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My trip to Rio was supposed to be my first stop on a 2-week itinerary that also included Ilha Grande, Sao Paulo and Iguassu Falls.
But then Rio de Janeiro sucked me in and I never left. I spent the entire two weeks exploring the city, laying on the beach, drinking caipirinhas and making new friends.
In part I stayed because I was visiting Brazil during the country’s winter months and Rio was one of the warmest places to be, but I also stayed because there’s so much to see and do there.
The city has a stunning mountainous landscape that reminds me a little bit of Cape Town in South Africa. Expect sandy beaches, tropical rainforests, dramatic mountains and breathtaking vistas galore. It’s also a very vibrant place with a fun, party spirit – Brazilians love their samba, their beach volleyball and their soccer!
Of course, if you visit Rio de Janeiro in February you’ll also get to experience one of the biggest and most colorful festivals in the world – Carnival.
If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s a list of the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro
Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor)
Christ the Redeemer can be seen from all over Rio de Janeiro and is an iconic symbol recognizable to people all over the world. Measuring 30 meters tall with an arm span of 28 meters, the statue appears to be keeping a watchful eye over the city of Rio from atop the Corcovado mountain.
The statue is made of reinforced concrete clad in a mosaic of thousands of triangular soapstone tiles and weighs a total of 635 tonnes. Tourists flock here to have their photo taken with the statue and admire the views across the city. At night Christ the Redeemer is lit up and the mountain it stands on blends into the dark night sky, making it appear like the statue is hovering over the city.
Santa Teresa is a bohemian neighborhood where artists, writers and musicians turned crumbling 19th century mansions into workshops and studios.
Located on the top of Santa Teresa hill near the center of Rio, Santa Teresa was once home to rich industrialists and elites who built their mansions here during the coffee industry heyday.
While Santa Teresa is no longer an upper class neighborhood, it’s definitely a fashionable one. Today you can wander around the charming narrow streets and explore the galleries.
Selaron Steps (Escadaria Selarón)
The Escadaria Selarón is a colorful flight of stairs created by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón as a tribute to the Brazilian people. The steps can be found in the neighborhood of Lapa and are an iconic symbol of Rio de Janeiro.
In 1990 Selarón began renovating the set of steps in front of his house and it soon turned into a major artistic project. Today there are 250 steps measuring 125 meters long and they’re covered in over 2000 tiles that have been collected from over 60 countries around the world.
Sadly Jorge Selarón was found dead on the steps in 2013 – the exact circumstances surrounding his death are still unknown.
The view from Sugarloaf mountain is one of the best views I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Rising 396 meters (1,299 ft) above the harbor, the mountain gets its name from its shape, since it resembles a hard block of loaf sugar.
You can take two cable cars right up to the top for panoramic views over the city, beaches, mountains and ocean.
Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro)
The Botanical Gardens are really gorgeous and definitely worth visiting if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The park covers 140 hectares, with thousands of species of flora and fauna as well as views of Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer). You can also spot monkeys and various types of exotic birds pottering around the park.
Not far from the Botanical Gardens lies Parque Lage, a beautiful mansion at the foot of Corcovado.
The mansion was once the residence of industrialist Enrique Lage and his wife, singer Gabriela Bezanzoni, until the land eventually became a public park in the 1960s.
The setting is really stunning and Parque Lage is particularly popular with tourists because it was featured in the music video for Snoop Dogg’s 2003 single “Beautiful”.
Sadly the inside was covered in scaffolding when we visited (wedding!) but we sat down and had a really nice lunch in the restaurant.
Eat at a Churrascaria
Mmmm…meat. Brazilian cuisine consists of a lot of red meat and you must pay a visit to a churrascaria at least once.
I went to Carretao twice while I was staying in Copacabana. If you’ve never been to a churrascaria before, basically you can go up to the salad bar to fill your plate with salad, then waiters come around with various cuts of meat on skewers and carve them at your table.
The meat keeps coming until you say no and they supply you with a little badge that indicates ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on which way up you place it. Don’t make the mistake of filling up on all the salad, rice and plantains. Meat is the priority here!
Many people will tell you to go to Ipanema Beach or Leblon Beach as they are considered a bit safer, but my personal favorite is still the famous Copacabana Beach.
On the weekend Copacabana is great for people watching as it’s full of locals who bring along their own deck chairs and spend the day kicking a football about or soaking up the sun.
There are lots of vendors who come around selling sarongs, lemonade, coconuts and empanadas. I spent many a day chilling on the beach, drinking a caipirinha or two and chilling on the beach till sunset.
Ipanema Beach (Praia de Ipanema)
Ipanema Beach is south west of Copacabana Beach, on the other side of the headland and Forte de Copacabana.
This 2 mile stretch of sand was made famous by the song “The Girl from Ipanema,” and is one of the main city beaches in Rio. Alongside the beach you’ll discover the affluent neighborhood of Ipanema, which is filled with restaurants, boutiques and luxury apartment buildings.
Rio Scenarium is a really great place to go for a night out to experience the music culture of Brazil. Spread across three floors decorated with antiques, Rio Scenarium offers live music and samba dancing all night long.
