Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 10, 2013

Centro Rio de Janeiro

After leaving the tropical Bahia region of Brazil, our next destination was a common one for foreign tourists: the illustrious city of Rio de Janeiro.

centro view

A view of Centro, from our first hostel in Santa Teresa.


Rio will be the subject of lots of international attention in the coming years. The city will feature prominently in the 2014 World Cup. In 2016, more importantly, the city will host the Olympics. The million dollar question: is it ready?


If the question hinged on the city’s downtown, the answer would firmly be “no”. Downtown Rio suffers from problems that would make any blighted American downtown grateful. Like Cidade Baixa in Salvador, downtown empties at night and becomes a no-go zone. Hotels are sparse. Vibrant, crowded districts quickly give way to deserted blocks (where daylight muggings are entirely possible)–wandering around is discouraged, as is visiting the district on weekends.

(We’ll cover the other, more hopeful parts of the city in future posts.)

But, despite its grit, Centro remains an important part of the city, and hosts many of the city’s signature attractions and much of its business activity.


A typical shopping street in centro, with no shortage of beautiful colonial Portuguese (and 19th-century Brazilian) architecture. Rio was briefly the capital of Portugal, and remains the only city outside of Europe to ever be capital of a European country.


Centro is the city’s financial and office district. Large portions of it are occupied by glass and concrete office towers.


I’d hate to see one of these air conditioners fall!


The headquarters of Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil company.

centro market

Caroline and I explore a small market downtown. A mix of tourist trinkets and discount goods.

centro maps

Now this is my kind of vendor!


The legendary Carnival festival is held in Centro. They even have a stadium for the event, with the parade route passing through the middle. For the rest of the year, the site plays host to the handful of events that require a long, thin stadium (such as the ever-important motorcycle drag races)…


…and peddles Carnival-related kitsch.


The Metropolitan Cathedral, like that of Managua, is a spectacular modern church.





Rio’s impressive Teatro Municipal.



In keeping with my well-documented love of trains in all forms, we took the metro downtown. Never have I seen a less organized, more confusing system. Even the Cariocas (residents of Rio) kept asking metro workers how the thing works. Trains would arrive from different directions on different platforms, seemingly without pattern–and it’s not like the system’s layout is particularly complicated. The bus system is far easier and more convenient, I’m sorry to say.


We spent some time wandering around Rio’s open-air markets.


Hectic crowds jammed into old, colonial lanes make this a fascinating place to wander…

market coffee

…for a while. This cafe was an oasis amid the madness.


A more salubrious option for colonial ambiance is the Travesso do Comercio.


The narrow lane is teeming with European-style cafes, and makes all the nearby hustle and bustle feel miles away.


Just a few blocks away, Avenida Presidente Vargas is exactly the opposite. An imposing street if there ever were one!


In the median of Vargas is the Igreja da Candelária, looking completely out of place among the skyscrapers.



The church is among Brazil’s most impressive, but seemed mostly deserted of tourists and locals alike.



On the southside of downtown is a real crowd-pleaser of an attraction: the Lapa Steps.


The stairway includes tiles from all over the world.


Visitors wander the steps in search of tiles from home.


Found it!


Someone put a lot of effort into this mosaic of Africa–they even made a little hole in South Africa for Lesotho!


  1. […] to the Terminal Norte bus station. Metros in developing world megacities can range from awesome to mediocre (to really terrible, but thankfully I’ve never experienced one of those), and Mexico […]

  2. […] has largely recovered from the blight of thirty years ago (when I imagine it resembled modern-day downtown Rio), but it’s still often criticized for not living up to its potential. As big-city historic […]

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