By Jack Arnhold, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Often skipped by visitors in favor of the beach-side neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema or the nightlife hotspots of Lapa and Botafogo, Rio’s city center is the oldest and most culturally rich district of the city. So while the weather is relatively cool in the Cidade Maravilhosa, here are a few suggestions on how to spend a great morning exploring the city center.
While many cariocas opt for a simple ‘pão na chapa’ (toast and butter) and ‘cafezinho’ (small black coffee) for breakfast, there are some excellent options in the city center for a slightly more upmarket start to the day.
Dating back to 1860, Casa Cavé opens at 7AM and serves a wonderful complete ‘Café da manhã’ (breakfast). However, if you’re looking for something less elaborate, the toast and butter on its own is ample and delicious.
Nearby is the cavernous Confeitaria Colombo that opens at 9AM and has been serving cariocas and visitors with decadent cakes and patisseries since 1894. For something slightly more discreet, the Déguster Café is a great option, serving pastries and coffee from 8AM onwards.
The center of the city is populated by some magnificent churches, including the early-seventeenth century ‘Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência’ (Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis the Penitent) which is attached to the ‘Convento de Santo Antônio’ (Convent of Saint Anthony) hidden away above Carioca square.
The church now functions as part of the ‘Museu Sacro Franciscano’ (Sacred Franciscan Museum) and visiting the museum is a wonderful experience that only costs R$10.
Other churches worth visiting (for free) are the modernist marvel ‘Catedral Metropolitana’ (Metropolitan Cathedral) and the ‘Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária’ (Church of our Lady of Candelária) which is open until 4PM.
The center also has a wealth of museums and art galleries that are rich with history. For art lovers, the ‘Museu Nacional de Belas Artes’ (National Museum for the Fine Arts) is a must, displaying some of Brazil’s most culturally significant artworks, including the largest painting in South America.
The ‘Museu Histórico Nacional’ (National History Museum), housed within a historical fort dating back to 1603, contains many treasures from Imperial Brazil, as well as hosting temporary exhibitions such as the recent Nirvana exhibit.
For book-lovers there are the twin treasures of the ‘Fundação Biblioteca Nacional’ (National Library Foundation) and the ‘Real Gabinete Português de Leitura’ (Royal Portuguese Reading Room).
The Biblioteca Nacional is the largest library in Latin America, holding over 9 million items; while the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura is regularly chosen as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
“I recommend the tour at the National Library, available in both English and Spanish, which is very in-depth and really shows how much goes into preserving a nation’s bibliographic heritage.” comments Talita Soares, library science student.
After some cultural exploration, there are plenty of places to enjoy lunch in Rio’s city center. L’Atelier du Cuisiner is famous for its cosy size and authentic French bistro cooking. But be sure to book ahead, as this place is always in demand and only opens between 12-2PM.
Housed in a charming colonial-style townhouse, Hachiko has also recently been winning awards for its high-quality Japanese fusion, served in a ‘Rodizhio’ (table service) style. For something a little more homely, La Sagrada Familia has been run by the same family since 1992, serving up hearty Italian-inspired Brazilian cooking in this truly carioca establishment.
Traveling to and from the city center can be done safely and inexpensively either by metro or by taxi. While walking is possible between all of these sights, the VLT also offers another incredibly convenient way of getting around, connecting the city center with the major metro stations and even to Santos Dumont airport.