You can strut your stuff on the dance floor next to the stage, or watch over the dancers from the balconies on the first floor. The venue attracts a mixture of foreigners and locals and like many bars in Brazil it operates a card system where you pay for your drinks on the way out. There’s usually a long line outside, but it goes down quickly and you can buy refreshments while you wait.
Museum of Tomorrow
This incredible science museum is located next to the waterfront at Pier Maua and was designed by Spanish neofuturistic architect Santiago Calatrava. It’s a striking, futuristic looking building, dedicated to addressing the future of the planet.
The displays and exhibits tackle subjects such as climate change and show the main ways that mankind is affecting the planet. The museum also examines the trends that are occurring here on Earth and possible resulting scenarios.
Go to a Football Game at Maracana Stadium
Brazil is a soccer-loving country so it’s definitely worth checking out a football game while you’re there.
You can watch games from the three most powerful teams in Rio – Flamengo, Botafogo and Fluminense and experience the thrill and passion of the game.
Even if you’re not a huge football fan it’s still worth taking in the electric atmosphere. The Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro is one of the biggest stadiums in the world.
Visit Santa Marta Favela
The hostels advertised favela ‘tours’ and ‘favela parties’ but I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Yes I was curious to see what life is like in a favela, but at the same time the whole ‘slum tourism’ thing feels a bit weird.
I had spoken to some backpackers who had been to one of the favela ‘parties’, but it wasn’t a real party- just one designed for tourists. You basically take a bus to a favela, hang out and drink with other backpackers, then take a bus back- not a proper local party at all.
But then my friend Caitlin and I made some Brazilian friends and one of them – Victor – said he would show us around a favela since he knows people there.
We went to Santa Marta favela, which is incredibly colorful and has a statue of Michael Jackson at the top because he filmed the music video “They Don’t Care About Us” there.
The view from above is incredible but to get there we had to climb up many, many stairs as the lower cable car was broken. Kids were playing football and saying hello to us and there was a little souvenir shop where you could buy crafts with images drawn by the children.
If you’re considering visiting a favela there’s a great article here: Should you feel badly about taking a favela tour?
To sum up the points made in the article, definitely don’t go on tours that just treat favelas or slums as a safari exhibit seen from inside a vehicle. Go on a tour that lets you interact with the locals and gives you a chance to learn and understand.
Lapa on a Friday Night
Rio de Janeiro is a party city and the best place to go on the weekend is Lapa. Come night time the neighborhood is transformed into a party zone and there are vendors everywhere selling snack food and caipirinhas.
Most people tend to meet up beneath the Arcos de Lapa and have a few drinks in the street, before hopping from bar to bar. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the streets are closed for pedestrians and people can be seen dancing on every street corner.
Brunch at Santa Satisfacao
I passed by Santa Satisfacao several times while walking around Copacabana and eventually decided to stop by for brunch. It’s a cute cafe with outside tables serving cocktails, coffees, omelets, salads, carpaccio, pasta and sandwiches- a great spot to go with friends or family on the weekend.
Wander Around Centro
The Centro “center” neighborhood is really charming to walk around, with colorful buildings and historical architecture. It’s certainly worth having a wander down the pedestrian alleyways and stopping for a beer and a pastel (deep-fried finger food with various fillings).
Tijuca National Park
This urban national park covers an area of 39.58 square kilometers (15.28 sq mi) and is known for its biodiversity. Exploring the forest you’ll find numerous hikes, waterfalls, scenic viewpoints and monuments. Tons of animals live here, including sloths, squirrels, bats, monkeys, porcupines and armadillos.
It is reputed to be one of the biggest urban forests in the world, although there’s also a rainforest in Johannesburg, South Africa, that claims to be the biggest.
Try Globos & Acai
There are some foods that you really should try while you’re in Rio. One is Globos, which are basically donut-shaped rice cracker-type snacks. You’ll see guys walking past selling them on the beach.
Acai is basically a frozen dessert with a dark brown/purple colour; it’s made using acai berry juice, ice, sugar and lots of guarana syrup. I found it a bit too sweet by my friend Caitlin loved the stuff! You can even add toppings like sliced bananas and granola.
Wear Swimwear Like the Locals
Brazilian women wear itsy bitsy teenie weenie bikinis, while men wear speedo-style shorts. You won’t really see board shorts in Copacabana. If you want to fit in with the locals on the beach, head to the mall in Rio and buy yourself some Brazilian swimwear. Don’t be shy- there are butts on show everywhere, of all shapes and sizes!
Pedra do Sal
Pedra do Sal (Salt Stone) is the birthplace of samba and is famous for its samba street parties. The Samba at Pedra do Sal takes place every Monday after 8pm and is free to attend. Expect lots of dancing, music and tents selling food and drinks such as caipirinhas and beer.
Pedra do Sal is located at Conceição hill in the area of Saúde – full address R. Argemiro Bulcão – Saúde, Rio de Janeiro – RJ, 20081-040, Brazil.
Just don’t show up if it rains because then the party will be canceled.
Museum of Modern Art
Located in Centro, the Museum of Modern Art contains over 15 thousand works, including sculptures and paintings by internationally renowned artists and notable Latin American artists.
