Quite a lot, as a matter of fact. Rio de Janeiro has such a wealth of historical and natural treasures that you could spend weeks happily occupied without setting foot on the beaches of the Zona Sul. Picturesque islands in the bay, magnificent tropical gardens and former palaces full of dark secrets – these are just a few of Rio’s intriguing, lesser-known places.
1. Escadaria Selarón
Famed for its samba clubs, the neighborhood of Lapa remains largely unvisited by day. But come in the morning to see Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón at work on his fantastic, ever-changing creation: mosaic-covered steps made from colorful ceramic tiles that connect Lapa with the hill-top neighborhood of Santa Teresa.
2. Theatro Municipal
Modeled after the Palais Garnier (home of the Paris Opera), Rio’s grand theatre dates from 1909 and has a gilded interior replete with oil paintings by Eliseu Visconti, one of the godfathers of art nouveau in Brazil. Come for a guided tour by day, or book tickets (theatromunicipal.rj.gov.br) to a classical music, opera, or ballet performance by night in one of Brazil’s loveliest performance halls.
3. Sítio Burle Marx
This verdant estate contains over 3000 plant species, including rare species from across the globe, making it a must-see for lovers of all things botanical. The gardens surround the former home and studio of Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s most famous landscape designer. You’ll need to hire a car (or a tour guide with one) as it’s located about 50km west of Rio. Call ahead to reserve a visit.
4. Ilha de Paquetá
When you need a quick break from the bustle of Rio, head out to this tranquil island in Guanabara Bay. Its colonial buildings and unpaved pathways invite exploring, and the lack of cars on the island ensures easy breathing – hire a bike or a horse-drawn cart to whisk you around in style. Ferries make the scenic 70-minute journey to the island every two hours or so from Praça XV in downtown Rio (Centro).
5. Ilha Fiscal
A fairy-tale-like palace looms large over this tiny island next to downtown Rio. Built in a neo-Gothic style in the late 19th century, the building originally served as the city’s customs house, but is better known for playing host to Brazil’s last imperial ball on 9 November 1889. Six days after the celebration Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca deposed Emperor Dom Pedro II, and Brazil became a republic. Guided visits are available three times a day from Thursday to Sunday, departing from the Espaço Cultural da Marinha near Praça XV.
6. Parque da Catacumba
On the east side of Lagoa (the big lake above Ipanema and Leblon), this park has a handful of short trails that lead up through rainforest to marvelous views overlooking the mountain-framed lake and southern beaches; other activities on site include rappelling, a zipline and a short canopy walk between treetops. Afterwards, you can walk to one of the nearby lakeside kiosks for a sundowner. Open-air Palaphita Kitch (palaphitakitch.com.br) serves superb cocktails.
7. Parque Lage
On the north side of Lagoa, Parque Lage is one of Rio’s most tranquil corners, with tiny lakes, grottoes and beautifully landscaped gardens. In addition to its lush acreage, the park also has a serene cafe and an art school, with periodic exhibitions inside the mansion of the former 19th-century landowner. From the park, there’s a challenging hike along a jungle-clad path up to the open-armed statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer).
8. Museu da República
Completed in the 1860s, the Palácio do Catete served as the home of the president of Brazil for the first half of the 20th century and today contains a museum of artifacts from the nation’s early post-colonial days. The last resident of the palace was the complicated but fascist-leaning President Getúlio Vargas, whose dramatic exit from power came from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The bedroom where he killed himself is eerily preserved on the 3rd floor, along with the pistol, his pajamas and a copy of his suicide note.
9. Claudio Coutinho Trail
At the base of Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), this wide 2km trail skirts along the edge of the mountain with rainforest on one side and the wave-battered rocks on the other side. A favorite of walkers and joggers, the trail also has some wildlife-watching opportunities – keep an eye out for the marmosets commonly spotted here.
10. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro
Rio is packed with stunning colonial churches, a testament to its pivotal status during the early colonial days, when the Portuguese royal family, fleeing Napoleon, set up court here in 1807 and fell in love with the city (even declaring Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves). This baroque beauty, dating from 1739, was a favorite of the Portuguese royals, and has lovely details, including fine azulejos (Portuguese tiles) and an elaborately carved altar. From its majestic perch atop the Glória neighborhood, the church offers sublime views overlooking Guanabara Bay.
This article was first published in December 2012 and updated in July 2016.