Known as “the marvelous city,” Rio de Janeiro is one of the hottest travel destinations in the world, and the most visited city in all of the southern hemisphere.  Nature lovers and city slickers alike can find something to enjoy in the various terrains Rio has to offer, from its mountains and rain forests to the beaches and concrete playground of the city center.  With the Summer Olympics quickly approaching, the costs to visit Rio de Janeiro are expected to skyrocket.

But wait a minute! Don’t move Rio to the bottom of your list of places to visit just yet.  A real saved is a real earned and we’ve compiled a few ways to save you some cash so you can still enjoy Rio de Janeiro without burning your money belt.  Here are ten ways to do Rio on the Cheap (or free).

Eat Lanches and fresh fruit

Lanches burger and fresh watermelon juice
Lanches burger and fresh watermelon juice

We all know that you can only cut so many corners when it comes to food, especially in a city so full of delicious options.  While it’s hard to refuse churrascaria, most of us can’t eat a Brazilian barbecue buffet every day, and who would want to, granted there are so many other local foods to enjoy in the most populous city of Brazil?  If you’re looking for something lighter, quicker or even on-the-go, lanches can very well make the perfect meal.

Lanches, which means “snacks” in Portuguese, are usually eaten between lunch and dinner, but it’s just as common to see people taking their meals of sandwiches and burgers standing at a counter of a lanches bar.  You can also find a variety of fruit juices and acai at these bars, which seem to be on almost every corner.  Lanches bars offer a variety of different foods, including pasteis or “parcels” of fried, savory pies filled with beef, chicken, shrimp and/or cheese. The best part?  Lanches bars are generally inexpensive and depending on where you go, a few dollars can easily suffice for a meal.

Don’t forget that the country you’re traveling in has a wide variety of fruit and produce that won’t come as cheap or delicious (not to mention, huge!) anywhere else in the world.  Avocados, passionfruit, custard apples, persimmons, caju, mangosteens, mangos, guavas, pineapples, bananas, plums, papayas, the list goes on of the varieties local to this country. Fruit can be purchased cheaply at grocery stores and you’ll be surprised how much fruit you can get for a few reais. When it comes to shopping at the markets, you can easily save a pretty penny by preparing your own breakfasts each day.  A typical Brazilian breakfast of bread, cold cuts, cheese and fruit will cost you much less if you buy it at the market instead of a cafe.

Explore the Tijuca Rainforest

The Tijuca Rainforest is the largest urban rainforest in the world, covering more than 12 square miles just next to the city.  Though it was previously cleared to grow coffee and sugar, trees were replanted in the 19th century to help protect the city’s water supply.  While there are plenty of guided tours in the National Park, you can also independently explore the Tijuca Rainforest on foot and encounter countless rare plants and wildlife in their natural habitat, such as capuchin monkeys, sloths, birds and armadillos.  Be sure to stop by the beautiful waterfalls, Vista Chinesa and incredible views of Rio you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Transportation using BikeRio

Biking in front of Teatro Municipal
Biking in front of Teatro Municipal

Rio is a big city and exploring it in its entirety on foot would definitely be time-consuming but without a car, the only other option would be public transport, which is great and also inexpensive, but may sometimes limit your views of the city. Furthermore, some areas don’t warrant a long stop for photos or a sit-down meal. This is where Rio’s public bike-sharing program comes in handy and can change the way you see the city.

BikeRio has stations all over the city so anyone can check out a bike and return it to another station for a small fee.  All you need is a Brazilian cell phone number (easily acquired if you buy a SIM card for just a couple of dollars), a credit card and $5 Reais for a day pass or $10 Reais for a month pass.  BikeRio is convenient with bike racks are spread out and well-located near main attractions and neighborhoods.  On top of that, if you only need a bike to get from here to there under 30 minutes, it’s free!  Just be sure to return your bike within the allotted time.

Recommendation for a Bike ride: Start near Parque Flamengo, along Avenida Infante Dom. Henrique all the way to Leblon.  This route will take you along the waterfront with beautiful views of Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer, through the bustling neighborhoods of Ipanema and Copacabana to the fancier side of Leblon, with many BikeRio stops in between if you want to park and have a snack or a drink.

