A Walking Tour of Centro Rio de Janeiro

Our walking tour began in Largo da Carioca, a public square in the historic center of Rio. There was once a lagoon in this spot and the Portuguese colonists built their houses nearby. The local natives, the Tupi called them “kara’i oka” meaning “white man’s house”. The Portuguese hearing this word so often spoken applied it to the natives themselves. Therefore, to this day, if you are from Rio de Janeiro, you are a Carioca.

From Largo da Carioca we walked to Confeitaria Colombo a popular confectionery and restaurant that has had some famous patrons throughout its history, most notably Queen Elizabeth. Opened in 1894, Confeitaria Colombo is a magnificent example of art nouveau design and decoration with gorgeous stained glass, ironwork, and enormous mirrors. Have a relaxing lunch, come for the elegant high tea, or do what we did and just grab a decadent dessert to go.

We continued our walk to Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral). It stands out from the surrounding architecture like a throwback to the time of the Incas, a pyramid rising to the heavens. The cathedral, designed by Edgar Fonseca in 1976, is constructed of concrete. Some say that Fonesca was a fan of NASA’s Apollo Project and the conical shape of the building was inspired by the Apollo capsule. Beautiful is not a word I would use to describe the building. Close up, the blocks are crude and industrial looking (very 1970’s). However, once you step inside and you witness the light through glowing stained glass you forget about the drab concrete. Four stained glass panels, marking the cardinal points, reach floor to ceiling. Impressively, the cathedral can accommodate 5000 people seated and 20,000 standing.

Our next stop Bairro da Lapa, was once home to unsavory criminals and prostitutes before it became a magnet for artists, writers, and musicians, the typical bohemian types. Old factories have been transformed into bars and nightclubs. On the weekends the crowds pack into the clubs and spill out onto the square near the aqueduct to enjoy music and cheap drinks. Some will party until dawn. The 42 white-arches of the Cairoca Aqueduct, commonly known as Arcos da Lapa, began bringing water into the city center in 1750. When the aqueduct was abandoned, the city converted it into a viaduct for the bonde tram. Tragically there was an accident in 2011 that shut down the tramline. But, while we were walking around snapping pictures, we noticed workmen at the top of the arches. The line plans to reopen later this year.

We continued our tour, walking towards Escadaria Selarón (Selarón Steps), one of Rio’s most vibrant attractions. Chilean born artist, Jorge Selarón lived and worked in Lapa. The story goes that he was fed up with looking at the ugly cement steps that connected Lapa to Santa Teresa and decided to take action. As his main color scheme, Selarón chose the colors of the Brazilian flag – yellow, green, and blue. He began covering the steps with recycled tiles but eventually ran out of money for materials. In a beautiful example of outreach, friends and fans from around the world started sending him tiles. Selarón ended up with so many tiles that he covered the walls on the sides of the stairs as well. Sadly, Selarón was found burned to death on his beloved stairs. He had been suffering from depression, therefore suicide is suspected; but he had also been receiving death threats, so foul play is a possibility.

We did a quick pass through Cinelandia Square. We’ll have to come back when we have more time to explore the Biblioteca Nacional (the National Library), Museu de Belas Artes (the Fine Art Museum), and the Teatro Municipal (the Opera House). We were getting the lay of the land. Just two weeks into our four-year posting in Rio and our list of places to see and things to do grows longer each day.

We walked on past the Palácio Tiradentes and Igreja de São José. The palace housed the Brazilian Congress when Rio was the capital. We reached Praca XV de Novembro and found the square filled with antiques, vendors, and shoppers. We were pleased to discover this is a weekly occurrence. The Paço Imperial (Imperial Palace) stands on one side of the square. Paço means mansion and the large residence was originally built for the colonial governors. It became imperial when Portugal’s King John VI decided to make it his official residence in 1808. The palace’s exterior is beautiful in a simple, charming, non-ostentatious way.

By this time we had all worked up quite an appetite, so we headed through the archway of Arco de Teles to Travessa do Comércio. We weaved through the sidewalk tables and chairs of the restaurants serving mostly traditional Brazilian fare and sat down at Lampadosa. There we enjoyed feijoada with rice and Guarana. Delicious!

Orticanoodles painting of Gilberto Gil
Orticanoodles painting of Gilberto Gil

Gilberto Gil is a famous Brazilian singer, songwriter, guitarist. Listen! What a voice!

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