Ultimate Travel Guide to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


How To Get There

Rio de Janiero is luckily one of the largest cities in Brazil, so it’s fairly easy to find international flights directly into or out of the city. There are however 2 different airports in town so keep that in mind in case you are planning to go to more than one destination, or have any transfers through the city.

RIO AIRPORTS

  • GIG is The larger airport where you will most likely be flying into if your coming internationally. It’s about 12 miles from the city center and within easy reach of many main attractions such as Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Be aware though, if it’s around the time of rush hour it may take some time transfer from the airport.

  • SDG is the domestic airport of Rio. It’s smaller and likely where you will be transferring between other places in Brazil. It’s located even closer to the city center (3.2 miles) so it may be more convenient if your flying domestically throughout Brazil.

GETTING AROUND

  • Car: This will give you the most flexibility, but like all big cities you will have to figure out where to park and manage it during the day/high traffic times. You will also need to take care that you don’t pass into neighborhoods/favelas that you shouldn’t. Though, if you plan to go outside the city, such as south of Rio, it may be your best option.

  • Taxi: This is the route we went. We ended up using Uber or renting a taxi for the day. We planned all of the “Must See” places into the one day where we hired a driver, and then planned it more low key on the other days where a single Uber or taxi could get us where we needed to go.

  • Walking: No matter what option you choose, definitely plan for walking around a bit to explore the feel of the city. Rio is the epitome of a concrete jungle as there are vines and lush greenery poking out of buildings and lining the intersections. The three best places for walking around are the streets of Copacabana, Ipanema, and downtown Rio. All of these places have a lot to see and are relatively safe for tourists. If you stay on the streets and keep your belongings close, you should be fine. On the beach it can be a little risky bringing any belongings that are expensive. If you ask tour guides or the hotel where you are staying, they can give you good advice.

What to do

Rio is a city where you can find just about anything - rich culture, breathtaking views, gorgeous coastlines, and all kinds of adventure. Our recommendation would be to try and find a little mix of everything, and try seeing it from a few different angles:

  • Christ the Redeemer - As one of the 7 wonders of the world, it goes without saying that seeing this statue should be high on anyone’s list coming to Rio. You can see it from many different view points including Sugar Loaf Mountain and Donna Marta Look-Out, but If you do plan to go to the top, there are a few things to keep in mind.

    • Weather: Because the statue is so high up and there is condensation coming off the coast, it’s very common for the statue to be completely covered in fog. If you are going to Rio you may want to build flexibility into your schedule so that you can plan to see the statue on a clear day - else you may spend a lot of time and money to see a thick blanket of clouds.

    • Getting There: you need to make sure and plan ahead, and allocate a good amount of time. Getting up there you can either hire a car, or take a bus up (there are plenty that will start at downtown and provide a round trip up and back) . We would not recommend hiring an Uber to drop you off there as service is limited and it would be challenging to call for a ride down.

  • Sugar Loaf Mountain - Taking the cable cars up to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain was one of the absolute highlights of our trip. It’s apparent just how dramatic of a landscape Rio has when you see it from above. There’s an endless series of bays and mountains combined with the lively city of Rio in a beautiful mixture of nature and civilization.

  • Sail Around the Harbor - The coast line in Rio is stunning. and there are so many beaches to see. One of the best ways to take it all in is by taking a boat to the multiple different bays. Seeing the various landmarks like Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer from the water was a really nice way to see these landmarks from a different view. Rio is a city of luxury with private yachts and fancy sailboats lining the bays. We spent the day with Rio Sailing and couldn’t have pictured a better way to spend the morning.

  • Spend Some Time at the Beaches - You can’t go to Rio and pass up the beaches here. The sunsets will blown your mind and the water is just gorgeous. The vibes of beaches in Rio are absolutely contagious, with energetic music, beach side volleyball, and everybody coming together to celebrate the beauty around.

  • Ride the Cable Cars in Santa Teresa - Santa Teresa is an enchanted little piece of old Rio preserved in the midst of this large emerging city. The cable cars are one of these vintage touches, that lets you see a peak into the older more historic Rio. And it connects a lot of the downtown Rio together (especially if you don’t want to scale all those hills).

  • Botanical Gardens - Botanical gardens are one of our secret loves. There’s something about being surrounded by plants that just makes our hearts feel good. The gardens here in Rio are some of the most diverse and lush in the world. We loved getting to wander around, surrounded by flowers, palm tree lined paths, and misty mountains in the distance.

