How to See the Beautiful City of Rio de Janiero on a Tight Budget

Updated on August 31, 2018
Janda Raker profile image

Janda has explored four continents via train, motorcycle, cross-country skis, mountain bike, snowshoes, sea kayak and her own two feet.

Ipanema, one of the most popular beaches in Rio, faces the Atlantic. In the background are the Two Brothers mountains and many high-rise buildings.
Ipanema, one of the most popular beaches in Rio, faces the Atlantic. In the background are the Two Brothers mountains and many high-rise buildings. | Source

Why Visit Rio?

Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, making it into the top ten on most lists. But what makes a city beautiful? Its architecture, its parks, its sculptures, its people? For Rio, it is location, location, location. The one-of-a-kind city is built around the surrounding beaches, bays, monoliths, lakes and mountains (20 within the city limits, alone!).

Why Is It Inexpensive to Tour Rio?

It’s less expensive to tour Rio than most big cities. You don’t need to take a commercial tour because the views are most important, and you can take public transportation to different areas of town to experience them. Most of the tourist attractions are in the Zona Sul, the southern part of the city, and much of Rio is visible from the famous beaches of Ipanema, Copacabana and Vermelha.

Palms highlight the skyline in central Botofogo.
Palms highlight the skyline in central Botofogo. | Source
Contemporary office buildings in Botafogo.
Contemporary office buildings in Botafogo. | Source
Huge seed pods on tropical trees near hostel in Botofogo, a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.
Huge seed pods on tropical trees near hostel in Botofogo, a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. | Source

Advantages and Concerns of Rio City

The city was beautifully refurbished for the 2016 Olympics, including the construction of a modernized public-transportation system. However, considerable political upheaval continues, along with a high crime rate, inflation, low GDP, and some worries about Zika virus. But since the Olympics, lodging and food prices have moderated, and staying near tourist attractions or populated areas helps ensure safety.

Rio Is a Big City!

Rio is the sixth largest city in the western hemisphere, with over 6 million residents (primarily of Portuguese, African, or mixed descent) who live on the Atlantic coast on the west side of Guanabara Bay, facing east toward Niteroi across the bay. The whole metropolitan area is home to around 13 million people.

What About the Language?

Remember, Brazil’s language is NOT Spanish; it’s Portuguese, which is spelled similarly to Spanish but is different in sound. So if you’re a Spanish speaker, you’ll have some advantage in reading the language of Brazil but not necessarily in understanding the spoken language. For example, praia means beach in Portuguese, similar to the Spanish, playa. If you see a sign or a place on a map that says “praia,” go there; you’ll love it!

Note: Most workers in the tourism industries do speak some English.

A heliport for sightseeing helicopters overlooks Centro (the downtown area), Botofogo Bay and neighborhood, and Cristo Redentor on Corcovado Mountain (on the far horizon, center).
A heliport for sightseeing helicopters overlooks Centro (the downtown area), Botofogo Bay and neighborhood, and Cristo Redentor on Corcovado Mountain (on the far horizon, center). | Source
The elegant Theatro Municipal (Municipal Theatre), undergoing renovation a few years ago, in Centro (downtown Rio).
The elegant Theatro Municipal (Municipal Theatre), undergoing renovation a few years ago, in Centro (downtown Rio). | Source
Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and Morro da Urca (the Hill of the Cargo Ship), overlooking private pleasure boats harbored in Botafogo Cove of Guanabara Bay.
Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and Morro da Urca (the Hill of the Cargo Ship), overlooking private pleasure boats harbored in Botafogo Cove of Guanabara Bay. | Source

Best Budget Accommodations in Rio

Budget tourist accommodations include camping and inexpensive hostels. Hostel prices start as low as $5 USD per night per person, even in the Zona Sul, if you don’t mind meager lodgings. Many hostels cost around $17 USD per person, providing a comfortable stay.

Note: Because of the high crime rate, camping is best only if you’re surfing or doing a hiking tour with a group, thus avoiding leaving your camp unattended while you go into the city to tour.

Plan what you want to see in Rio before deciding where to stay. This will help you save time and money on transportation to the sites you wish to visit.

Which Neighborhood Should You Stay In?

