Brazil’s most vibrant and alluring city, Rio de Janeiro – otherwise know as a ‘cidade maravilhosa’ or the marvellous city. The nickname is well deserved. This is a city where beautiful mountains clash dramatically with the sea, and sprawling favelas squeeze in-between the crashing waves, beach boulevards, penthouse apartments, and the dizzying lush green heights.
The luscious beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana quench local Carioca and tourist thirst with fresh coconut water and ice cold beers. Music resounds throughout the city, on the beach, from bars and restaurants, apartments and onto the street itself.
Even Jesus himself looks down from above, majestic in his immense size, constantly watching the flow of traffic along the coast and through the buzzing yet crumbling colonial centre. Here mighty cathedrals stand between six lanes of erratic traffic, and cultural centres muscle their way into dilapidated nineteenth century buildings, modern concrete structures and shopping malls. Trams, cable-cars and elevators take you up to the city’s higher neighbourhoods, or favelas.
There’s no doubt about it. This is a city that takes hold of your imagination with a firm grip and doesn’t let go. So don’t miss out on all that Rio has to offer with this list of the top sights, music and dancing, activities and eats!
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Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro – Like a Carioca*!
*Carioca is the word used for residents of the city of Rio de Janeiro and the surrounding state. The word originates from the indigenous ‘Tupi’ language of the area and literally means ‘House of Carijó’, a native Guarani tribe of Rio de Janeiro that lived by the nearby Carioca River.
1. See the view from Sugar Loaf Mountain
Delight in the dramatic views from Pão De Açúcar, Sugar Loaf Mountain. You can get a cable car all the way up. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, you can climb the first little hill called Urca and then jump on the cable car up to the top of Sugar Loaf from there. Without a doubt some of the very best views of Rio.
2. Climb up to Christ the Redeemer
Marvel at the breathtaking scenery stretching out below the feet of the Christ the Redeemer statue. I highly recommend taking the less-trodden path and climbing the mountain up to Christ. The trail starts in Parque Lage. When you get to the park, just ask a park guard to point out where the trail begins. The hike takes around an hour, and at some points, you have to pull yourself up with ropes, but the view is all the more rewarding after the climb and you won’t feel so guilty about all those caipirinhas you’ve been guzzling.
Did you know, the foundations for Christ The Redeemer were laid before the statue had even been designed? Read more great facts about Brazil here!
3. Check out Rio’s new cable car system in Zona Norte
The first of it’s kind in Brazil, the Teleférico do Alemão is taking Rio’s tourism to new heights. Seeing Rio from this angle is alluring in a completely different way, and is key to understanding the complexity and richness of the city. It’s a great platform from which to appreciate the exceptional and unique charm the favelas bring to Rio, and the importance of our awareness of these thriving communities that are now becoming more integrated, vibrant neighbourhoods thanks to the improved infrastructure that is reconnecting the favelas of Zona Norte.
4. Pay a visit to the Escadaria da Lapa
These beautiful stairs are covered in thousands of tiles from around the world, a project that began in the 1990s by the late Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. Up until his suspicious death early last year he could be found hanging out on the steps day and night, working and chatting with the locals and tourists in his distinctive red shorts and crazy Salvador Dalí-esque mustache.
5. Take a look at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian
Next to the Lapa arches, you can’t miss it – just look out for the giant concrete dalek from Dr. Who! Make sure you take a peek at the stunning stained-glass work inside.
6. Go out in Lapa on a Friday night
Join the beautiful men and women dancing in the streets of Lapa on Friday nights, ice-cold caipirinhas in hand, tapping their feet and clapping their hands to the percussion playing under the Lapa arches, the samba playing from the understated bar on the corner and the baile funk (also known as favela funk, popular electronic dance music native to Rio) blaring out from the clubs. The atmosphere is intoxicating and invigorating – but be sure to keep a close eye on your valuables. Have a drink at the popular Arco Iris da Lapa bar on the main street, Avenida Mem de Sá, 1960, before heading out into the streets. And bear in mind things don’t really heat up till gone midnight!
7. Spend a Friday night at The Maze
The Maze is unique live music/jazz club in a favela in the neighbourhood of Catete that hits all the right buttons – a veranda with breath-taking views across the Guanabara Bay, brilliantly talented musicians and delicious cocktails. Every Friday night, get lost dancing your way through the hidden nooks and crannies until the sun begins to rise.
