Rio de Janeiro is one of the most popular Brazilian cities and tourists favorite destination. The encounter of mountains, lagoons, and the ocean is the distinctive mark of this charming and surprising city, known worldwide as Cidade Maravilhosa, the former capital and second biggest city of Brazil.
However, not everything is marvelous in this scenario. The city suffers uncontrolled and disruptive growth, traffic and pollution, lack of infrastructures, issues with violence and other social problems. The gap between favelas and the rest of the city is blatant and disturbing.
Even so, Rio de Janeiro keeps its charm and its enchant thanks to good weather, amazing wildlife, warmth and easy going lifestyle. Carioca (word of Tupi origin) is the term to refer to its citizens.
Recently, the city hosted major international events, like the Worldcup 2014 and the first Olympic Games in South America. Because of this, Rio is experiencing huge urban transformations.
Tips about the city
Arriving from the Airport
The website of Aeroporto internacional do Rio de Janeiro shows passengers all the options to reach their destinations. Coaches access the most important neighborhoods (Centro, Zona Sul, and Barra), passing by the main bus station (Rodoviária) and the other airport, Aeroporto Santos Dumont. If you are traveling alone, the coach could be a good idea but if you are in a group of two or more, you may consider to get a taxi or use Uber. BRT is not a good choice for people who don’t know the city. If you need to take the metro, it is better to reach it using coaches, taxis or Uber.
The best way to go around is to take the metro. The service covers south zone, city centre and Barra. But if you prefer to sightseeing, you better take a bus. During the night, Uber or taxi is the safest option.
The best option is to stay in South Zone of the city, like Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Gávea, Jardim Botânico, Botafogo, Flamengo, Laranjeiras e Catete. No doubt, these are the most expensive neighborhoods of Rio but, on the other hand, the safest, with better services like buses routes and metro stations.
Like in many other cities in the world, you must be aware on buses, metro and also in the streets with pickpockets. In Rio, an additional problem is the approach of burglars (sometimes armed). One strong advice is to avoid to walk around with valuable watches, necklaces, earrings and cell phones/mobiles. Take special care also with your cameras.
Best time to visit
If you are planning to enjoy the summer and the beaches of Rio, it’s better to choose the months between November and February, when you can also enjoy New Year’s Eve and carnival. Be aware that this is high season, so prepare yourself for stiff prices.
If you rent a house, make sure that it’s equipped with air conditioning cause the temperatures are very high even during the night. Winter time in Rio is mild but cold wind and sea water could spoil your days at the beach.
New Year’s Eve is widely celebrated all over Brazil. In Rio, you can choose among shows and fireworks in different areas of the city. No doubt, the most famous party is on Copacabana beach, with music and breathtaking fireworks, that attract millions of people during the night of the 31st. Follow the tradition and wear white clothes, jump the waves for good luck and dive the first hours of the new year.
Carnival is the most important celebration of the year. Together with the parade of schools of samba in the Sambódromo, a huge variety of events and concerts take place during these days of madness but also weeks before the festivity. Street carnival blocks march through the districts of Rio bringing a multitude of people following sound trucks, bands, and percussionists of the blocks.
Top things to do
Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor)
The statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city from the top of Corcovado Hill. It stands among the most visited attractions of Rio. From above, you can enjoy a breathtaking view of almost all the south zone, city center and part of the north zone. The access by car has been prohibited for a few years now. Nowadays, the cheapest choice is to take the van. The most charming way to reach the monument is to take the small train of Corcovado (trenzinho do Corcovado) from Cosme Velho neighborhood. Check here.
The hill of Sugarloaf and Hill of Urca (Morro do Pão-de-Açucar and Morro da Urca) are natural monuments of the city, in the fascinating neighborhood of Urca. The traditional visit includes a ride in the cable car. Click here for all info you need. You can also reach the first hill, Morro da Urca, walking through a trail in the park (difficulty rate system: medium. Average time: 40 min). Access the track Cláudio Coutinho (Pista Cláudio Coutinho) through the left-hand side of Praia Vermelha to reach the beginning of the path.
