Rio is a city we have visited twice, well to be honest the first visit was part of a cruise itinerary and lasted only 12 hours but the second was at the end of that same trip, but in those two short visits we crammed most things in and it was then I caught the bug.
That bug being the “Rio Bug… ” because if there is one city in the world I am looking forward to going back to (we will be returning in 2024) it’s Rio. It is everything you expect, and then some.
Rio is truly magical and well known for its beaches, Sugarloaf Mountain, Carnival, Christ the Redeemer Statue & of course the national sport football. (Soccer for my American friends). So let’s see what there is to do and enjoy also some tips on how to get the most from your visit.
Rio De Janeiro | The Carnival City
This is normally one of the first topics that people who have not visited Rio raise with you. Due to some unsavoury incidents and news reporting over the years much of it justified. However, Rio has improved since it hosted the Football World Cup and the Olympics. But it would be naive and wrong not to acknowledge that there remain areas that tourists should not venture into, and also that you are visiting a city where extreme poverty lives right next door to extreme wealth and as a result its prudent for any visitor to be sensible about how they travel around the city and how they act.
So in short best not to wear an expensive watch, and don’t flash the cash etc – simple steps like these make you less of a target, in fact they are sensible steps to take in any major city in the world, but to be honest we felt fine and never under threat and there are plenty of visitor friendly areas to enjoy freely.
Some simple safety tips;
1 Dress appropriately.
2 Take a taxi when travelling from area to area.
3 Don’t walk in areas you don’t know, at night in particular.
4 Only carry enough cash as you require.
5 Be aware of your surroundings.
Taxi’s and getting around Rio
Rio has licensed taxi’s they are yellow with a blue strip and red number plate, they are safe to use. However there can be a language issue with English speaking tourists because you quickly find out English is not spoken widely in the general population including taxi drivers.
Better option is UBER, yes its available and is safe, plus there is then no confusion over price or where you are going, as it is all there on the App.
Finally you can get your hotel to call you a cab, these are normally licensed private hire vehicles with no markings. They can be more expensive that the normal taxi’s or Uber but are safe and reliable.
Another option for getting around this vast city is the metro which is considered safe but plan your route and stops in advance, mainly due to the language issue again, and also avoid the rush hour times as it then gets very busy. Also, like any metro system the world over, be sensible. One interesting point is the metro has woman only cabs so be aware of them. Definitely avoid any unlicensed cabs and also Rio’s network of mini buses which are not recommended for tourists.
Where to stay
This is a vast city and there are plenty of choice of hotels and apartments of all standards to pick from as well as hostel’s for people on a budget. So I will concentrate on a couple of areas to base your stay.
We stayed on Copacabana and I would highly recommend staying in this area, it’s safe, it’s vibrant has loads of restaurants, bars and cafes to enjoy and you can walk around even at night and of course you have the beach which is fantastic.
Another area is the one you will know from the song !! Inpanema like Copacabana it’s a beach area and has some excellent hotels and apartments. You can also find some really top end restaurants to enjoy here again its safe to walk around.
Finally for the younger at heart, possibly on a budget or back packing another area which is full of a younger vibe with nightlife to match is Lapa. Here you will find budget hotels and hostel’s – it’s a safe area to stay but don’t walk out of it and get a taxi, particularly at night.
My own Hotel Recommendation
I have already said we stayed on Copacabana and the hotel we used was excellent so comes recommended, it was the PortoBay Rio de Janeiro Hotel. It’s right on the beach with a fantastic rooftop pool and bar. It’s very central on Copacabana with its own section of serviced area on the beach. Rooms were a good size and comfortable. Plus hotel staff were friendly and helpful.
Visiting the Iconic Attractions
So what to see and do in Rio, well there is plenty to choose from, so let’s cover a few of the popular tourist spots that we visited. But first thing: it’s prudent to point out here and I have already alluded to is that… Rio is a vast city with a huge population and their all travelling within it. So it’s busy, no make that very busy, and the traffic can be horrendous. It’s not often in Rio you need your higher gears because it is a slow drive, so factor that into any schedule or plan you have.
Also the iconic attractions are what everyone wants to see, so at Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf expect queues and they can at certain times be long.
Christ the Redeemer
This iconic statue sits high above the city on top of Mount Corcovado, the way to visit it is to make your way to the visitor centre at the mountain, then you have a couple of options, you can use one of the official vans that drive up the mountain to a spot just below the statue (from where you walk up)or, like us, you can take the more popular option which is to use the Cog Train. You can get tickets online so to reduce that queuing time it’s recommended. The train rises through initially a urban area before more lush jungle where you get glimpses of the views across the city. Once at the top you have more steps ’till your at the base of the 30 metre high statue. It’s busy up there with everyone trying to get that special photo, but it’s worth it to see the statue close up as well as the views from the top. There is a small shop/cafe there where you can get a refreshment.
Sugar Loaf Mountain
Another classic that must be done, and on a personal note I think this is a much better place to get those pictures of Rio and it’s islands and bay from high up. I really enjoyed our trip up Sugar Loaf. This time to get up you have to use the cable car, in fact it’s two cable cars. You go up to a stop-off point half-way up then onto a second car to reach the top. (It’s worth stressing again the cable cars get busy so once again there is the wait in line, so plan ahead and book online to try and reduce that wait.) There are plenty of vantage points to take pictures at both cable car stops as well as places to grab a refreshment. There is much more space up there also than at Christ the Redeemer.
Confession time, I am a huge football fan so this was my must do for me on our visit to Rio. The Maracana is one of the world’s most iconic football stadiums. It has undergone a modern transformation in recent years for the Olympics and football World Cup Final but retains its magic for all of the games fans. We did a tour of the stadium which includes the museum that gives some of the history of the stadium and Brazilian football including some of the legends of the game including Pelé, Garrincha and Ronaldo. Not expensive and if you like football really enjoyable.
