Flanked by verdant jungle on one side and pearl white coastline on the other, the vibrant, ramshackle streets of Rio are bursting with an energetic and passionate Brazilian character, from the chicest hotels to the humblest favelas. A joyous buzz resonates through Rio’s alleys and walkways all the way to its gorgeous coastline which has gained international renown for the indisputable beauty of its beaches and scores of sun-chasing revellers. Nowhere else can boast the extraordinary cityscape views that are provided by peaks such as Sugarloaf Mountain, allowing travellers to witness the manner in which the city has grown organically between the roots of the mountains that lie impossibly close to the endless blue of the Atlantic. The city’s magnificence is magnified by the fact that it is home to both one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in the form of the towering Christ the Redeemer statue and one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World in the Harbour of Rio de Janeiro.
Best Spots in Rio de Janeiro
Each of Rio de Janeiro’s most notable neighbourhoods has a jovial excitement that reverberates around its winding streets, likely sourced from the city’s year-round warm weather and range of idyllic beaches. Whilst Rio’s stunning urban coastline is undoubtedly the beating heart of what makes the city so appealing, the district’s other endearing features absolutely deserve merit of their own. Just as the mountains that dot the city’s skyline have resisted urbanisation over time, the historical alleys and quintessentially Latin features have survived the city’s inevitable modernisation. One of Rio’s neighbourhoods is sure to cater to the needs of every traveller, whether they be a cash-strapped backpacker or looking to satisfy their taste for the more decadent things in life.
Whilst Copacabana is the area that most will know the name of, any who have been to Rio will tell you that Ipanema has become the new and exclusive beach neighbourhood to be in. The streets are lined with trendy restaurants and chic bars that draw in the city’s youngest, hippest crowd. Ipanema’s beach is split into sections, with each accommodating for a different group of people, from families to younger people to the city’s gay community. The alluring soft sand and warm sun rays make it easy to lose track of time and end up spending an entire day lounging on the beach or playing football with locals. Those that wish to try their hand at riding rolling waves into the shore will be pleased to hear that Ipanema is a surfing hotspot. There are a number of surf schools that teach surfers of all standards, meaning that even a novice can try their hand at gliding across the water’s surface towards the domineering mountains and towering urban sprawl that lies beyond the beach. It is a thrilling experience for even the most experienced surfers.
If you manage to tear yourself away from the luxurious beach, taking a step inland will treat you to a wide array of eateries and drinking spots that retain their enticingly lively vibes long into the night. Another popular destination in Ipanema is the Hippie Market held every Sunday in General Osório Square, which sells anything from artwork to clothing to jewellery. Some of the food stalls that pop up here are amongst the best street food options in the city.
For a more chilled out waterside experience in Ipanema head inland to the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. This park-fringed lake offers a more tranquil setting than the busy coastline and walking a circuit around its shores takes you through areas of rich greenery, offering some respite from the towering urban structures of the city’s coastline.
Despite having been ousted by Ipanema as Rio’s place to be, Copacabana still very much has its draws. Copacabana’s 4km of golden sanded coastline is undeniably beautiful and remains a buzzing hub of activity, drawing sun starved tourists, golden skinned locals, samba footballers and beach vendors to its idyllic shores. The area’s range of culinary options is mind-boggling, ranging from Brazilian classics to traditional Japanese food to Middle Eastern favourites, all of which can be found at a world-class standard.
Copacabana Fort can be found at the southern tip of the bay. It’s a great place to learn about Brazil’s history and gaze over the sprawling beach with the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain piercing the skyline beyond. At the opposite end of the bay travellers can visit Mureta do Leme – a popular point from which to watch the sun setting over the Rio’s magnificent skyline. Once the sun sets on Copacabana the area takes on a new life as locals flock towards the trendy bars, which often host live music nights.
For a truly immersive local experience head to Bip Bip – a small colloquial bar/store hidden amongst the districts backstreets – during the evening to listen to the local musicians that are drawn to its doors as the sun begins to set. Despite Bip Bip’s unkempt appearance it has gained notoriety for the quality of samba music that gets played here every night by the regulars.
The winding alleys, colonial architecture and rickety trams of Santa Teresa give the area an antiquated character that exacerbates the Latin atmosphere of the area to standard unmatched by its neighbours. The vibrant buildings and cobbled streets provide an authentically South American feeling as you wander through the overtly bohemian Santa Teresa. This colourful effect becomes accentuated as you arrive at the foot of Rio’s famous Selaron Steps – the rainbow-toned, mosaiced stairway that is sure to appear in every tourist’s Rio photo album. The steps are the work of artist Jorge Selaron, who personally tiled the entire staircase with tiles of various colours and designs as a tribute to the people of Brazil, taking him over 20 years in total.
