Famous for its beaches and the scantily clad bodies that grace them, Rio de Janeiro has a distinctive landscape and world famous landmarks such as the Christ the Redeemer statue. With the awarding of the 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio has hit the world stage in style.
One of the main reasons travelers choose Rio as a destination is for its gorgeous beaches, the two most famous of which are Ipanema and Copacabana. The beaches are surrounded by stunning natural beauty including Sugar Loaf mountain. However in the shadows of Ipanema and Copacapana’s beauty, wealth and tourism are the shanty towns, known as favelas, that give Rio its dangerous reputation. Unlike other vacation destinations, Rio’s slums are located next to the wealthy areas of the city, which gives easy access for residents to target tourists.
Yet despite the obstacles, the people of Rio, known as Cariocas, are passionate about life and proud of their city. Their spirit can be felt through the music and energy that makes the beaches some of the world’s most sought after. The Cariocas not only have great pride for their land but also for the sport of football (aka soccer) and Rio is home to one of the largest soccer stadiums in the world, Macarana Stadium.
Also indisputable is that the Cariocas know how to party. This is best displayed on New Year’s Eve and even more so in February for Carnival. This is the time when all the samba schools from the region display a grand celebration in a parade and vie for various titles as they compete to be the winner of the celebration. All this means that a trip to Rio de Janeiro should be considered more of an adventure than a vacation.
Ipanema and Copacabana
Located between Leblon and Apoador, Ipanema is the place to be. The beach is divided into different sections called postos, the most popular of which is Posto 9. This is where Brazilian celebrities, artists and the trendy locals hang out. Depending on the vibe you are looking for there is a section for everyone. For example, across from Rua Farme de Amoedo is the gay section. As you walk along the beach you will see the sections change so choose the one with the vibe you prefer. Ipanema also has an abundance of restaurants, bars and shops to keep you busy. The streets are easy to navigate by foot because they are in a grid format, but exploration by foot should only be done during the day. At night, it is recommended that you take taxis to your destination.
There was a time, when Old Hollywood flocked to Rio to escape Tinsel Town for something more exotic, that Copacabana carried the appeal that Ipanema now does. Films were inspired by Rio and many celebrities lounged at The Copacabana Palace Hotel. But the area saw a decline in its appeal in the 70s and now has a seedy vibe in spite of the hotels, restaurants and beautiful beach. At night, prostitutes roam the streets near the restaurants because Copacabana holds the distinction of being the home of Rio’s red light district. The gritty area still deserves to be explored, however, caution needs to be taken in this area. Copacabana is close to several favelas and their residents have easier to access to Copacabana than Ipanema.
The Central district (Central Rio) is the business and financial district of the city. There are museums, churches and the historical charm of Old Rio with its cobblestone streets. It is best to explore Central Rio during the week since there are a lot less people in this area on the weekend, which makes it more dangerous. During the week, feel free to wander and explore the history and culture that this district has to offer.
A central point to begin your walk is Cinelandia, the city’s main public square created when the city was reconfigured in the Parisian boulevard style in the early 20th Century. The square holds a pair of bronze statues – one in honor of Brazil’s second president, Marshal Floriano Peixoto and another of Carlos Gomes, an important 19th Century composer. The most significant building facing the square is the Teatro Municipal (Praca Floriano, Cinelandia), a theater modeled after European opera houses that hosts opera, ballet and symphonies. Also on the square is the National Library of Brazil, holding 9 million items, making it one of the most important libraries in the Americas. If you are interested in viewing the work of some of Rios’s famous painters from the 19th century, then head over to the nearby Museu Nacioinal Belas Artes.
One of the few remnants of old Rio, the narrow Travessa do Comercio transports visitors back to the past, with outdoor cafes to relax in and take in the atmosphere. On Rua do Ouvidor, you will find a tiny church that only fits a dozen people at a time. It is called Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Lapa dos Mercadores (Open Mon – Sat 8am – 2pm)
Another feast for the eyes is the Catedral Metropolitana which at first glance hardly resembles a church. The building, somewhat controversial among locals, is shaped like a pyramid with a flat top and each of the four sides is lined with stained glass, which makes it much impressive from the inside.
