Brazil: an enormous country, diverse in people and natural landscapes -- and home to some pricey tourist destinations. Enjoying a Carioca (anything related to Rio de Janeiro) getaway on a limited budget requires some planning, but there are plenty of sights and experiences that cost little or nothing in Rio and elsewhere in Brazil.
A few decades ago, the Paço Imperial sat neglected, but now this historically significant building has been restored to its former splendor as a cultural center. Located in central Rio, the Imperial Palace served as the residence and/or business headquarters of the governors and monarchs of Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries. Entrance is free, and tourists can wander through the palace and view temporary exhibitions of art, cinema, music, and sculpture, as well as rare manuscripts. Visitors also can browse used book shops and enjoy café treats on the grounds.
The Museu de Arte do Rio features rotating exhibits and free admission on Tuesdays. The MAR collections reside in two buildings linked by a curvy, Carnival-inspired floating roof. On one side is a 19th-century palace and on the other, a modernist art school. The architecture alone makes a visit worthwhile. The same can be said for the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, which resembles a giant saucer or, as some observers have noted, a UFO.
Don't miss one of the New Seven Wonders of the World -- the 125-foot Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain in Tijuca National Park, a tropical rainforest. Watching out over Rio, this is the largest art deco statue in the world, visible from all over the city. Still, a trip to the base is a must-do in Rio. Arrive in an official park van (starting at less than $20 with an entry fee) or, most popularly, on the cog train, which costs about $20 to $24 a person and is always crowded. The most intrepid and thriftiest travelers can hike up for free from the Parque Lage, a public park at the base of Corcovado, where there's a well-marked trail that takes about two hours to complete
T neighborhood of Lapa is the Greenwich Village of Rio de Janeiro. Known for its bohemian vibe, street art, architecture, music, and nightlife, Lapa has been the seat of Brazilian cultural, intellectual, and artistic movements since the 1950s. Tourists shouldn't miss the Arcos da Lapa, an 18th-century aqueduct; the Bambas da Lapa street mural; the Escadaria Selarón, a vibrant public stairway; the Passeio Público, the first Rio city park, opened in the 1780s; and the Sala Cecília Meireles, a venue known for chamber music. Tourists can meander through Lapa for free, grabbing some cheap traditional street food along the way.
Another free site not to be overlooked in Rio, the Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião, might provoke discussion and debate about its unusual architecture. Built in the 1960s and 1970s, the cathedral's design resembles a modernized Mayan pyramid. The 8,000-square-meter conical interior features four spectacular stained glass windows that ascend from floor to ceiling. Guests can enter freely or attend Mass on Sundays at 10 a.m. The cathedral has seating for 5,000 and standing room for 20,000
Most people associate a Brazilian vacation with the beach, particularly Ipanema, due to the bossa nova song "The Girl From Ipanema" (Garota de Ipanema). Indeed, Ipanema is probably the hippest beach in Rio, and, like other beaches along the city's 25-mile shoreline, entrance is free. Ipanema and Copacabana Beach, another hot spot, attract huge crowds, so be prepared for limited room on the sand during the warmest days. For fewer sunbathers and an equally alluring seaside perch, head to Grumari Beach, about an hour away. Play beach sports, people watch, soak in the sun, and enjoy the powdery sand at any of these spots.
Once a quilombo village (a Brazilian settlement with residents of African descent), Pedra do Sal ("Salt Rock") served as a gathering spot for freed and escaped slaves and was the birthplace of samba music. "Little Africa," within the Saúde neighborhood, attracts tourists for its lively ambiance. Street parties get going with live, authentic samba music, dancing, and general revelry Monday nights after 7 p.m. Street food and cheap drinks, lots of socializing, and historic architecture make Pedra do Sal a don't-miss spot for a true carioca experience.
Showcasing majestic neoclassical architecture, Corinthian columns, and an ornate double staircase and statuary in the main entrance, the Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil is a wonder to behold. And that's just the aesthetics. The 9 million-piece collection includes letters, newspapers, photographs, historical documents, and manuscripts that chronicle the history of this diverse country. Special exhibitions are nearly constant. Don't miss the largest library in Latin America and seventh-largest in the world -- entrance is free.