8. Samba away at Pedra do Sal on a Monday night
Pedra do Sal, Salt Rock, is so called because the slaves working in the docks used to transport huge loads of salt up the side of this rock. Steps were carved into the side of the rock to facilitate their work. Nowadays, these steps are crowded and filled with Cariocas and tourists alike every Monday night as a roda da samba, a samba dance circle, takes place in the square at the bottom of the rock. The atmosphere is buzzing and the music infectious. Get your lips round a caipirinha from one of the street stalls with maracujá, passionfruit – a delicious alternative to the traditional lime.
9. Eat and dance at Casa Rosa in Laranjeiras on a Sunday night
You’re in for a treat with traditional Brazilian feijoada (a bean stew with beef or pork) served up along side live samba and caipirinhas galore. Get there early, around 7pm, to avoid disappointment. This is a popular spot and the food runs out quick!
10. Spend a day wandering the streets of Santa Teresa
Take a motorbike taxi up to Santa Teresa from outside Glória metro stop – this is a lot of fun, just make sure you hold on tight! Fantastic graffiti litters the cobbled streets, crumbling colonial mansions are now home to bohemian art cafes and galleries, and the ever pulsing beat of Brazilian samba floats in the air around the plentiful bars and restaurants.
11. Visit the Museu da Chácara do Céu
Whilst in Santa Teresa, don’t miss this interesting little museum; an old colonial house with a small collection of modern art and fantastic views of the city. This part of town is not to be missed!
12. Rent a bike and cycle round Zona Sul
The perfect day for this is Sunday; on Sundays, the roads along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are blocked from traffic so all the Cariocas are out strolling, running, cycling and rollerskating. It’s a pleasant ride up and down along the beaches and around the lake. You can also rent pedalos out on the lake.
13. Visit the Centro Cultural Banco de Brasil
This cultural organisation is housed in a beautiful art deco building that was once the Bank of Brazil in the centre of Rio’s old financial district. The exhibitions are always changing but always worth a visit and admission is free.
14. Watch the sunset at Arpoador
This is the name of the rock that juts out between Ipanema and Copacabana beach. You are likely to find groups practicing capoeira around here, a brilliant display of traditional Brazilian martial art mixed combined with dance and music. And every evening, without fail, the sun gets a round of applause when it sets behind the striking mountains called Dois Irmãos, the Two Brothers. Truly magical.
15. Eat at Nova Capela
One of the best restaurants in Rio, Nova Capela ic located on Avenida Mem de Sá, 96. This restaurant has been going since 1903, and the greatest thing is it doesn’t close till 5am. So head on in after a night out in Lapa for a taste of their famous roast goat with garlic and broccoli rice.
16. Relax in Parque Lage
Parque Lage is a beautiful spot for coffee or a bite to eat. The café is situated in a glorious former mansion which also houses an art school, so there are regular free art exhibitions on show.
17. Dine in Santa Teresa
If you’re feeling peckish up in Santa Teresa, a great place to eat is Nega Teresa on Rua Aurea, 24. Conveniently close by is Bar da Fatinha, Rua Aurea, 2, with great drinks and live music on Thursdays and Fridays.
18. Step back in time at the Confeitaria Colombo
Founded as a pastry shop in 1894 and located in the centre on Rua Gonçalves Dias, 32, it seems that time has stood still inside this sumptuously decadent tearoom. It’s a wonderful place to stop for coffee and treat yourself to something sweet. You can also try one Brazil’s famous savoury treats such as a coxhina, shredded chicken wrapped in dough and the deep-friend. Delicious.
19. Watch a Football Match at Maracanã Soccer Stadium
Maracaña is the largest stadium in Brazil and one of the largest in the whole of South America with a capacity of almost 80,000 people! The soccer stadium has hosted important global events such as the FIFA World Cup 2014, large concerts as well as matches between local Brazilian teams. Local teams who you might catch playing there are Vasco, Flamengo, Botafogo, and Fluminense. Visit the websites of the teams to buy tickets and get ready for some electric atmosphere!
Read one backpacker’s experience of soaking up the atmosphere at a South American soccer game!
20. Visit the São Bento Monastery
This monastery was founded by Benedictine monks and dates back to the early 1600s. It is one of the earliest colonial buildings in Brazil and is a fine example of 16th century Portuguese architecture. Located on Morro de São Bento (or St. Benedicts Hill) the views from up here are great and the church is worth a look inside. The monastery is still operational and every Sunday you can attend mass at 10am.
21. Be a Beach Bum
And finally, once you’re done with all the sightseeing and partying and eating, do what every Carioca does once in a while and simply relax on any one of Rio’s stunning beaches. We’ve all heard of Copacabana and Ipanema but head north and you can have deserted stretches of sand and stunning views all to yourself. Read more in our article about the top day trips from Rio de Janeiro city.