Rio de Janeiro is unlike any other city in the world. Whilst there’s nothing unique in its high-rise buildings and busy roads, there is something enormously special in the green hills which break up the otherwise sea of concrete and stone.
It’s as though a cosmopolitan city has collided with a Caribbean island to create this unusual fusion between the natural and manmade worlds.
Read more about backpacking Brazil!
Some hills are home to those living in favelas, whilst others are used as tourist viewpoints. Time your visit with the sunset to watch as Rio’s beautiful landscape falls under darkness, only to come alive again with thousands of tiny golden lights like somebody has sprinkled glitter across the city.
Rio is equally as stunning on ground level, so get up close and personal and explore the various parts of town. The world-renowned beaches emanate happiness and are always buzzing with millions of Brazilians and their naked bums.
Try Lapa where it’s carnival all year round, or head to Botafogo for a quieter spot and a great place to shop. The city has so much to offer and regardless of where you go, you’ll never be far from an ice-cold caipirinha and a beautiful view.
Things To Do in Rio
Christ the Redeemer
This awe-inspiring Wonder of the World towers over the city at 2,300 feet so can be seen from most parts of Rio. However, to truly appreciate the scale and stature, you must climb to the top and stand at his feet.
Fortunately, you needn’t walk the whole way as there is the option of a train or tourist vans to take you there and back. Entry to the Christ is R$22 whilst transport options vary. If you fancy splashing some cash, you can even view it from a helicopter!
Sugar Loaf Mountain
An epic viewpoint offering a 360-degree view of the city. There are bars and restaurants at the top so you can grab a cocktail and take your time to absorb your surroundings.
Sugar Loaf is only accessible by the cable car which runs from Urca and admission costs around R$60 which includes the return journey. If you’re under 21 or a current student, bring along a valid ID card to enjoy half-price tickets!
The most famous beach in Rio, Copacabana is a beautiful stretch of sand and popular amongst young Brazilians wanting to show off their beach bods.
There’s an abundance of bars serving reasonably priced cocktails but if you head a couple of blocks in, you’ll find even cheaper deals. On busy days there will be street vendors wandering along the beach, selling drinks and snacks for next to nothing.
Arguably more picturesque and certainly quieter, Ipanema beach is a winner amongst those who wish to soak up the sun in peace. On Sundays, the nearby General Osorio Square hosts a great little hippie market where you can browse locally produced crafts and some incredible Latin American art.
Every night people swarm to Lapa Square to drink caipirinhas beneath the Arches and dance in the street. Market stalls sell cheap drinks and traditional food, whilst local performers provide some wonderful atmospheric music to bop along to.
When your feet get tired, simply follow the street up to find a selection of bars where you can sit down and continue drinking.
Covered from top to bottom in brightly coloured painted tiles, this staircase in Lapa is an artistic masterpiece. Sadly the artist responsible passed away a few years back but even the controversy shrouding his death can’t taint the magnificence of his life’s work.
Through the combination of vibrant colour and sketchy impressionism, Selaron’s steps have truly encapsulated the spirit of Brazil.
Also read: Free and Cheap Things to Do in Rio.
The favelas are Rio’s poorest parts of town and a real eye-opener. Though you may feel a little awkward gaping at people’s homes, your visit will help to raise money that is put towards improving the conditions in which they live.
Many backpackers attend the Favela Funk Party which is thrown every Sunday and offers you the chance to party with locals. It can be booked through most hostels and your ticket should include door to door transfers.
Take a Day Trip
Feeling burnt out from the hustle and bustle of the city? Why not head off on an island escape! There are loads of amazing day trips from Rio to choose from, the hardest thing will be deciding where to visit first!
Best Areas to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
This area seems to host a never-ending party and so is popular amongst backpackers who lose themselves in the nightlife. Check out Books Hostel which is run by a young Brazilian guy who calls himself The Captain. It’s in a great location close to the square and has its own bar which will guarantee a lively start to your night.
Three more great hostels in Lapa:
- Lapa Casa Hostel – An excellent budget option with dorms available from $8 USD.