One popular area for accommodations is Botafogo. The neighborhood, beach and shopping mall are located halfway between two of the favorite tourist sites in Rio—Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açucar, in Portuguese) jutting up from Guanabara Bay, and Cristo Redentor on Corcovado Mountain. Only 4 miles apart, both are visible from the shopping mall’s balconies, with Sugarloaf Mountain to the east, Cristo Redentor to the west, and Botafogo beach and harbor in the center. If that’s all you see of Rio, you’ll leave happy.

View of Botafogo Neighborhood, Rio from the cable car atop Sugarloaf Mountain. A foggy view of Centro (downtown Rio), Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) on the horizon at right, and the Botafogo neighborhood.
View of Botafogo Neighborhood, Rio from the cable car atop Sugarloaf Mountain. A foggy view of Centro (downtown Rio), Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) on the horizon at right, and the Botafogo neighborhood. | Source

Hotel Reservations and Public Transportation

You can reserve a hotel or hostel before you start your trip, but, except during the heaviest travel days, this shouldn't be necessary. Normally, you can arrive at the airport, train or bus station in Rio, check at one of the kiosks that books hotels, tell them your needs and price range, and they can arrange accommodation for you (and possibly even transportation).

Wherever you want to go, buses and the subway (metro) will take you to the general area for around $1 USD per trip, perhaps a little more for air-conditioned vehicles. Buses are clearly marked with destinations. Many travelers prefer bus transportation because they can see the architecture, both classic and contemporary, and lifestyles in the areas they are passing through.

How to Eat Safely and Frugally in Rio

Hostels generally provide kitchens in which guests can cook, eat and store their food. Snack foods or ingredients for meals are available at local markets, and small neighborhood cafes provide tasty nourishment at inexpensive prices.

How to Avoid Food Poisoning While Travelling in Rio

Some travelers need to be cautious to avoid digestive upsets, so if the local water is not pure enough for you, you should avoid fresh vegetables and fruits and drink only bottled water.

Note: You should also use bottled water when brushing your teeth and avoid swallowing any water in the shower.

Another way to avoid digestive troubles is by sticking to food courts, fast food and other chain restaurants in shopping centers. These establishments have deep pockets, so they are careful to provide safe food service to prevent lawsuits.

For example, Botafogo Praia Shopping is an eight-story shopping mall, right across a road from the beach, with a wide spectrum of shopping and entertainment options. It has about 40 restaurants, with a wide assortment of cuisine from all over the world, including much that’s familiar to American travelers, such as Subway, Burger King and McDonald’s. It also has balconies on the top two floors, presenting fabulous views of Guanabara Bay that are especially enticing at night.

A black vulture (top, center) soaring out from Morro da Urca, as seen from Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio.
A black vulture (top, center) soaring out from Morro da Urca, as seen from Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio. | Source

Top 4 Cheap Things to Do in Rio

From climbing mountains to lounging on the beach, there's no shortage of fun and affordable things to do in Rio. Here are four of my favorite cheap activities in the city.

1. Go up Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açucar) and Morro da Urca

The preeminent activity in Rio may be somewhat challenging for some: to go up on Sugarloaf. The single rock resembles the upturned end of a slender loaf of bread. Start at the bottom of Morro da Urca, which means the “hill of the cargo ship,” the huge rounded rock hill below Sugarloaf.

Either take the cable car from the beginning to the top of Morro da Urca or hike the forest trail that winds up onto the big rounded rock to the plateau between the two monoliths, over 700 feet high, and continue to the base of Sugarloaf, where you board the next cable car to the top.

Note: If you take the trail, watch for marmosets, tiny long-tailed monkeys about the size of your hand, in the trees. Some people try to feed them, but that’s discouraged.

You may also be able to watch young athletes rappelling down the side of Urca, with a view of the peninsula and its stunning historical buildings and homes—reminders of the artistic style of the Portuguese colonial period—below.

Cautious travelers can skip the ride to the top of Sugarloaf and just enjoy the exquisite views from the top of Urca down into the harbor, the bay, the beaches and the city. But the view from the top of Sugarloaf, at 1,283 feet, is even more fabulous and expansive.

