Incredible architecture might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you imagine Rio de Janeiro. Rio, after all, is a city famous for beaches and Carnival, not for cathedrals or buttresses. On your next trip to Rio de Janeiro, take some time to discover the city's unique and eclectic architecture, which ranges from Portuguese-colonial to downright out-of-this-world, and which is spread throughout the city so that you can find examples of it almost everywhere you go.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro
There's fantastic Rio de Janeiro architecture, and then there's the downright bizarre. One structure that sits at the intersection of these two ideas is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, which is located in Rio de Janeiro's underrated downtown about 15-30 minutes by metro from Copacabana and Ipanema. Built in the 1960s and 70s to represent a modernist take on a Mayan pyramid, this cathedral is in regular use, though you can, of course, go inside anytime a mass isn't taking place (or if one is, assuming you're a Catholic or don't mind being one for an hour).
Located only a stone's throw from the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Lapa Arches are a great place to continue your exploration of architecture in Rio. Part of the Carioca Aqueduct that supplies drinking water to the city, the Lapa Arches bear a similarity to Roman aqueducts that is anything but coincidental. The Lapa Arches are located only a stone's throw from the colorful Escadaria Selarón staircase, plus Santa Teresa, which is one of the most amazing neighborhoods in Rio. The Lapa Arches are especially stunning a few hours after sunrise or before sunset when they cast their most dramatic shadows on the ground beneath them.
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum
Another example of incredible Rio de Janeiro architecture sits just outside of Rio's city center—but it's very worth the journey. Located across Guanabara Bay in Niterói, which is accessible via a short ferry ride, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum looks like it's from another planet. Indeed, it's the brainchild of a genius, having been designed by iconic Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1990s. And it's undoubtedly a work of art, to say nothing of the ones it houses within it.
You don't have to be a fan of soccer to appreciate the architecture of Maracanã Stadium, Brazil's (and, arguably, South America's) premier venue for futebol. Located in a district that bears its name not far from downtown Rio, this massive, round stadium can accommodate up to 78,000 people at a time. If you're visiting Rio and a game isn't taking place, organized tours are offered several times per day.
Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro
Argentina's capital Buenos Aires usually gets credit as being the most European city in South America. Still, there are instances in which Rio de Janeiro gives it a run for its money. A particular example of this would be the city's Municipal Theater, an ornate Opera House inspired in part by Paris' Opera Garnier. The most notable example of Art Nouveau architecture in Rio de Janeiro, the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, is a marvel to look at, whether you catch a performance here or stroll past it during the night.
Modern Art Museum
One of several museums on this list, the Modern Art Museum of Rio de Janeiro, would be easy enough to miss, even amid the other two: It is neither as otherworldly as the Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art nor as boundary-pushing as the Museum of Tomorrow. In spite of this, the modernist building that houses the museum, which was completed in 1948, is an understated gem. Its design flourishes are not just visually pleasing, but serve a purpose as well, bathing the permanent and rotating exhibitions with natural light for most of the year.
A spin-off of a property by the same name in São Paulo, Copacabana's Emiliano Hotel opened in 2016 to well-deserved fanfare. In addition to offering a rooftop with unparalleled views of Copacabana Beach (and the Atlantic Ocean more generally), the hotel is an example of architectural excellence, both working within the 1950s building into which it's constructed, and challenging it with decidedly modern interior and exterior accents.
If you're looking for lush green spaces in Rio to detach from the hustle-bustle of the city center (or to experience a sort of beauty that has nothing to do with the beach), the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden is the best place to go. Just north and east of the garden, however, you'll find one of Rio's underrated architectural marvels: Parque Lage. Built by industrialist architect Enrique Lage in the 1920s, this ornate mansion blends perfectly with the lush greenery of Corcovado Mountain, which rises above it.
Royal Portuguese Reading Room
Who said that Europe had a monopoly on Instagram-worthy libraries? As its name suggests, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room dates back to Portuguese-colonial times, having been opened in 1837. It's not just the European-looking facade of the building, however, or the ornate vaulted ceilings of its Neo-Manueline interior that make this a must-visit for aficionados of architecture in Rio. Among other accolades, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room is home to the largest collection of Portuguese-language literature outside of Portugal.
Museum of Tomorrow
Opened in late 2015 and dedicated to the world's latest scientific innovations, the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã in Portuguese) certainly lives up to its name. Built in advance of the 2016 Olympics as part of government efforts to revitalize Rio's port area, this cantilevered structure is worth a look and a visit on your next trip to Rio, even if you don't plan to go inside.