Live in the Marvelous City

 Rain, rain and more rain. You thought Rio was all sunny skies, sizzling beaches and drinking coconuts in the summer heat? Us too. Well, we learned about rainy season the last time we were here, but March was all blue skies last year so we had not exactly made space in our plans for the downpour of rain that we experienced for this entire week. So what do you do in Rio when the sun refuses to come out?

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Niteroi, the part of Rio de Janeiro across the Guanabara Bay, is largely a suburban and university student extension of the city. Often overlooked by tourists, it does host several interesting spots for visitors, and anyone staying over a week will find plenty of reasons to wander over.

Since most people took this as a rhetorical question (including Google), we had to answer it for ourselves. Luckily, Rio has a wealth of beautiful old buildings, free museums, architectural gems and a lack of locals interested enough in braving the rain to make them too crowded.

Famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer created the spaceship-like building that houses the Contemporary Art Museum (MAC), dramatically sitting on a cliff edge with perfect views looking back at Rio, as well as the Popular Theater on the other side of town (with its own set of views). Sparkling blue local beaches envelope Niteroi, a world away from the crowds of Ipanema and Copacabana, and hikes are as ever-present as they are across the bay.

Taking the ferry from downtown Rio, we braved the rain despite raised eyebrows from local friends. The Teatro Popular, just next to the ferry and bus terminals, has a beautiful dramatic open-air style and we learned so much about it by taking them up on a free-guided tour. Complete with little bubble-shaped buildings seemingly-randomly surrounding the theater, the site houses libraries, government buildings and cafes.

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Starting here was perfect because the guides were unbelievably helpful, so it became our launching pad for visiting everywhere else. With marked maps, endless advice and a lot of built-up enthusiasm from our lovely guide, we headed to the main destination, the MAC museum, as our next stop. Riding along the coast, we were delivered in front of the top-heavy disk where we could get the full perspective of the building against the backdrop of both Rio and the rest of Niteroi.

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Unfortunately closed for renovations, we didn’t let that stop us from getting our fair share of photos outside and exploring the perimeter of the building, reveling on the ground level under its unusual and flawless construction. Unfortunately for the rain, we could not explore the beaches so many had told us about- left on our list for another (not rainy) day.

Back on our usual side of the bay, we were armed with endless recommendations of similar sites throughout the city from our enthusiastic guide at the Teatro Popular. So we blocked off our full next day to see the places she told us she day-dreamed over. First: the museums in Centro.

Clearly, there is a very dedicated niche for this, because the only option apart from wandering the first main rooms on our own was taking a two-hour guided tour from one of the very, very enthused young guides (but you need to bring an ID!). Rio may get a bad rap for service elsewhere in the city, but these tour guides we were meeting were anything but lazy.

Just around the Cinelandia metro stop, you’ll find everything of this sort. National Library, Theater, museums new and old, you name it. We began at the library (Biblioteca Nacional). Lovers of reading and writing (hence, bloggers), we were actually the least enthused for the library. I mean, if you can’t read the books, there is only so much you can see, right? A reminder that anything that has “National” in the title is bound to be lavish…

Even though it’s under renovations, from the moment you enter the library, you’ll wonder if you’re in the right place. “Book Palace” would be a better description. With intricate moldings decorating the four-story entryway, golden details folded into every crease and grandiose chandeliers dangling above, it feels completely regal. Since you can’t run around picking up the books like at your local library, you can admire the building and the types of collections it has instead.

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Being satisfied with wandering around on our own, we took it all in before heading a couple builings down the road to our next stop: Museo de Belas Artes. The Fine Arts museum, as decadent as the library, houses some standing collections in addition to a modern rotating one. Maybe it was just because it was a very rainy day in Rio, but literally nobody seemed to have the same idea. We had the place to ourselves. Stunning modern displays caught our eyes, but for those hoping to see Brazilian works of art from every century, this is absolutely the place to be (and it’s free!).

Having completed our Cinelandia circuit, we headed next to the museums just past Praca 15 in the middle of Centro. Three corners of different museums touch at one point, including the largest in Rio: Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil. The CCBB brings in the major ticket expositions, such as Dali and Kandinsky, and we were lucky enough to catch the tail end of the Kandinsky exhibition. Free and open to everyone, the CCBB is a popular choice any day of the week, with tourists, locals and children alike. But the large, very well-air-conditioned building is such a relief from the muggy heat of a rainy day in Rio, we were fine with the multiple field trips running past. If you go with a big enough time winow, you can stay and see whatever film they are currently showing- when we went, it was a 3D art film.

Next, we wandered past the beautiful Teatro Municipal (the eye-catching building with the green and gold roof just outside the metro), but unfortunately it was closed for the day. This is somewhere we’re dying to return to because it’s perhaps the most stunning building in all of Rio, and despite high ticket prices for most every show, the orchestra performance on Sundays once a month also reserves a section with affordable tickets- as in, R5, when the rest usually are a few hundred. An unbelievable deal.

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Going deeper into Centro though, we found our absolute favorite: Museo Arte Moderna. MAM, near Praca Maua, is a stunning fusion of it’s old original building and a new modern addition. Housing almost 5-floors full of different modern exhibitions, we spent hours lost in the art in MAM. Every type of medium and every type of content, the MAM consistently houses an interesting combination of exhibitions that will keep anyone interested, even people who think they don’t appreciate modern art. We loved it.

Having checked off as many museums as you can in a short amount of time, we enjoyed our end of the week rainy Sunday afternoon like all the old men do- drinking cheap beer and playing pool in the classic old joints scattered throughout Lapa. Not all rainy day activity has to be high-brow in Rio…

We explored a few others just near the CCBB, but none were a production on the same scale and catered to more targeted auiences. Naval enthusiasts will love the Naval Museum, and those really interested can sign up for one of their tours around the Guanabara Bay for a different look at Rio. The Casa Cultural Correios, run by the post office, has an old-fashioned elevator that brings you between the different levels of exhibitions.

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