There are very few cities around the world which offer as varied a list of attractions and activities as Rio de Janeiro. From stunning natural sites like Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain, to striking landmarks like über-famous Cristo Redentor, as well as a myriad of fun and exhilarating activities and a most delectable cuisine, Rio really embodies the epitome holiday destination for anyone who wants to experience the very best South America has to offer.
No matter how long your vacation may be, make sure to include the following unmissable Rio experiences.
Be spellbound by Cristo Redentor
One of the most recognizable statues in the world is regarded by many tourists as a simple, humongous, landmark. Many fail to spot the connection between Brazil being one of the most ardent Christian countries on the planet and it being home to one of the largest religious monuments ever built.
This awe-inspiring symbol of catholic faith was unveiled in 1931 and took over a decade to build. Made of massive concrete slabs which were actually carved in France and shipped in pieces over the Atlantic, the famous ‘Christ with outstretched arms’ sculpture weighs a mind-blowing 700 tons. Its religious significance is still very much alive in the minds of all Brazilians and the base of the statue is now home to a small chapel where local weddings and baptisms are often held.
From a tourist’s perspective, visiting the statue requires more of a logistical aptitude rather than a religious inclination. As Rio is famous for quite sudden and sporadic cloud cover during winter and autumn, planning your visit far ahead is not recommended during this time. Instead keep your eyes peeled to the sky and make a ‘last minute dash’ on a crystal clear day; this will give you the best chance to enjoy superlative views of both the top half of the statue and the sweeping views over Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.
Reaching the viewing platform takes a little planning so check out the official website for pricing details and info on how to best reach this magnificent site.
Climb up Sugarloaf Mountain
Rio’s most iconic odd-shaped hill is both a stunning natural peak to look at and a beautiful viewpoint to look from; making it an absolute must-see attraction in the city. Named after the large conical shaped clay urns used to transport sugar across the world up until the late 1800s, Pão de Açúcar is actually only one of several such hills which litter Rio’s bay, yet it is the most popular by far.
You can reach the top of the mountain via a system of cable-cars, the first of which starts from Praia Vermelha on the southern base of Sugarloaf, reachable on foot from the northern end of Copacabana beach. The first ride will see you atop Morro da Urca and the second will ascend to reach the pinnacle of Sugarloaf at an altitude of 528m. The cable-cars are rather large and can fit in a maximum of 65 passengers. The 5-6 minute ride (depending on winds) is actually an attraction of its own accord, with the glass-sided walls of the teleferico gifting breathtaking and 360 degree views of the entire city and up to 50 miles inland. A ride up to the peak will set you back about £15 (53 Reals), making it one of the cheapest highways to heaven in the world!
TIP: As this is by far the most visited attraction in town, we suggest you get there at 8am to ensure you’ll deal with the smallest crowds possible. If you want to catch THE best views, however, you’ll need to brave the crowds and catch your ride half an hour before sunset.
Hang-glide from Corcovado
The most astute reader will have realized by now that Rio is not a city short of superlative city viewing points, yet if you want to enjoy some truly dazzling views of the city (and add an adrenalin rush to your outing) you can’t go past one of the most exciting adventures the city has to offer.
We admit that running towards the end of a mountain cliff may go against all of one’s natural protective instincts, but experience gliders and novice nail-biters all agree: diving off behind the Christ statue in Rio, flying like a bird above the luscious forest cape of Corcovado and landing on Ipanema Beach rates as one of the best things to do in the world.
There is a plethora of well-respected companies running flights off different bases in Rio, so check out all the options offered by the three most sought-after agencies: RentInRio, Estilo Voo Livre and Rio HangGliding.
Live it up in Ipanema
First-time visitors think the most talked-about suburb in Rio owes its reputation to a famous Gastrud Gilberto hit from the 60s. As soon as they hit the pavement of glitzy Ipanema however, they realize there are more than a few reasons the hood was ever sang about in the first place.
The most stylish side of Rio, home to fantastic boutiques, brilliant eateries and many art galleries and cultural centres, tends to attract tourists and locals alike any time of day and night. Head to Rua Visconde de Piraje for local and imported designer shopping, check out Rua Pail Redfern for a spot of fine dining and clubbing and prowl the waterfront at any hour for fun people-watching, socializing and gorgeous-Brazilian ogling. That’s really what Ipanema is all about!
Worship the sun in Copacabana
One cannot visit Rio without indulging in a little tanning therapy, by far the most preferred past-time of locals. That and football playing, greasy food gorging, dancing and singing of course!
The city’s enviably famous beach stretches for 3km alongside of the most populated suburb in Rio. Whilst it is rated as the best place to see and be seen, especially while wearing micro-thong bikinis (girls too) don’t be shocked if you find yourself ever so slightly disappointed. It may be all about popularity and showing off down here, yet as far as spectacular beaches are concerned, it certainly doesn’t rate as one of the country’s best.
Overcrowded, over-littered and overrated some may say…yet we know its magnetic pull is undeniable. Buy a near-invisible bikini from one of the many beach huts along the promenade, lather on the coconut oil (oh yes it’s still very much in use here) and strut your stuff among Rio’s elite. The fact you may need to bring a plastic bag to collect litter around your preferred sunning spot should definitely not be a deterrent!
See how the other half lives
Rio’s split-personality syndrome is not something any visitor can ignore. Considering just a few steps back from the city’s most affluent suburbs lie a whole collection of shanty towns (called favelas); being exposed to the raw truth of life in a Brazilian metropolis is not something one need search for particularly, yet something we believe every tourist should experience.