Cable car nearing the top of Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) in Rio.
Cable car nearing the top of Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) in Rio. | Source
One of many athletic young people rappelling down the western side of Sugarloaf Mountain, with a fabulous view of lovely historical homes and buildings from the Portuguese colonial period.
One of many athletic young people rappelling down the western side of Sugarloaf Mountain, with a fabulous view of lovely historical homes and buildings from the Portuguese colonial period. | Source
View of the Urca neighborhood, which includes homes from the Portuguese colonial era, and Guanabara Bay, from the top of Morro da Urca.
View of the Urca neighborhood, which includes homes from the Portuguese colonial era, and Guanabara Bay, from the top of Morro da Urca. | Source

2. Visit Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer)

The second most popular site in Rio is Corcovado Mountain (meaning “Hunchback” Mountain, named for its shape) with its 125-foot art-deco statue of Cristo Redentor on top. West of downtown, it rises 2,329 feet above the city and is visible from almost every vantage point in the city, especially at night because it’s lighted.

The statue has been named one of the seven “new wonders of the world.” It’s accessible to tourists in many ways—by hiking 2½ hours up the road leading to the top, driving, taking a van, or combinations of bus, train, and even subway. Each of these combinations, including entrance to the statue, should cost around $30 USD, less on weekdays. Some tickets are best purchased online.

From the summit of the mountain, 220 steps lead to the base of the statue, but an elevator and escalator are available, providing access for all. Go during clear weather, especially in the morning, as cloudy afternoon weather combined with the altitude may obscure the gorgeous view below.

Note: Stormy weather can cause the area to be closed, so plan accordingly.

In 2010, downpours damaged the statue, and the site was closed to tourism for several months as tiles of white soapstone replaced the original ones. Even during that time, with huge nets hung over the statue to prevent injury to workers and people who live below on the hillside, the lights were on, and the statue's venerable shape was visible throughout the city.

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) atop Corcovado (the Hunchback) Mountain, in Rio de Janeiro was once the largest art deco statue in the Western Hemisphere.
Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) atop Corcovado (the Hunchback) Mountain, in Rio de Janeiro was once the largest art deco statue in the Western Hemisphere. | Source

3. Check Out the Best Beaches in Rio—Ipanema and Copacabana

The beaches are not to be missed, and they’re free. Ipanema, which faces east onto the Atlantic, inspired the wonderful song, “The Girl from Ipanema.” Copacabana, just to the east of Ipanema, faces southeast, and it has its own song by Barry Manilow. Both beaches host thousands of sun worshippers and surfers on sunny days.

Tip: Not a fan of crowds? The small Vermelha, south of Sugarloaf, welcomes families with children in a safe, secluded setting near a naval base. Outside the cove at Vermelha Beach, commercial fishing boats ply the waters, catching fish for the excellent restaurants in Rio.

Ipanema Beach is one of the best-known beaches in Rio—perhaps in the world—because of the song "The Girl from Ipanema."

Ipanema Beach is possibly the most famous in Rio and has the wonderful Two Brothers, the peaks, in the background.
Ipanema Beach is possibly the most famous in Rio and has the wonderful Two Brothers, the peaks, in the background. | Source
Copacabana Beach, even in late afternoon, is one of the most attractive in South America, developed with hotels, restaurants, and attractive paving stones.
Copacabana Beach, even in late afternoon, is one of the most attractive in South America, developed with hotels, restaurants, and attractive paving stones. | Source
The lovely, small beach of Praia Vermelha, near Sugarloaf, is a protected and welcoming stretch of sand and sea for adults and children.
The lovely, small beach of Praia Vermelha, near Sugarloaf, is a protected and welcoming stretch of sand and sea for adults and children. | Source

4. Visit the Jardim Botânico (the Botanical Garden)

The expansive and fascinating Jardim Botânico, in the western part of the city, presents examples of South American plant life, including 500 species of orchids, enormous redwoods, and ponds full of giant water lilies, as well as some animals, including huge, vivid blue butterflies, black capuchin monkeys and tiny marmosets. Entry costs about $2 USD.

