Rio de Janeiro has always been Brazil's top city for tourists, but the city catapulted into the international spotlight in 2016 when it hosted the Summer Olympic Games. Rio offers far more for visitors than the sun-kissed beaches for which it's globally famous, and a greater array of selfie opportunities than simply posing, arms outstretched, in front of Christ the Redeemer. From sampling authentic Brazilian foods in some of the country's best restaurants to getting away from the bustle of the city for a day trip through nature, there's plenty to do in Rio any time of year.
Rio de Janeiro is practically synonymous with beaches, whether you hit the crowded shores of Copacabana and Ipanema with a caipirinha cocktail or stick of grilled Coalho cheese or take to quieter beaches like Leblon, which sits just to the west of Ipanema, with a book in hand. Alternatively, you could choose Barra de Tijuca, where many 2016 Olympics events took place.
These are just the city beaches, though, and there are the wilder sun and surf spots just outside of Rio de Janeiro's city center as well. Located about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) west of the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood of Rio inside a nature reserve, Praia de Grumari (Grumari Beach) is a bit cleaner and quieter than those inside the city. Meanwhile, the beaches in the resort town of Armação dos Búzios, located about two and a half hours east of Rio, provide an even more secluded escape from the city's crowds.
No trip to Rio de Janeiro is complete without a selfie in front of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor in Portuguese) with your arms outstretched and a cheesy grin on your face. However, you should keep a few things in mind as you plan your trip up Corcovado, the mountain where Christ stands and perhaps Rio's most iconic viewpoint. Namely, in order to avoid long lines and disappointment at the station for the train that takes you to the top of the mountain, you should order Christ the Redeemer tickets online in advance.
Known as one of the new seven wonders of the world, the statue of Christ the Redeemer is a truly remarkable feat of sculpture and architecture. Accessible by a 10-minute train ride and a short climb up 220 steps to the foot of the statue, Christ the Redeemer towers over Rio and the mountaintop pavilion provides impressive views of the city, Sugarloaf Mountain, and the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.
Discover Authentic Acai
These days, acai is as ubiquitous as cornflakes, appearing not only in smoothies but in cereals, soft drinks, and even distilled spirits all over the world. A trip to Brazil will not only teach you how to pronounce the name of this superfood correctly (ah-sah-EE), but how it's meant to taste. Whether you get a simple bowl of the stuff pureed with coconut milk and served ice cold or one topped with bananas, granola, and other fixings, stands that serve the purple puree are on literally every street corner in the top Rio neighborhoods.
Rio de Janeiro is one of the best places in the world to catch some sun, but there are plenty of places to escape it as well, and not just inside the upscale, air-conditioned shopping malls. Rather, make a trip to the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, which sits in the western part of the city not far from Leblon Beach and Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (sometimes known among locals simply as "Lagoa"). Filled with lush palm trees and sprawling ponds covered with lily pads and home to more than a few mischievous monkeys, the botanical garden is a great place to beat the heat, if only for a morning.
Check Out Portuguese Architecture
Rio de Janeiro is famous for its beaches (and the decidedly modern hotels that line them), but one thing you might not know is that there's plenty of Portuguese-colonial architecture in Rio. Specifically, you can take a short walk from the Lapa Arches to Santa Teresa, which is one of Rio de Janeiro's most beautiful neighborhoods. In addition to colorful buildings, the historic streetcars that run through Santa Teresa almost make you feel like you're in Portugal, or they would, were it not for all the tropical scenery around. After you're done exploring the city streets, you can take a break from it all by ascending to the rooftop of the Santa Teresa Hotel for sunset cocktails.
Speaking of the Lapa Arches (which form part of the Carioca Aqueduct that once delivered drinking water to the residents of Rio), they're just one part of Rio de Janeiro's underrated downtown. Take a half- or full-day away from the beach to appreciate the beauty of this inland neighborhood. Other worthwhile attractions include the colorful Escadaria Selarón staircase and the Theatro Municipal, whose resplendent architecture might make you feel like you're in a European capital.
If an acai breakfast doesn't fill you up, or you've worked up an appetite wandering around the colorful streets of Rio, stop to enjoy lunch or dinner at one of Brazil's famous grilled meat restaurants known as churrascarias. There are as many excellent churrascarias in Rio de Janeiro as there are bright red umbrellas on Ipanema Beach, but for a truly special experience, head to Copacabana's Churrascaria Palace. Whether you choose beef or pork, and whether you sensibly scour the salad bar for sides or save room for dessert, you'll never feel more like a carnivore than you do when you eat here.
Whether you spend three days in Rio or have a week or more you can spend in the city, you should definitely take advantage of the hills and mountains that surround the city. The most popular spot for hiking is Morro dois Irmãos, which sits just to the west of the city and overlooks Leblon and Ipanema beaches. The trail up to this viewpoint is steep but only takes about an hour to climb and is very much worth the effort. Other popular hikes in Rio de Janeiro include Pedra da Gávea and Pedra do Telégrafo, where you can take pictures that make it feel like you're going to plummet to your death.
