Our next destination after visiting São Paulo was Rio de Janeiro, the second-largest city and the most visited place in Brazil. When you think about Rio, the first thing that pops into your mind is probably Copacabana Beach or the Rio Carnival. The truth is, there’s so much more to see in the city! Even though we managed to visit the highlights during our 4-day stay, I’m hoping to return one day to explore all the places I didn’t get a chance to see this time.
– Rio de Janeiro, which translates into River of January, got its name from Portuguese rulers who landed on Rio’s soil on 1 January 1502.
– Rio was the capital of Brazil for almost 200 years before the title was transferred to Brasilia in 1961.
My first impressions of Rio were that the city is a perfect combination of spectacular tropical nature and a vibrant urban environment, and the local people are unusually good-looking.
Check out our Rio travel video!
In terms of nature, Rio really has it all – rainforest-covered mountains which you can hike, winding coastline with many beautiful beaches overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, huge rock formations rising from the ground, and the “Lagoa” lagoon that you can cycle around. The amazing landscape and geography of Rio mean that it’s possible to see spectacular views of the city from many different angles – I’ll show you some evidence further below.
In terms of architecture and the appearance of the streets, I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. For some reason, I had painted this picture in my head where the beach promenades would look elegant, be lined with flowers, fountains, beach clubs and luxury waterfront resorts. That was definitely not the case and the majority of buildings and streets looked somewhat characterless. Don’t get me wrong, it is still possible to find architectural pearls in Rio (such as the Municipal Theatre, Museum of Tomorrow or Parque Lage) you just need to know where to look.
When to go?
I visited Rio in February 2019, the hottest time of the year, and experienced temperatures of up to 35 degrees Celsius and occasional rain on some days. From November to April, the weather is hot, humid and there’s a higher chance of rain whereas from May to October the skies are clearer and temperatures are cooler (down to 15 degrees Celsius).
Here are the top 7 Rio experiences that left me with unforgettable memories:
#1 – Copacabana & Ipanema Beaches
There are many beautiful beaches in Rio, the most famous ones Copacabana and Ipanema. It would be a good idea to visit at least one of them to get the authentic Rio beach experience.
I recommend you rent a beach chair and maybe a parasol, bury your toes in the soft white sand and you’re all set for the perfect lazy day. While you’re soaking in the sun, dozens of beach vendors will try to sell you everything from bikinis, beach sarongs and jewellery to various snacks whereas ice cold fresh coconuts and fruity caipirinhas are delivered to you from beachside kiosks called barracas. All of this without even having to stand up from your chair! If you’re looking for a more active way to experience the beaches, join the many surfers, joggers or beach volley players.
To cool down, take a refreshing dip in the clear blue waters but watch out for the big waves! I almost lost my bikini while wrestling with the waves and trying to make my way back to the shore. That could have been a great story 🙂 .
Copacabana and Ipanema are quite similar but I’d say I prefer the latter. Copacabana is more lively whereas Ipanema is considered to be safer, cleaner, trendier and has classier restaurants and bars. Another advantage of Ipanema is that you can see the iconic Two Brothers Mountain (Morro Dois Irmãos) at the west end of the beach. Also, the Arpoador cliff located at the east end of the beach is one of the best spots in the city for watching the sunset. Both locals and tourists gather there every evening to see the sun drop behind the Two Brothers Mountain and watch the city light up. It surely is one of the most romantic places to end the day. I wish we had brought some wine and a picnic blanket!
As with most places in Brazil, while you’re on the beach, keep an eye on your belongings, be aware of your surroundings and definitely don’t leave your stuff unattended when you go for a swim.
While topless sunbathing is prohibited in Brazil, the locals have found a way to get around the law by wearing the tiniest, almost non-existent bikinis. As I found out, the fairly ordinary non-thong bikini that I was wearing is considered grandma-ish in Brazil 😀 . Oh well!
I noticed that both on the beach and on the streets, everyone seemed to feel really self-confident and comfortable in their bodies regardless of their shape. This kind of body positivity was really refreshing to see and is something that the rest of the world could learn from!
#2 – Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor)
The colossal Christ the Redeemer monument on top of Corcovado Mountain is the landmark of Rio de Janeiro and the most-visited tourist attraction in the city.
In order to reach the statue, you can either take a van or a tram, or hike through Tijuca Forest National Park up the steep slopes of Corcovado. I’ve heard that the hike is quite challenging and it takes around 2 hours to reach the summit. Since we love to hike, it was a tempting option to go to the statue on foot but after hearing that a bunch of tourists recently got robbed on the trail, we opted for the tram. If you choose to take the tram, I recommend booking tickets online to avoid standing in queues. The journey takes about 20 minutes and the price for a round trip including a ticket to the statue is 65-79 Reais (15-18 euros) depending on the season.
