Rio de Janeiro is as exotic, as thrilling, as colorful, and as beautiful as you would expect. It is also huge. You could spend years in Rio and never experience it all, but if you concentrate on a couple of areas, you will get a great idea of what this city has to offer and gather inspiration for future visits.
First-time visitors should stay close to -- or preferably on -- Copacabana Beach. This is the place to fall in love with this city.
Personally, I was always torn about Rio. I had heard so many bad things about violence and poverty that I wanted to avoid it, and yet it lured me with its thrills and stunning sights. Now, it is one of my favorite places in the world. Its combination of natural beauty and man-made attractions is simply unique. This lively, modern city set against mountains and the ocean makes for a vacation experience that’s difficult to top.
Things To Do In Rio De Janeiro
Rio is a cosmopolitan city with around seven million inhabitants. The area encompasses numerous bays and a mountainous inland. Luckily, the top sights are easy to access and so amazing that even a single day in the city will provide a lifetime of memories.
Here are just a few of the top things to do in this lovely city.
Watch The Mists Clear At The Christ The Redeemer Statue
The emblem of Rio de Janeiro, the gigantic statue of Jesus Christ on top of Mount Corcovado, stands nearly 100 feet tall. Christ’s outstretched arms span 92 feet. The mountain itself is nearly 2,500 feet tall, so this, the world’s largest art deco statue, is quite a spectacle. You can take the funicular up and then continue on via an escalator all the way to the top for stunning views across Rio and the many islands in the bays. Do try and be there first thing in the morning to watch the mists clear -- it is magical.
Take The Cable Car To Sugarloaf Mountain
The city’s other iconic mountain is Sugarloaf Mountain. This distinctively shaped granite rock features two peaks for the price of one and can be reached by taking the two-station cable car across Botafogo Bay. At the top, the views are quite different from those from Mount Corcovado and are well worth the trip. There’s also a restaurant -- and plenty of small monkeys who will photobomb your pictures.
Head To Copacabana And Ipanema Beaches
Try saying “Copacabana” without singing it. Impossible, right? This beach is what Bondi Beach is to Sydney and is famous worldwide for its setting, its white sand, the beautiful people who frequent it, and its tiles akin to those in Lisbon’s Rossio Square. You simply must spend an hour or two on this beach, and if you are staying at a hotel nearby, you will get access to a section complete with sun loungers, parasols, and someone to guard your bags while you jump into the waves. This beach gets crowded, but the hotel sections tend to be less so.
Just around the corner is Ipanema Beach, another area in Rio made famous through song. It’s supposedly more upscale than Copacabana, and admittedly closer to the nice quarter of Leblon with its good restaurants. However, to a visitor, there is not much difference between the beaches aside from location and convenience.
The entire beachfront of Rio is divided into various postos, or marked lifeguarded sections that are numbered and known by locals to be best for LGBTQ+ travelers, families, certain views, or sunsets. Each section offers changing rooms and rentals for a small fee.
Take In The Museum Of Tomorrow
The space-age-looking Museum of Tomorrow will leave you with an uncomfortable aftertaste. It shows the history of the Earth, the history of humanity, and the wonders of the world, and then it shows very clearly and unsettlingly what we are currently doing to this wonderful planet of ours. But it also shows what needs to be done in order to preserve our home for tomorrow. It’s an eye-opener, for sure.
Visit The Museum Of Contemporary Art
One of the many intriguing structures designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, this flying-saucer-like museum lies across Guanabara Bay in the city of Niteroi. You can take a taxi, bus, water taxi, or metro to get across the bay. You’ll enjoy the museum’s changing exhibitions as well as the Niemeyer Way; Niteroi has the most Niemeyer buildings in the world after Brasilia. The views across the bay to Sugarloaf Mountain are absolutely stunning, too.
Explore The Botanical Garden
Since Brazil is home to the world’s most species of plants, visiting Rio’s botanical garden is a must. Alas, there are only 8,000 species of Brazilian and international plant species in the garden -- compared with Brazil’s 55,000-odd indigenous species -- but there is certainly enough to delight any traveler, whether they have a green thumb or not. There are various paths to meander along through different habitats, and you will spot many indigenous animals that use the gardens as an extension to the neighboring Tijuca National Park.
Take A Boat Trip Around The Islands
One of the biggest surprises for me in Rio was the sheer number of islands dotted along the coastline. One of the best ways of exploring these islands, many of which are uninhabited, is by boat trip. You’ll enjoy a day on the water with beautiful views of Rio, and you can choose any type of trip, from a swimming or snorkeling trip to a picnic on a secluded beach. Rio’s boat tours offer something for everybody.
What To Eat In Rio De Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro -- and Brazil as a whole -- offers a cuisine evolved from Amerindian, Asian, African, and European influences. Food is important here, and in the Rio hot spots -- around Copacabana, Ipanema, the quarters of Leblon, and Botafogo -- you’ll find plenty of colorful little restaurants, all offering different cuisines. Here are some of the area’s specialties to look out for.
These are some of the most popular restaurants in Brazil, and they’re not for the faint of heart. A churrascaria is basically a barbecue-focused place where waiters keep bringing you different pieces of perfectly cooked beef until you tell them to stop. If you are not interested in red meat -- or any meat -- then this is not an experience for you. If, however, you are a steak lover, this will be one of the best experiences of your life.
Pasteis And Empanadas
Pasteis and empanadas are fried little pieces of goodness filled with anything from chicken to beef to vegetables, and they’re available everywhere. Get them at one of the street vendors, and wash them down with a caipirinha.
The caipirinha, the national cocktail, is ubiquitous and best enjoyed on the beach. If you are settling down on a stretch of hotel-owned beach, a waiter will bring a cool strawberry caipirinha to your sun lounge. Nibble a pastel with it, and you’ll have Rio perfection.
Where To Shop In Rio De Janeiro
I hate to go on and on about the beaches, but, while the shopping in Rio is great, and you can find all the world’s best-loved brands, you don’t really come to Rio for the shopping. Unless you can shop on and along a beach, that is.
On the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, you’ll see vendors winding their way around the sun worshippers, carrying practically everything you could possibly wish for and more. Bikinis hang from umbrellas, as do pareos; food and drink and ice cream come by, as do sunglasses, beach balls, and more. You can haggle, browse, and even try on swimsuits in portable cabins.
For a unique shopping experience, head to the Hippie Market on Ipanema Beach, an institution since the 1960s. It’s open every Sunday between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. You can buy tie-dye outfits, jewelry, flip-flops, art and decor items, and more.
Best Hotels In Rio De Janeiro
Belmond Copacabana Palace
From Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Rolling Stones, and international royalty to Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber, the Belmond Copacabana Palace has welcomed its share of famous guests. This iconic white hotel has a fantastic location and is worth saving up for, but saving you will have to do, as a stay comes at a luxurious price.
Just a few blocks farther down Copacabana, but with pretty much the same view -- and minus the celebrities -- the Othon Palace is just as convenient but a little less pricey. Do pay extra for a sea view, as that is the whole point of these places -- the view is just stunning.
If you intend to stay a little longer and prefer space to location, you can find some fabulous vacation rentals on Airbnb. These may be a little outside the city, but they offer peace and quiet after a day out in Rio.
Pro Tip: While it is quite safe to visit the touristy spots in and around Rio, there is plenty of poverty and violence, so stay vigilant and do not bring your best jewelry or handbag on the trip.