RIO DE JANEIRO -- After years of steady economic growth in Brazil, the dream of an on-the-cheap exotic vacation in Rio de Janeiro has melted faster than a Popsicle in tropical sunshine.
Now, sipping something fancy in boutique bars dotting bourgeois neighborhoods like Ipanema and Leblon will run you a tab to rival any in New York, London or Paris. Even down-home finger-food and a cold beer at a corner bar come at eye-popping prices. But cariocas, as Rio residents are known, don't call their hometown the "marvelous city," or cidade maravilhosa, because of chichi eateries or faddish clubs. It's the stunning natural setting, the easy charm of locals and the culture that give the city its flair. And those can all be had for nada at the following spots:
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Beach, beach, beach: Rio boasts some of the world's most stunning urban beaches and they're worth several visits. Cariocas spend much of their free time sunning themselves, chatting up neighbors, toning their muscles and then showing them off on these long stretches of white sand, so beach-going makes for great people-watching. Go to Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon or Praia Vermelha, at the foot of the Sugarloaf Mountain, if you want to stay in the city. Leave behind the backdrop of buildings and go to beaches in the western suburbs of Barra da Tijuca and Recreio for a quieter experience. Prainha, farther out, makes for great surfing. Keep going west and you'll hit Grumari, the most remote beach, a jewel of a spot surrounded by a nature preserve.
Parque Lage and the famous statue: About a half-mile away from the also-gorgeous but not free Jardim Botanico, or Botanical Gardens, Parque Lage has as much charm as its better-known neighbor. Like the Botanical Gardens, this park is a vast green space unfolding from the skirts of the Corcovado mountain, on which Rio's famous Christ the Redeemer statue is perched. It has two added attractions: an early 20th century mansion, which now houses an art school and a worthwhile little cafe that has good weekend brunches, and a steep trail that leads hikers nearly to the feet of the Christ statue. Getting close to the statue itself costs money, but hikers can take in the views from the platform below and hike back down for free.
Historic Rio: Rio was once the seat of an empire, and then the capital of newly independent Brazil. Aspects of this history can be seen in a winding walk through the cobblestoned streets that remain downtown. Within a few blocks, you can see the Paco Imperial, or Royal Palace, the home where the Portuguese royal family settled when they fled Europe just ahead of Napoleon's advancing troops, and the Biblioteca Nacional, or National Library, with a collection that has been growing since 1810. Nearby is the neoclassical Teatro Municipal, the Municipal Theater. It's all granite, marble and bronze, modeled after the Paris Opera. Two little cobblestone streets in the area, Rua do Ouvidor and Rua do Rosario, are among the best preserved examples of Portuguese colonial architecture. Rua do Ouvidor in particular gets packed during happy hour as several of the buildings have been turned into bars. It's also a great place to hear samba (see below). For contemporary culture, check out three important cultural centers in the area: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Centro Cultural dos Correios, and Casa Franca Brasil. They have rotating exhibits that are generally free.
Samba: Rio's signature percussion-driven rhythm can be heard in classy indoor music venues, sure, but old-school samba circles can pop up without notice. There are parts of town where musicians traditionally gather, where you can find great samba played the way it was in its origins: outdoors, and free for all. Rua do Ouvidor, or Ouvidor Street in downtown, generally has music on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Pedra do Sal, in the downtown neighborhood of Saude, has samba circles on Mondays and Fridays.
Parque Nacional da Tijuca: The most-visited national park in Brazil, this nearly 10,000-square-acre expanse of forest embedded in Rio de Janeiro is what allows this densely populated city to breathe. There are trails of various lengths and levels of difficulty carved through the forest, leading up to peaks with stunning of the city below. Details: http://www.parquedatijuca.com.br.