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Rio de Janeiro’s must-see architecture

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Last updated: 05 April, 2024

On first glance Rio’s architecture is uninspiring. But this is the nation’s former capital and the birthplace of starchitect Oscar Niemeyer – and there are some real gems hidden away in the sea of concrete towers – which is why Rio was the first city to be nominated a World City of Architecture by UNESCO in 2020.

The city centre has some of the finest baroque buildings in South America (including gold-glittering Sao Bento monastery and Sao Francisco church), and a new museum district with Santiago Calatrava’s spaceship-like Museu do Amanha at its centre. In Niteroi across the bay, Niemeyer’s stunning Contemporary Art Museum hovers over the water. A city centre walk and tram ride is the best way to take in the highlights, followed by a ferry hop across the water to Niteroi.

Recommendations

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  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

A museum dedicated to exploring the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead for our planet, and offering a unique perspective on the future of humanity. It features various themes like technology, sustainability, social progress, and scientific advancements.

It’s housed in Santiago Calatrava’s stunning modernist fantasy building, sitting over a reflection pool on the edge of Guanabara Bay.

Adult price: £7

Good for age: 8+

Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis

Experience

This 17th-century Portuguese church, Ordem Terceira de Sao Francisco, is the centrepiece of a complex of historic buildings on a hillside on central Rio, and has one of the most spectacular gilt, baroque interiors in the Americas.

Good for age: 18+

Confeitaria Colombo

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Large hall with yellow ceiling lights

Experience

Glittering with mirrors, and with gorgeous art deco galleries illuminated by a vast ceiling skylight, this traditional Portuguese coffee house in the city centre is the perfect coffee spot, and a must for lovers of architecture.

Good for age: 18+

Fiscal Island

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Fiscal Island

Experience

This neo-Gothic Verdigris-covered fantasy palace, built during the days of the Empire of Brazil, is Rio’s former customs house. It’s now a small naval museum that you can visit. Tours depart from the nearby Navy Cultural Centre.

Adult price: £15

Good for age: 18+

Gustavo Capanema Building

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Gustavo Capanema Building

Experience

Designed in the 1930s by Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, this was the first modernist building in the Americas, presaging a style that was echoed in Brasilia.

Good for age: 18+

Metropolitan Cathedral

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Pyramidal high-rise tower

Experience

Even if you’re not religious, this landmark cathedral is worth a stop to admire the building alone. A towering brutalist cone, its dark, cavernous interior is lit with long strips of iridescent modernist stained glass.

Good for age: 18+

Monastery of Saint Benedict

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Monastery interior with high vaulted ceilings

Experience

The modest facade of this 16th-century church, Mosteiro de Sao Bento, hides a lavishly decorated gilt baroque interior, which shimmers in the low light.

Good for age: 18+

Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Modern building rises above tree canopy

Experience

Brazilian star-modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer’s most famous Rio building sits sentinel over Guanabara Bay like a giant concrete flying saucer. Inside, the ‘MAC’ houses the main collection of Brazilian artist Joao Sattamin, plus works by other Brazilian artists like Aluisio Carvao, Dionisio Del Santo and Lygia Clark.

Good for age: 18+

Real Gabinete

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Spacious reading room and walls lined with books

Experience

With a vast reading room lined with galleries of shelves, this neo-Gothic meets art nouveau library looks like a film set from a Harry Potter movie.

Good for age: 18+

Sitio Burle Marx

  • Rio de Janeiro, Southeastern Region, Brazil

Sitio Burle Marx

Experience

A new World Heritage Site, Roberto Burle Marx’s former home sits in stunning gardens, designed by the landscape architect who worked on Brasilia.

Good for age: 18+

  • Rio de Janeiro , Southeastern Region, Brazil

Close up looking up of the Christ under blue sky up close

Bucket List Experience

Statue of Christ the Redeemer

Perched over Rio, on a high peak swathed with rainforest and illuminated in brilliant-white at night, this art deco beauty is a global icon every bit as good in real life as it looks in the pictures.

And the views of the city from the statue’s feet are as breathtaking as the Christ itself – the heart-shaped lagoon, Ipanema Beach and the distant bulk of the Sugar Loaf sitting over the shimmering bay.

There are many ways to see it – private car, taxi or organized tour – but the best way is probably via the funicular train, on a ride up through rainforest filled with floating butterflies, in the early morning when the light is golden. If budget allows, take a helicopter from Corcovado or Sugarloaf and go face-to-face with this spectacular statue, rather than staring up from its feet.

Good for age: 13+

Logistics

Price: Free
Minimum age: 0
Age suitable: 18+
When: All year around

Getting there & doing it

Rio’s best buildings can easily be seen by self-guided walking and taxi. Begin a full-day tour at the Utopia Aquario tram stop in the heart of the recently renovated docklands district, walking past the extraordinary building-high indigenous murals by Eduardo Kobra and continuing east to the complex of museums and renovated colonial buildings on Praca Maua square. The most spectacular of these is Santiago Calatrava’s bone-white, spaceship-like Museum of Tomorrow.

Take a five-minute cab ride from here to the glittering baroque Sao Bento monastery, continuing on to the spectacular Manueline Gothic Real Gabinete library. Stop for a drink at the gorgeous art nouveau Confeitaria Colombo cafe. It’s a five-minute walk from here along the Largo da Carioca to Sao Francisco da Penitencia – Rio’s most spectacular colonial church.

In the afternoon take a 30-minute cab ride to Oscar Niemeyer’s extraordinary MAC museum – perched over the ocean like a flying saucer, returning on the ferry – past the striking neo-Gothic customs house on the Ilha Fiscal island. Boats leave for this return journey from the Estacao das Barcas de Niteroi (a ten-minute cab ride from MAC).

Who to go with: organised tours

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Our selection of the best Viator tours of this attraction or activity

  • Rio de Janeiro

Uncover the early stories that marked the imperial past history of Brazil and shaped its future visiting the charming historic city of Petrópolis. Petrópolis is known as the imperial city, where Brazilian heritage is proudly preserved in the historical palaces, architecture, culture, food and historical displays. It was founded in 1843 by the Emperor Dom Pedro II. It preserves historical past and the most modern touristic infrastructure, the city today receives visitors that crowd the quaint streets, museums, gardens, shops, restaurants, and exhibits. Accompanied by a guide, learn about the curious history of the Brazilian royal family that ruled Brazil for 67 years, and why Brazil practically the entire 19th century was the only monarchy in a Latin America. With a rich ethnic mix assimilated to its culture, Petrópolis also stands out with a unique gastronomy that combines flavors and recipes for all tastes. From funky bars to fine restaurants, and yet many breweries.

Price $294

Min age 1

Rating 4.93 / 5 [29 ratings]

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