If you can’t make Carnaval, give the shows put on for tourists in the Zona Sul a miss and get a taste of the samba schools at the ensaios (rehearsals) below. They take place at weekends from August to February: phone to confirm times and days. After New Year, Saturday nights are packed solid with tourists and prices triple. Instead, go to one on a midweek evening or, better still, on Sunday afternoon when there’s no entrance fee and locals predominate.
Most of the schools are in distant bairros, often in, or on the edge of, a favela, but there’s no need to go accompanied by a guide. It’s easy, safe and not too expensive to take a taxi there and back (there are always plenty waiting to take people home). Of the schools, Mangueira is certainly the most famous; it has a devoted following, a great atmosphere and includes children and old people amongst its dancers. The gay-friendly Salgueiro has a more white, middle-class fanbase.
The Cidade do Samba, a purpose-built arena and studio complex in Centro, is an even easier way of observing Carnaval preparations. All the Division 1 schools are represented here and their daily musical and dance demonstrations are produced for the public.