Rio baby! Probably one of the sexiest cities in South America, thanks to the devastating charm of its hilly bay, sandy beaches, and hip-shaking residents. At first, we didn’t think we’d feel comfortable in such a huge, reckless city. We imagined ourselves running around to see it all, before night falls and things get hairy. But thanks to the precious tips of our local host, we learnt about what to see, what to do, without spending too much, and keeping safe while at it. Here are all our best tips for backpacking in Rio de Janeiro on a budget, plus tips to stay safe.
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How much time backpacking in Rio?
Rio is a vibrant metropolis where one can easily spend weeks enjoying touristy and local stuff alike. It’s the type of city where you’ll want to dig beyond the surface and experience the everyday life too.
If you stick to our recommendations in this post, one week in Rio de Janeiro will be enough – albeit rather active. If you want to take the local pace or chill more at the beach, consider adding a few more days.
By the end of our week, we felt a bit like settling down for a while to discover more districts, more streets, more events… Beware, Rio tends to hook you and carry you in its dance.
Neighbourhoods: Where to go in Rio?
Santa Teresa and Lapa are trendy neighbourhoods with rundown houses, colourful decorations, cool cafes and bars. Although they’re very touristy, they reminded us a lot of Berlin and we loved hanging out here. In Santa Teresa, don’t miss the famous tiled stairs created by a Chilean artist, Jorge Selarón. Each tile has a unique artwork and its own story.
The Centro (downtown) is where we spent most of our time, because of its colonial buildings and museums. In fact, many of these buildings can be visited for free (either that or the guard might just let you in anyway). Start your visit from Cinelândia, the main square in downtown Rio.
Stick to those 3 districts if you only have 3 days in Rio de Janeiro. Otherwise, let’s add Flamengo and Botafogo to the list: local areas with small markets, cinemas and art galleries, but also lively parks and beaches.
Of course, there are many more districts in this huge city. But to avoid potentially seedy places and stay close to attractions, we recommend to stick to those areas.
Plan further: Our best tips and destinations for backpacking Brazil
Our favourite Rio Beaches
Most beaches in Rio don’t need an introduction. And contrary to most city beaches we know, the beach and the water here are surprisingly clean.
Copacabana and Ipanema beach attract many sun-worshipers among the upper-class Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio). The backdrop is provided by tall, multi-story luxury flats and hotels, making us feel like in a soap opera! You won’t feel lonely here, with the many charismatic beach sellers often staying around for a chat.
We often walked along the coast of Flamengo, where our host lived. It’s a very lively beach, with many people riding bikes and playing beach ball, and a promenade full of sellers: grilled cheese on sticks, sandwiches, burgers, sweetcorn, coconut water.
The quiet Botafogo is a beautiful setting for sunset-watching, with small boats anchored and the Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. Don’t stay too long after dark though, it can turn a bit seedy.
What to do in Rio de Janeiro on a budget
So many things, so little time, and a restricted budget to see it all. Below are our top suggestions to visit Rio de Janeiro on the cheap:
Visit essential museums
Surprisingly enough for such a touristy city, there are many beautiful XIXth-century buildings and exhibitions to visit for free. Many of these buildings were built when Rio was the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, no less.
The National Historical Museum and the National Art Museum (MNBA) are absolute must. The former explains the evolution of the country, from before the colonisation until the beginning of the Republic. The MNBA has an extensive collection of Brazilian art throughout history.
Moreover, they both educate the population about their indigenous roots in order to reduce ethnic discrimination. Both museums are located in Rio’s historic centre and free on Sundays.
Sneak preview: check out my favourite paintings from the MNBA, on DailyArt Mag.
Quickly peep the Metropolitan Cathedral
The city’s cathedral was built between 1964-1974 on the plans of Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca. It’s a pyramid-shaped building where the narrow, floor-to-ceiling stain glass windows hardly let any light in. Apart from them and the adjacent bell tower, there’s no other decoration, with a lot of empty space inside.
If the goal of the architect was to show the totalitarianism of religion and frighten the church-goers, it’s quite a success. Otherwise, this unique building, visible from anywhere in the historic centre, is worth a quick tour.
Climb Pão de Açúcar or Cristo Redentor
A half-a-day trip to the top of a mountain overlooking the ocean is an obvious choice for a good reason. The whole landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The view on the coastline and the surrounding peaks is stunning from both the Sugarloaf Mountain and the Corcovado, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer awaits, arms stretched out. Both places are great Rio de Janeiro attractions for wheelchair users.