The Jardim Botânico presents small ponds full of  huge lily pads, up to three feet across.
The Jardim Botânico presents small ponds full of huge lily pads, up to three feet across. | Source
The impressive Avenue of Royal Palms stretches for half a mile through Jardim Botânico.
The impressive Avenue of Royal Palms stretches for half a mile through Jardim Botânico. | Source

Quiz About Rio!

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Other Interesting Sights to Check Out in Rio

In addition to the sites mentioned above, these five also beckon tourists.

  • The modernistic Metropolitan Cathedral
  • Tijuca National Park
  • Pedra de Gávea (a monolith that ends in the sea)
  • Guanabara Bay (the largest by volume in the world)
  • Maracanã Stadium (one of the largest soccer stadiums ever built)

Don't Go to the Favelas!

Do NOT tour the favelas, the crowded slums on the hillsides. To many, that’s like paying to see the bearded lady at the circus—being entertained by others’ misfortune.

Just enjoy fabulous Rio, one of the best cities in the world!

The contemporary Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian in Rio is one of the buildings that shows the contrast between the old and new.
The contemporary Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian in Rio is one of the buildings that shows the contrast between the old and new. | Source
Parishioners and travelers alike worship in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian with reverence in the impressive modern space as the Bishop conducts services.
Parishioners and travelers alike worship in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian with reverence in the impressive modern space as the Bishop conducts services. | Source

Do you want to go to Rio de Janeiro?

See results

Map of Rio de Janeiro

A
Botafogo neighorhood:
Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

get directions

B
Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain):
Sugarloaf Mountain - Urca, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

get directions

C
Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) on Corcovado Mountain:
Parque Nacional da Tijuca - Alto da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, Brazil

get directions

D
Ipanema Beach:
Ipanema Beach - Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

get directions

E
Copacabana Beach:
Copacabana Beach - Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

get directions

F
Vermelha Beach:
Red Beach, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

get directions

G
Jardim Botânico (Botanic Garden), Rio:
Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro - R. Jardim Botânico, 1008 - Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro - RJ,

get directions

H
Catredral Metropolitana de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeira (Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian):
Av. Chile, 245 - Centro, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20031-170, Brazil

get directions

I
Guanabara Bay:
Guanabara Bay, Brazil

get directions

J
Estádio do Maracanã (Maracana Stadium):
Av. Pres. Castelo Branco, Portão 3 - Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20271-130, Brazil

get directions

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Janda Raker

    Comments

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      • profile image

        Janda Raker 

        11 days ago

        Bill, thanks a lot for taking time to look at my article on Rio. Really, it's such a gorgeous place that you wouldn't even notice the six million other folks! LOL And they're not ALL anywhere at the same time! Seriously, the little Vermejo Beach only had about 25 people on it the afternoon we were there. I love solitary places, but sometimes you just need to go see why so MANY people go to SOME places! It's because those places are really awesome! :-)

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        The scenery is, for sure, breathtaking. Me and six million other people might be a bit too much for me to handle, I'm afraid, but thanks for the tour.

      • Janda Raker profile imageAUTHOR

        Janda Raker 

        3 weeks ago from Amarillo, Texas

        Oh, no, I haven't. I'll do that soon! I LOVE Prague!! Looking forward to seeing what you've written about it! And I haven't beeen to Porto, really don't know anything about it, so I'll learn a lot! Thanks!

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        I will have a look when I get a chance. Have you checked out my articles on Porto and Prague?

      • Janda Raker profile imageAUTHOR

        Janda Raker 

        3 weeks ago from Amarillo, Texas

        Thanks! Have you checked my earlier ones, about Machu Picchu, Venice, and Friday Harbor in Puget Sound, Washington State? Hope you find them informative also!

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        I look forward to reading your next article.

      • Janda Raker profile imageAUTHOR

        Janda Raker 

        3 weeks ago from Amarillo, Texas

        Thanks a lot, Eurofile! Glad you enjoyed my article on Rio. Sorry I'm late in responding. I've been--guess what--traveling! Really just a short trip to New Mexico in our camper, off the grid and out of internet access. BUT if I'm gonna be a travel writer, I gotta travel, don't I? LOL

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        4 weeks ago from UK

        This was an extremely well-illustrated article, packed with useful and interesting information.

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