The central district provides a different perspective of a city that is most famous for the pristine sandy beaches that hug its shores. It can be explored in less than a day, either on your own or through a tour operator such as Rio Turismo Radical.
Weather: Rio de Janeiro has a tropical climate. The summer, which runs from December-March, is hot and humid with temperatures reaching the upper 80s. The rest of the year, the city is cooler with temperatures in mid 70s to the low 80s. The beaches will be most crowded during the summer months especially in December for New Year’s and in February when Carnival takes place. If you want to avoid the crowds but still benefit from the high temperatures, November is a great time to enjoy Rio. The beaches will still be crowded but nothing compared to the onslaught of people who appear during the peak summer months.
Currency: Real (plural: reais)
Language: The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. Many Brazilians will understand Spanish but be prepared to get a response in Portuguese, which when spoken quickly can be overwhelming. If they speak slowly, Spanish speakers will be able to understand some of what they are saying. Outside of hotels, English is rarely spoken.
Tipping: 10% is common. There are some places where tipping is not customary but definitely welcomed.
Transportation: The best way to get around Rio is by taxi. The metro services the Central district, however it is best avoided at night. Also heed caution on the buses as well. Reputable taxis are plentiful and cost very little to get you wherever you need to go. It is not recommended to venture off on your own if you are not familiar with an area or do not have a guide present.
Getting There: International flights fly into Rio’s Galeao International Airport. Some airlines make connections in Sao Paolo before arriving in Rio. From the U.S., connections can be made in Miami en route to Rio de Janeiro. The most important thing to remember prior to your trip is that Brazil requires a visa from U.S. tourists.
Visas: American citizens need a visa to travel to Brazil – do not travel without one as you will be turned away at immigration. Visas must be obtained in advance and used within 90 days of issuance. Most visas will be multiple-entry and good for 5 years. For a list of consulates visit here. The cost for a visa is $130 and payable only as a postal money order to: Consulate General of Brazil. Forms available here.
Safety Tips: When heading to the beach, simplicity is best. Avoid taking backpacks, iPods, watches, cameras or anything you wouldn’t want to part with. Even taking a beach towel makes you stand out as a tourist. Cariocas lay out on what look like large sarongs, which are sold on the beach or at the local markets.
Rio is one city where you most definitely have to keep your guard up and be aware of your surroundings. Most of the crimes in Rio are committed by young children who are often in gangs so be aware of groups of kids. Also avoid walking around late at night and always take taxis when you are going from destination to destination. Most of the crimes that happen against tourists in Rio, occur in Ipanema or Copacabana because the druglords that run the favelas advise residents not to commit crimes in the favelas to keep the police from coming into the area.
What Rio is not:
If you are looking for a peaceful getaway where the beaches are not crowded, then steer clear of Rio. Even in the off season, Rio’s beaches are filled with people whether they are tourists or locals. This is a beach culture after all and the city thrives on it.
Don’t expect the crystal clear waters that you would get in the Caribbean. Even though Rio is considered an exotic location, it is not really known for activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving.
If you are looking into a destination where you can roam free and lose yourself in your thoughts, this is not the place for you. Rio is a destination to be enjoyed but leave the flash behind. The only people who care about what you are wearing and if you have the latest cell phone or shoes are the thieves. Just keep it simple and stay aware.
Eat & Drink
On The Beach
You will spend a great deal of time at the beach so it is fitting that you will begin enjoying the food and beverage offerings of this marvelous city right on the sand. Two things that are a must while you are basking in the sun are fresh fruit caipirinhas and acai with granola.
The beaches are filled with vendors selling everything including swimwear, baked cheese in small ovens and beer. However the ones that stand out the most are the ones serving cocktails from the portable makeshift bars which are in fact ice coolers – try a mixed berry caipirinha, about $3. Make sure to also purchase bottled water to avoid dehydration from the brutal sun.
The other refreshing treat that you must try is acai with granola. Acai has exploded in popularity in the United States as it is reputed to be an antioxidant helpful in increasing energy levels, detoxification, weight loss and more. This has caused this Amazon berry to appear in everything from juice to diet pills. Health claims aside, the berry is delicious and the best place to try it is its country of origin. In Rio, the pulp from the berry is served cold in a bowl and you have the option of having it with granola. You may find it quite addictive.