Cultural highlights in Santa Teresa include Museu da Chácara do Céu, a mansion formerly belonging to art enthusiast Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya which he bequeathed to the nation along with the modern art collection found inside it walls. Similarly, just a short walk to the east, Parque das Ruinas is a garden and art gallery located within the ruins of an abandoned mansion. Parque das Ruinas hosts live concerts and the top floors also provide great views of the city from an alternative perspective.
A visit to Mercado das Pulgas – literally translating as ‘flea market’ – isn’t what most would expect from a place with such a title. Twice a month the arena becomes a place for both locals and tourists to try their hand at samba dancing, with free flowing caipirinhas served throughout the night.
One of Rio’s edgier neighbourhoods, Lapa is rife with dilapidated buildings coated in impressive explosions of colour in the form of its graffiti murals and exciting street parties that pop up out of nowhere and last long into the night. As well as mesmerising street art, the area’s architecture is also amongst the city’s most impressive, making it a fantastic place to explore without any real aim and simply absorb your surroundings as you amble along the streets. Signifying the border between Lapa and Santa Teresa is the foot of the Selaron Steps which, other than being the place to take that must-have snap, is an excellent place to come after nightfall to enjoy the local gatherings, amateur music and cold beers on offer.
Lapa is renowned as one of the greatest nightlife spots in Rio thanks to its busy bar and club scene which in turn inspires spontaneous street parties that can appear out of nowhere and last until sunrise. Live samba music is also a must see when exploring this neighbourhood, with some of the city’s most renowned samba bars hosting nights dedicated to unknown local talent and famous artists alike.
If you happen to be in Rio at the right time of the month, head to Rua do Lavradio for its monthly Lavradio Fair – potentially the most popular street market in the city. The market is full of trinkets, from handmade jewellery to local liquors to genuine antiques. If you are searching for an authentic reminder of your time in Rio then this is the place to find it.
Much like many other Latin American cities, the central district of Rio is a hub of cultural significance and home to some of the city’s most important sites. The more significant museums in Centro include the National History Museum, Fine Arts Museum and the stunning Museum of Modern Art. The streets are also home to a number of architectural masterpieces from the city’s colonial era. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Rio’s Municipal Theatre, whose exemplary column-fringed structure still hosts theatre and music productions to this day.
Acting as somewhat of an antithesis to Rio de Janeiro’s grandiose architecture are the cheap but cheerful street food vendors that operate in the area, serving up Brazilian classics at very reasonable prices to satiate the hunger of Centro’s hoards of hardworking businessmen. Whilst Centro shouldn’t be your first choice of area in which to stay – beachside neighbourhoods always prove more popular in terms of accommodation – it is a brilliant place to visit for the day.
The Royal Portuguese Reading Room may seem an unlikely place to visit during a trip to a city as energetic as Rio but the intricately carved and equally grand library of grandiose wooden shelves stacked with an endless array of leather bound books in its interior is sure to wow travellers, whether they be bookworms or have no interest in reading at all.
Urca & Botafogo
These neighbouring districts are often ignored in favour of the more renowned neighbourhoods to their north and south, with tourists typically only passing through Urca to visit the world-famous Sugarloaf Mountain, but each is definitely worth a visit in their own merits. Whilst the cable car trip to the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain is an absolute must when in Urca, one of the greatest draws is in fact Praia Vermelha (Red Beach), Rio’s proportionately miniature cove which is atmospherically flanked by towering green mountains that reach out into the ocean, framing beachgoers’ views of the Atlantic.
Just as Urca is renowned as one of the city’s most laid back locations, Botafogo is becoming more established as having one of Rio’s most active bar scenes. The nightlife here is contemporary, sociable and varied, making it popular with travellers and young locals alike. Somewhat conversely, Botafogo also plays host to some of the city’s most intriguing museums. Espaco GaleRio is a beautiful colonial building that has taken on new life as a home for Rio’s modern art scene, strewn with unconventional artwork and obscure sculptures. Museu do Indio also provides an intriguing visit, taking visitors through the history of Brazil’s natives as they wander through it refurbished colonial home setting.
If possible, time your inevitable journey to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain so that it coincides with the end of the day to witness one of the most spectacular urban sunsets that you are ever likely to lay your eyes on. Both the city and the sea take on a warming glow and the sparkle of a million lights ignite to typify the unceasing energy that Rio possesses.
