By Hakan Almerfors, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Centro is the oldest neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, dominated by commerce and offices, though not so long ago it was the country’s political epicentre. From 1763 until 1960 Rio was the capital of Brazil, and Centro would throng with politicians deciding its future. Unlike any other Rio neighbourhood, it is well worth a visit and there is a huge variety of things to see and do. The following is a suggested itinerary for a day in Centro, but always bring a good map of the area.
Start out at Praça XV which is the historical center of Rio. The square is dominated by Paço Imperial (The Royal Palace) which is free to enter. Of interest as well is the small alley Rua do Comércio, this narrow passage used to be the home of Hollywood icon Carmen Miranda. Today it is full of restaurants and is a popular after-work hangout. From here walk along Rua Primeiro de Março until you get to the CCBB (Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil).
When you enter the CCBB check to see if they have any interesting events or exhibitions happening (invariably excellent art and cinema), but if not just enjoy the beautiful interior. From here walk over the street to the 17th century church Candelária. Richly decorated, the interior is spectacular, adorned with beautiful angel statues.
To visit the oldest church in Rio, continue along Rua Primeiro de Março, and at the end turn left entering Rua Dom Gerardo. About 200 meters ahead is a small street climbing the hill to your right, enter and walk up the road until the end and you will arrive at the 16th century benedictine monastery São Bento. The actual monastery is closed but the church is open for visits everyday 8AM-11AM and 2:30PM-6PM. On the UN’s World Heritage List of protected buildings, the interior is intricately detailed and the elaborate gold plating gives it a deep glow.
Leaving the monastery turn right at Rua Dom Gerardo and then left at Avenida Rio Branco – take a right on Avenida Presidente Vargas and when you get to Rua Uruguaiana turn left. You are now in the shopping district Saara (Sahara), named for the resident merchant’s organization started by Lebanese immigrants. On the square you have a flea market, and on the three adjoining streets hundreds of small shops where you’ll find pretty much anything – jewellery, fishing rods, alarm clocks, paint, clothes and so on. All is reasonable cheap but of lower quality, with fake trainers a specialty.
There are plenty of options for lunch around, but it’s recommended to splurge a little bit and go to Confeitaria Colombo. Opened in 1894 this café was the preferred hangout for artists and politicians. The Art Noveau interior is intact and it feels like a journey back in time. Upstairs they have a truly grand restaurant with some really good lunch options and it is located on Rua Goncalves Dias 32 not far from the flea market.
Walk back to Rua Uruguaiana and turn left, and soon you are at Largo da Carioca. Walk past the square until you reach Avenida República do Chile, take a right and you will shortly arrive at the volcano-like Catedral Metropolitana. Step inside and marvel as the stained glass gives a feeling of great space and awe. After this back track until you reach Avenida Treze de Maio, and follow that until you hit the last stop of the tour – Cinelândia.
You will be surrounded by some impressive buildings – The Biblioteca Nacional has beautiful interior and a collection of rare volumes of international renown. Guided tours are available at 11AM and 3PM, call 2220-9484 to book. The Teatro Municipial with its lavish design is closed for renovations until the middle of May, after that you can book a visit by calling 2262-3935. Located here is also the Odeon cinema, the oldest in Rio with lots of cultural events and independent films.
Going back from here is easy since Cinelândia has its own Metro. Click here to get a Google Map version of the tour.
A word of caution, when shops and offices are closed it can be a dangerous place – that is weekdays after 7PM, Saturdays after 3PM and all Sundays and holidays. The risk of getting robbed is higher since there are no police or shop securities around at these times.
Hakan Almerfors is Swedish and has been living in Rio de Janeiro since 2003. He has been working with tourists ever since, in 2007 he created the Rio travel information site Gringo-Rio.com