The stadium Mário Filho, universally known as Maracanã, was built for the World Cup 1950. Since then, it hosted the World Cup final of 2014 and the opening and closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio 2016. Maracanã is the center of the football culture of the city. If you are a football lover, you can’t miss to visit the stadium, the Museum of Football and to watch a football match there, especially the classics between the big local clubs (Flamengo, Vasco, Fluminense e Botafogo).
Tijuca Forest (Floresta da Tijuca)
The National Park of Tijuca, better known as Tijuca Forest, is one of the biggest urban forests of Brazil. The area concentrates various interesting activities: countless tracks, leisure areas, restaurants and a free flight launch ramp on Pedra Bonita.
The center of Rio is the heart of the city. There are not many residential areas, but big concentration of commercial buildings, public offices, bursting with museums and arts centers. Because of this, the district is really busy and crowded during weekdays and almost empty during weekends. The region marks the foundation and the history of Rio de Janeiro.
The region of the Docks is seeing major improvements: recently inaugurated, the bayside walk was opened before the Olympic Games and became a new highlight for Cariocas and visitors.
Lapa district is a bohemian area in the city center. The symbol of the neighborhood is the old aqueduct through which the tram of Santa Teresa makes its way. Lapa is such a concentration of attractions in a so small area of city center. Huge varieties of night clubs, with different music styles (bossa-nova, samba, chorinho, jazz, rock, hip-hop), bars and traditional restaurants. In the last few years, the staircase of Seleron, with its colorful tiles, became an attraction for residents and tourists.
Santa Teresa is a characteristic neighborhood, different from all the others. Located on the top of a hill, it’ s formed of narrow and twisting small streets, through which the tram has its route. You can enjoy the many gastronomic and cultural options.
Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden)
The Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro (JBRJ) is located in the neighborhood that takes its name, between Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and the districts of Humaitá and Gávea. It was founded in 1808 by the Portuguese prince D. João VI, with the purpose of acclimatizing plant species from other parts of the world. The JBRJ is a symbol of the city and its Imperial Palms can be sighted from various points of the south zone.
The beach is an institution in Rio. There is a song that plays “Do Leme ao Pontal, não há na igual no Mundo” (“from Leme till Pontal, there is nothing like that”). It is a democratic space in a city with so much inequality. On Sundays and festivities, the street close to the beach becomes no-traffic zone, allowing people to practice sports (skate, cycling, rollerblades).
Copacabana beach is, no doubt, the most famous in town. Fancy a walk during the first hours of the day and at sunset in Leme Beach (Praia do Leme, close to the rock wall) or in Posto 6 (close to the Copacabana Fort) and admire the design of the Portuguese pavement stones.
Leblon, Ipanema, Arpoador beaches are well known in Rio. There are many different areas and you will see different groups of people in each one. It worths walking from Leblon to Arpoador to spot the differences. A classic and traditional date is to see the sunset from Pedra do Arpoador, mainly during summer, when the sun goes down at sea.
Barra beach is a sandy stretch in the west area of the city. Two highlights are: Praia do Pepê, at the beginning of the district, close to Jardim Oceânico, where people can practice kitesurf, and Praia da Reserva. It worths to reach the end of the beach, till Pedra do Pontal and beyond, till Praia da Macumba.
Prainha and Grumari are distant from the city, with little or no urban interventions and surrounded by the green of Atlantic forest, the Mata Atlantica. This area is loved by surfers. You can reach it by car or by surf bus Rio.
Food and drink
A good way to save money is to eat in small lanchonetes (traditional snack bars that serve sandwiches and sweets) and casas de suco (they serve delicious juices made with fresh seasonal fruits!). Other options for proper meals are lunch break dishes, called pratos executivos, self-service restaurants (where you pay per kilo) and buffet (all-you-can-eat) offers.
If you are a meat-lover, you can’t miss the traditional Brazilian churrascaria and feijoada carioca. Some bars, restaurants, and botequins (small traditional bars) are specialized in what it is called Comida di Buteco – delicious starters served as proper dishes.