The collections are housed inside a modernist concrete building that was designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidyn and completed in 1955.
How to Get to Rio de Janeiro
Flights to Rio from the UK
Air France offers flights to Rio de Janeiro from the UK with a connection in Paris. I flew with Air France out of Manchester but you can also fly there from London. Expect the journey time to take around 14 to 17 hours.
KLM offers indirect flights from the UK to Rio via Amsterdam while TAP Air Portugal offers flights via Lisbon.
British Airways also offers non-stop flights from London to Rio de Janeiro with the journey time taking roughly 11 hours 40 minutes.
I ran a quick search on Google Flights and prices vary from around £421 to £947 round trip.
Flights to Rio from the US
Several US airlines offer flights to Rio de Janeiro including Delta, American, United and LATAM.
From New York, typical round-trip prices range from $650 to about $1164.
From Los Angeles, typical round-trip prices range from $663 to about $1289.
Miami is usually cheaper, costing around $486 to $886 for a return ticket.
Getting Around Rio
In Rio the best way to get around is on foot or by taxi/Uber.
To cover longer distances, definitely take a taxi or Uber, but once you’re at your destination you can walk around neighborhoods like Copacabana, Ipanema, Santa Teresa and Centro on foot during the daytime.
At night time however I would avoid walking around too much once it’s dark; take an Uber instead. Lots of locals told me not to walk around the Copacabana Beach area after sunset as you are at risk of getting robbed.
Ordinary taxis can be flagged down everywhere and are metered by the city. I found that most of the taxi drivers didn’t really speak much English so it’s best to write down the address of where you’re staying or going. The Google Translate app is also a big help in these situations.
Your other options are the metro (subway) and buses. The metro operates Monday through Saturday from 5am to midnight. On Sundays and holidays it runs from 7am to 11pm. It is clean, air-conditioned and safe.
There are currently three metro lines, although strangely they are called Line 1, 2 and 4. The orange Line 1 starts from General Osório in Ipanema and goes northwards to Urugai. It’s useful for getting to places like Lapa, Centro, the Sambadrome etc. The green line (Line 2) runs from Botafogo and goes to Pavuna, stopping at places such as Centro and Maracanã Stadium along the way. The yellow line (Line 4), starts at General Osório in Ipanema and runs south through Ipanema and Leblon, ending at Jardim Oceânico.
You can buy single subway tickets or you can get a loadable prepaid fare card from the kiosks at the subway station. If your Visa or Mastercard credit/debit card has the contactless symbol then you can actually just tap and go at the station, or you can use your phone to pay if it has NFC technology. For up to date info on the metro visit https://www.metrorio.com.br/
Best Time to Visit Rio de Janeiro
Summer in Rio de Janeiro is from December to March. This is the best time to visit Rio because the weather is warm and you can hit the beaches. Of course, it’s also the most popular time to visit so flight prices and hotels are usually expensive at this time, particularly around Christmas in December.
Carnival takes place every year just before Lent (Ash Wednesday), which is six and a half weeks before Easter. The dates for Ash Wednesday vary each year but it’s usually around February/March, depending on when Easter is.
Being one of the biggest carnivals in the world, Rio Carnival is a very fun time to visit, but make sure you book your accommodation and flights well in advance.
If you want to take advantage of cheaper flights and accommodation then consider visiting Rio in April-May (after Easter) or October/November, just before summer starts.
The quietest time to visit Rio is during the winter months of June to September. The weather in winter is still mild and good for sightseeing but can get a bit chilly for the beach.
Your FAQs About Rio de Janeiro, Answered
Yes, Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The scenery is breathtaking with mountains, beaches and beautiful vistas everywhere you go. You must absolutely visit Rio once in your life. For me, Rio is up there with Cape Town and New York as one of my top three cities to visit.
You need at least five days in Rio de Janeiro but you could easily spend a week to ten days here and not get bored. There are so many things to do and places to discover! But 5 days in Rio will give you enough time to relax on the beaches and explore famous sights such as Sugarloaf Mountain, Selaron Steps and Christ the Redeemer.
Rio is known for its captivating landscape of mountains and beaches. The city is also known for its landmarks such as Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain.
People in Rio speak Brazilian Portuguese. Some can speak English but if you’ll definitely want to learn a few basic phrases in Portuguese and if you’re struggling, use the Google Translate app to communicate with people. I found it really helpful when getting in taxis.
he most visited place in Rio de Janeiro is Christ the Redeemer. This famous statue overlooks the city and attracts around 2 million visitors each year.
A Final Word…
There are so many awesome things to do in Rio de Janeiro so definitely allow yourself at least 3-5 days there (preferably 5) so you can cover all the beaches, views, hikes and colorful neighborhoods. Make sure you try lots of Brazilian cuisine too, including feijoada (bean stew), coxinha (fritters), rodizio, broccoli rice and açai.
While Rio is amazing, definitely try to plan a longer trip so you can explore other places in Brazil too. The country is huge and takes up about 50% of South America so ideally you’d need at least 3 weeks to get a proper taste of the country. I definitely need to go back and see more!