Rio de Janeiro Guide: Planning Your Trip

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Rio de Janeiro, known as the "cidade maravilhosa" in Portuguese, draws travelers in thanks to its stunning natural beauty and unique blend of culture, food, architecture, and music. Founded on Jan. 1, 1502 by Portuguese explorers (they mistook Guanabara Bay for a river—hence the city's name), the city discovered wealth by exporting diamonds, gold, and sugar. It later became the country's capital until Brasilia replaced it in the '60s.

Now, Rio is one of the top destinations for world travelers who visit for Carnival in February or March, or at other times of the year for enjoying soccer, samba, sun, and sand. No matter what your plans are for enjoying Rio de Janeiro, use this guide to plan your trip, including where to stay, how to get around, and what to do, see, eat, and drink.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: There's hardly a bad time to visit Rio, but most visitors enjoy timing their stay to the summer months from January through March. Carnival also occurs during this period.

Language: Portuguese is Brazil's official language.

Currency: The Brazilian real is the country's official currency. One Brazilian real is equal to around 24 cents, as of Nov. 2019.

Getting Around: A three-line subway system called MetrôRio anchors Rio de Janeiro's public transportation, but there are also buses and streetcars. Uber is widely available and considered safe and inexpensive.

Travel Tip: If you want to visit Rio for Carnival (usually held in February or March), book your hotels and make your travel plans as far in advance as possible.

Things to Do

Rio offers amazing beaches, nightlife, and scenery–and it's likely that your trip will include some combo of those three things! Spend your days lounging on Ipanema Beach, caipirinha in hand, and nights samba-ing away in Copacabana. You might also want to check out:

  • Go up to Corcovado to see the famous Christ the Redeemer statue. The miniature train that takes visitors to the top travels through the rainforest for a great view of Rio and the remarkable figure.
  • Rio is a haven for football fans—and by that, we mean soccer. Catch a game at Maracanã stadium, a massive center for the sport, with seating for more than 200,000 people!
  • Stroll the Praca Floriano to enjoy the outdoor cafes and samba musicians. Stop along the way at the Teatro Municipal, home to opera, orchestra, and vivid architecture.

Want more ideas? Find more great things to do in Rio de Janeiro, or check out our guides on the best beaches, day trips, and nightlife.

What to Eat & Drink

You can find virtually any kind of food in Rio de Janeiro, including some cuisines you might not expect (the city has excellent Japanese and Italian food, for example). Still, you'd be remiss to come to Brazil and not try the abundant and diverse local fare. A few popular staples include pao de queijo, a small roll made from tapioca flour and filled with stuffed cheese, and feijoada, Brazil's national dish. It's a hearty stew made with beans and meat and service with rice, or more commonly, farofa made from toasted cassava flour. Also, don't miss the chance to try dinner at a churrascaria rodizio, a popular restaurant that serves grilled meats, all-you-can-eat style!

For more, check out our guide to Rio de Janeiro's best restaurants and the 10 foods you must try during your visit.

Where to Stay

Most of Rio's tourist-friendly hotels are concentrated along the densely populated beachfront neighborhoods like Ipanema, Leblon, and Copacabana—but that's not all there is to this vibrant city. Venture further afield and discover lesser-known areas like the bohemian, European-influenced Santa Teresa, or Urca, a low-key waterfront neighborhood in the shadow of Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Of course, the city's well-known hotels, like Hotel Fasano in Ipanema, or the Belmond Copacabana Palace, are storied for good reason. Learn more about our top hotel picks in Rio de Janeiro.

Getting There

Rio is an international and domestic hub, served by two airports—the primary international airport, Antônio Carlos Jobim Airport, and a smaller, mostly domestic airport, Santos Dumont Airport. The former is serviced by direct flights from many larger destinations in the U.S. and Europe—and the minimal time change means it's an accessible destination to visit with little to no jetlag. Once on the ground in Rio, most travelers rely on Uber, private drivers, or public transportation. Renting a car is not advised.

Money Saving Tips

  • While there's not a bad time to visit Rio, some times are certainly cheaper than others. Time your visit to a shoulder season—think May through September or October—to score better deals on airfare and hotels.
  • Brazil is already relatively inexpensive, so don't sacrifice safety by using unmarked taxis or other suspect methods of transportation. Stick to public transportation or ride-share offerings, like Uber.
  • A 10 percent gratuity is already included on most bills (you'll see it listed as the "gorjeta"), so you don't need to tip on top of that.
  • The U.S. dollar is much stronger than the Brazilian real, so while reals are the preferable currency, some establishments will accept dollars as well.
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