One of the most striking aspects, in our opinion, is watching most visitor’s astounded expressions when they discover that unlike what mass media will have one believe (that favelas are feral hoods inhabited by the poorest, saddest individuals with no access to any infrastructure) what they are in reality is bona fide communities doing a mighty fine job of living and even thriving in less than desirable conditions. In Rio’s largest favelas you’ll see school, banks, markets, football-playing kids and a host of colourful and social locals.
Join a reputable company which organizes walking tours through these most emblematic Rio institutions and not only will you have an incredible time but your contribution (included in your fee) will directly support local communities. Check out FAVELA TOUR and Brazil Expedition, two of the most popular agencies in Rio.
Get lost in the Botanical Gardens
As beautiful as Rio is, the city can get a little overwhelming for the uninitiated. Between the sometime hectic crowds, incessant music beats and bubbling springs of activity, it’s just lovely to find a corner of heaven one can retreat to whenever one feels the urge for a little peace and quiet. The city’s Botanical Gardens are just the sort of haven we’re talking about.
The luscious floral sanctuary, which covers an area of over 345 acres, is set on the base of Corcovado Mountain just north of the Leblon beachside suburb. The park is home to thousands of local and international plants, flowers, trees, some unique species of carnivorous plants as well as oceans of orchids, distinctive plum trees, almost 150 species of birds (including toucans) and even a small colony of monkeys. Complete with various walking trails, lovely ponds, statues, oriental gardens, bridges, rivers, fountains and plenty of infinitely relaxing spots, Rio’s Botanical Gardens are a superb city oasis to escape to.
Get infected by samba-fever
Just the mere mention of the word ‘Rio’ elicits visions of Carnaval, one of the most famous and colourful parades in the world. The opulent costumes, hypnotic samba tunes, lavish floats and overall craziness is legendary and indeed, planning a trip to Rio to coincide with this most dazzling events in the world is one of the best things anyone could do. Yet if taking a trip in February is not possible, there’s no need to despair. Brazil’s samba fever may come to an explosive climax during Carnaval, yet the dance, the music and the party-atmosphere are so embedded in the culture that you’ll no doubt experience all of it no matter when you visit Rio.
Rio is home to hundreds of samba schools and the competitiveness of the Carnaval means that classes and major rehearsal nights are organized on a regular basis all year round. Although it may be difficult to simply go along to a dance studio on your own, joining a local tour group usually offers the best chance to visit the most famous schools in the city.
Options here are almost endless! Agencies like Rio Samba Dancer offer the chance of a beginner’s class and dance show in Copacabana and include a night of clubbing, others like Brazil Expedition will lead you to some of the more traditional samba schools in Rio.
Most agencies will also offer ‘feijoada lunches’ which combine Brazil’s love of samba with its obsession for its most delicious traditional dish: feijoada! This stew of meat and black beans is an absolute staple in the country and it is often said that the best in the city are served at the favelas.
Eat like a local
Brazil’s cuisine is an intoxicating mix of flavours and aromas, with influences adopted from just about every corner of the globe. Rich in texture (and calories!) the local traditional cuisine is more akin to the Caribbean than it is to its European, or Portuguese, counterpart. Locals love everything fried, double fried and topped with creamy sauces. This goes a long way in explaining what you’ll no doubt discover soon after arriving in Rio: the Brazilians are not a petite people!
For an unbeatable culinary adventure we suggest you start by discovering the different churrascarias the city is home to. A hybrid between the Argentinian asado and the Spanish tapas, the churrascaria is a carnivorous extravaganza whereby menus are swapped for massive skewers of perfectly grilled meat. In churrascarias you’ll see waiters constantly walking around tables holding massive kebab-like slabs of pork, chicken, beef or lamb and, instead of ordering, you simply point to your preferred animal.
Another extremely popular choice in Rio is the pay-by-the-kilo eateries, whereby you can self-service from a huge array of local dishes from buffet tables…and pay by weight. The Kilograma chain of restaurants are very popular and consistently serve top-quality fare; this clean, cheap and cheerful place is ideal if you’re travelling in a group or if you prefer trying many different dishes at one sitting. Moreover, if you’re absolutely starving and need food 5 minutes ago, this is by far your best hassle-free option for a fast and delicious meal in Rio.
Don’t forget to read our Rio Eating Out Guide for more invaluable tips.
Go hiking in the city
Whilst most tourists regard hours spent prowling the streets of Rio as ‘physical exercise’ we’re sure some people would prefer a little more active recreational activity during their Rio stay. Considering all the glorious food you’ll no doubt feast upon, it’s safe to say you may also be looking for a way to burn the extra energy. For an amazing chance to get the heart pumping, consider ditching the cable-cars on Sugarloaf Mountain and hike up instead!
There are various hiking trails on this gorgeous part of the city, and all of them will see you immersed in luscious forested surroundings, often offering some magnificent views of the bay below. You can hike up to Morro da Urca and take the last cable-car to the peak of Sugarloaf or, if you’re prepared for some skilled climbing…go up all the way on foot!
The Claudio Cautinho Walking Trail starts from Praia Vermelha and both the path to Urca and the longer one to Sugarloaf clearly marked. Do note that the second half of the hike (from the Urca hill to Sugarloaf) requires some technical rock-climbing skills so this is not something we’d recommend anyone attempt alone, even if they come fully equipped. Instead, organize for a climbing guide through agencies like RDJ4U who offer half-day fully-inclusive hike & climb trips up to the pinnacle of Sugarloaf.
Cristo Redentor via Wiki
Sugarloaf Mountain cable-car via Wiki
Hang-gliding magic, via Wiki
Sunset on Ipanema Beach, via Wiki
Beach scene in Copacabana, via Wiki
Rocinha favela, via Wiki
Botanical Gardens, via Wiki
Samba show, ElPadawan via Flickr
Typical churrascaria, via Wiki
Rock-climbing Rio, Eperales via Flickr