- Lapa 251 – Another value-for-money choice starting at $9 USD.
- Lapa Ville Hotel – If you’re after a private room, you’ll find very good options at Lapa Ville for $20 USD.
The bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa may well be Rio’s prettiest of all. Its winding narrow streets give it plenty of atmosphere, making it a favorite of artists, writers and other creative sorts. Santa Teresa is often considered more dangerous than some of the other major neighborhoods in the city due to its proximity to several favelas.
Three of the best places to stay in Santa Teresa:
- Rio Earth – An incredibly popular choice in Santa Teresa. Dorms start at $11, privates are available for $30.
- Casa da Vera Guest House – Outstandingly good prices, with spotless private rooms starting at $10!
- Casa da Santa – Or… If you feel like splashing out a bit, you couldn’t do much better than Casa da Santa. Very comfortable and beautifully decorated, rooms start at $50 USD.
You’ll find many hostels just a stone’s throw from the beach so you can wake up to the sound of sweet music and crashing waves. Try Che Lagarto, a well-known chain of hostels around Brazil and a great place to meet other backpackers.
Three more great places to stay in Copacabana:
- Bamboo Rio Hostel – Rio’s beachside neighborhoods can be incredibly expensive. Bamboo Rio to the rescue! A friendly cheerful place, dorm beds are available for $7 USD (private rooms are considerably more expensive).
- Walk On The Beach Hostel – At 700m, the walk to the beach might be a little bit longer than the name suggests. WOTBH has a great socialable atmosphere and is well-priced at $10 USD for a dorm bed.
- Jucati Season Apartments – For a different feel, you could consider renting a whole apartment. Jucati has some of the cheapest offers around, starting at $30 USD.
This is the perfect area for those who wish to immerse themselves in the city during the day but later escape the chaos and get a good night’s sleep.
It’s only a R$20 to R$30 taxi ride to Lapa or Copacabana but feels another world away. If you’re looking to treat yourself to a night away from hostels, try O Veleiro B&B which is set up on a hill and offers stunning views from the breakfast table.
Botafogo Hostels – Three more of the best:
- Injoy Hostel – Modern, stylish and clean. Beds start at $12 USD.
- Gaia Comfort Hostel – Lives up to its name. Spacious and cool, Gaia Comfort has beds starting at $13 USD.
- Blue Hill Guest House – One for the big spenders, a lovely room at Blue Hill will set you back $100 USD.
- By plane: Rio’s main airport, Galeao – Antonio Carlos Jobim (GIG) is known as the international airport but runs domestic flights too. From here, a taxi should cost around R$50 to R$60 to the city centre but make sure you stick to yellow licenced vehicles only. The other airport, Santos Dumont, connects only with major cities in Brazil such as Sao Paulo and Brasilia.
- By bus: Many bus companies run services from all over Brazil to the long-distance depot, Rodoviaria Novo Rio, in the North Santa Cristo region.
- By train: Rio’s Central do Brasil is a beautiful station but runs commuter trains only so it’s unlikely that your arrival will be via train.
- Sao Paulo: With a staggering population of over twenty million, Sao Paulo is Brazil’s largest city. Hidden within this concrete jungle is the country’s most creative street art amongst other intriguing cultural hot spots. It can be reached in six hours by bus or less than one hour on a plane from Rio de Janeiro.
- Paraty: A couple of hours on a bus will take you to the pretty little colonial town of Paraty. The charming cobbled streets and brightly coloured architecture in the historical square have attracted artists from all over Brazil. As a result, it has become a central hub for the creative arts, hosting regular festivals all year around.
- Ilha Grande: A few hours South and across the water is Ilha Grande, a stunning tropical island with some of the best beaches in Brazil. If you’re wanting more than a chance to top up your tan, follow the trails through the rainforests to find secret spots and historical sights.
About the Author: Chiara Pelizzari is an English graduate turned advertising executive who has taken a year out to travel the world. Check out her travel blog for more great info and inspiration for your South America adventure.