On day three of my visit to Rio de Janerio, I delved into the history and culture of the city's downtown area, and I was blown away by what I experienced. Whether you're a history buff, an art lover, or just someone who loves to explore new places, the Central Rio area has something for everyone.
Inside the Money Museum in Rio de Janerio
My guide for the day picked me up from my hotel in Leblon, and we headed straight to the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. This cultural center, housed in a stunning art deco building, was once a key part of the financial district. Its great hall is a true masterpiece of design and architecture. As I wandered through the building, I was struck the current in-house. It explored themes of light, motion and swarming movements – a feast for the eyes and the mind.
The upper rotunda of the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil
Our next stop was the Central Bank Main Building where we visited the captivating Money Museum. From ancient times to the modern day, the museum takes you on a journey through the evolution of currency. It offers insights into the power, politics and artistry that have shaped our financial systems over the centuries. I found it fascinating to learn about the history of money and how societies formed their relationship to currency and the systems that propelled its use.
Leaving the museum, we found our way down a couple of streets, into a building and up some stairs, that took us to a small square leading to the Monastery of St. Benedict. This church is a true gem of Portuguese colonial architecture. Gold leaf covers the inside of the church, providing a beautiful and serene setting.
Inside the Monastery of St. Benedict
If you’re a science and technology enthusiast, then the Museum of Tomorrow is a fantastic attraction that you cannot miss. The futuristic building, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, opened in 2015 and has been wowing visitors ever since. Once inside, you’ll embark on a thrilling journey through five main areas: Cosmos, Earth, Anthropocene, Tomorrow, and Us. Each zone is packed with interactive displays and cutting-edge exhibits that will blow your mind and challenge your perceptions of the world around us. It’sa great place to have fun and learn at the same time!
The Museum of Tomorrow
To truly appreciate the rich history and distinctive architecture of downtown Rio de Janeiro, there’s no better place to start than the legendary Confeitaria Colombo. This iconic coffeehouse has been a mainstay of the area for over a century and is widely considered one of the 10 most beautiful cafés in the world. Built in 1894 by Portuguese immigrants, the Confeitaria Colombo reflects the grandeur and elegance of the great European cafes of the time.
As you step inside, you’ll be greeted by a space that’s filled with ornate trim, stained glass, crystal mirrors, and magnificent skylight that floods the room with light. Throughout its history, the Confeitaria Colombo has played host to some of the most brilliant minds and influential figures of the day, from writers and artists to heads of state from Brazil, Belgium, and England. Today, it’s still a beloved meeting place for locals and visitors alike, offering a chance to savor delicious coffee and pastries while basking in the timeless beauty of this unforgettable landmark. I treated myself to a cappuccino and tasty cheese and ham toast while taking in the scenery.
The second floor of the Confeitaria Colombo
The cappuccino at the Confeitaria Colombo
If you’re a book lover or a bibliophile, then the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading is an absolute must-visit. There is only one word to describe what Time magazine called, the fourth most beautiful library in the world --- WOW! Boasting the largest collection of Portuguese literature outside Portugal, the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading is a bibliophile’s dream come true. With more than 350,000 titles, the collection includes rare original manuscripts, singular works of literature, and unique proofs.
The building dates back to 1880 and is a masterpiece of design and craftsmanship. As you step inside, you’ll be transported to another world, where the towering bookcases, soaring ceiling, and intricate carvings combine to create a magical atmosphere. It’s like stepping into a scene from a Harry Potter movie, and you can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and awe as you explore this unforgettable space.
The Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading
One of the biggest tourist stops in the Central area is the Selaron Steps, a colorful and vibrant work of art by Jorge Selaron created as a tribute to the city and its people. Featuring over 2,000 tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world, the Selaron Steps are a true testament to the power of art and creativity. As you climb the 215 steps, you’ll be surrounded by a barrage of colors and patterns, each tile telling its own story and contributing to the overall tapestry of the piece.
The Steps are more than just a work of art – they’re part of an organic public art display, where locals and tourists alike come to interact with the tiles, with each other and with the space. Music plays in the background, and people run up and down the steps, admiring the tiles and searching for that perfect photo opportunity. I myself found a tile from Florida, and it was just one of the many fascinating and unexpected discoveries I made during my visit.
The Selaron Steps
After experiencing the vibrant energy ofthe Selaron Steps, we continued our journey through the streets of the Santa Teresa neighborhood, a charming and eclectic area known for its artistic community. While walking through Santa Teresa, you’ll discover unique shops and restaurants, each with its own character and charm. One of my favorite stops was the Parque das Ruínas (Ruins Park), a public park and an art gallery built around the ruins of a mansion. The integration of old and new is striking, with modern design features and architecture nestled amidst the brick of the past. The Parque das Ruinas is also a popular venue for live concerts and photo shoots, and the panoramic views of Rio de Janeiro from the park are simply breathtaking.
The Parque das Ruínas
View of Rio de Janeiro from the Parque das Ruínas
Finally, no visit to downtown Rio de Janeiro is complete without visiting the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian. This magnificent cathedral is devoted to the city’s patron saint and boasts an unsual pyramid-inspired design influenced by Mayan architecture. The highlight of the cathedral is its four enormous rectilinear stained glass windows, which soar 210 ft from floor to ceiling, creating a truly mesmerizing spectacle.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian
In conclusion, Rio de Janeiro's downtown area is filled with rich history and culture that is just waiting to be explored. Whether you're interested in architecture, art, science, or literature, there's something for everyone. I guarantee that you'll be inspired and entertained by this hidden gem in the heart of Rio.
My tour of the Central area of Rio de Janeiro was organized and conducted by Sabrina Gama (@riowithsabrina on Instagram).