Most people come to Rio de Janeiro for the beaches, scenery, and nightlife, but there is plenty to see in the historic city center. It’s not a beautiful city center by any means. It’s a mixture of ugly modern buildings with impressive historic structures mixed in. There could be a bunch of uninspiring skyscrapers and a couple blocks away are older buildings in need of a touch-up.
Largo da Carioca is considered to be the heart of the city center. This plaza is a large public space with lots of action during the day.
The beginnings of Largo da Carioca date back to 1608 with the construction of Convento de Santo Antônio at the top of a small hill. At the foot of the hill was a pond, which was drained and is now the plaza. The monastery and church are two of the most important religious structures in the city.
On the street leading north of Largo da Carioca, Rua Uruguiana, and its side streets, it’s possible to spot many older buildings. Some need work, but many are colorful and add character to the area.
One of the main structures near Largo da Carioca is the Petrobras headquarters. Petrobras is an oil company that is also the largest company in the southern hemisphere. It sits southwest of the plaza.
Next to Petrobras is one of the oddest buildings in Rio de Janeiro. This beehive structure that seems well out of place serves as the city’s Catholic cathedral. Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião was built in 1976 and looks absolutely nothing like a traditional church from the outside. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit because the police had it cordoned off.
A few steps north of the cathedral is the Catedral Presbiteriana. It was built in 1862 and owes its roots to missionaries from the United States. An interesting sculpture of churchgoers sits in a small park out front.
Just north of the Presbyterian cathedral is Praça Tiradentes, with a nice monument in the center, and the city’s huge market district. Mercado Popular deals in cheap knock-offs, while another market with thousands of small stores selling real goods is nearby.
Note: The only time you should visit this area is during the weekdays. Nights and weekends are absolutely off limits. Nobody lives in this area and it is not safe to be there alone. You should also be aware of your surroundings and be very careful with valuables.