Selaron Steps also known as Escadaria Selaron is a famous art work by Chilean born artist Jorge Selaron who stated it was a tribute to the Brazilian people. He lived in Rio and began to renovat and decorat dilapidated steps that ran outside his house. This grew over the years into his obsession and at the same time a Rio tourist attraction. It took many years and he sold paintings to complete it but eventually he covered all the stairs in tiles. The prominent colours being blue, green, and yellow – the colours of the Brazilian flag. It’s quite an unusual site to see and worth a look.
Santa Teresa Tram
This is a historic tram in Rio that runs from the city centre up the hills to the neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. The tram is open-sided giving you great views on the way up, through urban neighbourhoods. Once there, Santa Teresa itself is worth a wander around – it has a collection of elegant old mansions, a few boutique hotels and a number of quirky cocktail bars some with great views out over the bay.
Take in the street art of Lapa
Rio de Janeiro has one of the most vibrant street art scenes in the world. Finding and photographing street art in the city is easily one of the best things to do in Rio!
Street art was only legalised in Rio, in 2009. However since then, many murals and individual pieces have popped up all across the city. The best area to find street art in Rio is by far the neighbourhood of Lapa.
If you wander around the viaduct and the Selarón Steps, you will come across incredibly colourful murals decorating old buildings. Many of these murals are very detailed and complex. There are guided tours of the art available check on line to if this of interest to you.
Possibly the most famous coffee house in Rio, it is the oldest and definitely one you have to try, and not just for the coffee, the cakes are something else. It is found in the main shopping area of the city and definitely is worth a look.
Visit the Royal Portuguese Reading Room
An ornately decorated library that houses centuries of Portuguese literature and history. The Royal Portuguese Reading Room is an astoundingly culturally rich location.
Established in 1837 by Portuguese immigrants living in Brazil, they decided to start a collection of Portuguese books in order to share Portuguese culture, work, and literature.
Named the 4th most beautiful library in the world in 2014 by Time Magazine, The Royal Portuguese Reading Room welcomes a little over 50,000 visitors per year and is currently still receiving shipments of approximately 6,000 books each year.
Admission is free, and visitors are welcome to go see the incredible architecture and floor-to-ceiling shelves of books. It is just a interesting place to visit.
Visit a Favela
Rocinha is the largest favela in Latin America and the second-largest in the world. Although Rocinha used to be a very dangerous place, these days the favela has become much safer and now visitors can learn about the culture and history of these communities.
Tours are offered by local inhabitants who know how to guide visitors through the winding streets, showing the visitors local insight, places of interests, historical facts, and so much more.
These tours are not for everyone but if you go with a open mind and prepared to embrace a different outlook, it can be very enlightening. Many local city guides in conjunction with the Favela guides offer these tours so check online.
Rio Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Garden in Rio, called Jardim Botânico, is perfect for plant-lovers travelling to the city. Actually, that being said, even if you’re not into plants, it’s still a beautiful place worth seeing and spending a few hours in.
With over 8,000 species of plants, it is hard not to be amazed as you explore Jardim Botânico.
Designed in 1808, the garden includes a row of palm trees that were planted in that same year. There is also the Orquidário: an area with 600 species of orchid to be enjoyed.
Tijuca Forest is to Rio what Central Park is to New York….. except, this is a tropical rainforest. This 8,300 acre (3,358 hectares) park is home to waterfalls, varying terrain, 1,600 plant species, and over 350 different animal species. Admission is free, and it is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm (6:00 pm in the winter).
Ipamema Hippie Market
The Hippie Market of Ipanema is perhaps the best place in Rio to find authentic souvenirs. It all began as fairly small Hippie market in 1968 however has now grown into approximately 700 stall mini-city. Folk art and contemporary art, jewellery, clothing, arts and crafts can all be bought here, as well as some really delicious food.
Ok we were not lucky enough to visit at the time of the Carnival which is around February and lasts a full week. It is an official holiday in Rio and the full city parties, with each neighbourhood having its own small Carnival or celebrations, and with the main competition Carnival where local Samba Schools compete against each other the crowned champions announced at the end of Carnival. This main Competition takes place in a purpose built Mile long stadium / avenue with stands on each side. You can visit this site to learn about the Carnival.
Recommendation for a Local Guide
My top tip to see this city and all it has to offer is to seriously considered hiring a local guide, it really will help smooth your way around this vast busy vibrant city. It’s always good to tap into local knowledge and experience. If you’re a confident traveller then yes the city can be done on your own BUT there are times it’s good to have guidance. We did use a guide for some of our stay and one I have no hesitation in saying was one of the best we have ever used in all our travels. So he comes highly recommended. He has great reviews on Trip Advisor, so check him out under Tour Guide Gus, Rio De Janeiro. He also has a website where you can see what services he provides www.tourguidegus.com.
Our experience of Gus was, he always arrived on time, planned the trip as you wanted it, was full of information and local tips and even managed to get us tickets for a Samba show and then booked into a very busy restaurant. So when looking for a guide, I fully recommend Gus.
To finish here are some of my further Tips for visiting Rio de Janeiro
1 Hire a local guide.
2 Be aware of your surroundings and plan ahead.
3 Have an open mind – it’s a new culture.
4 Don’t expect people to speak or understand English – many won’t.
5 Travel between areas in taxis, particularly at night.
6 Go and enjoy a fantastic city, one of my all time favourites.
7 Finally, do enjoy a Caipirinha even if you have drunk one before, they do taste better in Rio.