It is imperative that you indulge in fruits once you are in Brazil; go to a local market, ask a local where to find the closest one. You will be charmed by the colors and the tempting aroma of mangos, papayas, avocados, guavas and many others, rare and difficult to find outside the country. Stay hydrated drinking fresh coconut water.
Traditional breakfast in Rio is toasted bread with butter (pão na chapa), coffee and milk. In some juice shops (casas de suco), bakeries, bistros and snack bars in the south zone, you find many set menus for your meal: cereals, yogurt, fruits, eggs, ham, tapioca, cakes. We recommend to include papaya in your choice; you won’t regret!
Where to eat feijoada in Rio de Janeiro?
Feijoada is maybe the most traditional dish of the city. Its origin is Portuguese but it added some more peculiar elements on the Brazilian soil.
It basically consists of black beans cooked with different kinds of meat (pork and cow); as sides, white rice, fried cassava flour, fried cole and pieces of orange.
The best feijoada of my life has been usually home-cooked. So, you are lucky if you find somebody who can cook it for you, considering the long preparation. In case you are not that fortunate, check these restaurants where you can taste a good one.
Bar do Mineiro, Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno, 99 – Santa Teresa.
Aconchego Carioca, Rua Barão de Iguatemi, 379 – Praça da Bandeira. Rua Rainha Guilhermina, 48 – Leblon.
Jobi, Av. Ataulfo de Paiva 1.166 – Leblon.
Academia da Cachaça, Rua Conde Bernadotte, 26 – Leblon. Avenida Armando Lombardi, 800, Loja 65-L – Barra da Tijuca.
Best churrascarias in Rio de Janeiro
Nowadays, barbecue (churrasco) is consumed all over Brazil, but its tradition comes from the southern states, a region historically related to cattle breeding. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the tradition continues in the form of barbecue, as in the Centers of Gaucho Traditions (CTGs).
In Rio and in the rest of Brazil, the steakhouses innovated by offering, besides the traditional cuts, a huge variety of meat, dishes, salads and even sushi and sashimi.
In the churrascaria, the barbecue is usually served in the “carvery” scheme, which allows you to enjoy the different types of meat. It works as follows: waiters walking by tables offering different types of meat and cuts. You pick the piece and they cut to you directly from the skewer.
Here a list of different options and prices.
Carretão, Rua Siqueira Campos, 23 – Copacabana. Rua Visconde de Pirajá, 112 – Ipanema.
Churrascaria Majórica, Rua Senador Vergueiro, 15 – Flamengo. A traditional churrascaria in Rio, but they do not serve “rodízio”.
Fogo de Chão, Avenida Ayrton Senna, 2150 – Barra da Tijuca. Avenida Repórter Nestor Moreira, s/n. – Botafogo.
Fancy a pint? Where to grab a beer in Rio
Beer is, no doubt, the most popular drink in Rio. Years ago, the choice was limited mostly to Pilsen, both tap and bottle. At last, things are changing and you have more options; it’s already possible to find bars and restaurants that offer a different kind of beers.
Over time, the production of craft beer is consolidating more and more; microbreweries are gaining market share before dominated only by big brands, like Skol, Brahma, Antarctica.
Beer is an institution in Rio and the habit to drink it outdoor is really carioca style. Here some spots of the city that gather people together: the famous low-wall in Urca (mureta da Urca) during sunset (opposite Bar Urca and Garota da Urca restaurant); San Salvador Square (Praça São Salvador); kiosks on Ipanema and Copacabana beach and around Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas.
Together with the beer, we suggest trying the traditional appetizers (petiscos).
Lonely Planet Rio de Janeiro (Travel Guide)
Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City
The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics (The Latin America Readers)
Lonely Planet Brazil (Travel Guide)
Deconstructing Brazil: Beyond Carnival, Soccer and Girls in Small Bikinis
The Mystery of Samba : Popular Music and National Identity in Brazil
Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil
Forró and Redemptive Regionalism from the Brazilian Northeast: Popular Music in a Culture of Migration (Latin America)
Movies and documentaries