Hike to Christ the Redeemer

Some of Rio’s attractions don’t charge high admission fees for the view, but simply for the transportation to get to the vista, such as Christ the Redeemer.  In this case, you have the opportunity to save your cash and take the scenic route.  A hike from the city to the top of Corcovado Mountain to Christ the Redeemer takes about two and a half hours and gives you a chance to visit Parque Lage, waterfalls and experience the shelter and climate of rainforest canopies.   With a little extra energy and time, the sweeping view from the top will be that much sweeter.

The view from the Christo
The view from the Christo

Relax at the beaches

The best things in life are free, and that includes the sun, sand and sea in Rio de Janeiro. Whether it was first in a photo or movie, we’ve all seen the famous views and beautiful crowds of Copacabana.  Copacabana and Ipanema beaches neighbor one another and are the perfect setting to lay out and enjoy a coco verde or to swim and play in the water.

Parties and art in Lapa

A walk through the historic district of Lapa is a must for anyone interested in art and bohemian Brazilian culture.  Check out the Lapa Arches, colonial buildings on Rua da Lavradio which have been converted into shops and restaurants, and of course, the iconic Lapa Steps, also known as Escadaria Selarón.  A former meeting place for intellectuals, artists and creatives, Lapa overflows with free cultural experiences, from the Metropolitan Cathedral to the Teatro Odisséia to the beautifully detailed street art painted on the walls.

At night, Lapa is the the hotspot for clubs, nightlife and music, especially Samba.  It’s also famous for its street party in front of the Arches on the weekends.  All are welcome and it doesn’t cost a thing to dance. While numerous bars keep drinks pouring early into the morning, some clubs offer free admission or entry and unlimited drinks for much lower prices than you might be used to in your home country.

Free Walking Tours

While you can arrange many local tours with your hostel, hotel or online, Free Walker Tours provides free tours on a tips-only basis.  They offer free walking tours to Ipanema and Copacabana, Downtown and Lapa, food tours in Santa Teresa and pub crawls in Lapa and Ipanema.  For more information, visit their website. (Note: food and pub crawl tours cost $60 Reais.)

Jardim Botanico (the Botanical Gardens)

A mere 9 reais for admission will provide you what many call the best value in the city.  Located in the South Zone of Rio, the botanical gardens boasts over 6,500 species of local and foreign flora and many artistic, historical and archaeological monuments.  Within the gardens, visitors can stroll through lakes, caves, additional gardens, and Parque Lage, a public park to see beautifully manicured landscapes, fountains and ponds.  There are also daily horse races free for spectators. Food and drinks are sold in the Jockey Club for reasonable prices and bets can be placed at as low as 2 Reais.

Local Markets

Pasteis
Pasteis

Even if you don’t want to spend, the local markets in Rio are not to be missed, as perusing the stalls are an event in themselves.  Here is a brief list of markets that take place across the city:

1. The Hippie Fair in Ipanema
Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Good for: everything – souvenirs, art, food, bags, crafts, local and unique items

2. The Night Market in Copacabana
Monday to Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight
Good for: beachwear, souvenirs, sports apparel

3. Feira The Laranjeiras Market in Praca Jardim Larajeiras
Saturdays
Good for: samba, organic produce, flowers

4. Feira de São Cristovão – Pavilhão de São Cristóvão
Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Good for: music, crafts, clothing and food

5. Uruguaiana Arabian Market – near Uruguaiana Metro station in Centro
Monday to Friday from 9a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Good for: everything – electronics, clothing, toys, spices, perfumes, tobacco

6. Praça XV Flea Market – Praca Quinze de Novembro in Centro
Saturdays, early morning until 2 p.m.
Good for: antiques, second hand items

7. Babilônia Feira Hype
Locations and hours change; check website here.
Good for: fashion, art and decor, crafts, food.

Author: Elizabeth Toy

Elizabeth Toy is a writer, graphic designer and traveler. After taking her first trip abroad during university, she has since traveled to over 25 countries and fallen in love with many more cities throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, North and South America. An advocate of snail mail, slow food and storybook romance, Elizabeth is a thrill-seeker and a wanderer at heart. If you’re looking for her, she’s probably at the dog beach, baking sweets at home or driving too fast in her hometown, Los Angeles.

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