Rio de Janeiro Guide, Brazil

Cristo Redentor overlooking Rio, with districts named, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cristo Redentor overlooking Rio

Why holiday in Rio de Janeiro?

Rio de Janeiro, nicknamed ‘Marvelous City’, sits in one of the most beautiful, eye-catching surroundings of any megalopolis in the world. With its massive, lively sandy beaches and iconic mountain monument, the spectacular vista of the city alone is enough reason to go there. UNESCO agrees with this sentiment as it recently added Rio’s landscape to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Go there for the madness of the Carnival! Despite lasting only 4 days it is still the biggest reason to be in Rio de Janeiro, though there are always the attractions of the magnificent beaches and boisterous beach life that are an integral part of Brazilian culture, none more so than for the Cariocas (native Brazilians born in Rio).
But Rio offers more nature than just pristine beaches. There’s also the great expanse of the Atlantic ocean, tropical rainforests nearby and lush mountains, making Rio an excellent destination for adventures and activities.

Let’s samba! Even outside of the carnival season, the city is a sensational place for nightlife and people watching as Cariocas are laid-back, friendly, funny, sporty, dance crazy, fun loving and get practically naked on beaches, in processions, at parties – any excuse! Consequently Cariocas are considered by many to be the sexiest people on the planet.
Rio is also one of top 10 gay-friendly cities.

Finally Brazil’s graffiti and street art are becoming a ‘big culture’ attribute and some of the finest ones can be seen on walls around Rio de Janeiro.

Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Copacabana beach panorama, Rio de Janeiro

Downsides

• Unfortunately Rio is not very safe and requires a certain caution. The booming Brazilian economy? True, but at the same time the boom has caused inflation and as a result poverty for many is not getting any better, nor are crime statistics. Tourists should stay away from solo excursions into the favelas(slums), such as the hillside neighborhood of Rocinha overlooking the city centre. But guided expeditions by knowledgeable, experienced locals should be fun and fine.

• This is no longer a cheap destination. Food is expensive and rip-offs common, particularly accommodation during peak seasons such as Christmas and Carnival, though budget travel here is still possible for frugal backpackers.

Favela slum district, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Favela slum district in Rio. Photo by Doug88888.

Rio Weather

Copacabana promenade, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Copacabana promenade.

Rio is an all year-round destination.

Best, high season: Summer (December – March), hot and sunny with average temperature of 30C, though partially wet, with rain showers to be expected. Although the periods of Christmas, New Year and Carnival are the most exciting time to visit they are inevitably the most expensive and crowded. If you dislike crowds pick another time.

Best weather: Octoberto November, springtime, is mild and dry, with less tourists and lower prices, this season is perfect for sightseeing, adventure and beach bums.

OK: April to May is hot and humid but sees less tourists and prices drop after Easter. June-August is winter, mild with less showers and less fog on Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Both these seasons are excellent for sightseeing.

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: at least two days to see prime sights and relax on the beaches. Recommended: 5 days, extra time for activities such as hang-gliding, surfing and a samba night-out or two.

Rio’s Main Attractions

Zona Centro (Lapa and Santa Teresa)

The city’s business centre is home to some historic buildings including Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), Municipal Theatre, Paço Imperial (Imperial Palace) and National Library. The area is also a cultural centre, containing no shortage of museums such as National Museum of Fine Arts.

• Teatro Municipal, a magnificent 1909 theatre resembling Paris’ Opéra House.

• Santa Teresa, a district with an arty-farty ambience of colourful, shabby buildings and art galleries offers a good dining scene. Be prepared for a challenging walk as it is located on a steep hill. Do not miss the Escadaria Selaron (stairs from Lapa) of 215 tiled steps, street art by a Chilean artist, on the way up.

• Lapa. If you come to Rio for clubbing, the district of Lapa is a must. It is one of Brazil’s most engaging and up to date neighborhoods for music, hip bars and trendy restaurants. Almost every kind of music is played here though Rio was the birthplace of Samba, Choro and Bossa nova so no place is as authentic as Rio to samba the night away. Friday night is the best time to experience real Carioca nightlife.
Check out newspapers such as ‘The Rio Times’ in English, or magazines, for the best shows in town.

Zona Sul (South)

Zona Sul (South)

The main tourist sights are found in this district.

• Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain).
Shaped like a rugby ball sticking out from the water of Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain is a significant landmark of the city. In fact, the name refers to the the shape of large piles of sugar from the 16th century sugar cane trade.
A few minutes cable car ride (pricey) takes you to the peak of the 396m tall, granite Sugar Loaf Mountain for a splendid, panoramic view of the city. Get there early to avoid queuing for the cable car, though the best time for a spectacular view is sunset. Sugar Loaf also offers easy, scenic hiking.

• Corcovado and Cristo Redentor (Statue of Christ the Redeemer) is one of the most recognized monuments in the world, the open-armed statue of Jesus Christ above the dramatic sight of the city, mountain and sea expanse.
It was built as a Brazil’s religious icon and has been a symbol of Rio de Janeiro since 1931. 39. 6m tall on the peak of Corcovado Mountain (700m high), Cristo Redentor is regarded as the largest Art Deco statue and the 5th largest statue of Jesus in the world. It was even selected as one of ‘New 7 Wonders of the World‘.
The area is a part of Tijuca rain forest (see below). Those short of energy or fitness will be glad to hear that it is no longer essential to climb 220 steps to the top of the statue to as elevators now do the job for you.
Try a 20 minute public cog train ride through the forest from Cosme Velho station, or try a VIP train day tour combined with Sugar Loaf if your time in Rio is limited.

• Tijuca National Park
Spread over 32 square kms, this is another global first, the world’s largest urban rainforest, an excellent outdoor playground offering a wide choice of things to do such as hiking, wildlife-watching and hang-gliding (imagine soaring above the skyscrapers and landing on a world-famous beach! ). Tijuca encompasses Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer, Cascatinha Waterfall and the Mayrink Chapel.

Zona Norte (North)

Zona Norte

• Maracanã Stadium, the biggest football stadium in South America. It has a Soccer Museum inside.

• Ilha Fiscal, a pleasant excursion, with a historic castle where ‘the Last Ball of the Empire’ was held just before the country became the Republic. A short boat ride from Espaço Cultural da Marinha. Keep in mind the opening hours may be unreliable.

Zona Oeste

Most of Olympic 2016 will be held in the area. Beaches:

• Prainha Beach, away from the crowds, this is a little gem. A small half-moon shaped beach fringed by trees and rocks, this is a popular surfing spot but is not ideal for young children as the water can be rough at times. It’s 40 minutes by car from the city centre.

• Grumari Beach, if you don’t mind an hour’s drive from the city centre, this is the finest beach in Rio, without much development yet. Nearby is Rio’s only official nudist site of Abricó Beach.

• Pedra da Gávea is a challenging 3-4 hour hill hike to a peak with a breathtaking view. The trail is well-marked though it is recommended not to walk it alone. The mountain has a taking-off spot for hang gliding.

City Beaches

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Ipanema Beach.

These are located in the heart of the tourist zone with easy access by public transport. Excellent facilities with lifeguards and plenty of things to do.

• Copacabana Beach is a world-famous beach with vast white sands speckled with colourful people. It is fringed with a 4km long wave pattern, mosaic promenade and backed by a line of useful hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and residential buildings.
The beach often hosts annual FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups and also one of world’s liveliest New Year’s Eve celebrations.
The stretch near the Copacabana Palace Hotel with a rainbow flag is a gay and transvestite sector, near Rua Santa Clara is where ‘futevôlei’ (foot volleyball) players gather, while Leme beach is favoured by older residents and local youngsters.

• Ipanema Beach and Leblon Beach are known for their gorgeous beach-goers so a great place for people-watching. The beaches are in the loveliest neighbourhood and relatively relax and safe. Ipanema tends to attract foreign visitors while locals prefer the less crowded Leblon.

• Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a large lagoon overlooking Corcovado and Ipanema/Leblon Beaches is a popular leisure ground for jogging, cycling, skating as well as boating.

• Jardim Botânico, situated near Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and north of Ipanema, this pleasant 340 acre park is home to more than 6000 local species of plants, an oasis in the city.

Trip out of town

Sunset on Ilha Grande, Brazil

Sunset on Ilha Grande.

Ilha Grande, Lopes Mendes Beach, despite being 180km (110 miles) away from the city and accessible only by bus followed by boat, this island’s 3 kms of fine, sandy beach with clear water is worth making an effort to reach, one of Vogue magazine’s top ten beaches.
The island is home to a paradise beach but also abundance of natural beauty and a great deal of ecological adventures.
You can get there by public transport but it is easier and more practical to arrange a trip through an eco tour company. It’s a 2 hour drive from Rio to Angra dos Reis, then 1. 5 hour boat trip to the island. There are a handful of villages on the island offering tourist services, restaurants and accommodation, from simple hostels to resort hotels.

