A week in Rio de Janeiro flew by. I knew it would.
Heather and I had debated what to do with our final day in the city. There were so many options! We’d hit a lot of the major must-sees — we’d woken up before dawn to be (literally) the first two people at Christ Redeemer, we’d gone hang gliding over São Conrado, we’d sampled the southern beaches, and we’d toured a colorful favela. Top attractions? Check. Adrenaline activities? Check. Beach bumming? Check.
So for our final act, we decided to tick the culture box, and signed up for Viator’s Rio de Janiero Street Art Tour. I’d been amazingly inspired by the works I saw from the creative community in São Paulo, and I wondered how the two cities might compare.
We knew from the moment that we were greeted by our cute guide Nina — also the founder of the tour! — that we were going to get along great.
For starters, Nina spoke some of the most fluent English of any Brazilian we’d met along our journey, which felt like an undeserved treat after weeks of butchering Portuguese. And thank goodness, because we would have been devastated to miss a single word!
For the next four hours, we were under Nina’s spell as she led us through tunnels, around school yards, into craft breweries and beyond to discover some of Rio’s most intriguing pieces of public art. It’s a relatively new industry, at least from a legal standpoint — it was only in 2009 that the Brazilian government decriminalized street art.
Unlike every other street art tour I’ve ever been on, this one is not exclusively a walking tour. Rio is sprawling and the best works are spread out around the city, so a comfortable, air-conditioned bus transported us from stop to stop where we’d often then walk for a bit.
Generally, the tour meets at Siqueira Campos Metro station, however, we were getting a slightly abridged tour. We’d hoped to schedule this activity earlier in our stay, but there was only one tour running the week of our trip, and it was a chartered trip from a wealthy group of wives of expatriate bankers from neighboring South American countries — mostly Venezuela and Colombia. Heather and I were disappointed to learn that they’d strictly specified that they refused to enter a favela, which is normally a popular stop along Nina’s route. It was an eye-opening reminder of the terrible stigma that favelas have in Brazil, and of the enormous income inequality that plagues the country.
But we tried to focus on the positive: we had a beautiful day and a great tour guide, and lots of intriguing art to admire. Nina took time not just to point out impressive works, but also to educate us, explaining the difference between a tag, graffiti, and murals — in both the eyes of artists and the law. She pointed out different methods and materials, and most notably seemed able to recite the name and backstory of the artist responsible for every brushstroke in the city.
Nina is, it was slowly revealed, personal friends with many of the artists, which allowed her to share an amazing number of quirky insider anecdotes.
We quickly caught on that if you pay attention, there are actually a relatively small number of artists creating street art around Rio. Which means that once you recognize an artist’s work, you’re likely to see it everywhere. Even more fun? Many of them are frequent collaborators, which made looking at a mural like trying to solve an equation — perhaps a bit of Bruno Big in one corner, a Carlos Bobi portrait in the center, and is that one of Rodrigo Villa’s birds up top?
Many of the pieces also addressed social injustice, or current events in Brazil. The FIFA World Cup and the then-upcoming Olympics were two hot topics. Many artists voiced the outrage some Brazilian citizens felt at the overspending on these events, funds which could have been channeled into education and healthcare, for example. Others were hired to do official projects promoting the events. It was one small example of the complexity layered on these simple concrete walls.
Yup, these two art school nerds were in visual heaven.
A brief stop near Botafogo reminded us that we still had one major attraction to tick off our list: iconic Sugarloaf mountain! We still hadn’t been, but not for lack of trying. On the day we’d arrived in Rio we’d breathlessly thrown our bags down, turned around and rushed into an Uber and flew over to Sugarloaf, perfectly timed to catch sunset… except the star attraction was closed for cable car maintenance. For three days. Oops.
The day it reopened, there was full cloud cover and no sunset. Then we were hungover. Then it rained. Then suddenly, it was our last day in Rio and we were on an art tour. That evening was our last try.
Back on the bus, we made our way towards the last stop of the tour, a microbrewery and gallery hybrid in chic Leblon. After a quick drink — and free popcorn! — we gave Nina an enormously heartfelt thanks for the day.
Love art? Interested in seeing an alternative side to Rio? Want to support a young female entrepreneur? Take this tour! While we were a bit bummed out that our tour was huge and had so many outside-imposed restrictions that we didn’t agree with, it sounds like it’s a rarity. Plus, it’s good to keep in mind that all tours have a flexible itinerary since street art is always changing. One thing likely to remain the same for a long time to come are the talented artists Nina features — she even emails you a PDF run-down after the tour so you can keep an eye out for their works when wandering on your own.
Which is one reason of many to take this tour as early in your trip as possible. Nina will also give you plenty of tips for what to see and where to eat, and give you a heads up about upcoming events and shows. I wish we could have attended some that she recommended!
So how did Rio’s street art compare to that of its rival city? In my subjective opinion, the scene as a whole wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the street art scene in São Paulo, but considering the latter is the center for art and design for the entire country, that’s not too much of a surprise.
Plus, the quality of Nina’s tour was just so high it kind of offset the ranking.
We had a bit of time to kill before sunset at Sugarloaf, and so we ambitiously tried to squeeze in a visit to the famous , since we were quite close in Leblon. And it probably would have worked if we hadn’t wasted some time time looking for a snack (could have gotten one at the Botanical Garden), having trouble connecting with an Uber driver, and then literally having one of the two worst Uber drivers we had in all of Rio.
By the time we arrived, we had tragically little time before we had to turn around and leave again.
With basically zero minutes, we made a straight shot for the park’s most famous row of historic palm trees, took a few (billion) portraits, and off we went. I hope to return someday — designed in 1808 with over 8,000 plant species, it’s certainly worth more than the very brief glance we had to give it.
However, assuming you are less rushed and have better driver luck than we did, this truly is the perfect post-street art tour activity — it’s a very convenient location, and the natural beauty perfectly complemented the man-made one we’d just soaked up.
But have you ever seen a dreamier place to take a few twirling pictures?
Photos of me by !
And then we were off to our , the famous Sugarloaf Mountain. Remember when I said our driver to the Botanical Garden was our second worst taxi driver in Rio? Yeah, well the driver who eventually brought us to Sugarloaf — he was number one.
We were in agony as our driver got lost, boldly ignored Uber’s driving directions, pulled the car over to consult with locals, and then missed the entrance to one of Rio’s most visited attractions multiple times. The ride took twice as long as it should have and it was the first time I’ve ever asked Uber for a refund (which they granted).
We caught the last of the sunset from the window of the first cable car. We ended up getting some gorgeous photos and having an amazing experience regardless, but it was hard to shake off the chaos and stress of getting there and just enjoy the moment.
However, when the lights of Rio started to blink on in the darkness, that was certainly just what I needed to switch gears on a sour mood.
We stayed up at the top of the mountain for ages watching the sky change colors. From our brief anecdotal experience, sunset seemed like a great time to go — we got gorgeous city views, the lines were very short, and we mostly had the place to ourselves.
It was a surprisingly rocky road to get there, but ending our final day in Rio at one of it’s most iconic viewpoints was a beautiful note to go out on. Chaotic, rushed, stressful, but ultimately stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous and inspiring — our last day in Rio was a bit of a metaphor for our entire trip to Brazil.
Next stop, Buzios!
I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.