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  • Writer's pictureBecca Jackson

14 things to do in Rio de Janeiro | The perfect travel guide

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Rio de Janeiro, a wild, palpable and gritty city. The home of Samba, the famous Christ Redeemer, Sugarloaf mountain and the long beaches of Copacabana & Ipanema. Rio, whilst down right dodgy in parts, is somewhere everyone should experience at least once.

We have just spent 5 fantastic days there. Having visited way back in 2010, this was our second stay in this amazing city and we still didn't manage to fit in everything there is to do.

Football at sunset on Ipanema Beach
Football at sunset on Ipanema Beach


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First things first, let's address the question of how safe is Rio to travel as I know the city has a reputation for being dangerous, with the likelihood of being robbed, mugged or worse being higher than average. I am not an expert on the city, but I would agree that although all cities come with a certain level of risk, Rio's crime rate and gang violence makes it more unsafe than other cities. However, this is not a reason not to travel there but just more of reason to have your wits about you and not to take unnecessary risks.

Things to do in Rio de Janeiro

You could spend months in Rio, visiting the many different neighbourhoods and attractions, but here are some of our personal recommendations for things we enjoyed during our visits:

1) Take a free walking tour

The best way to acquaint yourself with the neighbourhood you are staying in is to go on a free walking tour. The tours normally last between 2-3 hours and as the name suggests are technically free, however you are expected to tip your guide what you feel the tour was worth. We did a tour of Lapa with Free Walker Tours and would recommend it.

Walking tours are also a great opportunity to meet other travellers and find out about activities and other tours going on in the area. We ended up going on a Samba pub crawl with the same company that evening, along with 12 fellow travellers from our group, having a great night with some great people. Had we not been on the free walking tour we would never have known about this.

2) Experience some Samba

There are samba houses all over the city, even if you are not a dancer you can't help but be drawn in by the energy of the bands and will soon find yourself moving to the rhythm. Lapa, particularly on a Saturday night, draws tourists and locals from all across the city. Rich, poor, young or old, there is something for everyone.

3) Take the traditional tram up to Santa Teresa

We actually did this on both of our visits to Rio! The Carioca Aqueduct or Lapa Arches were originally built of wood in the 18th century to transport fresh water from the Carioca river to the people of the city. At the end of the 19th century, when this means of water transportation was no longer required, the aqueduct was adapted into a viaduct for a tram line connecting the hillside neighbourhood of Santa Teresa to the main city lines. Nowadays the Santa Teresa line is all that remains of the city's original tram network, still using the traditional style trams, its popularity means it is now considered a tourist attraction.

The tram, which costs 20R$, rumbles along slowly on rickety tracks, we had to stop 3 times while the tram driver located the owners of vehicles that had been left over the tram lines! Once at the top of the neighbourhood there is a quick line change before it rumbles back down. The 'centre' of Santa Teresa is only a couple of streets but there are some lovely bohemian gift shops, bars & restaurants to explore.

If you are going to stay in Santa Teresa for the evening I would get an Uber back down to the metro or to where you are staying rather than walking down the hill after dark.

Santa Teresa Tram
Santa Teresa Tram

4) The Botanical Gardens

Not cheap at 67R$ entry for foreigners (which has to be paid in cash only for some reason, although inside the gardens you can use card at the cafes!) but a lovely way to spend a few hours. In the heart of the garden it is hard to believe a bustling city exists just outside the tranquil walls. Much to my delight we saw Channel-billed toucans pretty close up, enjoying the fruit off a tree.

5) Copacabana and Ipanema beaches

Praia de Copacabana is arguably one of the world's most famous beaches with Praia de Ipanema following close behind. Both beaches are long with some cracking waves. Food vendors and those selling sarongs and jewellery carry their wears up and down the sand and there is the option to rent chairs and a parasol from one of the many make shift bars dotted along the beaches.

We prefer Ipanema as feel it is a slightly nicer beach and it has the sun longer in the day, although both are very similar. Both beaches are easily accessible from the city and close to each other so you can check them both out.

Ipanema Beach
Ipanema Beach

6) Ipanema Market

Only on Sundays from 8am - 6pm, Feira Hippie de Ipanema takes place in Praça General Osório. A collection of handicraft stalls selling jewellery, art, clothes and souvenirs. The market isn't huge and you can probably cover it all in less than an hour but it is nice to wander around.

Ipanema Hippie Market
Ipanema Hippie Market

7) Ipanema for sunset

At the east end of Ipanema beach is Pedra do arpoador, which translates as harpooner's stone, which is a large rock from which you get beautiful views along the bay. This is also an excellent spot to watch the sunset. You will not be alone, hundreds gather at the end of each day to watch the glowing sun sink behind Dois Irmaos, Two Brothers, Hill at the other end of the beach.

Sunset behind Dois Irmaos
Sunset behind Dois Irmaos

8) Cristo Redentor (Christ Redeemer)

Christ Redeemer, measuring 33m in height, stands aloft at the top of Corcovado mountain as a symbol of Christianity, and now classed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

There are a few options to get up to Christ Redeemer, you can take the train, a van or hike.

  • Corcovado Mountain by cog train - The train runs roughly every 30 minutes & costs R$82 (high season) and R$67 (low season).

This is by far the most popular way to visit & can get booked up in high season so may be better to book your tickets in advance. The train leaves from Cosme Velho, a calm neighbourhood of Rio that is not so easy to reach as it doesn’t have a subway station.