Carnival

Rio Carnaval is one of the biggest, wildest and sexiest festivals on Earth. It’s held annually 40 days before Easter, usually in February, the hottest month of the summer, and attended by around 2 million people, including 500, 000 foreign visitors.

Wild parties and celebrations involving music, dance and substantial quantities of booze take place throughout the city’s streets and plazas, along with special venues such as hotels and clubs. The highlight is of course the Samba Parade, a competition between Rio’s samba schools, where the final judgment is made in the Sambadrome (aka Sambodromo or Sambodrome).

Get tickets early, especially for the final Monday. Another notable event is the Magic Ball in Hotel Copacabana Palace (mandatory tuxedos). It’s advisable to reserve tickets 4 months in advance.

Most events held in big venues are ticketed but there are free events such as the street bands and parties and the Sambadrome rehearsals (though before the Carnival).

If you go for the carnival, book tickets, accommodation and transport online and pay as far ahead as possible, prices increase dramatically during the last few weeks before the show starts. Check Carnival dates.

Getting Around

The must-ride cable car to Sugar Loaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The must-ride cable car to Sugar Loaf Mountain, with Copacabana beach in thebackground left. Photo by Doug88888.

• Taxis: on foot or by taxi is the best way to get around Rio as the main attractions are close enough to each other. Bear in mind that legal cabs are yellow with a blue line. To avoid being ripped off, try a fixed rate radio taxi such as Rio Airport Transfer, though it costs more than yellow cabs.
The majority of cab drivers speaks no English so a few words in Portuguese or the destination in writing would be practical. As an example the price from Copacabana beach to downtown is around 20 BRL, roughly $10.

• Metro Rio, the subway (underground train), is cheap, clean, air conditioned and easy to use. Although the route is rather limited, it is convenient to move between the north to Ipanema through downtown and Copacabana (line 1).

• The public bus is the cheapest and most useful as the system covers the most of the city, including slums and runs frequently. Stick to the main tourist area, though it is still not recommended unless you are especially adventurous as it can be dangerous, especially at the night.

• Car Rental: Having your own transport or rental car is pricey andnot advisable as driving around the city is not easy due to unclear road signs, crazed cars and traffic jams, not to mention parking hassles.

Rio de Janeiro Hotels

Hotels along the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema in the south zone are the most popular places to stay, though naturally not the cheapest.
Budget seekers can find many small and reasonable hotels along Flamengo beach and Catete, Lapa, Gloria and Botafogo districts, north of Copacabana.
Apart-hotels, holiday apartments with a kitchen, particularly in classy area of Ipanema, are becoming increasingly desirable for stylish and tranquil ambience.
Hotels downtown in lower Centro, near the airport, can be handy for business travellers though it is a hike to most tourist sites, but the Santa Teresa district has many guest houses, ideal for backpackers and partygoers.

If you stay budget hostels, look for approved places such as Youth Hostels International to avoid being cheated or robbed.

During the busy times of Christmas, New Year and Carnival prices can triple and may be bookable only for a minimum stay of 4 days, or even one or two weeks.

Safety

Pickpocketing or street muggings are the most common crimes to happen to tourists in Brazil.

Avoid being target of an opportunistic crime

• do not walk alone especially after dark and move in a group with local friends if possible.
• do not carry or wear valuables such as cash, jewels and expensive sunglasses etc. (even fake ones).
• jogging in the morning, go without watch or MP3 player.
• keep cameras/cell phones in the zipped pocket.
• remain in the Zona Sul tourist area and stay way from the slums unless you’re with a sensible local.
• avoid downtown on Sundays when most of shops are closed and no security guards around.
• be aware your environment when you walking in the street and take extra caution when you are taking money out from ATM or from your wallet.
• keep your belongings on you all the time, even on the beaches.
• call a taxi instead of picking one in the street.

Take precautions against dengue fever by using insect repellant during the peak summer months of February and March.

Visas

United Kingdom: Visa is not required for up to 90 days stay.
Western Europe: Since a 2011 agreement all EU citizens wishing to travel to Brazil for tourism or business will be allowed to enter the country without a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
USA: Currently required by citizens of US. Fill in an online form.
Canada: Required. Fill in an online form.
Rest of the world: Generally a visa is required. Fill in an online form.