There’s no entrance ticket but the bondinho, the cable car, is relatively pricey for foreigners though. And we don’t see the point of visiting both places during a short stay in Rio. So rather pick one and spend time enjoying the views from there.
The price to climb the Pão de Açúcar in 2022 is 150 Reais (about 30€ / USD), and 110 Reais (about 21€ / USD) for the Corcovado. It’s possible to buy the ticket online with credit card to avoid queuing; but make sure you download the actual tickets to your phone, not the receipt!
Our local host André took us to a forró night in a trendy place of downtown Rio. We didn’t know the dance before and weren’t sure how we’d fare, but we loved it!
Similarly to samba music, forró is a rather sensual Brazilian dance originating from the northern part of the country. There was a short class before the party to teach the basic steps, but the dance lends itself to improvisation. Stereotypically enough, we also had the best caipirinhas in our life.
The event started at 9 and ended late, so we had to take an Uber both ways. We left around 2am and, although it was a Wednesday night, there was still a large crowd of people ready to dance through the night.
Attend a free concert
We luckily stumbled upon a free concert in our neighbourhood on a Friday night. This lively city is actually full of free events that only require registration. So it’s worth checking them out a few days in advance.
As for us, we had problems registering to that gig because the booking system required a Brazilian ID number, not a passport number. But we walked up to the venue a day before and, although they didn’t issue tickets offline, the organizer put us on the guest list. On a guest list in Rio de Janeiro, how cool is that! We even got free T-shirt’s cut to customize, tote bags, badges and, more importantly, free beer.
Cycle along the beaches of Rio
We borrowed bikes from our host and followed the cycle path from Flamengo to Copacabana. The route was easy, there’s cycle lane all along and it’s great to be able to stop at beaches wherever you want. Especially the part between Flamengo and Botafogo is very nice with a long park alongside the coast.
There’s bike rental in many hostels and in most neighbourhoods, for a full day or half-a-day.
Join locals for a drink on Praça São Salvador
On our night stroll in Flamengo, we stumbled upon a group of young people drinking beer on a square. That very activity used to make up about 50% of our time in Berlin, so we didn’t hesitate to join. It’s not like street parties, more like a relaxed way to get to know a place better, from the inside.
Discover the Flamengo neighbourhood and its Sunday flea market
The inner area of Flamengo is often overlooked by travellers backpacking Rio, who prefer to hang out at the beach. It’s a shame, because it’s a safe, lively, cultural and multi-ethnic area that’s full of surprises. There’s a ton of nice buildings and graffities and people selling exotic fruits and playing music on the street.
Try a freshly-pressed juice at corner shops which are decorated with colourful fruits. Or explore the treats at one of the huge bakeries. The best day for your walk is Sunday, when the farmers’ + flea market sells cheap vegetables and colourful clothes. A winning combo in my book.
Fill up your lungs at Tijuca National Park
Did you know that there’s a national park right in the heart of Rio de Janeiro? The Parque Nacional da Tijuca is easily accessible by bus from any part of town. The world’s largest urban forest, it’s a green lung of Atlantic rainforest and some 30 waterfalls, set among impressive peaks. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the most visited national park in Brazil, offering many hiking trails for a lovely day out. Check out this guided hike to Tijuca peak on GetYourGuide.
In fact, Tijuca is in our list of the best National Parks in Brazil.
How to stay safe while backpacking in Rio?
We read many warnings about the question of safety in Rio. Although those shouldn’t be overlooked, I was more stressed about it before arriving than I should have been. If you stick to these basic rules, you should be fine:
- Don’t walk on the streets after dark (after 8pm). If you must go somewhere at night, take an Uber, or the Brazilian equivalent 99 – it’s inexpensive and reliable.
- Avoid further neighbourhoods even during the day. There’s probably no reason to go there anyway.
- Avoid empty streets.
- Don’t walk with your phone or camera out, or any other valuable.
- In crowded areas, keep your bag or backpack in front of you.
- Don’t take valuables to the beach, and have someone look out for your stuff while you are bathing.
It might seem limiting and somewhat stressful to always think about getting back home before sunset. But it’s a small habit that’s easy to take on. After that, get around only with taxis.
However, during the day, we’ve never felt unsafe and have taken many pictures with our camera. Luckily, the most interesting neighbourhoods are safe for travellers and count many reliable police officers.
What image do you have of Rio? What is the first thing you’ll do when you’re there?
Share it with us in the comments below!