reminded me of my chosen home, Berlin. In Santa Teresa we stumbled upon a beautiful tiled stairs created by a Chilean artist, Jorge Selarón. All the tiles have a unique story of making and they are all different, artworks themselves.
The Centro (downtown) is where we spent most of our time, because it boasts of colonial buildings and museums. In fact, many of these buildings are visitable for free – or the guard will just let you in anyway. Start your quest of visiting buildings from Cinelandia, the main square of Rio.
Beaches: the unmissable things to do in Rio de Janeiro on a budget
The beaches are great in Rio, especially considering that they are city beaches, not hidden little gems among the rocks. On our first day we walked along the coast where our host lived in Flamengo, and even though we didn’t wear a swimming suit, we felt like top models! (Well, I did!) There were many people playing beach ball with tanned (but not perfectly shaped) body, the promenade was full of sellers of beach food: grill cheese on sticks, sandwiches, burgers, sweetcorn and so on. On a nice day like that people on the surrounding streets are out in bikini and shorts – something we don’t usually see in other cities! We decided to go back to the beach the next day in bikini.
Copacabana and Ipanema are big beaches with many sun-worshipers and beach sellers but as opposed to my expectations, the beach and the water were clean. The backdrop to that is provided by tall, multi-story luxury flats and hotels, so I had the feeling that I’ve become a protagonist in a soap opera! One won’t feel lonely here – not only because of the mirriad sun-seekers, but also because beach sellers often stay with you chatting.
The quieter Botafogo is a beautiful setting for sunset-watching with Pão de Açúcar in the background. Don’t stay too long after dark though, it can turn a bit seedy.
Attractions: what things to do in Rio de Janeiro on a budget
There are many interesting and pretty buildings and exhibitions to visit in Rio for free. We could have spent easily another week there only with the free stuff. Many of these buildings were built in colonial style, when Rio was enlarged in order to fit to the idea of a metropolis where the king resided. We saw the the National History Museum (free on Sundays) and the National Art Museum (MNBA – free on Sundays). Both were super interesting, the MNBA has an extensive collection on Brazilian art which I found fascinating (check out my favourite paintings from this museum). These museums seem to be taking their fair share of educating the population about their indigenous roots in line with official efforts to reduce ethnic discrimination.
Another interesting building was the Metropolitan Cathedral, that was built between 1964-1974 by the plans of Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca. It’s a pyramid-shaped building where the narrow, top to bottom stain glass windows hardly let any light in, and apart from them there’s no other decoration. There’s a lot of unused space inside. The goal of this architectural style is to show the totalitarianism of religion and frighten the church goers – at least that’s how I deciphered it.
Visiting Pão de Açúcar and Christo Redentor on the top of the mountain are obvious choices and for a good reason. The view is beautiful on the beaches and the peaks, it’s totally worths taking the Bondinho (the cable car of Pão de Açúcar)! It’s possible to buy the ticket online with credit card to avoid queuing, but make sure to download the actual tickets to your phone, not the receipt!
The best things to do in Rio de Janeiro on a budget
Rio is so big and so modern, that apart from traditional sightseeing there’s a mountain of things that one can and should do. Below are our top 5 suggestions for the best (almost free) things to do in Rio de Janeiro while on a budget:
Go out to dance forró
One of our rare real night outs during this trip was a forró dancing night where Andre took us. It was really awesome! Forró is a Brazilian dance originating from the northern part of the country. There was a short dancing class in the beginning of the night so we learnt the basics. We danced a lot with Anthony, sometimes mixing some swing elements in as well and had a super fun time! I think this was one of the first times (if not the first) when we danced together anything different than swing and we figured that we feel good on the dancefloor even with a new dance! This event started at 9 and ended late, and we took an Uber both ways. In fact, we left around 2am and I was surprised that there was still a big crowd of dancers on the dancefloor ready to dance through the night. It was a Wednesday night… I suppose some people did have to go to work the next day.
Attend a free concert
We luckily stumbled upon a free concert in our neighborhood for the Friday night. It was pretty hard to register for it because the widely used online booking system required the Brazilian ID number to fill in. Not possible to substitute it with passport number. So we walked in to the venue a day before but they didn’t issue tickets offline. Finally I talked with the organizer and he put us on the guest list. On the guest list in Rio! Cool! Well, the next day upon arrival it turned out the guest list was not filled with our names but luckily the organizer was there and recognized us. We got free T-shirt’s cut to customize, shopping bags, badges and free beer and nuts! It was quite a hipster event.
Cycle along the beaches of Rio
We borrowed bikes from our host and got on a bike ride from Flamengo to Copacabana. The route was easy, there’s cycle lane all along and it’s much nicer to be able to stop at beaches wherever you want. Especially the part between Flamengo and Botafogo is very nice with a little park alongside.
Join a group of young people drinking on Praça São Salvador
We were quite surprised that when we ventured out in Flamengo after dark, we found a group of intellectual-looking young people drinking beer on the street – like we commonly do it in Europe. We didn’t need much convincing to join. We noticed that only 1 black person was there, the rest were white. I was thinking, this event was like it could have been in Europe, and that young white people have almost the same life as us. (Except taking Uber all the time.) Black people are rarely present at events like this (or the free concert) – as we learnt from a favela project volunteer in this group. They don’t have the same chances and possibilities as white people. If they want a bus line to come into the favelas, or to happen some canalization or other local authority work, they have to apply for it separately. Because it’s not standard. Favelas are left out of urban planning. Sad that this is happening…
Have a walk in Flamengo district on Sunday and drop by at the flea market
The inner area of Flamengo neighborhood is often overlooked by travelers, who hang out only on the beach. In fact, it’s really nice to spend an afternoon there, walking around. There are so many graffitis and people selling exotic fruits on the street that we’ve never seen before. Try a freshly pressed juice at corner shops which are decorated with colourful fruits. The best day to choose for the walk is Sunday, when there’s a farmers’ + flea market = cheapest vegetables + a chance to buy colourful clothes.
How to stay safe in Rio?
We read many warnings about the question of safety in Rio. I have to admit, I was more stressed about it before arriving than I should have been. If you keep these basic rules, you should be fine.
- Avoid walking on the streets after dark and in some neighbors during the day as well.
- Don’t stay on the street at night, after 8pm
- If you have to go somewhere, take an Uber – it’s inexpensive and reliable. (Also, some Uber drivers will share their stories of how they recorded a music album and now are on the verge of being famous, or share their political view – all this happened to us and I found it very interesting!) A great opportunity to practice your Portuguese!
- Don’t walk with your phone or camera in your hands
- At crowded areas keep your bag or backpack in front of you
- Don’t take valuables with you to the beach, and have someone look out for your stuff while you are in the water
I found it quite limiting and somewhat stressing that we have to get back home shortly after sunset or otherwise we can take an Uber. However, during the day in fact, I’ve never felt unsafe and have taken many pictures with my camera. (In the travel guide books it’s strongly advised not to show valuables and if possible, don’t carry them with you on the streets.) Luckily the best neighborhoods are the areas which are safe for travelers to walk and often one can see police officers.
What image do you have of Rio? What is the first thing you would do if you went there? Share with us in the comments!
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