Welcome to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa, also known as “The Marvelous City.” Images of beautiful beaches and the beautiful people who populate them may come to mind, and as one of the South America’s most visited destinations, Rio de Janeiro rarely disappoints.
It’s home to the largest carnival in the world, and the carefree, cheery ways of its people has been described as contagious. “Cariocas,” as the locals call themselves, truly know how to live. Spend one day observing them and you’ll come to a similar conclusion.
Granted, the blurry division between the poor and the rich may be striking for those who haven’t visited a developing country in the past. Brazil’s struggle with poverty has shaped most of its large cities and is a factor deeply embedded in its everyday culture. Nevertheless, Brazilian culture is lively as ever, and there’s no better place to experience it than Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro offers something for everyone: Criss-crossing trails carved into mountains for the avid hiker; white sandy beaches for paradise seekers; busy streets teeming with activity for the big-city lover; culinary delights for the foodie; and a thriving nightlife featuring innumerable pubs and bars for the all-nighter.
What to do?
Christ the Redeemer “Cristo Redentor”
The gargantuan statue of Jesus Christ spreading his arms atop a mountain overlooking the city is probably Brazil’s most iconic symbol. The monument’s sheer size is intimidating, and its home boasts one of the most spectacular views in the city. You can get to the top of the mountain by train (recommended because it’s such an awesome experience), which costs between 61-74 BRL, depending on when you’re there. Other options include taking a car, van or bus, but the experience is not nearly as exhilarating as taking a train up the mountain’s lush terrain.
Sugarloaf Mountain “Pão de Açúcar”
This is one cable car experience you won’t forget. It’ll cost you 80 BRL but we can assure you the 360° view you and your camera will get while suspended in the air moving between one peak of a mountain to another is worth every Brazilian Real.
Lapa Arches or the Carioca Aqueduct “Arcos da Lapa”
An architectural point of interest rich in history and photo ops. Made up of 42 arches, the aqueduct was built during colonial times to bring fresh water to the city. As Rio’s tourism board puts it, the Lapa Arches are one of the postcard sites of the city. You can also find some fun, traditional bars in the area.
This is Rio de Janeiro’s “soccer temple,” where legendary players clash in some of the most memorable matches in soccer history. Imagine the most die-hard American football fan you’ve ever met and multiply that by 10, then multiply that by thousands, and that’s what you’ll find inside the Maracana during a typical soccer match. The stadium hit world-record attendance in 1950 with over 200,000 spectators packed into its oval structure.
If you get a chance to watch a local match, it’d be an experience you won’t forget.
The “Port of Marvels” is a once forgotten, waterfront piece of Rio recently revived with artistic flair. There you’ll find the science-themed Museum of Tomorrow, the Rio Art Museum, the AquaRio marine aquarium and the largest art mural in the world. Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra broke a world record with his 50-foot high colorful mural that stretches 557 feet around the neighborhood.
Calling all surfers: Here is your piece of paradise. This tiny bit of sand and rock snuggled between the beginning of Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches is a go-to spot for local surfers. You can walk onto the Arpoador rock that juts out into the ocean to catch a picturesque view of the Ipanema and Leblon beaches, as well as the dual-peaked Two Brothers mountain “Morro Dois Irmãos.”
Bar Da Laje
Located atop an abandoned building inside the Vidigal favela, this bar boasts an incredible view of an authentic, hillside favela and the sprawling metropolis squeezed between mountains and the beaches below. You can get here by taking a van up the favela — a thrilling experience itself.
Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon “Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas”
Want to feel like a local? Take a walk — or a jog — around the lagoon that sits in the middle of the city on a Sunday afternoon. You can bike the 4.5 miles (about 7.5 kilometers) around the lake.
*For the adventurist:
Pedra da Gávea
If you jump, I jump! Guil kicked his fear of heights aside a few years ago to hang glide over Rio’s Tijuca Forest, a popular thrill for adventure seekers. The mountain known as Pedra da Gávea is located within the forest and offers an incredible view of the city below (even if you’re not jumping off)!
Pedra do Telégrafo
If you’re wondering where everyone takes those insanely dangerous (or so it seems) photos hanging off a cliff with a steep plummet toward Rio as their backdrop … it’s here! All it takes is a hike up the rock.
What to eat?
Bakeries dot the streets in Brazil selling traditional pastries like cheese bread “pão de queijo,” empanadas “pastel,” and chicken croquettes “coxinha.” Try. Them. All.
One of the most traditional dishes is “feijoada,” a black bean stew made with a mixture of different meats.
Academia da Cachaça in the Leblon district is as authentic as it gets when you’re looking for a good Brazilian meal, including feijoada.
Galeto Sat’s is more casual option in Copacabana where you can still get that delicious Brazilian flavor at a more affordable price.
Swing by a Brazilian steakhouse and experience the all-you-can-eat rodizio grill, where varied cuts of steak, sausage, chicken and other Brazilian eats are brought to your table until you say “No more, please!” The steakhouses are at a fixed price and also offer a wide buffet selection of salads and other traditional dishes to accompany the main course.
Majorica in the Flamengo neighborhood is an excellent choice, and it’ll cost you about $21 to $35 USD per person.
As for drinks, always choose the caipirinha.
How to get around
Uber would be the best and safest option – make sure to check the license plate of the vehicle that picks you up to the number shown in the app.
Taxis are also fine, if you’re at a restaurant or hotel, it’s safer to have them call a cab for you. It’s safer than picking one up off the street. If you must get one off the street, look for a company name and taxi ID number (not a phone number) on the vehicle.
Petty theft is common in buses.
The metro is a fairly new way of transportation in Rio since the 2016 Olympics, although we’d suggest avoiding it at night.
*Traffic is an issue due to its geographical location squished between an ocean and jungle. That being said, there’s not much room for the city to expand, yet its population is quite large.
Where to stay?
The touristic Zona Sul, or the South Zone, home to famed beaches like Ipanema and Copacabana.
If you’re traveling with dollars, you do have the upper hand. $1 USD was equivalent to 3.12 BRL as of the publish date of this post.
We are lucky enough to stay with family when we visit so we can’t accurately tell you how much an average hotel stay costs.
One of the cheaper ways to eat in Brazil is to look for restaurants that operate “por kilo,” or per kilogram. These eateries offer an expansive buffet of traditional Brazilian dishes to choose from, and once you’ve made your plate, you weigh it at a checkout counter and pay per kilogram, hence the “por kilo.”
For more money-saving tips we suggest checking out Nomadic Matt.