  1. The closest subway station is Largo do Machado which is a 40 minute walk.

  2. By bus to Cosme Velho from:

Leblon, Copacabana, Ipanema and Botafogo - Bus “Circular 1”

From Center, Lapa and Glória - Bus “Troncal 8”

3. Uber to Cosme Velho will cost around R$40 from Copacabana/Ipanema area.

  • By van there are 3 pick up options;

    1. Copacabana (Lido Square) - R$64 (low)/R$79 (high)

    2. Largo do Machado(the square outside the subway station) - R$64 (low)/R$79 (high)

    3. Barra da Tijuca (inside Cita América shopping centre) - R$93 (low)/R$108 (high)

      • The hike starts at Parque Lage next to the Botanical Gardens. Recommended only for the fit, as it takes around 3 hours & can get quite hot & sweaty. It is also a good idea if you are going for this route to go in a group for safety!

We visited on our first time to Rio in 2010, I remember there to be a lot of other people there too (haha obviously you might say!) which hindered our chances of getting a good photo & it was covered in scaffolding at the time! We had hoped to re-visit on this trip but ran out of time. The sheer size of the statue is impressive and you get some great views over the city.

Christ redeemer - Rio de Janeiro
Christ redeemer

9) Sugarloaf Mountain

This is actually something we haven't done in Rio - I know, shock horror!! Nearly every other traveller we met had been up there and said it was very good and a beautiful place to watch sunset.

Sugarloaf Mountain
Sugarloaf Mountain

10) Drink Caipirinhas

You cannot come to Brazil and not sample the local Caipirinhas cocktails. Made with Cachaça which is a spirit made from sugarcane, known as Brazilian rum. They mix it up with ice, lime and sugar and ta dah! You can sometimes get different flavours, like strawberry, rather than the traditional lime, and there is also a vodka version which is also delicious, just usually a little more expensive.

Caipirinhas (on the beach in Ilha Grande - sorry, it was a better shot!😉)
Caipirinhas (on the beach in Ilha Grande - sorry, it was a better shot!😉)

11) Try the traditional Brazilian food

12) Escadaria Selarón (Selarón steps)

The work of Chilean artist, Jorge Selarón who settled in Lapa in Rio in 1983. The dilapidated flight of 215 steps run from in front of his house up towards the neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. He decided on a whim in 1990 to restore and decorate the steps with tiles, ceramics and mirrors as his gift to the people of Rio (the Cariocas). Selarón was not a rich man and it was expensive work but soon the steps started attracting visitors from all over the world. Whilst no fee has ever been charged to view the steps, admirers started sending Selarón tiles from their home countries. When the final section was complete Selarón would renew a previous section meaning the steps were ever changing.

They are an impressive work of art and definitely worth a visit. There are so many tiles from countries all over the world you may be able to spot some from your home country or even home city.

Escadaria Selarón (Selarón steps)
Escadaria Selarón (Selarón steps)

13) Carnival

There are many festivals and celebrations in the Brazilian calendar but none are as big or inclusive as carnival. Held the Friday before Ash Wednesday, so usually in February, the whole country comes together for one humungous party! We were lucky enough to experience carnival on our first visit to Brazil and there is honestly no party like it. In the larger cities like Rio, official parades are organised by the samba schools and you can pay for tickets in the stands to watch. However, the parading, dancing, samba music, fancy dress and partying happens all over the country and you can enjoy it anywhere.

If you are going to be in Brazil during carnival you will need to book your accommodation well in advance and bear in mind that everything will be more expensive that week.

Throwback to our first visit in 2010 - fancy dress for carnival with our crazy family!
Throwback to our first visit in 2010 - fancy dress for carnival with our crazy family!

14) Ilha Grande

Ilha Grande is a non motorised island about 2 hours south of Rio. With Atlantic forest hiking & beautiful beaches, you can easily spend multiple nights here as we did, but others take an overnight trip from Rio. If the weather is glorious Ilha Grande is the most beautiful place on earth and you can while the days away on the beach, caipirinha in hand. If the weather is gloomy and wet, as it sadly was for us, don't dismay as the island is still beautiful and you can make the most of your time there by hiking the stunning forest trails and enjoying the food.

Praia de Palmas - Ilha Grande
Praia de Palmas - Ilha Grande

Where to stay in Rio de Janeiro

In 2010 we stayed in Copacabana, a brilliant location for enjoying the city's beaches but this time we opted for the neighbourhood of Lapa. Lapa is a lively area known for its traditional bars and Samba. We stayed in hostel Mambembe, which was a 5 minute walk down into centre of Lapa. The area is safe as long as you stick to the hub of the main streets. Not a party hostel but relatively social. Dorm rooms consisted of large 3 tier bunk beds with privacy curtains, lockers and shared bathrooms. There were also private rooms with shared bathrooms or a 'suite' that had a private bathroom, fridge and a TV with Netflix on it - talk about flash-packing!!

Where to go after Rio de Janeiro

We travelled south from Rio to

Ilha Grande - Jungle island paradise with no motorised transport

Paraty - A stunning, preserved colonial town

São Paulo - a sprawling metropolis, largest city in the Americas, southern hemisphere & standing at the 4th most populated in the world.

Pantanal - the largest wetlands in the world.

Northern - Best place in the world to see the illusive Jaguar in its natural habitat

Southern - Number one spot to view the greatest variety of wildlife in Brazil


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