Once you reach the top, you’ll see the grandiose Art Deco sculpture, a symbol of peace and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, overlooking the city with his arms wide open. Be ready to wait/fight for a spot to take a photo though as the area around the statue will be packed with tourists, all wanting to get a perfect selfie with the Christ. If you want to avoid hordes of people, be there as early as possible.
Aside from the statue itself, you’ll see magnificent panoramic views of the city below. Try to visit the place on a clear sunny day since it makes a world of difference in terms of the view. On the day we planned to visit the Christ, we could see from the city that the top of Corcovado mountain was completely wrapped in clouds, so we changed our plans. The day after, however, we made our way up to the statue and were blessed with nearly perfect weather and slightly hazy but still spectacular views of the main beaches, the Sugarloaf Mountain and Lagoa.
#3 – Morro da Urca and Sugarloaf Mountain
Urca was the neighbourhood that left a really positive impression on me. The place had a totally different vibe from the rest of the areas I visited in Rio. It felt relaxed and quiet, like a laid-back suburb, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city whereas in reality, it’s just a stone’s throw away from Copacabana. Without skyscrapers, traffic jams and swarms of people, it seemed as if life runs at a different pace in Urca.
In the middle of the neighbourhood lies the Sugarloaf Mountain, a 400-metre-high granite formation and one of the most famous attractions in the city. Right in front of it, you’ll find the smaller Morro da Urca, also known as the ‘first hill on the way to Sugarloaf’. The Sugarloaf is accessible either by cable car (100 Reais/23 euros for a round trip) or by actually climbing the mountain, whereas Morro da Urca can be reached either by the same cable car or by hiking 30-minutes through the jungle.
As we were in the mood for something active, we chose to hike to the top of Morro da Urca and got to see beautiful blue butterflies and adorable marmoset monkeys while wandering through the jungle. If you’re like me, the first thing you wanna do is cuddle with the fluffy marmosets, take them home with you and keep them as your pets. Unfortunately that’s strictly forbidden as they might carry diseases and are considered an invasive species. 🙁 At least that’s what the information board stated.
Even though the hike is not very long, the trail is pretty steep and slippery in some parts, so I recommend wearing sneakers or other shoes with a good grip. Once you reach the summit, you’ll see a bunch of shops, toilets, restaurants, and jaw-dropping views of Rio. We decided that the best thing to do is to grab an ice-cold açaí smoothie, find a bench to sit on, and just admire the beautiful scenery around us – a zen-like moment after a sweaty hike in 35 degrees!
Fancy a helicopter ride over Rio and want to get rid of some money? At Morro da Urca you’ll have an option to do that with prices starting from 400 Reais (90 euros) for a 6-minute ride:
For even more spectacular views and for a great spot for watching the sunset, you can take the cable car up to Sugarloaf Mountain. Just as with the Christ the Redeemer statue, visiting Morro da Urca or the Sugarloaf Mountain is much more rewarding if you do it on a cloudless day.
#4 – Parque Lage
I was surprised to see that Parque Lage doesn’t appear in many Rio travel guides and doesn’t seem to be considered among the top attractions. I don’t know if it’s because my childhood heroes Snoop Dogg and Pharrell featured Parque Lage in their music video, but I absolutely loved visiting this place. Here’s why:
Parque Lage is a public park at the base of Corcovado mountain where you can wander through the tropical forest, listen to birds chirping and see monkeys jumping from one jackfruit tree to another. With its lush vegetation and a relatively small amount of tourists, the park offers a really nice tranquil space if you want a break from the bustling city. Parque Lage is also the starting point of the hiking trail up to the Christ the Redeemer statue.
Between the trees, you’ll find a mysterious tower, a cave and an aquarium, which in some ways reminded me of Quinta da Regaleira in Portugal although at a much smaller scale. All of this amazingness is free of charge! Unfortunately, it was raining when we visited the park. I imagine it looks even more beautiful with clear skies and sunshine.
And now to the best part: in the middle of the park, you’ll find a beautiful colonial-style mansion with the massive Corcovado Mountain as the backdrop. This majestic building used to be the residence of a Brazilian entrepreneur Enrique Lage and was converted into a public space in the 1960s. Inside the mansion, there’s a gorgeous pillared courtyard with a turquoise blue pool in the middle, and a small cafeteria, perfect for having brunch and enjoying the romantic ambience. The prices are a bit higher than the average but with this kind of surroundings, I’d say it’s worth it. (most dishes for 34-47 Reais/7-10 euros, a cup of coffee for 10 Reais/2 euros).