The more time you spend at the beach, the more you will feel as though Brazilians spend their time in the gym rather than in restaurants. However, the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are lined with restaurants, from budget friendly to wallet-busting.
Try the popular Brazilian dish feijoada (pronounced fay-show-ah-dah), which is a stew of beans, beef and pork served with rice, served at Casa da Feijoada (Rua Prudente de Morais, 10B 2523-4994) in Ipanema. This dish can be heavy so it’s best to keep your portions light.
When walking through the streets you will notice many juice bars that also serve quick food on the go. Cariocas take their juices seriously and serve an assortment of fresh fruit smoothies and drinks. In terms of quick food, you have your healthy variety and your fried not so healthy. If you are spending your day on the beach in the hot sun, choose vegetables as your sides and keep things as light as possible.
Rio de Janeiro is a metropolitan city so depending on the type of cuisine you are in the mood for and how much you want to spend, you can satisfy your taste buds and wallet. Do not feel limited to Brazilian cuisine just because you are in Rio. Even the Asian restaurants remind you that you are in South America.
Nam Thai in Leblon (Rua Rainha Guilhermina 95B (mains $7-$13 US) phone; 2259 2962) is a small Thai restaurant that serves great food and drinks. The Pad Thai is excellent and the drinks are satisfying and inventive – try the Lychee Vodka Caipirinha. Make reservations ahead of time to ensure you get a table as it is a popular spot with locals. Hours: 7pm until last customer Tues – Friday, Noon until last customer on Saturday, 12pm- 10pm Sunday.
If you are a serious meat eater and want to experience a churrascaria in Brazil, then Plataforma (Rua Adalberto Ferreira 32, 2274 4022, Leblon) is a great choice. The waiters walk around with roasted meats and you continue eating until you can’t any longer. Plataforma caters to a mix of tourists, politicians and local artists and is reasonably priced with mains $10 – $17. Open every day from noon to the last customer.
Sushi should definitely be on your list in Rio since Brazil is home to the second largest Japanese population outside of Japan. There are many sushi spots to choose from but Madame Butterfly (2267 4347, Rua Barao da Torre 472, Ipanema) is considered the best. Here you can have delicious fresh fish while listening to Opera music. Dinner for two $40 – $60. Hours: Noon – Midnight.
For old fashioned Brazilian Portuguese cooking, try Antiquarius (Rua Aristides Espínola 19 – Leblon, 21 2294-1049, website). The room is a bit old fashioned but the pieces are all antiques – the owner is an antiques dealer. The restaurant itself is famous for their many versions of bacalhau, salted and dried fish. If they are serving suckling pig, that is a must have. Dinner for two with wine about $150.
If you can’t afford to stay at the Copacabana Palace Hotel (website), the most luxurious property in Copacabana, then the next best thing is to have drinks at the bar by the pool. The scene is second to none but be prepared to pay a lot more for drinks than you would elsewhere.
Bar D’Hotel (Marina All Suites, Av DelfimMoreira 696, Leblon) overlooks Ipanema Beach and attracts a trendy crowd. Hours: 7am – 1am Sun – Thurs, 7am – 2am Fri & Sat
Another trendy spot for a drink is the Fasano Hotel (Avenida Viera Souto 80, website) with its famous homage to London, Baretto-Londra, as well as mobbed Lobby Bar.
Rio has great outdoor cafes where you can grab drinks in a casual atmosphere while listening to live music or watching capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian mix of martial arts and dance) dancers move to drumbeats. Another option is to go to a Samba school, which you would have to arrange through a guide. Watch a Samba School celebrate and prepare for Carnival while downing inexpensive drinks immersed in locals. You may stand out but it’s a great experience.
Where to Stay
Rio can be an overwhelming destination. If it is your first time in Rio, a hotel in Ipanema is your best bet. The staff at the front desks of the hotels speak English and can make your stay much more pleasant and enjoyable. The closer you are to the actual beach the better but in Ipanema, you are pretty much in walking distance to everything. Like everything else, hotels run from the budget to the luxurious.
