Rio de Janeiro has plenty of ways to coax you from your cash, but it's also well endowed with free ways of experiencing both its wealth of culture and its distinctive landscape.

In addition to those world-famous beaches, this vibrant seaside city's generous green spaces and lakeside spots give ample opportunity to pause and take in the sights free of charge. Cultural centers, museums and notable buildings open their doors without expecting a single centavo, and landmarks such as Arcos da Lapa and Escadaria Selarón can be sought out and simply admired. These are the top things to do in Rio de Janeiro. 

Make the most out of every adventure with help from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Wander the gardens at Instituto Moreira Salles

This cultural center hosts impressive exhibitions, often showcasing the works of some of Brazil's best photographers and artists. The gardens, complete with artificial lake and flowing river, were designed by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. There's also a craft shop and an excellent cafe that serves breakfast all day, as well as lunch and afternoon tea.

An Italian-style mansion housing a school of visual arts in Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro
In Parque Lage is the Escola de Artes Visuais, which hosts free art exhibitions and occasional performances © Shutterstock / Donatas Dabravolskas

Take a breather in Parque Lage

This beautiful park lies at the base of the Floresta da Tijuca, about 1km (0.6 miles) from Jardim Botânico. It has English-style gardens, little lakes and a mansion that houses the Escola de Artes Visuais (School of Visual Arts), which hosts free art exhibitions and occasional performances. The park is a tranquil place, and the cafe here offers a fine setting for a coffee or a meal.

Gaze out over the lake at Parque da Catacuma

On the edge of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, across a busy road, this park and sculptural garden has a short but steep trail to the Mirante do Sacopã. It's a 15-minute walk along a 600m (0.4-mile) forest-lined path to the lookout, which has memorable views from its perch 130m (427ft) above the lake. For a bit more excitement, you can scale a rock-climbing wall, go rappelling (abseiling) or take a treetop walk offered by Lagoa Aventuras.

Learn about Brazil's northern tribes at Museu do Índio

This small museum features multimedia exhibitions on Brazil’s northern tribes and provides an excellent introduction to the economic, religious and social life of Brazil’s Indigenous people. Next to native food and medicinal plants, the four life-size dwellings in the courtyard were actually built by four different tribes.

See cutting-edge exhibits at Centro Cultural Oi Futuro

One of Rio's most visually exciting additions is this futuristic space on the edge of Flamengo. Within 2000 sq meters (21,528 sq ft) of exhibition area spread across six floors, the center features temporary multimedia installations that run the gamut from architecture and urban design to pop art, photojournalism and eye-catching video art.

Pay your respects at Instituto de Pesquisa e Memória Presto Novos

When Mercedes Guimarães was doing construction work on her house in 1996, workers uncovered huge quantities of human fragments. After discussions with a historian, she learned the site had been the burial place of enslaved Africans. She halted work and turned her house into this small museum, cultural center and memorial to all the captive people brought to Brazil. The displays are quite powerful and provide a context for what life was like for newly arrived Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Opening of the exhibition of the English plastic artist Antony Gormley at the Centro Cultural Banco no Brasil
There is always something going on at Rio's Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil, from exhibitions to concerts to film screenings © Alexandre Loureiro / LatinContent via Getty Images

Get your culture fix at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil 

Housed in a beautifully restored 1906 building, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil hosts some of Rio's top exhibitions. Facilities include a cinema, two theaters and a permanent display of the evolution of currency in Brazil. There is always something going on, from exhibitions and lunchtime and evening concerts to film screenings, so look up details in O Globo's entertainment listings or the "Veja Rio" insert in Veja magazine before you go.

Delve into Brazil's political history at Palácio Tiradentes

The stately Tiradentes Palace houses the seat of the legislative assembly. Exhibits on the first and second floors relate the events that have taken place here since 1926. One of its darkest hours was when the National Assembly was shut down in 1937 under the Vargas dictatorship; it later served as the Department of Press and Propaganda.

