Visitors to Rio de Janeiro often overlook the city's downtown in favor of the more obvious charms of the beaches and tourist hot spots such as the Christ Statue and Sugarloaf. But the center of the city - known as "Centro" - is in fact home to the bulk of Rio's historic buildings, as well as the opinion-dividing modernist cathedral, the colorful Escadaria Selaron, imposing Lapa Arches and the city's oldest street at Rua da Lavradio.
Understandably, many visitors to Rio are wary about heading off on foot to explore the sights of downtown. But now they can sightsee in safety, thanks to tour guides offering group walking tours of the city's downtown.
Rio's downtown has plenty of exploring potential — Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson
There are several companies offering this service, among the best of which are Rio Free Walking Tour and Free Walker Tours. Come rain or come shine, these guided tours run Monday to Friday and provide a safe (and free!) way to see the city center.
Tours typically take in several of the area's grand old buildings, including the domed Municipal Theater, resplendent Imperial Palace and culinary highlights such as the historic Confeitaria Colombo.
The tours are usually conducted in English, and guides offer interesting insights into the history of the city as they lead visitors from one downtown highlight to the next. While there is no charge for the service - although some companies lead paid walking tours, there's really no need to stump up when you can take a quality tour for free - guides will happily accept tips.
Some tours include opportunities to splash the cash at spots such as a store dedicated solely to Havaianas - those legendary rubber flip flops that come in more colors and styles than one could ever imagine.
While Centro and Lapa have seen an increased police presence in recent years, they remain favorite haunts of some of the city's seedier characters, and these guided tours help ensure that visitors can see the sights without inadvertently wandering into an unsafe area.
There's no need to book for either Rio Free Walking Tours or Free Walker Tours. Just take a Metro to Carioca at 9:30 a.m. to spot the Free Walker Tours in their yellow tees, or to Cinelandia metro an hour later to spot the Rio Free Walking Tours guides in their red t-shirts. Remember to bring sunblock or carry umbrellas, as appropriate, and wear comfortable footwear!