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. With this being said, 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. Here are the top things to do in Rio de Janeiro—well, 18 of them, anyway.
Hit the Beach
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. And these are just the city beaches, there are wilder sun and surf spots just outside of Rio de Janeiro's city center.
Take a Selfie in Front of Christ the Redeemer
It's true: No trip to Rio de Janeiro is complete without a selfie in front of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor in Portuguese), 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 view point. 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 and in advance.
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, 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 of pleasure are on literally every street corner in the top Rio neighborhoods.
Take a Green Retreat
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 we're not talking about the upscale shopping malls or Ipanema and Leblon either, as lovely as a blast of air conditioning can be. Rather, make a visit 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.
Visit Portugal (More or Less)
AddressSanta Teresa, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
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 (more on those in a second) to Santa Teresa, which is one of Rio de Janeiro's most beautiful neighborhoods. In addition to colorful buildings, the historical street cars 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. Ascend to the rooftop of the Santa Teresa Hotel for sunset cocktails.
Discover Rio's Underrated Downtown
AddressR. Joaquim Silva, S/N - Centro, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20241-110, Brazil
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.
Eat at the Ultimate Churrascaria
Feeling hungry after your acai breakfast? Enjoy lunch or dinner at one of Brazil's famous grilled meat restaurants—the churrascaria. 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 Churrascaria Palace in Copacabana. Whether you choose beef or pork, and whether you sensibly scour the salad bar for sides or save room for desert, you'll never feel more like a carnivore than you do when you eat here.
Take a Hike (or Two)
AddressMorro Dois Irmãos - Jacarepaguá, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, 22711, Brazil
Whether you spend 3 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 this 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, 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 (falsely) make it feel like you're going to plummet to your death.
Work on Your Beach Body
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 miles of 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. Who ever said a day at the beach had to be a lazy one?
See Where "The Girl From Ipanema" Was Born
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.
Watch Sunset From the Sugarloaf
Known in Portuguese as Pão do Açúcar, the Sugar Loaf 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 Sugar Loaf, which is a great place to watch sunset from. Arrive a few hours before sunset so that you have time to walk around Urca, the underrated and very local neighborhood that surrounds the cable car station.
Or Watch the Sunset From the Arpoador
AddressArpoador - Ipanema, State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Afraid of heights or simply don't have time to take the Sugar Loaf cable car before the sun sets? Not to worry! Another awesome place to watch sunset in Rio is just 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.
Say "Oi" to the Locals
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 of 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?"; 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.
See Where Soccer History Was Made
It's no secret that Brazil is famous for soccer (futebol in Portuguese), and was even before the country hosted the 2014 World Cup. Whether because of the people playing on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, the number of jerseys people throughout Rio wear or games playing on TVs, futebol is more than the national sport of Brazil—it's a lifestyle! One way to discover this on a deeper level is to take a tour of Maracanã Stadium, Rio's premier venue for the sport.
Take a Favela Tour
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 organize of the tour you book with.
Visit Brazil's Most Unique Museum
Oscar Niemeyer was a visionary architecture, one of the most influential figures not only in the construction of 20th century Brazil (he was responsible for many structures in Brasilia, the country's meticulously planned capital), but in the world as a whole. Closer to Rio (specifically, just over Guanabara Bay in Niterói), you'll find the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum. Though it was completed more than 20 years ago, in 1996, this museum looks like a UFO (which, according to some conspiracy theorists, is anything but a coincidence).
Take a Walk (or Swim) on the Wild Side
At the beginning of this post, we mentioned some beaches that are technically in Rio de Janeiro, but feel much farther away. These include Prainha, which is located far to the west of the city (farther, even, than Barra de Tijuca) and Arraial do Cabo, whose "blue cave" more than lives up to its mysterious name. 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 swimming in it.
Get Out of Town
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. Or stay on land and visit Paraty, where Portuguese-colonial architecture combines with a relaxed, coastal vibe.