Catch a concert at Paço Imperial

The former imperial palace was originally built in 1743 as a governor's residence. Later it became the home of Dom João and his family when the Portuguese throne transferred the royal seat of power to the colony. In 1888 Princesa Isabel proclaimed the Freedom from Slavery Act from the palace's steps. The building was neglected for many years but has been restored and now hosts excellent changing exhibitions and concerts. There's also a good cafe and a restaurant here.

Check out avant-garde art at Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica

This avant-garde museum is set in a 19th-century neoclassical building that originally housed the Conservatory of Music and Dramatic Arts. Today the center displays permanent works by the artist, theoretician and poet Hélio Oiticica, as well as bold contemporary-art exhibitions in keeping with Oiticica's forward-leaning aesthetics.

Low-angle view of people visiting the Parque das Ruinas cultural center, which has colonial-style architecture and a modern glass addition.
Parque das Ruínas offers an excellent panorama from the viewing platform up top © Roberto Machado Noa / Getty Images

Take in the view at Parque das Ruínas

This park contains the ruins – exterior brick walls and a newly built staircase – of the mansion belonging to Brazilian heiress Laurinda Santos Lobo. Her house was a meeting point for Rio's artists and intellectuals for many years until her death in 1946. There's a small gallery on the ground floor, but the real reason to come is the excellent panorama from the viewing platform up top.

Learn about Brazilian folk art at Museu de Folclore Edison Carneiro

Created in 1968, this museum is an excellent introduction to Brazilian folk art, particularly that from the Northeast. Its permanent collection comprises 1400 pieces, and includes Candomblé costumes, ceramic figurines and religious costumes used in festivals. The museum also features a folklore library and a small shop that sells handicrafts, books and folk music. The museum is located next door to the Palácio do Catete.

Snap a few pics at the Arcos de Lapa

Located near Av Mem de Sá, the Arcos da Lapa (Arches of Lapa) are much-photographed symbol of the neighborhood dating back to the mid-18th century, when the arches structure served as an aqueduct to carry water from the Carioca River to downtown Rio. In a style reminiscent of ancient Rome, the 42 arches stand 64m (210ft) high. Today the arches carry the bonde (cable car) on its way between Centro and Santa Teresa. 

See the stained-glass windows at Catedral Metropolitana

This enormous cone-shaped cathedral was inaugurated in 1976 after 12 years of construction. Among its sculptures, murals and other works of art, the four vivid stained-glass windows, which stretch 60m (197ft) to the ceiling, are breathtaking. The massive cathedral can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers. In the basement is a small museum of religious art.

Tourists visiting the brightly painted Selaron stairway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The stairway is the work of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron.
The vivid Escadaria Selarón is one of Rio's best-loved attractions © filipefrazao / Getty Images

Stage a photo op at Escadaria Selarón

One of Rio's best-loved attractions, the steps leading up from Joaquim Silva became a work of art when Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón decided to cover them with colorful mosaics. A dedication to the Brazilian people, the 215 steps are a vivid riot of color.

Look beyond the facade at Mosteiro de São Bento

This is one of the finest colonial churches in Brazil. It was built between 1617 and 1641 on Morro de São Bento and has an excellent view over the city. The simple facade hides a baroque interior richly decorated in gold. Among its historic treasures are paintings by José de Oliveira Rosa and wood carvings designed by Frei Domingos da Conceição and made by Alexandre Machado.

Transport yourself to Portugal in Morro da Conceição

One of Rio's oldest neighborhoods, this pretty area feels like a tiny slice of Portugal, with its old shuttered houses, quiet cobblestone streets and twittering birds. While there isn't a lot to do here (it's really just one long winding street), there are a few galleries open to visitors (look for "atelier" signs) and a good local restaurant. Saturday is the liveliest time to visit.

