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Rio de Janeiro is one of the most compelling cities in the world. Some of its attractions can be expensive, but it also offers plenty of free fun too, such as beautiful beaches, glorious street art and thriving markets. Not only will your bank account thank you, you’ll also discover these activities can be immensely rewarding and show a different side to the city.
Rio has indisputably beautiful beaches and, best of all, they’re free. Enjoy a day of the city’s pleasant climate, refreshingly cool waters and white sandy shores, while topping up your holiday tan. Copacabana is the obvious choice, but don’t miss out on visiting Ipanema or Leblon; with Rio’s rugged peaks in the background and pristine waters, the latter two have a raw charm that greatly differs from Copacabana’s commercial vibe.
One of the most traditional samba haunts in Rio de Janeiro, Pedra do Sal unites some of the city’s best samba musicians for a night of Brazil’s most culture-defining music. Staged in the middle of the backstreets of the Saude region in the city centre, crowds of people gather every Monday night to enjoy live outdoor music, cheap drinks and socialising with friends and strangers alike. It’s one of the better ways to dive into the music that Cariocas (residents of Rio) grew up with and get a taste of their dynamic and captivating culture.
One of Rio’s most wonderful gifts is its abundance of hiking opportunities, which aren’t just for the seasoned veterans. Morro da Urca and Pedra Bonita are two hikes that take about 30 minutes to complete and can be approached at a leisurely pace. For those looking for something more challenging, head to Pedra da Gavea or the Petropolis-Teresopolis hike, which is a three-day camping trip with sensational mountain-top views along the way.
With serene natural surroundings and a laidback vibe, Rio is the perfect spot to practise yoga, and some teachers and schools offer classes for free. Popular outdoor yoga spots include the calming settings of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Ipanema beach and Flamengo park, with classes generally starting early morning to make the most of the peace and quiet. Blyss yoga school offers sporadic free classes that are advertised on its Facebook page, while Luna Rosa Yoga provides free classes that are also announced on Facebook.
The Museum of Tomorrow is one of Rio’s hottest cultural attractions at the moment, thanks to its futuristic architecture and fascinating content. It explores current issues of sustainability, climate change and the future possibilities of our planet given man’s impact on the environment. The interactive, visual-heavy displays are thought-provoking and best explored on Tuesdays when entrance to the museum is free.
Street art was decriminalised in Brazil in 2009, and this has inspired a wave of creation to hit the blank canvases of its cities walls, bringing them to life with colourful imagery. Explore Rio’s street art for free and see incredible art from unsung artists, including works that capture the society’s feelings at a particular moment, such as anti-World-Cup graffiti. In the city centre, you’ll find Eduardo Kobra’s street mural. It’s one of the largest in the world, and Kobra’s gift for blending photorealism with abstract imagery is breathtaking.
Window-shopping can either be fun or agony, depending on how strong your buying urge is that day. Nevertheless, browsing the markets in Rio is always an eye-opening experience. As well as seeing local handicrafts, which are often influenced by Brazil’s nature and indigenous tribes, you’ll also find typical Brazilian street food and beautiful, hand-painted works of arts. Some of the best markets are the Hippie fair in Ipanema, the antique fair Feira Rio Antigo in downtown, and the Feira Nordestina São Cristóvão, which costs about R$3 to enter (approximately one US dollar).
Thankfully, sunsets will always be free, and one of the best spots in Rio de Janeiro to see the sunset is at Arpoador, a large rock tucked in at the end of Ipanema beach. Every clear night, groups of people head to the rock and settle down to watch the sun sink behind the horizon across the ocean, with the Two Brothers peak outlined by the warm red-and-orange glow of the sky.
Taking its name from Chilean-born Jorge Selarón, who transformed the steps into a colourful mosaic as a tribute to the vibrance of Brazil, the Escadaria Selaron is one of the most iconic attractions in Rio. The steps’ wow-factor didn’t go unmissed by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams, who included them in their music video for Beautiful. Located in Lapa and leading up to Santa Teresa, the steps are a popular place for travel selfies.
This waterfall, located deep in the heart of the Tijuca forest, is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Take the hidden jungle-clad trail off the road Estrada Vista Chinesa and wander into the forest. Be prepared for some slightly hairy climbs but nothing that cannot be done without a guide.
At the end of the 20–30 minute trail, you’ll find Cachoeiro do Horto, a waterfall that slides down over the vertical rocks and which is small enough to stand under for a bracing shower. Then you can laze in the pool in front of the falls and admire the stunning views that open over the forest.