Hotel Ipanema Inn (Rua Maria Quiteria 27, Ipanema, 21 2523 6092, website) is a simple hotel is located a few blocks from the beach, perfect if you are on a budget. The reception staff is very helpful and can arrange day trips and taxis for you. Doubles about $70 to $80.
The Ipanema Plaza (Rua Farme de Amoedo 34, Ipanema, 21 3687 2000, website) is a more upscale selection with modern rooms and excellent views of the beach. The 18 story hotel has a great rooftop pool, restaurant, fitness center and two saunas. It is also well located, literally in the middle of Ipanema and steps from the beach. Doubles $215 to $250.
If you are looking for something more secluded and luxurious La Suite (501 Rua Jackson de Figueiredo, Joa, 22611-000) is located in Joatinga, the Beverly Hills of Rio. This boutique hotel has amazing ocean views, not to mention massage, a hairdresser and manicurist available on request. There are also two outdoor pools and a private beach.
Another option if you are opting for boutique style seclusion is Hotel Santa Teresa (Rua Almirante Alexandrino 660, Rio de Janeiro 20241-260) in the historic Santa Teresa area.
The sights of Rio are best seen on guided day tours, which can be arranged by yor hotel or you can contact Rio Turismo Radical. They can arrange many tours and adventure experiences for you, even a football match at Maracana Stadium.
Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar) –
A cable car system takes you to the top of the mountain with the opportunity to take photographs of the beautiful city below.
Hours: daily 8am-10pm
Admission: Adults $23, Aged 6 – 12: $11, Under 6: Free.
Christ The Redeemer
The famous statue atop Corcovado Mountain in Tijuca National Park can be reached by taxi or guided tour arranged through the hotels. You can choose to take the tram up the statue or have a driver take you straight up. The tram is worth the trek, however, and you will have great photo opportunities of the surrounding forest.
Tijuca National Forest
Take a guided hike through the largest urban forest in South America. The lush tropical vegetation embraces you as you walk to the enjoy the peaceful view of Rio (on a clear day). Note: This hike can be added on a tour
For thrill seekers, hang gliding is a popular activity done off of Pedra Bonita, which is located inside Tijuca National Park. This is a great opportunity to see the city from a different vantage point – gliding up in the air in a tandem glider overlooking the city.
Museu Nacioinal Belas Artes
Av Rio Branco 199, website
Brazilian artists and artists who spent time in Brazil, with an emphasis on the 19th and early 20th centuries
Hours: Tuesday – Friday 10am – 6pm, Saturday & Sunday 2pm – 6pm
Admission: Adults $1.50 US, free on Sunday; Guided tours in English are available but you must call ahead.
Av Republica de Chile 245
Hours: 7am – 5:30pm
If you are curious of what life is like in the slums for the residents of Rio then the Favela Tour needs to be on your list of day tours. You will feel as though you are on the set of the film City of God as you are taken through Favela Rocinha, the city’s largest favela. If you are concerned about safety, actually, you are safer in the slums on a guided tour than you are on your own in Ipanema. The reason for this is that the drug lords who run the slums are aware of the tours and residents of the favelas know that tourists in the slums are off limits. These tours are informative and an excellent opportunity to see the other side of Rio.
The strong U.S. dollar makes shopping an enjoyable experience in Rio. However, this is Rio so expect most clothing or lack there of to be speedos and bikinis. There is not a shortage of flip-flops, this being home to the famous havaianas. This trendy footwear which can be purchased in the US at specialty stores anywhere from $25 – $30 can be bought in Rio for $6 so stock up on every style and color. They will be the staple of your attire while in Brazil.
On Sundays, be sure to check out the Hippie Market (10am – 6pm), a fair held in the Praca General Osorio in the Eastern end of Ipanema where many artisans sell arts and crafts. This is your opportunity to purchase something uniquely Brazilian such as original art created by artists on canvas. You can roll it up and have it stretched when you return home. The key to these type of fairs is to bargain, bargain and bargain. If you need to purchase souvenirs for friends and family back home, there is an enormous selection of t-shirts.
What to Bring Back