Best Museums in Rio de Janeiro

10 Best Museums and Cultural Centers in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is more famous for its beautiful beaches, beautiful people and beautiful natural landscape than for its museums, but culture vultures heading to this most stunning of cities may be pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of museums and cultural spaces in the city.

On rainy days in Rio -  this is a city in the middle of the rainforest, so when it rains it really rains - head to indoor spaces such as the excellent Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, where big name visiting arts exhibitions are housed alongside a well-stocked bookshop and children's library, cinemas and spaces for classical music performances. On sunny days, make the most of the clear skies and soak up Rio's history in stunning Santa Teresa - which can be seen as a giant outdoor museum dedicated to Rio's colonial architecture, and which is in itself home to some lovely galleries such as Parque das Ruinas. 

Soccer fans should make a beeline for the museum at Rio's legendary Maracana stadium, while fans of the visual arts and architecture should be sure to visit Rio Art Museum and the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Contemporary Art Museum over the bay in Niteroi, both of which are as notable for their unique building design as they are for their arts exhibitions. 


Santa Teresa
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

There's more to Rio de Janeiro than its beaches, and the artistic heart of the city can be found up in the jungle-clad hills of Santa Teresa. Here, pastel-colored colonial mansions have been converted into bucolic bars, friendly guest houses, artists' studios and some of the best restaurants in Rio, and the lofty location makes for some terrific views over the city. Start your visit to Santa Teresa at Largo do Guimaraes, the busy square at the start of the city, and follow the steep cobbled streets to discover vintage clothes stores, bustling drinking dens and some of the friendliest locals in the city.

Recommended for Museums because: With its cobbled streets and old mansions, Santa Teresa is a living museum showcasing Rio's colonial past.

Lucy's expert tip: Head to Santa Teresa on a sunny Sunday afternoon to catch craft fairs, street samba and a welcome change from the packed beaches of the Zona Sul.

Read more about Santa Teresa →

This beautiful park, located right next door to Rio de Janeiro's famous Botanical Gardens, is largely overlooked by tourists. More fool them, as the park is home to one of the most spectacular builldings in the city, framed by the figure of Chriar the Redeemer atop his mountain perch. This building is currently home to an art school, and there are regular exhibitions, and is also the location for a coffee shop and restaurant that make great options for a leisurely brunch. The park may be recognisable to hip hop fans - it appears in the video for --Beautiful--, by Snoop Dogg and Pharell.

Recommended for Museums because: The art school at Parque Lage is a lovely setting for displays by up and coming artists.

Lucy's expert tip: Take some time to wander around the park - it throws up a few surprises in the form of caves and other curiosities

Read more about Parque Lage →

The breezy, bohemian hillside neighborhood of Santa Teresa is known as the artistic heart of Rio, and once a year the neighborhood's many artists throw open the doors of their studios to the public. Known as Arte de Portas Abertas (Open-Door Art), the event has been held for over 20 years and is a major event on the carioca cultural calendar. Thousands of visitors flock to admire, and sometimes buy, locals' artwork, while samba musicians and street stalls selling caipirinhas and beers mean that the atmosphere is far from stuffy. Dates change each year, but Arte de Portas Abertas usually takes place over one weekend in July or August.

Recommended for Museums because: This annual event allows visitors to take a look inside artists' homes and studios.

Lucy's expert tip: Respect residents' wishes and arrive by bus or taxi to avoid clogging the cobbled streets with private cars.

Read more about Arte de Portas Abertas →

Botanical Gardens
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

The informal restaurant inside the leafy gardens that give Jardim Botanico its name is one of the most pleasant spots in the city to enjoy a sandwich, salad and a coffee or glass of wine. This shady botanical garden is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in the fascinating flora and fauna of Rio as well as those just looking for a shady retreat from the sticky heat of the city streets. Colorful butterflies flutter through some 6,500 species of vegetation, while chattering marmoset monkeys play overhead. The sprawling gardens are spread over some 55 acres, with trails leading from one point of interest to another. It is perfectly possible to spend an entire day in this scenic park, so head here early in the morning to make the most of all there is to see here.

Recommended for Museums because: This vast garden is a veritable open air museum of Brazilian flora and fauna

Lucy's expert tip: Bring a picnic if you're on a budget - there are several cafes within the park, but they are predictably pricey.

Read more about Botanical Gardens →

The former mansion home of 20th Century Rio socialite Laurinda Santos Lobo have been transformed from mere ruins to one of the best free cultural spaces in the city. The building combines 20th century grandeur with modern clean lines, sheer glass and steel, and those brave enough to climb the steep stairs to the very top are rewarded with breathtaking 360 views across Rio. There's a pleasant cafe, a small children's play park, and a stage that plays host to theater and dance events. Regular kids shows such as circuses and puppet theater make this a winning option for families visiting Rio.

