Rio’s Historic Downtown

If you can tear yourself away from the beautiful beaches and incredible landscapes of Rio’s coastline you’ll find a treasure trove of sites in Rio’s historic downtown. With a long history as capital of both Portugal and Brazil, there is no shortage of heritage sites to visit.

In November, 1807 the Portuguese Royal Court relocated from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro to escape Napoleon’s invasion. Even though Brazil’s colonial capital had been moved from Salvador to Rio 45 years earlier, it was still a backwoods town without roads, a sewage system or many common conveniences of the time. Since it was to become the capital of Portugal, changes had to be made. The result was a modernized city filled with public libraries, botanical gardens, public squares and opulent government buildings. Rio continued as Brazil’s capital after it achieved independence from Portugal and the construction of wonderful buildings continued. It wasn’t until 1960 that the capital was moved to Brasilia.

Today, Rio’s downtown is a mix of heritage buildings from the Portuguese Royals, its time as capital of an independent Brazil and more modern structures. Some have been lovingly restored, while others are in need of TLC.

Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (Royal Portuguese Reading Room) 

One of our favourite places in Rio’s historic downtown is the Royal Portuguese Reading Room. Portuguese immigrants who immigrated to Rio when it became Portugal’s capital felt it necessary to promote culture to Brazil’s citizens. The initial reading room no longer exists, but the current one is well worth a visit. It was built in the late 1800s and houses more than 350,000 volumes of Portuguese literature.

Not only is it important historically, it is also one of the most incredible libraries we’ve seen. As soon as you enter this one-room library you will be mesmerized. In fact it is rated as the 4th most beautiful library in the world. Three stories of wooden shelves run from floor to ceiling on each wall and are filled with neatly organized books. There are so many details in the wood, tiles and stained glass ceiling that it’s almost overwhelming to the senses. Incredibly, admission is free.

A block away from the Reading Room is the small São Francisco Square. The colonial Church of São Francisco de Paula is pretty from the outside, but overwhelmingly golden on the inside.

Cinelândia Square

Buildings representing Rio’s history as the capital of Brazil surround the small Cinelândia Square. It is formally called, Praça Floriano Peixoto, but most locals don’t know it by that name. The small square is home to a library, theatre and palace among others.

Biblioteca Nacional (National Library)

An earthquake in Portugal in 1755 resulted in extensive damage to their National Library and a new home was needed to house it contents. As a result, a National Library was built in Rio. As the library’s catalogue grew over the centuries, a new building was needed. The city council wanted one that matched the status of a capital city.  Built in 1905, the National Library has a grand entrance that makes you want to see inside.

Most of the library is off limits to tourists but we were allowed to explore sections of the first 2 floors. From the main entrance an elegant staircase leads to an open walkway on the first floor. We were only allowed to poke our heads into some of the wings, but each one we saw was beautifully decorated with rod-iron railings, columns and large stained glass sunroofs.

Teatro Municipal (Rio Municipal Theatre)

Kitty corner to the library is the Municipal Theatre. Built in the early 1900s, the theatre was built to emulate the Paris Opera House. It does command your attention with tall white pillars surrounding the exterior and topped by two turquoise domed roofs. It’s a lovely building, but we still prefer the pink theatre in Manaus. It’s open for tours Tuesday to Saturdays.

Another notable building on Cinelândia Square is Palácio Pedro Ernesto which was used to house Brazil’s parliament, but is now used by Rio city council.

Catedral Metropolitana do Rio (Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio)

Not far from the historic centre is an excellent example of modern architecture. Architect Edgar Fonseca was apparently inspired by Mayans which is quite clear when you see the conical shaped Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio. Inside the sanctuary, the tall cement walls contain hundreds of small windows. The only colour provided is from the thin stained glass windows that run from floor to ceiling. Maybe it’s from a lack of architectural sophistication, but the 1960s building was not Maggie’s cup of tea. Richard though seemed to enjoy the aesthetics of the futuristic building.

Aqueduto da Carioca,  Carioca Aqueduct

Built in the mid 18th century to bring fresh water from the nearby Carioca River on Santa Theresa Hill, the aqueduct is located just below the cathedral. Cariocas is also the nickname for people from Rio. The top of the aqueduct now has tracks for local trams and the surrounding park seemed to be inhabited by street people. Free lunch was being handed out when we were there, so no one paid attention to us.

Escadaria Selarón  (Selarón Steps)

Santa Theresa Hill can be seen from the aqueduct. Today, there aren’t a lot of historical buildings left in this district, but it is home to a favourite Instagram spot. Decorated in the colours of Brazil’s flag, blue, green and yellow, the tiled staircase is the work of artist Jorge Selarón. Unfortunately these cute stairs have become a spectacle filled with tourists lined up to take selfies.

Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens)

Not far from Ipanema Beach, the Botanical Gardens were established by the royal family in 1808. Originally the space was used to cultivate plants like nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon that the royals brought from the West Indies. A few years later though it was opened to the public.

Located inside Tijuca Forest and under Corcovado Mountain, the 144 hectare gardens are filled with 6,000 different species of tropical and subtropical trees and plants. This number includes 900 varieties of palms. Who knew there were so many different types of palm trees! One of the most picturesque spots is a sidewalk fringed by 134 palm trees up to 40m tall and leads to Fountain of Muses. To put it in perspective here’s a picture of Maggie standing under one of the trees on Avenue of Royal Palms.

Walking through the gardens it was amazing to see the wide variety of trees and plants. Many were familiar but a lot were plants we’d never seen or head of before.

As if to tease us, we had a clear, although cloudy, view of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado from the Botanical Gardens.

To read about our other adventures in Brazil click here.

Coming Next – Beautiful Beaches in Buzios

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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