Rio tourists, particularly those on a tight budget, must go to the Centro Cultural Banco de Brasil. The former central office of the national bank has, since 1999, housed exhibitions and an historical museum, all free to the public. A beautiful building with an art deco exterior and grand interior with a rotunda, the CCBB is open every day but Tuesday. Tourists can tour the top-floor museum to learn about the bank's monetary history and see the original office of the chief executive. Other floors contain rotating art and sculpture exhibits. The CCBB is one of the 100 most visited museums in the world.
The outside of the 16th century Monastery of Saint Benedict looks as plain as can be, but step inside and gasp. Bright gilding covers the entire interior of the abbey with baroque and rococo stylistic elements. Ornate golden carvings on the arches and seven golden chapels with red tapestries and carpets are dazzling. Visitors can enter all day, but Masses with organ chamber music and Gregorian chanting are celebrated at 7 a.m. on weekdays, at 6 p.m. Saturdays, and 10 a.m. on Sundays.
Perhaps the most beautiful spot to watch a sunset -- or sunrise, for more privacy -- in the world is Arpoador Beach. Also a popular surfing spot, Arpoador stuns visitors who make the short hike up the Arpoador Rock and gather to watch the sun set between the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) peaks in the distance. At TripAdvisor, more than 14,000 reviews of Arpoador average 4.5 stars, with overwhelmingly enthusiastic comments.
An emblematic site in the south zone of Rio, the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas -- a lagoon fed by the Atlantic Ocean -- attracts families with nature walks, playgrounds, and shore. Visitors can rent paddleboats and bikes, and live music shows often pop up on warm nights. Just don't go in the water. Although an environmental cleanup project is underway, the lagoon still suffers pollution problems.
With free entry on Sundays, the Casa de Rui Barbosa is a prime tourist attraction, especially for history buffs. A writer, jurist, and diplomat known as the Eagle of the Hague, Barbosa (1849-1923) played a key role in 19th and 20th century Brazilian politics, international affairs, and, well, history. Visitors can tour his house and surrounding gardens in the Botafogo neighborhood in Rio. The distinctive Brazilian architecture and the fascinating artifacts inside, including personal effects, furniture, decorative items, and antique vehicles, are a window onto times past.
Dining in Rio de Janeiro is notoriously expensive, but eating like a local saves lots of reais for thrifty travelers. Brazilian street food incorporates influences from European, Middle Eastern, and African cuisine, as well as tropical South American specialties. Don't pass up acaraje (a fried bean patty), bolinho de balachau (fried codfish balls), pastel (like an eggroll), kibe (a Lebanese minced meat finger food), or any dish with açai (a low-sugar Amazonian fruit). For dessert, the tapioca and the brigadeiro bonbons are local specialties. Also look for juice stands, which sell fresh juice and also light fare (more vegetarian options here).
For a unique cultural experience, stop by the Jockey Club, right next to the lagoon and near the foot of the Corcovado. The track dates to the 1920s and includes a grand marble betting area. The entire facility has the feel of an era gone by, and the horse racing can be a fun group or family activity -- no betting required. The Jockey Club scores high ratings on TripAdvisor, with mixed comments about the ease or difficulty of actually placing a bet. On the other hand, bets can be as low as $1, so pick a favorite horse and kick up the fun on the cheap. Note that men must wear trousers and closed-toe shoes to enter, while anything goes, apparently, for women. Entrance is free.
The Jardim Botânico, in the south zone of Rio, lying below the right arm of Christ the Redeemer, affords visitors a peaceful retreat and a chance to see exotic flora and fauna. The 350-acre park features 6,500 species of plants, including a huge array of orchids, lilies, cherry trees, cacti, and carnivorous plants. Observers also can see marmoset monkeys and capuchin monkeys hanging out, as well as toucans and other exotic birds and animals that wander in from neighboring Tijuca National Park. Admission is about $2.15.
A truly unique spot in the Santo Cristo neighborhood of Rio, the Antiga Fábrica da Bhering still looks like an industrial factory on the outside -- it once housed Bhering Chocolates. After successful petitioning from the local community, it's become the permanent home to a series of studios for up-and-coming artists. Visitors are free to wander through and converse with artists who are so inclined. On the ground floor, visitors can stop by a furniture store and a clothing shop and sate their hunger at the café.
