Rio de Janeiro is the second most populous city in Brazil (second only to São Paulo). It is home to the famous Carnival, picturesque beaches, and one of the new 7 wonders of the world (Christ the Redeemer statue...if you were wondering).
The landscape is truly something to behold. One moment you’re on the beach, the next you’re in a bustling city, and soon enough you’re up in the mountains. This unique terrain is one of the reasons I crave to go back again. I had never seen anything quite like it, and haven’t since. A great mix of natural and urban settings.
As a tourist, there is a lot to do and see. If you only have a few days to wander the city, here are a few of my top recommendations.
Beach culture is serious in Rio. Friends meet at the beach and have regular spots where you’ll find them on any given day. While visiting and staying in Ipanema, my friends and I made sure to stop by the beach each day during our stay. Posto 9 seemed like a pretty "cool spot" so we settled in here every day. We weren’t just there for the sun, sand and ocean waves...we actually came for a sandwich.
After watching an episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain raved about a simple sandwich he had on the beach, we made it our mission to get our hands on one. The food stand we had our eye on was called Barraca Do Uruguay (just look for the giant Uruguayan flag) near Posto 9. Yes, the food is technically Uruguayan, but trust me when I say this was a fantastic beach snack. The sandwich is really simple: a hard roll filled with your choice of marinated beef or chicken (or both) topped with grilled onions and chimichurri sauce. Serious yum.
Unlike the states, you can drink alcohol on the beach in Rio. You MUST enjoy an ice cold Caipirinha while you relax with your toes in the sand. I don’t know if it was because this is a big no-no at the beaches where I live, or the drink was just that good, but discovering this was a serendipitous moment for me. You don't even have to walk anywhere to purchase one because a vendor will likely come to you.
While you soak up the views, vendors will constantly bombard you with other treats and beach merchandise. While it didn’t seem like the best beach snack, I did see a number of people buying queijo coalho (cheese on a stick) which is cooked over an open flame right in front of you on a portable grill, then covered in rosemary or another topping.
Beachgoers don’t use towels here either, instead, they use cangas, which are like small and thin cotton blankets. Not only are they fast drying they also double as a beach coverup/sarong. The beach is the perfect place to purchase one of these towel-alternatives. Best of all, they are light and compact so they don’t take up much room in your luggage and make great gifts.
Escadaria Selarón Mosaic Steps
Painter and ceramist Jorge Selarón began his most monumental “tribute to the Brazilian people” back in 1990 after he moved into the neighborhood of Lapa. Selarón’s house opened up onto the stairs that led up to the Convent of Santa Teresa. These stairs became his canvas.
He started adding ceramic tiles to the staircase, 215 stairs to be exact, which took over 20 years to complete. With over 2,000 tiles from 60 different countries, this staircase has become a national landmark for visitors. This is certainly worth a quick visit to walk the staircase and take a ton of photographs of his handiwork.
Sugarloaf Mountain & Morro da Urca
There are a lot of incredible viewpoints in Rio, but this was certainly one of my favorites. Sugarloaf Mountain got its name from blocks of sugar that were transported overseas in clay molds which resembled the same shape as the mountain.
In order to get to Sugarloaf Mountain (or Pão de Açúcar in Portuguese), you take two cable cars. The cable car offers panoramic views and only takes a few minutes to make the ascent. The first takes you to a smaller peak, Morro da Urca. The second takes you to Sugarloaf. Both offer incredible views so take a ton of pictures.
There are a couple exhibits to tour as well, and you can see the original cable cars that they used from 1912 which were used for 60 years. I went at sunset but didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore the exhibits as everything was closing up for the evening. Plan accordingly so you have plenty of time to see everything.
Tour a Favela
This was one of my most interesting experiences in Rio. My friends and I toured Rocinha, which is the largest favela in Brazil. Don’t know what a favela is? A favela is a Brazilian slum within popular urban areas, like Rio de Janeiro. There are over 1,000 favelas in Rio alone, and they make up about 25% of the population. Residents have built their homes into the hills which are made from brick concrete and steel. While limitations to the water supply, sanitation, and drug-related violence still exist, modern favela life is not unlike our lives oddly enough. Electricity, cell phones, internet, and big screen TVs can all be found within a favela home or business.
While our tour didn’t go flawlessly, I never once felt unsafe while wandering the streets and narrow alleyways of the favela. Our guide was sure to take us through the safest areas, avoiding parts of the favela known for drug activity and violence. Residents were extremely friendly and happy to speak with us through our tour guide (since I, unfortunately, don’t know the beautiful Portuguese language). There was no hiding that we were tourists, so some kids did come up to us to sell us handmade art, which we obliged.