Acknowledge Brazil's role in the slave trade at Cais do Valongo

Unearthed in 2011, the Valongo Wharf was the first arrival point for an estimated 900,000 enslaved peoples brought to Brazil after long, harrowing voyages from Africa. Those who survived the journey were sold in markets, while those who didn't were buried without ceremony in mass graves nearby. The heartbreaking tragedy of the Atlantic trade of enslaved people remained a topic little broached for many years, and this newly designated archaeological site is an important reference for coming to grips with this aspect of the nation's history.

Soak up the street art along Boulevard Olímpico

Rio's formerly derelict port district has been reborn as a wide promenade lined with massive street art. A handful of renowned artists have painted spectacular murals on the old warehouses, though Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra deserves special mention for his jaw-dropping work entitled Etnias (Ethnicities). The massive mural stretches for 190m (623ft) and features portraits of photogenic Indigenous people from around the globe.

The boulevard stretches from Praça Mauá to AquaRio, and the tracks for the VLT run down the center, so watch your step. Near the east end of the promenade, you'll find a few food trucks selling sandwiches, craft beer and ice cream, with shaded tables out front. Further west along the boulevard, there are benches where you can take in the street art as well as lookouts that provide glimpses over the bay.

Red Beach (Praia Vermelha) with view of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Praia Vermelha is protected by the headland, so the water is usually calm © Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock

Go for a swim at Praia Vermelha 

Beneath Morro da Urca, narrow Praia Vermelha has superb views of the rocky coastline from the shore. Its coarse sand gives the beach the name vermelha (red). Because the beach is protected by the headland, the water is usually calm.

Walk around Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

Rio’s striking lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, is encircled by a 7.2km (4.5-mile) path that’s popular with walkers and cyclists, providing a peaceful pause from the city throng. Keep your eyes peeled for capybara and a variety of birdlife. On a clear day, sunset over the lake is spectacular.

Tourists taking in the view from Ponta do Arpoador at dusk
Ponta do Arpoador is one of Rio's best places for watching the sunset © Jon Hicks / Getty Images

Watch the sunset Ponta do Arpoador

At the far eastern end of Av Vieira Souto, this rocky point juts out into the water and serves as one of Rio's best places for watching the sunset. Throughout the day, you'll spot fishers casting off the rock, couples stealing a few kisses and photographers snapping that iconic length of Ipanema Beach that stretches off toward the towering peaks of Dois Irmãos.

See large-scale installations at

In the Jockey Club, this avant-garde gallery opened to much acclaim in 2018. Expect challenging multimedia shows and big installations that often incorporate interactive components. Film, music, sculpture and photography have all featured in past exhibitions. was founded by artist and designer Oskar Metsavaht, the creator of the well-known Osklen brand.

People relaxing and sunbathing at the famous Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Forgo the rentable loungers and roll out your towel on the warm sands of Copacabana Beach © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Hang out in the sun at Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches

A stroll down either Copacabana or Ipanema Beach in the sunshine is a free shot of pure Rio joy straight into your veins. Forgo the rentable loungers and roll out your towel on the warm sand. Kiosks on the beach cater to all budgets: sip coconut water straight from the fruit or splash out on freshly shucked oysters.

Have a family day at Leblon Beach

Separated from Ipanema by the gardens and canal of Jardim de Alah, Leblon Beach attracts families and has a slightly more sedate vibe than its eastern counterpart. Parents with little ones may want to check out Baixo Bebê, between postos 11 and 12, where you'll find a small playground on the sand as well as other young families.

Buy the latest edition of The Travel Book

The Travel Book Fourth Edition

Get ready for a journey through every country in the world. This fourth edition of The Travel Book features incredible photography that illustrates each country, accompanied by a profile that includes details of when to visit, what to see and do and how to learn more about the country’s culture.

Buy the latest edition of The Travel Book

Explore related stories

Horizontal view of latin woman sightseeing in spanish historic ancient city. Travel to Colombia concept.
experiences, indias


11 free and cheap things to do in Cartagena

Aug 21, 2023 • 9 min read