What to do in Rio de Janeiro? Without lying, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world! I went there several times without ever getting bored, with always new places to discover. From Christ the Redeemer to the beaches of Copacabana, passing by the legendary Maracana stadium, there is no shortage of activities to do in Rio de Janeiro! If the length of your trip to Brazil allows it, I advise you to stay there for a week to have time to enjoy it. In addition to being beautiful, Rio is one of the most festive cities in the world! These are all my tips for visiting Rio de Janeiro.
1/ Climb Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer
Perched on the mountain of Corcovado which culminates at 710 m above Rio, Christ the Redeemer is the symbol of the city. Did you know it was made by a French sculptor, Pau Landowski? Climbing the Corcovado not only allows you to see this monumental 38m high statue up close, but also and above all to enjoy an exceptional view of Rio de Janeiro and Guanabara Bay (that’s where I took the photo of one of this article). No city in the world has such a natural panorama!
Climbing the Corcovado is an activity that I recommend doing as soon as you arrive in the city. The best way to get there is to take the funicular through the Tijuca Forest (tip: sit on the right on the way up for the best view). To queue for less time, you can book your combined train and statue ticket in advance online (children aged 5 to 11 pay a reduced rate and it’s free for children under five) ➡️ Book a Corcovado Ticket.
2/ Enjoy the beaches of Rio de Janeiro
Few cities have as many kilometers of beaches as Rio de Janeiro. This is where Cariocas from all walks of life come to meet, play sports, bask in the sun and have fun. That said, not all beaches are created equal and some are more suitable for sand sports such as foot volleyball than for swimming. Copacabana, the most famous with its legendary name, is not the most pleasant. Instead, go for a walk on the cobblestone sidewalk. The beach is a bit dirty and the red flag is often raised because of the dangerous currents. My favorite is that of Ipanema, the most chic, especially at posto 9 (the aid stations are the main landmarks on the beaches of Rio). The most photogenic spot for a sunset is at the far end of Ipanema Beach on Arpoador Point.
Namely: at the beach, take only the minimum amount of money necessary. No passport, camera or credit card. Do not leave your belongings unattended. My advice: for women, put on a thong! It’s more local: all Brazilians wear them. On the other hand, never topless, it is not done at all in Brazil.
3/ Climb to Sugar Loaf / Pao de Açucar
The other unmissable point of view on Rio de Janeiro is the summit of Sugar Loaf, which can be reached by cable car. The climb is done in two stages: first at the top of the Urca hill, then a second cable car to reach the top of the Sugar Loaf, at an altitude of 396m. My advice: go there in the morning or at the end of the day. ➡️ Book a ticket to climb Sugarloaf Mountain.
4/ Discover the neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa
My two favorite neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are Lapa and Santa Teresa, located next to each other in the center/north part of the city. Santa Teresa is a bit like “the Montmartre” of Rio de Janeiro. Perched on a hill, this district has been taken over by bohemian artists, with its quiet charm, its street-art frescoes and its lush gardens. To get there, take the small tram which saves the effort of climbing the steep streets. Climb up to Parque das Ruinas from where you will have a superb view of Guanabara Bay.
Lapa is an old district of Rio where you can go out to party at night, especially along Rua Mem de Sa. Built in 1750 to channel the waters of the Rio da Carioca, the Arcos da Lapa aqueduct is today the neighborhood symbol. Don’t miss the superb Selaron staircase entirely covered with colored ceramics, which connects Lapa and Santa Teresa. 215 steps high, it was decorated by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron with thousands of ceramics from around the world. The other major site in Lapa is the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral, a huge concrete pyramid designed by architect Edgar da Fonseca.
5/ Visit the Museum of Tomorrow / Museu do Amanha
Inaugurated at the end of 2015, the Museum of Tomorrow quickly became an unmissable site in Rio de Janeiro. Designed by star architect Santiago Calatrava, to whom we owe the new World Trade Center station in New York, its building, which looks like an air liner, brings a breath of modernity to the skies of Rio. It is an original and fascinating museum, dedicated to the future of the world.
Next to the Museum of Tomorrow, don’t miss the impressive work of street art by Eduardo Kobra. Entitled “Peace among peoples”, it was produced for the 2016 Olympic Games. Covering more than 2,600 m2, it is one of the largest mural graffiti in the world.
6/ Hike on foot to the top of the Deux Frères
We fell in love with this hike which allows you to reach one of the most beautiful viewpoints over Rio de Janeiro, the Morro Dois Irmãos, or hill of the Two Brothers, which rises to an altitude of 539m. Another point of view you will tell me, but the advantage is that this one can be accessed for free and that there are far fewer tourists than at Corcovado or Sugar Loaf! If you are traveling on a budget, be sure to go there. Tip: don’t make the same mistake I did and take good shoes (going in flip flops wasn’t a good idea). To get there, you have to cross the Vidigal favela, which poses no security problem. You can do it on foot or by motorcycle taxi (at least for the climb).
