Rio de Janeiro is as exotic, as exciting, as colorful and as beautiful as one would expect. It’s also huge. You could spend years in Rio and never experience it all, but if you focus on a few areas you’ll get a good idea of what this city has to offer and inspire you for future visits.
First-time visitors should stay near or preferably on Copacabana Beach. This is the place to fall in love with this city.
Personally, I’ve always been torn about Rio. I had heard so many negative things about violence and poverty that I wanted to avoid it, and yet it drew me in with its thrills and breathtaking views. Now it’s one of my favorite places in the world. Its combination of natural beauty and man-made attractions is simply unique. This bustling, modern city set against the mountains and the ocean is a vacation experience that’s hard to top.
Things To Do In Rio De Janeiro
Rio is a cosmopolitan city of around seven million people. The region includes numerous bays and a mountainous interior. Luckily, the main sights are easily accessible and so stunning that even a single day in the city will give you unforgettable memories.
Here are some of the best things to do in this charming city.
Watch the mists dissipate Christ the Redeemer Statue
Rio de Janeiro’s landmark, the gigantic statue of Jesus Christ atop Corcovado Mountain, is nearly 100 feet tall. The outstretched arms of Christ span 92 feet. The mountain itself is nearly 2,500 feet tall, so this art deco statue, the tallest in the world, is quite a sight. You can ride the funicular then continue via an escalator to the top for sweeping views of Rio and the many islands in the bays. Try to be there first thing in the morning to watch the mists lift – it’s magical.
Take the cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain
The city’s other iconic mountain is Sugar Loaf Mountain. This distinctively shaped granitic rock has 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 Mount Corcovado and well worth the trip. There is also a restaurant and lots of little monkeys that will photobomb your photos.
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 world famous for its setting, its white sand, the beautiful people who frequent it and its tiles similar to those of Lisbon’s Rossio Square. You just have to spend an hour or two on this beach, and if you’re staying at a nearby hotel, you’ll have access to a section complete with lounge chairs, umbrellas, and someone to keep your bags on while you hop in the waves. This beach is crowded, but the hotel sections tend to be less crowded.
Just around the corner is Ipanema Beach, another Rio neighborhood made famous by song. It’s supposedly more upscale than Copacabana, and admittedly closer to the pretty neighborhood of Leblon with its great restaurants. However, for a visitor, there is not much difference between the beaches apart from location and convenience.
The entire Rio waterfront is divided into several posts, or marked supervised sections that are numbered and known by locals to be best for LGBTQ+ travelers, families, certain views, or sunsets. Each section offers change rooms and rentals for a nominal fee.
Discover the museum of tomorrow
space age Museum of tomorrow will leave you with an unpleasant 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 our wonderful planet. But it also shows what to do to preserve our home for tomorrow. It’s a revelation, that’s for sure.
Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art
One of many fascinating structures designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, this flying saucer-like museum lies across Guanabara Bay in the town of Niteroi. You can take a taxi, bus, water taxi or metro to cross the bay. You will appreciate the temporary exhibitions of the museum as well as the Niemeyer Road; Niteroi has the most Niemeyer buildings in the world after Brasilia. The views across the bay to Sugar Loaf are also absolutely stunning.
Explore the botanical garden
Since Brazil is home to most plant species in the world, visiting Rio Botanical Garden is a must. Alas, there is only 8,000 species of Brazilian and international plant species in the garden – compared to 55,000 species native to Brazil – but there are certainly enough to delight any traveler, green-fingered or not. There are different paths to walk through different habitats, and you’ll spot many native animals that use the gardens as an extension of nearby 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 coast. One of the best ways to explore these islands, many of which are uninhabited, is to take a boat trip. You’ll enjoy a day on the water with great views of Rio, and you can choose any type of trip, from a swim or snorkel to a picnic on a secluded beach. from Rio boat trips offer something for everyone.
What to eat in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro – and Brazil as a whole – offers cuisine with Native American, Asian, African and European influences. Food is big here, and in Rio’s hotspots – around Copacabana, Ipanema, the Leblon and Botafogo neighborhoods – you’ll find plenty of colorful little restaurants, all offering different cuisines. Here are some of the specialties of the region to discover.
These are some of the most popular restaurants in Brazil, and they’re not for the faint-hearted. A steak house is basically a BBQ-focused place where waiters keep bringing you different perfectly cooked cuts of beef until you tell them to stop. If you’re not interested in red meat – or any other meat – then this isn’t the experience for you. If, however, you are a steak lover, this will be one of the best experiences of your life.
Pastries and Empanadas
pasteis and empanadas are little fried bits of goodness filled with anything from chicken to beef to veggies, and they’re available everywhere. Buy them from 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 sit on a stretch of beach owned by the hotel, a waiter will bring you a fresh strawberry caipirinha to your sun deck. Nibble on a pastel with it and you’ll have Rio perfection.
Where to shop in Rio De Janeiro
I hate going to the beaches over and over again, but while shopping in Rio is great and you can find all the best-loved brands in the world, you don’t really come to Rio to shop. Unless you can shop on and along a beach, that is.
At Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, you’ll see vendors weaving around sun-worshippers, carrying virtually anything you could possibly want and more. Bikinis hang from umbrellas, as do pareos; food, drinks and ice cream pass, as do sunglasses, beach balls and more. You can haggle, browse, and even try on swimsuits in portable stalls.
For a unique shopping experience, go to hippie market on Ipanema Beach, an institution since the 1960s. It is open every Sunday from 8 am to 8 pm. You can buy tie-dye outfits, jewelry, flip flops, arts and crafts, and more.
Best hotels in Rio de Janeiro
Belmond Palace from Copacabana
From Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Rolling Stones and international royalty to Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber, the Belmond Palace from Copacabana welcomed its share of famous guests. This iconic white hotel has a fantastic location and is worth saving, but you’ll have to because a stay comes at a luxurious price.
Palace of Otto
A few blocks away in Copacabana, but with much the same view – and without the celebrities – the Palace of Otto is just as convenient but a bit cheaper. Pay extra for a sea view, because that’s the whole point of these places – the views are just stunning.
If you plan to stay a bit longer and prefer space over location, you can find fabulous Holiday rents on Airbnb. These may be a bit out of town, but they offer peace and quiet after a day in Rio.
Pro tip: Although it is quite safe to visit the sights in and around Rio, there is a lot of poverty and violence, so stay alert and don’t bring your best jewelry or handbag on the trip.