Trips Around Rio

Rio de Jainero is not only the city, but also the name of the whole state within Brazil that expands well past the city limits. If you plan on going to Rio, we’d strongly recommend you consider a few side trips along the way. There are some beautiful places down further south where you’ll find less tourists and some really magical spots. We’d recommend planning to at least stay the night though and not try to go down and back in the same day - as Brazil is large and some of these places can take up to 5 hours to get there.

  • Ilha Grande -

  • Paraty -

  • Angra dos Reis -

  • South of Rio - You will find some amazing hikes and viewpoints down south with less people and more untouched nature. The best are Pedra da Gávea, Recreio dos Bandeirantes, and Pedra Do Telégrafo. These are the only ones on this list that we think would actually be doable as just a day trip. Though in order to get out there you’ll need to plan around the tides as Recreio is only accessible during low tide and the hike is a few hours round trip. You may plan to go down South for a night so you have a chance to explore all three.

Where to Eat

  • Oteque - It’s a new, up and coming Michelin Star restaurant that is worth the splurge if your visiting Rio. The ambience is understated quality. From the street, you pull up and you think you MUST have the wrong address. It’s across the street from a gas station and looks like a residential block. Then you just see a small wooden sign that’s been hung up on the cement wall saying Oteque. The sign gets hung up in a speak-easy type fashion every night as they are only open for dinner and just have one seating at 7:30 pm when the restaurant opens. The menu is an 8 course tasting menu based on whatever is in season. It is all locally sourced, seasonal, and organic as much as possible with extremely high quality ingredients.

  • Bio Carioca - If your looking for a hip and fun vegan/plant based restaurant for some delicious and healthy eats, check out Bio Carioca in Copacabana. The cafe is a funky and fun place to relax for a bit and enjoy some light and tasty bites.

  • Chocolate Q - We are always on the hunt for any place selling 100% cacao dark chocolate. Chocolate Q is an artisanal shop in Ipanema that not only provides this (technically its 95% cacao, 5% cacao butter with 0% sugar) but also many other chocolate delicacies. We’ve had chocolate from many places around the world, and this was some of our favorite.

  • Via Sete - A boho chic restaurant in the heart of Ipanema adorned with walls of hanging plants and rustic wooden accessories. They’re serving up tasty wood fire grilled dishes with colorful chimichurri and bright fresh salads. It’s only a few blocks from the beach and the posh shopping streets, making a great place for a break from either.

  • Brasiero da Gavea - A real local’s secret, you’ll be pressed to find a table around lunch time. With lines always trailing around the corner, it’s always packed with those wanted some of the best churrasca in Rio. Known for their picanha (a cut of meat Brazil specializes in), this place serves up not only mouth watering grilled entrees, but also tasty sides and salads for vegetarians/vegans. Their sautéed broccolini and mixed salads were especially delicious.

Where to Stay

There’s a lot of different places to stay depending on what your goals are and where you want to be close to. Based on your vibe and what kind of a trip your trying to have, here’s a breakdown of a few different places to think about:

IPANEMA

This is the posh and chic part of Rio dotted with the best and up and coming restaurants and elegant clothing stores and closest to arguably one of the best beaches in Rio. If we had to pick one place to come back and stay it would be Ipanema. It’s not too far away from the main attractions either, but also not so in the thick of it that there’s too much traffic lining the streets. We also found it to be one of the safest places in Rio as many of these nicer establishments can afford to have on site security. Here’s our top picks for hotels in the area:

  • Hotel Fasano - a beautiful 5 star hotel displaying the perfect combination of class and style. There is the rooftop infinity pool overlooking the beach that is not to be missed, and spacious rooms with equally stunning views.

  • Sofit Ipanema - a 5 star hotel elegantly decorated in airy whites and minimalistic style. Perfect location between shops and the beach, all with amazing views of the iconic mountains of Rio.

  • Arena Ipanema Hotel - a chic and contemporary 4 star hotel, giving you comfort, location, and even a rooftop pool all at a more affordable price.

Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa is a picturesque part of downtown with a lot of hip and stylish places. It’s not beach side, so if your looking for somewhere you can just wake up and walk out to the beach, Santa Teresa is not your place. But it does have a lot of charm and is a great area for boutique shopping and strolling through the streets. This is the closest area to the main sights of Rio, so from a location standpoint it is probably your most centrally located. This allows you to access a lot of the historical downtown and even enjoy the antique trolly that still shuttles people along daily through the streets.

  • MGallery Santa Teresa Hotel - Located on a an old coffee farm, this 5 star luxurious hotel is an urban retreat in the heart of Santa Teresa neighborhood. The decor and architecture are inspired by the golden ages of the cacao and coffee, seeking sophistication and elegance in the noble and ecological materials of the lands and cultures of Brazil. 

  • