Updated 9 months ago

Rio de Janeiro may conjure up images of golden beaches populated by unimaginably beautiful people, or of streets filled with Carnival revellers. While beaches and Carnival are inextricably part of Rio, The Marvelous City has much more to offer. If you visit Brazil, you owe it to yourself to devote at least a few days to explore this legendary city.

 Good to know: If you are travelling through Rio to another city in Brazil, your airline may allow you a layover of up to three days at no additional charge. However, these deals are rarely advertised. If interested, you should contact the airline directly to inquire.

Beaches

Two of the world's most famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema are in Rio's South Zone. Rio has promoted Copacabana as the more touristic, family beach. Ipanema, on the other hand, is the beach for the younger, hipper crowd. As they are different in character, you'll want to explore both.

 Good to know: Lifeguard stations, which also have restroom and shower facilities, are numbered, and set up at every one-kilometer along Rio's beaches. These stations are referred to as postos, and are common meetings points.

But there are many other beaches within Rio and nearby. Squeezed in between Ipanema and Copacabana is Arpoador and Devil's Beach, so-named because the waves are funnelled in and stronger there. It's a favourite beach for surfers and bodyboarders, as well as paddle-ball players.

If you visit Sugarloaf, linger a bit to visit Praia Vermelha (Red Beach). Named after the colour of the sand, it is rarely visited by tourists. While small, it is a pleasant spot to relax.

Barra de Tijuca is a bairro (city district), which lies about 30 minutes from Ipanema by local bus. It has some spectacular beaches and good waves for surfing. If you continue on past Barra, you'll reach Prainha (literally, Little Beach), which many believe offers the best surfing in the region.

 Good to know: Contrary to what you may have seen on television, beaches in Rio are not topless, and going topless may result in your being chastised or even fined.

Carnival

While many cities in Brazil hold Carnival celebrations, Rio's is arguably the most famous in the world. It officially takes place during the four days immediately before Lent, although festivities often begin early and continue into Lent.

The highlight of Rio's Carnival are the parades, which are put on by “schools” (escolas). These parades are more than mere festivities — they are part of a citywide competition. Schools are judged, and the one judged to be the best will have bragging rights for the coming year. Everyone has their favourite schools. Dois pra ca dois pra la, which parades through Copacabana, and As Carmelitas, which parade in Santa Teresa, are two popular schools.

 Good to know: Pickpockets operate in the Carnival crowds. Take little money with you, and if possible keep it in an inside pocket. Cell phones are also targets, so leave your cell phone in the hotel, or guard it carefully.

Top Attractions

Everyone has heard of Christ the Redeemer. While it is a local icon, it is often jam-packed with tourists, and visibility can be poor depending on the weather. If you are after a view of the city, you'll do better by ascending Sugarloaf, which consists of two morros (granite cones), the lower Morro de Urca, which is the first stop, and the higher Pão de Açúcar. Between them, you get a 360-degree view of the area in a less crowded space with restaurants for a snack and a beer.

The Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Futuro in Portuguese), is a newer addition to the list of things to do in Rio. It was built prior to the 2016 Olympic Games, and as the name suggests, the museum's design is futuristic. The building and its layout are as interesting as its exhibits.

Rio's Botanical Gardens figure in most guidebooks, and are a great place to cool off on a hot afternoon. However, nearby you'll find the less-known Parque Lage — formerly the estate of a wealthy businessman, which is now open to the public. The walking trails wind through tall trees, and there are many private nooks,  and a castle turret of unknown origin. There is also a small aquarium on the grounds and an art museum in the mansion, as well as a restaurant. Best yet — admission is free!

Santa Teresa, a hilltop enclave adjacent to the downtown, is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon, especially when the heat gets oppressive. Breezes from Guanabara Bay cool you off, while you survey the Marvelous City below. Take the bonde (streetcar) to Largo dos Guimarães, and be sure to visit Parque das Ruinas (Park of the Ruins).

Sport

Football is the premier sport of Rio and Brazil. Two of the most popular clubs are Flamengo and Botafogo.

There is always lots happening at the beaches — you may find a pickup game of beach football to join. But be aware: Brazilian take their football seriously, so don't ask to join in if you can't match the level of play.

Standup paddle has become very popular in Brazil, especially in Rio. You can rent a board and oar on Copacabana Beach near Arpoador.

In various locations you will see bike stands sponsored by Itaú bank. The bikes are bright orange and hard to miss. After enrolling online, you can check out a bike for one hour for free, after which a modest charge is levied on your credit card. There are bike lanes throughout Zona Sul along the beaches.

There are many hiking trails around Rio, many of them on the morros. You'll sweat getting to the top, but then will be rewarded with stunning views.

 Good to know: Robbers sometimes ambush hikers on less-frequented trails. You may opt to go with a licensed guide or a knowledgeable local.

When in Rio, you really need to watch some futvolei, which is beach volleyball played without the use of hands or arms. One player might use their knee or chest to set up their partner, who finishes with a vicious head spike. The best action takes place on the weekends at Posto 9 on Ipanema beach.

For more about sports in Brazil, check out Expat.com’s article Sports in Brazil.

Nightlife

While much of Rio's socialising takes place at the beach, it has a vibrant nightlife as well. There are many upscale restaurants in Ipanema and Leblon, particularly in and around Rua Maria Quitéria. For chic nightclubs, head to Barra de Tijuca. A long-time favourite club is Cordão da Bola Preta. For street parties and to take in the local music scene, try Lapa near downtown.

Sunday like a local

After a wild weekend, you may want to chill out on Sunday. Here's a suggested itinerary: Begin at the Hippie Fair in Ipanema at Praça General Osório. Roam around, and maybe try acarajé, which is a dish from Bahia. Afterwards, head for the beach. The cool crowd hangs out at Posto 9. Watch the futvolei matches, and as the afternoon winds down, head back to  Praça General Osório and enjoy some beer and prawns at Belmonte, a landmark restaurant.  Finish with a nap in a hammock, a revered weekend tradition in Brazil.

 Useful Links:

The Rio Times

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