Pro tip: Arrive at the cafeteria early to beat the crowds, to get some nice photos and to be seated at a good table. If you arrive late there will literally be a queue of people wanting to take a photo in front of the bright blue pool:
In the mansion, we tried to take some photos with our camera but were asked to put it away and use our phones for photos instead. I don’t know what kind of logic this is but if somebody does, please explain it to me in the comments section.
#5 – Botanical Garden (Jardim Botanico)
Another calm and green oasis in Rio is the Botanical Garden which is just a kilometre away from Parque Lage. This garden was founded by a Portuguese king more than 200 years ago and spans roughly 140 hectares, 40% of which is cultivated and the rest is covered by wild Atlantic forest. Once again, it was raining when we visited the garden so the photos look a bit gloomy. I’m hoping to return on a sunny day!
You can easily spend there 2-3 hours to explore the mind-blowing diversity of Brazil’s and other countries’ flora. For example, there are 900 different species of palm trees alone! Wander through the Japanese garden, cactus garden, bamboo forest and admire the gigantic water lilies from the Amazon region. The most photographed spots in the garden are probably the two avenues with rows of towering palm trees on both sides.
In addition to the diverse vegetation, there are many species of birds and mammals roaming around freely in the garden. We managed to spot marmosets and a few large stork-like birds but if you’re lucky, you might see toucans and various other colorful birds, different species of monkeys, and even sloths!
The entrance fee to the Botanical Garden is 15 Reais (3 euros) – remember to bring cash, as your credit card might not be accepted.
#6 – Blocos at Brazil’s carnival
What better way to start your Saturday morning than opening the first beer at 8am and joining a bloco in Santa Teresa neighbourhood? We joined one called Céu na Terra which translates into Heaven on Earth. Blocos are massive street parties taking place during pre-carnival and carnival period in Brazil (February/March). If you happen to visit Brazil around that time, don’t miss this ridiculously fun experience! The centerpiece of a bloco is a street band that slowly moves from one place to another, and is followed by thousands of dancing Cariocas (residents of Rio) dressed up in costumes and glitter.
Be ready to sweat like you’ve never sweated before. In those narrow Santa Teresa streets hidden from the wind and packed with people, I suspect the temperatures might have reached about 40 C! That’s when I realised my GoPro had overheated and its battery had turned so hot you could probably fry eggs on it. If you’re gonna join a party like this, remember to stay hydrated. We saw a handful of people that looked like they were close to fainting.
During the party, we were frequently reminded by the locals to keep an eye on our stuff and carry our backpacks on our chest instead of our back. Even though nothing happened to us, it is important to monitor your surroundings as the chance of getting robbed in a large crowd is higher.
After a few hours of dancing, sweating and drinking beers, we were ready for the first meal of the day and knew exactly how to tackle this issue – we wanted to have feijoada and we wanted to have it in Bar do Mineiro.
Feijoada is a heavenly meal consisting of rice, bean and pork stew, farofa, kale and sometimes slices of oranges. Even though it’s quite a food coma-inducing dish, it is my favourite of all Brazilian foods! The reason we wanted to have it in Bar do Mineiro is that the place is known for making the best feijoada in town. We can confirm that it was absolutely delicious. Even the late Anthony Bourdain visited this restaurant in one of his TV shows.
Last but definitely not least:
#7 – Selaron Stairs (Escadaria Selaron)
Between Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods you’ll find the most colorful stairs in Rio known as Escadaria Selaron. This incredible piece of artwork consists of 215 mosaic steps in shades of green, blue and yellow – the colors of the Brazilian flag – and bright red walls on the sides of the stairs featuring tiles from all over the world. This staircase was yet another spot that I had seen in Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s music video as a kid and wanted to visit ever since!
Escadaria Selaron is the work of a Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who lived on the same street and started covering some decaying steps with colorful mosaics back in 1990. As his project progressed and became more popular, fans from different parts of the world were sending Selaron tiles which he could use to develop his vivid masterpiece further. He dedicated 20 years of his life to this project and claimed it as his tribute to the Brazilian people. The story of Selaron unfortunately has a tragic end, as the artist was found dead on these same stairs in 2013.
The steps are very popular with tourists and during the daytime, dozens of people line up at the bottom section of the stairs to get a photo. If you don’t feel like waiting in a queue, walk further up to the top to get an equally good picture (just without the words ‘Escadaria Selaron’).
That’s all folks! These were my most memorable experiences from Rio de Janeiro.
Have you ever been to Rio de Janeiro? What are your favourite things to do in the city? Let me know in the comments 🙂
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You might also want to check out my posts on Chapada Diamantina National Park in Northeast of Brazil:
– Hiking to Mixila and Fumacinha waterfalls
– Relaxing in Lençóis, snorkelling in Pratinha and admiring views from Pai Inacio