The Museum of Tomorrow in Rio’s trendy Port Zone has become an architectural icon in the city. (Photo: Alamy)
In the not-too-distant past, no carioca (Rio local) would have recommended a visit to Rio’s docks, not even after tossing back one too many caipirinhas. Located next to the city’s downtown district, the port and harbor area was abandoned, covered by an overpass and decidedly dangerous. It was a place avoided by both tourists and locals. But its reputation changed drastically thanks to the 2016 Olympic Games.
Considered a prime location to host the Games’ cultural events, the port underwent a huge redevelopment in the time leading up to the Olympics. The overpass was torn down, and warehouses were renovated into trendy spaces. A boardwalk facing Guanabara Bay sprung up, along with a new light-rail transportation system, and museums and an aquarium opened their doors.
Christened “Porto Maravilha” by officials, the Port Zone is Rio’s newest waterfront hot spot and a good alternative if you want to spend the day outdoors without fighting crowds at the city’s beaches. When you make your way to the harbor, check out these must-see attractions.
Start your visit at this sprawling, open square named after Baron of Mauá, one of Brazil’s first business magnates, who is remembered for his contribution to the country’s 19th-century industrialization. The square is ideally located along the waterfront and is a popular spot for snapping selfies and family pictures with a backdrop of Rio’s sparkling bay and the stunning Museum of Tomorrow.
Designed by the Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava, this brand-new museum quickly morphed into one of Rio’s major landmarks. Mixing science and art, the interactive exhibits entertain both adults and children. The museum’s overarching goal is to educate the public on how to avoid an eventual environmental and social disaster. Buy tickets online in advance to avoid the long entrance lines.
Continue along Mauá Square and you’ll find Rio’s Art Museum (MAR), another new cultural epicenter. The museum is comprised of two restored buildings that house eight exhibition halls and an art school. The two buildings are joined by a walkway whose curving roof was inspired by ocean waves. Enjoy the view from the museum’s top floor, where Mauá restaurant serves contemporary dishes highlighting Brazilian ingredients. Before leaving, pay a visit to the gift shop on the ground floor, where you’ll find a good selection of not-so-obvious souvenirs.
The Orla Conde boardwalk stretches almost two miles and connects most of the harbor, running alongside the renovated port’s warehouses, where many art events are now regularly held. The promenade is also rapidly becoming a respected street art corridor, and its main attraction is a brightly colored work of art known as Etnias (“ethnicities” in Portuguese) by Brazilian artist Kobra. The piece represents indigenous peoples across five continents and is recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest spray-painted mural made by a team.
Since opening in 2015, AquaRio has earned acclaim as the biggest aquarium in South America and is home to more than 350 species of sea creatures. The aquarium’s 28 tanks hold nearly 1.2 million gallons of water, and a submerged 65-foot glass tunnel is a hit with visitors. You’ll see recreations of underwater ecosystems, including oceans, reefs and the Brazilian coast. Children especially enjoy interactive exhibits that allow them to engage with some of the animals — even sharks and rays.
Housed in a 19th-century neoclassical building, the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center (CCBB) is the country’s most visited cultural hub, according to the British magazine The Art Newspaper. The space includes galleries, theaters, a movie theater and a café and usually hosts the city’s most important exhibits. The entrance is free except for plays and movies. When hunger strikes, head to nearby Cais do Oriente, a restaurant housed in a former spice warehouse.
Rio’s new light rail system, known as VLT, is itself an attraction, and riding it is a comfortable way to get to know the port area. Trains run daily from 6 a.m. to midnight and arrive in 15-minute intervals. The line that runs along the docks connects to the subway at Carioca Station in downtown Rio. To pay the fare you, have to acquire a prepaid RioCard or a VLT card using one of the machines at the stations (cash or debit) and validate it on devices inside the trains. You’ve been warned: Anyone caught riding without a ticket pays a fine.