7/ Explore a favela
Take advantage of your stay in Rio de Janeiro to visit a favela. One out of three inhabitants of Rio lives in a favela, so it is important to go there to confront another image of the city. Several favelas are quite peaceful with good security conditions, such as Rocinha, Vidigal or Santa Marta. It is not a glaucous or sordid tourism quite the contrary: it is local agencies which organize these visits, which gives work to the local guides. ➡️ Book a favela tour with a local guide.
8/ Attend a football match at the Maracanã
The Maracanã stadium is an institution in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, football is a real religion, with immense popular fervor on match days. Even if you’re not a fan of the sport itself, it’s impossible to remain insensitive to it. I had the chance to attend two matches in this mythical venue: a final of the Guanabara Cup, the Rio State club championship, with Flamengo against Botafogo, and a quarter-final of the France World Cup. Germany (unfortunately won by Germany, in 2014). If you are resourceful, you can buy tickets from vendors in front of the stadium, but the result is not guaranteed! For more security, you can buy tickets on the internet via an agency. ➡️ Buy a ticket for a match at the Maracanã.
If you don’t attend a match, you can also choose the option of visiting the stadium during the day. You can go as close as possible to the lawn, discover the changing rooms and learn all about the mythical history of this stadium. ➡️ Book a ticket to visit the Maracanã.
9/ Discover the architecture of Niemeyer in Niteroi
If you are a fan of architecture, be sure to take a trip to Niteroi, a neighboring town of Rio de Janeiro, on the other side of Guanabara Bay. This is where the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) is located, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s star architect to whom we owe the capital Brasilia. The view of Rio in front is breathtaking.
10/ Attend the carnival in Rio de Janeiro
Attending the Rio Carnival is truly a once in a lifetime thing! I really loved the experience, and lived to the rhythm of the party for almost a week. The dates of the carnival are fixed according to Easter. It takes place from Friday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, about 40 days before Easter. Please note: for 2022, the dates have been modified due to the coronavirus epidemic. The carnival will begin on April 21, 2022.
As the carnival approaches, you can already party from morning to evening with popular parades in the streets, the blocos. The atmosphere there is amazing! On the other hand, do not be afraid of the crowd… (my advice: go with good shoes like sneakers because in flip-flops or sandals you get walked on). The parade of samba schools takes place at the sambadrome, an avenue with bleachers located in the northern district of Rio. To attend, the easiest way is to buy your ticket on the internet a few weeks in advance and then pick it up at the place indicated. ➡️ Book a ticket for the Rio Carnival at the Sambadrome.
Visit Rio de Janeiro: practical notebook
My advice: make the effort to learn a few words in Portuguese, your stay in Rio de Janeiro, and in Brazil as a whole, will not have the same flavor at all! Before your trip, you can do some lessons on Babbel app, really very effective for quickly learning notions of a foreign language (the three-month subscription formula costs 29.99 euros). Also get a small brazilian portuguese phrasebookvery useful once there.
Where to sleep in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is a huge city and its neighborhoods really have a different vibe. Depending on your budget and your affinities, here is what I can advise you to find the ideal accommodation.
For my part, the two neighborhoods where I preferred to stay in Rio de Janeiro were Flamengo and Botafogo. They have few tourist must-sees, but they are rather quiet neighborhoods, with good value for money hotels and well provided with means of transport. Located halfway between the southern zone with the beaches and the central/northern part with Lapa and Santa Teresa, they are a good base for getting around. Here are the four addresses that I recommend:
If you love to party and go out at night, check out accommodation offers in Lapa. If you have a comfortable budget and want to stay near the beach, looking for a hotel in Ipanema. If you want to sleep in a nice guest house or a small charming hotel, look the options in Santa TeresaRio’s little Montmartre.
For a luxury stay in Rio de Janeiro, the most sumptuous hotels are along the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. The historic luxury hotel is the Copacabana Palace, open since 1920, with a panoramic view of the most legendary beach in the world. In newer and trendier, you have the Fasano Rio de Janeirowith a sublime view of Ipanema.
Safety tips for visiting Rio de Janeiro
Without falling into paranoia, Rio de Janeiro is a city where you have to be careful. The number one instruction is to avoid any outward sign of wealth. Choose a small compact camera over a big SLR. Leave your identity papers and bank cards safe at your place of accommodation. Only go out with the money you need for the day. Listen to local advice. At nightfall, get around by taxi: Uber works very well in Rio. I really like this app because I feel safer using it. The routes are traced so no confusion possible with a fake driver. Nothing ever happened to me in Rio, so no reason to worry too much!