When most tourists arrive in Rio de Janeiro, they had directly for the beach, and with good reason. What you might not realize, particularly if it's your first trip to Rio, is that the city is home to some of Brazil's most interesting urban neighborhoods. Go back in time exploring historical Santa Teresa, or feel fancy as you stroll through upmarket Jardim Bôtanico. Even if you simply taking a morning or afternoon away from sunbathing to explore Rio de Janeiro's underrated downtown core, chances are that Rio is going to surprise you with its impressive cityscape.
There's nothing wrong with starting somewhere iconic, of course, and that's exactly where Ipanema is. Whether you stick to the golden sands of the beach (and the luxury hotels along it), or explore the rows of streets between the white-washed residential buildings that extend inland, Ipanema is world-famous for a reason. Although the district is generally paradise for diners, shoppers and drinkers, a particularly enjoyable spot is the Garota de Ipanema eatery, where the famous song "The Girl from Ipanema" was written. The beach itself is also a hot bed of culture, where you join a game of volleyball (or, of course, soccer), or simply have a cocktail or a queijo coahlo grilled-cheese-on-a-stick.
Leblon is located immediately west of Ipanema—and, if we're honest, the two districts bear a lot of similarities. However, in addition to being slightly more residential than Ipanema, Leblon is also a great deal more upmarket. Furthermore, while Ipanema is famous for its scattering of small shops and eateries, the commercial center of Leblon is the Shopping Leblon, which is the largest single place to get your dose of retail therapy within sight of the ocean (and Leblon Beach, which is quieter than Ipanema).
Want to visit Portugal, but can only get as far as Brazil? Not to worry. From European-colonial style buildings to street cars reminiscent of those you find in Lisbon, Santa Teresa is like a Portuguese city transported into the hills and jungles that define the landscape of Rio de Janeiro. For an excellent view of Santa Teresa (not to mention the rest of the city), go to the rooftop of the Santa Teresa Hotel—which is also an excellent place to stay, if you can afford it. Santa Teresa's general high elevation also makes it a top sunset spot, particularly if you've got a caipirinha or Brahma beer in hand.
If you visit Rio, chances are you're going to ride the cable car up to the precipice of Pão de Açucar (also known as Sugar Loaf Mountain). What you might not do is explore the neighborhood at the base of the mountain—and that would be a shame indeed. Urca, to be sure, is neither as glitzy and glamorous as Ipanema nor as photogenic as Santa Teresa. However, the laid-back waterfront bars and restaurants here offer some of the most scenic dining in Rio. Urca is also a great spot to watch the sunrise, if you happen to wake up early and be in the area, since its waterfront faces eastward.
Located on Guanabara Bay closer to downtown Rio than to Copacabana or Leblon, Flamengo is a primarily residential neighborhood that benefits from a scenic setting. If you're looking for an Airbnb apartment to use as your Rio base, this Rio neighborhood is a great choice. Flamengo is also home to a number of green spaces and exercise trails, which makes it a great part of town to get beach-ready. Additionally, the Oi Futuro Cultural Center is a popular venue for meetings and events.
Centered around Rio de Janeiro's massive Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, which sits just to the north of Ipanema, Lagoa is a relatively upmarket and mostly residential neighborhood. If you get tired of running laps around the lagoon to get in shape for romps on the nearby beaches of Ipanema, take a break at once of the countless bars or eateries set up on the shores of the lagoon. Lagoa also constitutes a spectacular vantage point for Rio's towering topography, with mountains like Corcovado (where Christ the Redeemer stands), the Sugar Loaf and Pedra da Gávea visible from lagoon-level.
You'll find Botafogo just to the south of Flamengo, and these two neighborhoods do feel somewhat alike (their enviable location on Guanabara Bay is just the beginning). If you get tired of admiring the nearby Sugar Loaf Mountain—doubtful, but hey anything is possible in Rio—make a stop at the Indian Museum, which offers fascinating permanent and rotating exhibitions on Brazil's large and diverse indigenous communities. Botafogo also sits on the border of Urca, which means that you could wedge it in between that Rio neighborhood and Flamenco as you explore the various parts of Rio during your trip.
Barra de Tijuca
Up until the 2016 Rio Olympics, not so many tourists made the trek to Barra de Tijuca, which sits on the other side of Pedra da Gávea mountain from the central districts and beaches of Rio de Janeiro, beneath sprawling Tijuca National Forest. Although the Olympic Village that existed here has since been re-purposed, this exciting and authentic neighborhood is still worth a visit, if only for its sprawling beach, which is both wider and longer than Copacabana and Ipanema, and also decidedly less touristic.
As a general rule, travelers in South America tend to avoid the downtown areas of cities, known in Spanish or Portuguese, as "El/O Centro." In the case of Rio de Janeiro, however, this is not the case. In addition to being home to magnificent architecture like the Metropolitan Cathedral and Municipal Theater, the downtown area of Rio de Janeiro feels remarkably laidback (which is off, for a central business district) when compared to the constant hustle-bustle of Copacabana and Ipanema.
Located just to the west of downtown Rio is Lapa, named for the namesake Lapa Arches (one of Rio's top tourist attractions, for what it's worth). If you get bored here or at the colorful Escadaria Selarón, another top place to visit in Lapa and in Rio, take a stroll along Lavradio and Senado streets, which are where you'll find some of the best antique and vintage shopping in all of Brazil, let alone in Rio. Lapa's location between downtown and Santa Teresa also makes it easy for a drop-in, rather than a full day of exploring, if you don't have the time in your Rio de Janeiro itinerary to devote too long to individual Rio neighborhoods.
As its name suggest, the Jardim Botânico is home to Rio's Botanical Gardens, a lush oasis of greenery in the western part of the city center, which is less than 20 minutes by foot from Ipanema and Leblon. Apart from the garden itself, this is a largely residential, with one exception: It's in Jardim Botânico where you can begin a hike up to Christ the Redeemer (though this requires you to enter through Parque Lage, one of the most stunning examples of architecture in Rio).
Copacabana seems like an appropriate bookend for a Rio neighborhood guide that began with Ipanema. Speaking of which, you can think of Copacabana as Ipanema's slightly rougher and more raucous cousin, both in terms of the beach itself as well as the urban life within its streets. Copacabana is generally more working-class than Ipanema, and while there are a good number of nice hotels and upmarket eateries due to how popular it is with tourists, local-centric bars and eateries known as boteco define this part of Rio.