A bohemian artistic and cultural hub atop a hill in central Rio, Santa Teresa is a fun day trip with lots to do. Take a cheap ride on the (newly reopened) historic Santa Teresa tram from downtown Rio up the hill for expansive panoramas of the city; meander around the windy, bohemian streets atop the hill; and explore the slightly creepy abandoned mansion of Parque das Ruínas and the $2 museum next door. Finally, stop into a boteco (local pub) for a Brazilian tradition: splitting a 600 ml bottle of beer with a group, which means a cheap drink for all and beer that stays cold.
Visiting Brazil on the cheap probably means missing Carnival, but at any time of year, it's possible to drop in on the famed samba schools. Essentially social clubs based in community centers, this is where members prepare the elaborate dancing, costumes, samba music, and floats for the February festivities. Certain nights during the week, samba schools open their doors for outsiders to observe rehearsals and partake in joyous nightclub-style samba parties. Mangueira and Salgueiro have some of the most popular shows, but there are more than 100 clubs around the city. Entrance fees to dance parties range from free to about $20, depending on the night, event, and school. Remember to budget for taxi fares, because public transit tends to be unreliable late at night.
A Sunday afternoon in Rio must include a visit to the Feira Hippie de Ipanema, regarded as one of the best street markets in the city. Here, tourists and locals alike browse the merchandise and fuel up from food carts. Handmade arts and crafts, paintings, clothing, instruments, toys, household utensils, leather goods, textiles, and much more are for sale at reasonable prices, although some people recommend haggling anyway. Feira Hippie, in General Osório Square near the water, is a good spot to pick up a unique, affordable souvenir.
Head due north from Rio and explore the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines) for an inexpensive, exciting Brazilian experience. The beautiful landscape features mountains, caves, and waterfalls, and the regional soul food includes stews cooked over wood fires, celebrated cheeses, and the renowned pão de queijo, a cheesy baked cassava-flour roll. The food is cheap, and the scenery and colonial architecture free for all to view. Tourists can also explore the hydro mineral spas and national parks -- all this just four hours or so north of Rio.
The award for most populous city in Brazil -- and South America and the Southern Hemisphere -- goes to São Paolo, a vibrant, multiethnic metropolis. It's a big tourist draw but also an expensive one. To keep costs reasonable, head for cheap and free spots such as Ibirapuera Park, where it's possible to escape the crowds, traffic, and city bustle. The immense park features ample green spaces, graceful arch bridges over a lake, activity paths, a Japanese garden, kids' play areas, and more. It also houses multiple museums, most of which have free-admission days, charge nominal fees, or are always free.
While in São Paolo, don't miss the local street culture (during daylight only, for safety reasons). The graffiti street art is intricate and ubiquitous, often serving as an outlet for frustrated, impoverished residents. One unique form, pichação, features cryptic wall writing that appears in seemingly unreachable locations, such as dangerously high spots on buildings. And don't miss Beco de Batman, a street full of colorful picture graffiti. Another local tradition is on view every Sunday, when the Minçhoao part of the freeway closes to vehicles and opens for bikes and skateboards, family activities, community events, and pickup fútbol games.
Located in the capital city of Brasília, Itamaraty Palace features the work of famed modern architect Oscar Niemeyer. The palace sits in the government center, near National Congress headquarters, and houses the Ministry of External Relations. Structural columns and windows (meant to symbolize Brazil's strong parliament) around the building's exterior, reflecting pools, and Amazonian sculpture gardens are a visual treat. Inside, free tours take guests to see more impressive design elements and historic artwork while learning about the country's government.
Don't leave Brasília without a peaceful retreat to the Templo da Boa Vontade, the Temple of Good Will, founded in the late 1980s as a symbol of universal solidarity. The seven-sided, pyramid-shaped temple welcomes visitors of all religions, spiritualities, and philosophies to slowly traverse the spiral labyrinth on the floor to gaze up at the huge crystal at the apex of the pyramid. The visitor center also holds art and artifact galleries, and the temple grounds feature a sacred fountain and an eternal flame. Overall, the Templo da Boa Vontade promises a unique experience, a sanctuary away from the chaos of most Brazilian cities.