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A Local Tour Of Rio de Janeiro’s Lesser-Known Sites

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Escadaria Selarón
copacabana beach
Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana Beach. Photo courtesy of laszlo-photo.

Rio de Janiero. A city of sexy shenanigans, where a vigilant Cristo watches the sparkling sequins of samba shows and sweaty, barely-clothed beach-goers from above.

As much as I love the sand and sun, when my local friend, Rogerio, offers to show me around downtown Rio, I gladly accept his invitation.

Rogerio has an ambitious itinerary for our informal walking tour, with a variety of lesser-known attractions and things to do in Rio de Janeiro: some semi-touristy, some best-kept secrets, and some cultural experiences.

We weave between shoppers and skateboarders, buzzing by buildings reflecting a smorgasbord of architectural styles that bring together influences from around the world and across the ages.

Names of European and Brazilian artists encircle the exterior of the ornate Teatro Municipal, a glistening example of Belle Epoque architecture inspired by the Paris Opera House.

A Roman-style Carioca Aqueduct — built in the 18th century to bring fresh water to the city — casts shadows on a plaza that now serves as a late-night teen hangout, commonly known as the Lapa Arches.

For a reminder of Brazil’s darker past, we head to what was the world’s busiest slave trading port, the notorious Valongo Wharf.

As part of Olympic renovation efforts, the city recently unearthed the area, after purposefully burying it for two centuries, uncovering beads, bracelets, and statuettes. 

Nearby in the famous Portuguese bakery Confeitaria Colombo, Rogerio introduces me to the chocolatey, condensed milk concoction of brigadeiro.

“You know how girls eat ice cream out of the carton when they break up with their boyfriends in American movies?” he explains, “This is the Brazilian version.”

I don’t need a nasty break-up to enjoy this treat, and I emerge from the shop with a sugar-high and chocolate covering my chin.

Little do I know, Rogerio has saved the best for last. After traversing a cobblestone path, we open the heavy wooden door to Gabinete Real de Leitura Portuguesa, a reading room that looks straight out of Beauty and the Beast.

A stained glass skylight illuminates three stories of warm wooden shelves containing 350,000 books, including the largest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal.

“Positively magical,” I whisper. “And, I didn’t even tell you how much I love libraries”.

Rogerio nods. “I just stumbled upon it one day. Wait until you see what’s next.”

Winding our way back to the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods, we round the corner to a magical, mosaic staircase covered in over 2,000 tiles.

According to the Rio Times, the artist, Jorge Selarón, left his home country of Chile at the age of seventeen, traveling to 57 countries before settling in Rio in 1983. Although trained as a painter with no experience in sculpture, he began the project decorating the stairs outside his home with tiles he fished out of the trash, broken mirrors and porcelain bathtub pieces.

Visitors began noticing the eccentric artist at work, decked out in board shorts, muttonchops, and a bright red hat. When word about the project spread, inspired fans started sending tiles from over 60 different countries.

Perusing the titles, I find Michael Jackson, a meditating Buddha, the Playboy Bunny, the Mona Lisa, and even a hand-painted note to Selarón’s landlady, apologizing for neglecting to pay rent.

Jorge Selarón's mosaic staircase
Rogerio, my amazing local tour guide and I, pose in front of one of the newer sections of the Escadaria Selarón. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

At the base of the stairs, the artist describes his vision for the ever-evolving “Escadaria Selarón,” vowing, “I will only end this mad and singular dream on the last day of my life.”

Sure enough, Jorge Selarón was found dead on the steps in 2011, due to an undisclosed cause; however, his bohemian tribute to his favorite city has earned international acclaim, and recently featured in Rio’s Olympic Bid video “The Passion Unites Us” (1:48), The U2 music video “Walk On” (1:55) and “Beautiful” by Snoop Dogg (0:25).

Escadaria Selarón, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Selarón may no longer be alive but the staircase is full of friendly, eccentric artist-types, eager to share their songs, stories and beijos with visitors. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote

As much as I would love to swap stories with Selarón, the staircase still serves as a wellspring of inspiration for alternative artsy types.

Some punk-rock teens serenade me with a ukulele and I earn bonus beijos (kisses) for stopping to listen.

A couple of years before his death, Selarón declared, “I made the most fantastic staircase ever in the history of humanity. In Rio de Janeiro! Because it couldn’t have happened in any other city!”

There’s something about Rio that captures the heart and imagination of even the most intrepid travelers. Whether you’re traveling solo in Brazil or with friends, Rio de Janeiro attractions are worth seeing, especially if you take the time to explore less-traveled landmarks.

Featured image via vincentraal


About The Author

Katie Foote is a doctoral student who loves exploring the world every chance she gets. When she’s not satisfying her gypsy soul and itchy feet, she likes swimming, cooking international dishes, yoga and trying new things. She tries to live by Mark Twain’s quote: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Katie Foote

Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she spent several years travelling the world as much as possible. After four years of semi-nomadic life, she spent a couple years in Auckland, New Zealand and recently moved to Vancouver, Canada. Despite living more traditionally, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes kickboxing, yoga and exploring her extraordinary new backyard of British Columbia.

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  1. What a dizzying tour through the lesser-known Rio! the staircase is itself a story and the Gabinete is a must. Bucket list worthy. thanks!


    Hey there, You’ve got done an admirable job. I will definitely stumbleupon that along with the element advocate so that you can my local freinds. I will be self-confident they are took advantage of this blog.

    1. Thank you both of you! I’m happy to share some of the local secrets that I was lucky enough to experience. Enjoy Brazil if you go. It’s such a fantastic, lively, big-hearted country!

  3. Love this post. I need to get back to South America…and Brazil in particular….keeping notes!

    1. @Corinne: I feel the same. My dream is move to Ecuador for a bit, save some money and enjoy the beauty and culture!

    2. Thanks Corinne! I hope you do go! I hope I can go back to Brazil too- I saw Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Rio but I hear the Northeastern coast is unbelievable. Happy Travels!

  4. Excellent ideas for things to do in Rio. During the 2016 Olympics the great city of Rio will be filled with people, and of course most of them will be looking for things to do besides watching the Olympic events.

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