Amid the structural and logistical dilemmas as Rio prepares for the Olympics and the Paralympics—aggravated in no small part by the mismanagement of state governments and city hall—the “marvelous city” still contains its fair share of cultural delights. Rio de Janeiro, one of the world’s foremost tourist destinations, has a large number of museums, cultural centers and leisure areas, many of which are prepared to receive some of the 500,000+ Olympic visitors who wish to know a little more about Brazilian history and its art.
First up is the Olympics Exhibition, organized by the popular atelier Geraldo Aguiar. About 30 exhibitors are preparing themselves to exhibit and sell paintings with Olympic themes. The biggest names in the world of sports will be honored by these artists in an exhibition that will take place between June 30 and July 30, in the neighborhood of Bonsucesso, and August 4—30 at the second floor of Casa Cruz, which is located at 65 José Clemente Street, in Rio’s historic center.
It is impossible to get to know all of Rio’s historic center in just one day, but it is worth taking time to explore the region. For the comfort of foreigners, many places throughout the center offer texts translated into English. To get to the main museums and arts centers, subway stations Carioca, Cinelândia and Uruguaiana are the best options. The newly-inaugurated Light Rail (VLT) will supposedly take metro travels into the center itself.
The Praça XV houses the ferries that take commuters and tourists across Guanabara Bay to the cities of Paquetá and Niterói as well as the Palácio Tirandentes (Tiradentes Palace). Home of Rio’s Legislative Assembly, the Palácio has a vast artistic and architectural heritage, which tells the history of the city since imperial times. Admission is free and the exhibits can be enjoyed from Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and on Sundays and holidays from 12pm to 5pm. Nearby, the Paço Imperial (Imperial Court) works as a cultural center, which also offers free art exhibitions. The court is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 12pm to 7pm. However, during the Olympics, the space will open an hour earlier (11am).
A little further, the Museu Histórico Nacional (National Historical Museum), recounts the history of Brazil since the time of the Portuguese monarchy. Original artifacts and replicas enrich the visit to the past. For domestic visitors, the museum, which is closed on Mondays, charges the symbolic value of R$ 8.00. Opening hours during the week is from 10am to 5:30pm and, on weekends, from 2pm to 6pm.
Cinelândia is the cultural heart of Rio de Janeiro’s center. Among the historic structures, the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) and the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) stand out. The first is one of the largest museums in the city and describes Brazil’s art history. The museum’s collection includes statues and paintings by Brazilian artists such as Tarsila D’Amaral, Candido Portinari, Victor Meirelles, Di Cavalcanti and Carlos Oswald. The Museum is open from Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 5pm. Weekends and holidays from 1pm to 5pm. Tickets cost R$ 8,00, but on Sundays, visits are free. Next door to the museum, the Biblioteca Nacional is the crib of Brazilian literature and stories. There are approximately 9 million items housed inside. Guided tours are free and take place from Monday to Friday, at 11am or 3pm, in Portuguese, and at 1pm in English. Visitors must schedule guided tours by telephone.
Going forward, Praça Mauá has been revitalized in anticipation of the Olympics. The revitalization of the area has vastly increased the movement of tourists and locals, especially during the weekends.
Placed just off of the Praça is the Museu de Arte do Rio – MAR (Rio’s Art Museum), which features a vast exhibition space of photographs and paintings. (To purchase tickets online and avoid long lines, just visit the website.) At the end of the Praça is the city’s flashiest cultural highlight, the Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow). The Museum is divided between an exhibition space, an interactive laboratory of scientific and technological activities and an observatory. Leaving the museum, visitors can enjoy various activities still in Praça Mauá, as street performers, bands and craft fairs.
In order to facilitate tours of the Historical Center, city government created a “Cultural Passport” with special offers for the Olympics. The initiative of the Municipal Culture Secretary guarantees gratuities or discounts at more than 700 attractions and 200 institutions, as well as discounts on subway tickets and in accredited bars, restaurants and bookstores. Every attraction or establishment visited, presenting the passport, you get a stamp to mark the experience. Check it out here. The Passport is free for Brazilians, but tourists must pay R$ 15,00 (roughly $4 USD).