Rio for free

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

It’s hard not to fall for Rio de Janeiro, with its gorgeous beaches, rainforest-covered mountains and samba-fuelled nightlife. While it’s easy to blow the budget here (beachfront hotels, high-end restaurants, expensive tours), the Rio experience doesn’t have to be costly; some of the best activities in the city are free.


Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB)
Housed in a beautifully restored 1906 building, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil hosts some of Rio’s best exhibitions – all of which are free. You’re set for a good time roaming the galleries, which often have multimedia exhibits, or attending evening concerts and film screenings. If you come on weekdays there’s rarely a crowd.; Primeiro de Março 66, Centro; 9am-9pm Wed-Mon; free.

Escadaria Selarón
One of Rio’s best-loved attractions is the magnificent tiled staircase connecting Lapa with Santa Teresa. Created by the Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, these wildly decorated stairs (215 in all), have become a symbol of Lapa’s creative and bohemian spirit. They were Selarón’s gift to the Brazilian people and contain tiles from all over the globe. A sign in English and Portuguese explains his vision. Off Joaquim Silva, Lapa; 24hr; free.

Mosteiro de São Bento
In the northern reaches of downtown you’ll find one of the finest colonial churches in Brazil. Built between 1617 and 1641 on the hilltop perch of Morro de São Bento, the monastery has a magnificent baroque interior, with beautiful sculptures and striking side chapels adding to the majesty. For the full experience, come for mass (weekdays 7.30am) when the monks sing Gregorian chants. Rua Dom Gerardo 68, Centro; 7am-5.30pm; free.

Paço Imperial
This former palace (1743) once housed the royal family of Portugal, who set up shop here after fleeing Napoleon and sailing to their New World colony in the early 1800s. The building has been turned into galleries hosting free exhibitions. Vestiges of the past remain, including the huge adjoining plaza where Princesa Isabel announced the liberation of slaves in 1888. Praça XV (Quinze) de Novembro 48; noon-6pm Tue-Sun; free.



Bip Bip
For years, Bip Bip has been one of the top spots in which to catch a roda de samba (informal samba played around a table). Although the place is just a storefront and some tables, it becomes the backdrop to serious jam sessions as the evening progresses, with music and revellers spilling into the street. There’s no cover charge, but do tip the musicians. Almirante Gonçalves 50, Copacabana; from 8pm Sun-Fri; free.

The epicentre of Rio’s live music scene is the neighbourhood of Lapa, a former red-light district lined with open-air bars and old-fashioned samba clubs. On weekends, a wildly festive air prevails, and the plaza by the Lapa Arches becomes an open-air dance party. Vendors sell cocktails from makeshift drink carts and there’s live music. Later, stroll down Ave Mem de Sá, Lapa’s liveliest strip. Largo da Lapa; Sat + Sun, free.

Pedra do Sal
The Monday- and Friday-night street parties are extremely popular with lovers of samba. The lively samba da mesa features a pool of changing players who deliver well-known songs to joyful crowds surrounding the tiny plaza. The atmospheric but run-down venue is rich in history – samba in fact was born in the Bahian community that once flourished here. Largo João da Baiana, Gamboa; 8pm-midnight Mon & Fri; free.

Vaca Atolada
For an authentic samba experience, head to this simple, brightly lit, tile-covered eating and drinking den. You’ll find a samba de roda and a local crowd who gather around, join in the songs and dance (when space allows). This is old-school Lapa, friendly, ungentrified and lively. Arrive early to score a table, and be prepared to move; these rhythms were made for dancing! Rua Gomes Freire 533, Centro; 8pm-2am Tue-Sat; free.



Ipanema Beach
One of the best places to spend a sun-drenched day is out on Ipanema Beach. You can frolic in the waves, go surfing, take long walks or simply sit back and engage in the discreet art of people-watching. You also needn’t leave the sands when hunger strikes. Barracas (beach stalls) sell everything from sandwiches to caipirinhas, and wandering vendors bring by cold drinks and snacks. Off Av Vieira Souto, Ipanema; 24hr; free.

Morro da Urca
Rio’s lush hillsides have fabulous views, but getting to them generally means ponying up for a pricey funicular ride. If you’re willing to hoof it, however, you can hike your way up to some jaw-dropping lookouts. One of the best is the Morro da Urca. It’s a steep climb through forest along a well-marked trail, and you might spy monkeys en route. Access off Claudio Coutinho trail in Urca; 24hr; free.