Food & Drink in Rio de Janeiro
Food is a big part of life in Brazil. Stunning flavours and hefty portions regularly combine to create a culinary scene that will live long in your tastebuds’ memory. A popular form of dining amongst tourists in Rio de Janeiro is visiting one of the city’s “per kilo” restaurants, where diners are treated to a giant buffet style selection of local food, letting you pile on as much food as your stomach desires and – as the name suggests – be charged according to the weight of your meal. Not only is this a good way to guarantee a hearty portion but it also provides an opportunity to sample a number of local delicacies in one sitting. Here are some of the most popular dishes that should be tried during a trip to Rio.
An apt summary of Brazilians’ obsession with meat, churrascarias are venues where the waiters circulate amongst the tables, serving expertly chargrilled steaks straight off the skewer. The meat varies between establishments but can be anything from the finest cuts of steak to the tenderest pork ribs. Make sure that you don’t fill up on sides as the meat will keep coming until you can’t eat another mouthful.
A Brazilian staple that has derived from the country’s Portuguese roots, feijoada is a stew consisting of beans, pork and sausage that is as filling as it is delicious. Typically served with rice and other sides, its carnivorous flavours and nourishing sauce are sure to provide enough fuel for a day of urban exploration.
A street food classic that originated in Sao Paulo, chicken coxinhas are pear shaped snacks that are made by combining shredded chicken and creamy cheese, wrapping it in dough, coating it in breadcrumbs and deep frying it until crisp and golden on the outside. A delicious morsel that’s perfect for people on the go.
Pão de queijo
This popular bakery snack comes in the form of small balls of bread that are baked with cheese in the centre, creating a simple but scrumptious bitesize staple that is commonly eaten at breakfast time. They are often split in half and stuffed with yet more cheese – ideal for those with a penchant for all things dairy.
Available with a number of different fillings – including succulent beef, stringy mozzarella or perfectly seasoned prawns – pastels are deep fried pockets of pastry bursting with flavour. They manage to combine a delicately crispy shell with a flavoursome centre to create what is undoubtedly one of Rio’s most popular street snacks.
Not to be confused with the British dessert of the same name, Brazilian tapiocas are in fact more similar to a pancake or tortilla. The tapioca is folded in half with any manner of tasty filling inside, ranging from simple cheese to tender shredded beef to sweet options made with coconut and sugar. The variety of fillings means that there is sure to be a tapioca to suit any mood.
One of the greatest tasting drinks to have originated in Brazil, caipirinhas are the ultimate sweet refreshment during a sweltering summer day in Rio. Made using Brazilian sugarcane-based spirit cachaca, lime and sugar, caipirinhas are sure to be free flowing at just about every bar, club and street party that you come across in the city, such is their popularity.
Getting around Rio de Janeiro
The transport most commonly used by tourists in Rio is the subway system, which has only 3 lines, making it relatively easy to navigate. The orange line starts in Ipanema and passes through the majority of the city’s tourist hotspots, making it the most frequently used by travellers. An alternative to this is the train system, however this operates in areas that aren’t typically frequented by tourists, making it more synonymous with locals’ trips to the suburbs.
The city’s bus system can prove troublesome to figure out so may be best avoided unless you wish to thoroughly plan out your route before setting off. Uber and similar apps are also available, offering a safer, more reliable transport option for those who aren’t comfortable with attempting to master the city’s transport network.
Alternative things to do in and around Rio de Janeiro
Rio’s situation of being both coastal and amongst tree-coated mountains not only gives it a unique feel but also presents a variety of activities. The city’s party atmosphere, hidden pockets of fascinating calmness, diverse history and unmatched number of breathtaking viewpoints are just some of the features that combine to create a wide array of activities that are sure to satisfy the needs of each and every traveller, whether they seek a culturally immersive experience, an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride or a blend of the two.
Watching a football match
Undoubtedly the most popular pastime in Brazil, you can’t escape the country’s passion for all things football when in Rio, whether it be locals playing keepy-uppies on the beach or giant murals dedicated to the game’s greatest players. A trip to Rio is an excellent opportunity to embrace the passion of the locals and attend a professional match at one of the city’s stadiums. Whether you love the beautiful game or couldn’t care less about it, there is a special buzz of excitement at Brazilian football matches that can whip up an energy in even the most cynical football anti-fan. Flamengo and Botafogo are the city’s two best teams and boast stadiums that can hold over 75,000 and 45,00 people respectively, leading to a raucous and engaging atmosphere.
