Much of historical Rio is concentrated in Centro, with pockets of interest, too, in the neighbouring Saúde and Lapa quarters of the city. You’ll find you can tour the centre fairly easily on foot, but bear in mind that lots of the old historical squares, streets and buildings disappeared in the twentieth century under a torrent of redevelopment, and fighting your way through the traffic – the reason many of the streets were widened in the first place – can be quite a daunting prospect.
Head south from Cinelândia and Avenida Rio Branco passes Praça Mahatma Gandhi, which borders the Passeio Público park, well into the Lapa bairro. Beautifully maintained, the park is an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Opened in 1783, it was designed in part by Mestre Valentim da Fonseca e Silva, Brazil’s most important late eighteenth-century sculptor, its trees providing shade for busts commemorating famous figures from the city’s history, including Mestre Valentim himself.
The rest of Lapa has much the same faded charm as the park – attractive enough to merit exploring. Lapa is an old bairro; Brasil Gerson, writing in his História das ruas do Rio de Janeiro, noted that it was traditionally known as an “area of ‘cabarets’ and bawdy houses, the haunt of scoundrels, of gamblers, swashbucklers and inverteds and the ‘trottoir’ of poor, fallen women” – evidently a place to rush to, or avoid, depending upon your taste in entertainment. Until the mid-seventeenth century, Lapa was a beach, known as the “Spanish Sands”, but development and land reclamation assisted its slide into shabby grandeur. More recently, things have been looking up with the area blossoming into one of Rio’s liveliest spots for nightlife (see Live music in Lapa).
From Lapa you can walk down to the Avenida Beira Mar, where the Monumento dos Mortos na Segunda Guerra Mundial is a clearly visible landmark. Next to the monument, at the north end of the Parque do Flamengo, is the glass-and-concrete Museu de Arte Moderna, designed by the Brazilian architect and urbanist Affonso Reidy and inaugurated in 1958. The museum’s collection was devastated by a fire in 1978 and only reopened in 1990 following the building’s restoration. The permanent collection is still small and, despite boasting some of the great names of twentieth-century Brazilian art, extremely weak, though visiting exhibitions are occasionally worth checking out.