Beachside paths
Take a seaside stroll along Copacabana or Ipanema Beach and it is easy to see why Rio is called the cidade maravilhosa (marvellous city). To take it all in, head out on foot or bike along the pavement that skirts the beach. Sunday is one of the best times to do this; the beach road closes to traffic, and cyclists, joggers, walkers and in-line skaters rule the street. Copacabana & Ipanema beaches; 24hr; free.

Parque Lage
You can still find pockets of Atlantic rainforest in Rio de Janeiro if you know where to look. A fine setting for a taste of the tropics is Parque Lage. This lush park has lovely forested walking trails, a koi pond, caves and a mini castle where kids enjoy clambering about. And you can sometimes spot marmosets and parrots in the trees.; Rua Jardim Botânico 414; 9am-7pm; free.


Bibi Sucos
The lively juice bar is a Rio institution, and most of them serve delicious concoctions from morning till late. Bibi Sucos, one of the best snack spots in Rio, serves dozens of flavours, including juices made from Amazonian fruits and berries. A favourite is açaí juice, a vitamin-packed berry that’s blended up so thick you’ll need a spoon to eat it.; Ave Ataúlfo de Paiva, Leblon; 8am-1am; açaí R$6-15.

Coconut water
Drink of the gods, água de coco (coconut water) is wildly popular in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the perfect refreshment for the tropical heat and is served from the husk – plus it’s a bargain at R$5. Best of all, you don’t even have to leave the sand to find it; beachside kiosks all along Ipanema and Copacabana serve it. As a bonus, coconut water is loaded with potassium and rich in electrolytes – all of which is excellent for hangovers…

Hippie fair
On Sundays, this is the best place to be in Ipanema. Although there’s plenty of souvenir-shopping to be had, we suggest you come for the food. At the corners of the plaza you’ll find delicious Bahian street snacks, such as acarajé (a black-eyed-pea fritter topped with shrimp and spices), which costs a mere R$12. And at that generous price, you can definitely afford dessert. Praça General Osório, Ipanema; 9am-6pm Sun; admission free.



Although hotels are expensive during Carnaval, there are many ways to join in the fun without spending a lot of cash. In the weeks leading up to the big event, Blocos and Bandas, aka roving street parties, happen all across town (see p290). There are also free concerts, and parties at the samba schools that host the big parade.; locations and times vary, two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday; free.

Feira Rio Antigo
If you’re around on the first Saturday of the month, don’t miss this fair – there’s live music, food and drink vendors and countless stalls selling crafts, clothing and antiques. It all goes down on one of Lapa’s oldest streets, Rua do Lavradio, which is lined with picturesque buildings. You’ll be assured a great time, though it’s best to go early to beat the crowds. Rua do Lavradio, Lapa; 10am-6pm 1st Sat of month; admission free.

Give frosty Times Square or rainy London a miss and head to the tropics to ring in the New Year. Rio de Janeiro throws a truly incredible bash, with some two-million people taking to Copacabana Beach to watch fireworks light up the night sky. Revellers traditionally wear all-white for the big night, and some even take a plunge in the ocean, an activity that is said to bring good luck for the year ahead).; Copacabana Beach; free.


For an in-depth look at Rio’s history, join one of the outfits offering free walking tours downtown. The aptly named Free Walker Tours (free takes visitors to Travessa do Comércio, Praça XV, Cinelândia, the Arcos da Lapa and Escadaria Selarón (p284), among other places, on insightful three-hour strolls. Although it’s free, the guide asks for tips at the end. Most people give about R$25. The same outfit also leads good-value pub crawls in Ipanema and Lapa (each R$55, including drinks and admission to several clubs) as well as a free Copacabana walking tour.

First thing, stroll or jog along Copacabana Beach, then stop to refuel on água de coco at a beachside kiosk. Afterwards, head to downtown and grab a sandwich at Café Gaúcho (Rua São Jose 86; 7am-7pm Mon-Fri, 7am-1pm Sat) before continuing on to the exhibitions in Paço Imperial (p286) and at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (p284). In the afternoon, come back to Ipanema and watch the sunset from Arpoador. That evening, grab your dancing shoes and head up to Lapa (p286). Buy a drink from a sidewalk vendor, then stroll along Ave Mem de Sá.

Reproduced with permission from The Best Things in Life Are Free, © 2016 Lonely Planet
For more amazing experiences that don’t cost the earth, visit

Words: Lonely Planet
Pictures: Kaye Holland

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,