We got to see some great street art as well. I hoped to meet Wark, one of the most well-known street artists in Rio, but it wasn’t in the cards on our visit. His “angels” were all over Rocinha and Rio, and I could see the positive impact he has on his community.
Favela tourism has been a great thing for Rio. I highly encourage you to visit one to see where a lot of Rio residents come from. The most tourist friendly favela is Vidigal, but I recommend doing a great deal of research on the right favela tour for you. Our tour of Rocinha had a local resident as a guide, and our payment went to him as well as back into the community. There are favela tours which are not run by favela residents and the money doesn’t go back into the favela, so choose one wisely.
To escape city life, a great stop is the Botanical Garden. There are lots of hidden areas to explore here, but I was most surprised by the wildlife that live within the gardens. We saw troops of monkeys and incredible bird species all around the gardens.
Tijuca Forest is one, if not THE largest urban forest in the world. After visiting the Botanical Garden we made our way into Tijuca Forest from an entrance that was off the same major roadway.
Visiting Tijuca pre-Uber was a little difficult, to say the least. The forest is gorgeous and there are plenty of incredible viewpoints here, but it is difficult to do without a car. You have to drive quite high up a mountain in order to reach trailheads and viewpoints. We took a city bus to the closest stop to the forest, and we had a taxi drop us off on the mountain. BUT there isn’t a taxi waiting there to take you back so we did A LOT of walking down. As three women, we were warned by several residents not to go alone. The “why” was unclear as we understood very little Portuguese and they didn’t speak English, but we presumed it was for our safety. My friends and I are rather independent and confident that we would be fine, and we were. Still not sure what the fuss was about to be honest because everyone we encountered were tourists doing the same thing as us. Now that Uber is in Rio, It will be much easier to tackle Tijuca and request a lift back down into the city.
My favorite viewpoint from Tijuca was at the Vista Chinesa. From here you can see the lush forest below you and views of Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer) and the fantastic cityscape and beaches. It was a misty day in June so we enjoyed the cloud cover while we soaked in the view.
Tijuca will take up the majority of your day if you plan to hike around so read up on the best trails for you and bring plenty of water!
Corcovado & Christ the Redeemer
Corcovado is a famous mountain in central Rio. You’ll see it from just about everywhere. Its name means “hunchback” because of its unique shape, which makes it iconic on its own. But what makes this landmark stick out even more, is the massive statue of Jesus at its peak. Cristo Redentor (or as you probably know it, Christ the Redeemer) is THE symbol of Rio de Janeiro.
To get here you’ll take a shuttle bus to the top of the mountain and then walk up lots of stairs to get to the very top. The statue is an incredible 98 feet tall (not including the pedestal it stands on) and his arm span is 92 feet wide. While we visited during June (winter in Brazil), it was still the most touristy spot during our trip. Selfie stick upon selfie stick, this is where you will battle the crowds for a shot of you with Cristo.
More impressive than the statue are the views from Corcovado. It's hard to walk away from Rio’s best viewpoints, and this is certainly one of the very best. Your photos will never do it justice so just take your time to admire every inch of this stunning landscape. When you return home, you’ll still fantasize about this panoramic view.
On a weekend night, below Lapa’s famous archways, we discovered a bustling outdoor nightlife. 2 for 1 drinks, cheap eats, and other street vendors. This is where we found some of the cheapest drinks and food during our time in Rio. The neighborhood of Lapa is where Rio’s young flock to before hitting the nightclubs. Lapa is a lively area, which was a little overwhelming at times. Before visiting Lapa we hadn’t really experienced any crowds other than at the Christ the Redeemer statue (we were traveling during Brazil’s “winter” season - June). Luckily for us, at this point in our travels, we had met a group of guys that knew the area well after studying abroad here. We went out dancing and listened to live music and had a fantastic time.
Another nightlife landmark is the Rio Scenarium. It is a must see if you’re near the Lapa area. This massive three level club had live music, samba, and tons of interesting bric-a-brac on the walls to keep you entertained for hours.
The crowd here was mostly older (40s/50s) on the night we went, and it wasn't nearly as packed as we had thought it would be. My friends and I literally had one of the dance floors upstairs all to ourselves for a good portion of the evening, but we had a great time nonetheless. We went on a weekday, but I imagine it is really packed on the weekends. There is a cover charge to get in and you are given a paper card that they mark on for each drink you purchase during the evening and then you pay at the end as you leave.
Have you been to Rio? If so, what were your favorite spots?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!