By Leo Byrne, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Rio’s ‘Centro’ district is an often overlooked destination for travelers, facing strong competition from the better known Zona Sul (South Zone) views and beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema. It is easy to forget that this neighborhood in the middle of Rio is the city’s oldest and contains many of Rio’s cultural and historical highlights.
An interesting mix of skyscrapers, museums and palaces, Rio’s Centro is currently undergoing numerous revitalization projects that are helping it shed its reputation of being slightly run-down, and in parts, dangerous at night.
For a beachless day-time adventure, a good place to start exploring Centro is the Cinelândia metro station, as it is fast and inexpensive to get there. Upon exiting the station a number of impressive buildings will be immediately apparent.
Situated around the square are the stately looking Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) and the Theatro Municipal, both of which are worth a visit and have guided tours.
Leaving the square by the road adjacent to the theater will soon lead you to the Avenida República do Chile.
Those in the mood for some unusual architecture would do well to turn left and see the blocky Petrobras headquarters and the funnel shaped Catedral Metropolitana opposite. The Cathedral was designed by Edgar Fonceca and has a vast interior space that’s lined by three enormous stained glass windows.
A small backtrack and left turn onto the Largo da Carioca street will shortly take you to the Saara (Sahara) marketplace. This sprawling network of stalls and shops which began in the 18th century is now a great place to pick up anything from cheap electronics to carnival clothes.
The market gives way onto a large road called Avenida Presidente Vargas which runs through the heart of Rio’s central business district. Turning right and walking one block will lead to one of Rio’s most beautiful churches; The Igreja da Candelária. The softly lit and ornately decorated building has the story of how it came to be built painted on the ceiling of the main nave.
Opposite the church are the Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil (CCBB) and the Centro Cultural dos Correios, both of which house art exhibitions and are free to enter.
The latter marks the beginning of the Travessa do Comércio, an alleyway lined with first rate examples of colonial architecture and one of the oldest streets in Rio.
Located near the end of the Travessa is the popular Coccinelle Bistrô, which will provide the perfect place for a lunch break after a morning’s worth of exploration. Customers can choose from a menu that offers a blend of French dishes and Asian cuisine.
“Made with all homemade ingredients, the cheeseburger is special because of the homemade bread, organic vegetables, the sauce is also fresh and homemade,” owner and French expatriate, Yves de Roquemaurel, told The Rio Times. “And of course focus on organic ingredients from the region and organic wines from France,” he continued.
Within sight of the Bistrô is the Arco do Teles that opens onto the Praça XV, also known as Praça Quinze de Novembro. The large square houses the impressive Imperial Palace and the adjacent Palácio Tiradentes.
The latter is currently the home of the Rio de Janeiro Legislative Assembly. Both buildings are free to enter, with the Palácio Tiradentes housing a cultural center and exhibits concerning Rio´s history. These offer a perfect afternoon stroll before catching a taxi or bus back to wherever you are staying for a rest before the evening starts.
Although the area is improving, a little care should be taken around Centro after 7PM, at which time the shops close and the district quickly empties.