One of the most refreshing things about the beaches of Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil in general) is that you see bodies of all shapes and sizes on the beach. However, regardless of how many curves you do or don't have, it's difficult to argue that we can't all be more fit. Miles of well-maintained sidewalks line Rio de Janeiro's white-sand beaches, which make them the perfect place to go for a run, jog, or walk, especially during the beautiful sunrise and sunset hours. There are also several outdoor gyms set up, not to mention opportunities to play beach sports. If you're looking for a way to stay active while enjoying the picturesque beaches, consider stopping by one of these outdoor gyms to get a little more active during your trip to Rio.
Brazilians have made countless contributions to global arts and culture, but few songs are as readily associated with Rio de Janeiro as "The Girl From Ipanema," made famous by Astrud Gilberto in 1963. Legend has it that the song was written by two patrons sitting in Garota de Ipanema, a popular eatery and bar located just a few blocks from the beach in a residential part of Ipanema. Then again, you might come here for the bites and beer, rather than the Bossa Nova.
Known in Portuguese as Pão do Açúcar, Sugarloaf Mountain rises high above Rio de Janeiro and is one of the city's most beautiful landmarks, whether you look down on it from Corcovado or up at it from the sands of Copacabana. What some tourists don't realize is that you can actually ride a cable car to the top of the Sugarloaf to watch the sunset. Arrive a few hours before the sun goes down so that you have time to walk around Urca, the underrated and very local neighborhood that surrounds the cable car station.
Whether you're afraid of heights or just don't have the time to take the Sugarloaf cable car to the top of the mountain before the sun sets, there's another great place to catch the final hours of sunlight is just a few steps from both Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Known simply as Arpoador, this rocky peninsula juts out into the sea between Rio's main beaches and provides a beautiful view of the sun setting over Ipanema and Leblon, with Morro dois Irmãos towering in the background.
Rio de Janeiro's locals are some of the friendliest people in the world, though many are shy to speak English. As a result, whether you join some for a game of soccer in the sand or want to strike up a conversation in a bar or restaurants, you should do your best to speak Portuguese. You don't need to be able to speak fluently, either. Sometimes, simply saying "Oi" (which means "hi") or asking "Tudo bêm" (literally "all good?" and figuratively "what's up?") is all you need to get someone into their comfort zone, particularly if one or more of you has had a couple of drinks.
It's no secret that Brazil is famous for soccer (futebol in Portuguese) and was even before the country hosted the 2014 World Cup. In fact, you can see the fandom for futebol almost anywhere you look in Rio because it's more than just the national sport of Brazil, it's a lifestyle. People play soccer on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, the people of Rio wear jerseys of their favorite soccer stars, and games are almost always playing on televisions in bars and restaurants across the city. One way to discover this on a deeper level is to take a tour of Maracanã Stadium, Rio's premier venue for the sport.
If the only impression you have of the favelas that exist through Rio is the 2002 film "City of God," then you probably have the wrong idea. Although a lot of poverty (and, to be sure, some violence and drug dealing) does exist in these places, most of the people who call them home are simply trying to build a better life for themselves and their children. One increasingly lucrative way for them to do this is to invite groups of tourists to visit.
However, you should be careful when choosing a favela tour. In addition to the fact that some of these tours focus heavily on drinking and partying (which can leave you vulnerable if something does happen), they often don't give much or any money to the communities they visit. When in doubt, speak with the receptionist or concierge at your hotel in Rio and ask him or her to speak with the organizer of the tour you book with.
Oscar Niemeyer was a visionary architect and one of the most influential figures not only in the construction of 20th century Brazil but in the world as a whole. In fact, he was responsible for many structures in Brasilia, the country's meticulously planned capital, in which a number of other international cities have been modeled after.
If you're looking for a sample of this famous architect's masterful work closer to Rio, you can head just over Guanabara Bay to Niterói where you'll find the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum. Niemeyer designed and constructed this unique museum in 1996 to look like a UFO standing at 16 meters high and 50 meters in diameter. It now houses a collection of 1,217 works from art collector João Sattamini that's been assembled since the 1950s.
Take a Walk (or Swim) on the Wild Side
Although still technically in Rio de Janeiro, there are several beaches that feel much further away from the city where you can spend the day hiking or swimming. These include Prainha, which is located far to the west of the city, and Arraial do Cabo, whose "blue cave" more than lives up to its mysterious name. However, if you prefer a walk instead of a swim, head into Tijuca National Park, a massive rainforest where you can enjoy sweeping views of the sea, even if you don't end up swimming in it.
It can be difficult to leave Rio behind, especially if you're drunk on Ipanema Beach with a half-finished caipirinha in your hand. However, Rio de Janeiro is not just one of Brazil's most beautiful, dynamic, and exciting cities, it makes an excellent hub from which to take a day trip. Take a boat excursion to Ilha Grande, which is home to beaches so beautiful they'll make Rio's look plain. Alternatively, you can stay on land and visit Paraty, where Portuguese-colonial architecture combines with a relaxed, coastal vibe.