Recommended for Museums because: Small but often very interesting arts exhibitions are held here, and the old mansion itself provides a glimpse into Rio's colonial past.

Lucy's expert tip: Although entrance to Parque das Ruinas is free, there is a charge to visit the adjoining Museu Chacara do Ceu, an arts museum.

Read more about Parque das Ruinas →

Museu de Arte do Rio
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

When this impressive art museum opened its doors in early 2013, it marked a turning point in the ongoing regeneration of Rio's downtown port zone. This once-neglected part of the city is set to become a major arts and nightlife destination over the coming years,and the Museum de Arte do Rio - a space dedicated almost entirely to artworks celebrating the city itself - makes a great center piece for the area. The building itself is eye-catching, with a giant 'wave' structure joining a handsomely refurbished colonial building with a modern construction that began life as a parking lot, but has been transformed into the perfect neutral space for showcasing both modern and historical art works.

Recommended for Museums because: This vast space dedicated to Rio's rich artistic history is a highlight of the city's cultural scene.

Lucy's expert tip: Travelers with an eye on their budget should head here on a Tuesday, when the R$8 entrance fee is waived.

Read more about Museu de Arte do Rio →

Designed by the late, legendary modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, this space-age modern art museum provides a compelling reason to make the half-hour ferry trip across Guanabara Bay to Niteroi. Resembling a giant white flying saucer that seems to jut right out of the mountainside, the building is reason enough to visit and offers spectacular panoramic views across Rio de Janeiro. The exhibitions themselves are often less than spectacular, but the kooky construction is sure to impress kids, as well as adults with even a passing interest in modernist architecture. There's a decent cafe, and entrance to the museum is free on Wednesdays.

Recommended for Museums because: Arts and architecture fans will love the kooky, Niemeyer-designed museum.

Lucy's expert tip: Take the ferry from the terminal in downtown Rio, and on arrival just grab a cab to the museum., it's a 10-minute ride.

Read more about Museu de Arte Contemporanea (MAC) →

This grand building was a Royal residence until the late 19th Century, when it became a presidential building following the overthrowing of the monarchy. It remained a presidential home until the 1950s, when then President Getulio Vargas, knowing that his days in office were numbered, took his own life. The president's blood-stained pyjamas remain on display in his perfectly preserved bedroom, which is sure to impress those with a taste for the macabre. Elsewhere, the ornate floors and ceilings are impressive, and the building itself is an architecturally interesting mix of European styles, reflecting the ethnic diversity of the team that built it.

Recommended for Museums because: The museum offers a fascinating insight into Brazil's history, and the gardens are a beautiful place to relax.

Lucy's expert tip: The R$6 entrance to the Museum is waived on Wednesdays.

Read more about Museu da Republica (Museum of the Republic) →

Maracana Stadium
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

The mighty Maracana is arguably the world's most famous soccer stadium and, while it is no longer the largest in the world, its 78,000 capacity means it is still a giant among sports arenas. The stadium, whose official title is Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho, is known by the Maracana neighborhood in which it is located, and the drama on the pitch is matched by the dramatic backdrop of towering mountains. While new safety regulations have called for an end to the firecrackers that were once a part of the Brazilian soccer game experience, spectators can still expect frenetic drumming, chanting and general exuberance. For those lucky enough to be in Rio for the FIFA World Cup 2014 games here will doubtless be unforgettable.

Recommended for Museums because: Soccer fans can make behind-the-scenes visits to the legendary stadium and take a peek at memorabilia from Brazilian sports history.

Lucy's expert tip: Don't wear club colors here on match days, the rivalry between Brazilian teams is fierce to say the least.

Read more about Maracana Stadium →

This impressive domed building in the heart of Rio's downtown 'cultural quarter' was formerly the headquarters of the Bank of Brasil, and today is an arts center hosting visiting exhibitions from big name international artists. There are regular classical music and live theater performances, as well as cinema screenings and a program of children's events on Saturdays - including free film screenings and arts workshops. More than just a rainy day option, CCBB (as the center is commonly known in Rio) is a must-visit for culturally-minded visitors to Rio. The building itself is noteworthy, and there's a cafe serving good coffee, sandwiches and more elaborate lunches.

Recommended for Museums because: CCBB hosts impressive art exhibitions in a grand old building.

Lucy's expert tip: There´s a good kids´library upstairs, and free children´s cinema screenings at weekends

Read more about Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil →


Meet Lucy Bryson

Lucy is a British freelance writer living in Rio de Janeiro since 2007. While there are some things she misses about her home country, the lure of year-round sunshine has proved too powerful to resist.