Visiting the charmingly derelict Largo do Boticario
Hidden in the hills to the northwest of Botafogo is an oddly appealing square tucked away from the main street that has become a tourist attraction simply through the picturesque dilapidation that the passing of time has gifted to it. Largo do Boticario is a characterful cobbled square that embodies Rio’s harmonious clash between the natural world and the encroaching urban sprawl. The faded facades of quintessentially colourful colonial buildings greet your gaze as you wander through the foliage flanked entrance. There is a strange serenity about this hidden pocket of the city, which acts as a poetic reminder of the manner in which nature eventually reclaims all things.
Partying at Rio carnival
Those that are fortunate enough to be in Rio at the time of its world-famous carnival will be treated to one of the most elaborate, energetic, city-wide parties that exists on the planet. Starting every year on the Friday preceding Ash Wednesday, the festivities in Rio involve gigantic, elaborate parades at the Sambadrome with building-sized floats of unimaginable scale and intricacy and countless samba dancers donning traditionally flamboyant outfits of every colour on the spectrum. Heading away from the magnificence of the parade, travellers will be treated to street parties buzzing with crowds of dancing partygoers and free-flowing caipirinhas. The entire city becomes wrapped up in a joyous energy befitting of the scale of the festival. It is an experience that should not be missed, but even those that arrive in Rio too early will have the opportunity to get involved in the lively buildup that acts as a dress-rehearsal of sorts for the main event, with street parties and practising samba dancers aplenty.
Climbing Pedra do Pontal
Located west of the city on a minor peninsula between the curved bays of Recreio and Macumba beaches lies Pedra do Pontal, a rocky outcrop that rises from the shallows of the Atlantic where the two beaches meet. Climbing Pedra do Pontal is no walk in the park, with a rope needed to scale the final section, but the views from the summit make it all worthwhile, with gorgeous white sand bays stretching out both left and right in front of the urban foreground and rolling green slopes behind. It is an excellent alternative view of the area and upon descending travellers can treat themselves to a refreshing dip in the deep blue waters and relaxing bathe under the sun’s warming rays to the sound of softly crashing waves on their pick of the two gorgeous beaches.
Exploring the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden
Located on the opposite shore of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas to Ipanema, Rio’s botanical garden is 350 acres of green space brimming with exotic flora, both endemic and foreign. The garden’s gates have been open to the public since the early 19th century and it has since become both a hub for botanists and a tranquil spot that perfectly contrasts the often hectic activity of Rio’s bustling streets. Wandering around the peaceful greenery of the park, which lies in the shadow of the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, travellers will come across no less than 6,500 different species of plants, some of which are bordering extinction.
Visiting the spectacular (and not so alternative) Christ the Redeemer statue
Whilst this is far from an alternative activity to carry out when visiting Rio de Janeiro, we couldn’t leave it off the list because it is an absolute must. Sat atop the very top of Corcovado mountain is the 30 metre tall, 28 metre wide spectacle of Rio’s most famous landmark, the Christ the Redeemer statue. Gazing over the city with his arms outstretched, the breathtaking scale and magnificence of this Modern Wonder of the World is something that cannot be truly appreciated until you are stood at his feet. Not only this, but the panoramic views from its location are arguably the best of the city and the gorgeous bay on which it lies.
Safety in Rio de Janeiro
Whilst most associations with Rio as a city are synonymous with sun, sand and colourful parties, its darker side is also well documented and with good reason. However, as long as you are sensible during your time in Rio, it is unlikely that you should cross paths with such an unsavoury experience.
Avoid large crowds (especially when you’ve been drinking) as most reports of pickpocketing in Rio occur is large, busy crowds. This is a particularly poignant piece of advice during Carnival, as not only do the crowds grow exponentially during the festival but odds are that you will have had a drink or two as well. It is also noting that popular tourist spots, whilst safe during the day, often take on an unsavoury atmosphere at night, when criminals seek out stragglers that they believe will be easy targets. It is also wise to catch taxis during night time rather than using public transport as it is a far safer option. As mentioned above, apps like Uber offer extra ease and security.
We don’t recommend visiting favelas in general, not only for safety reasons but also because it can be disrespectful to see the residents’ povertous situation as a tourism draw. Never venture into a favela at night time as you will be seen as an easy target. Whether in a favela or elsewhere in the city also make sure not to flaunt your wealth by flaunting items such as expensive watches or cameras as you are far more likely to be targeted if your wealth is evident. However, overall Rio is a generally safe place to be as long as you are sensible, avoid dangerous areas and keep your wits about you.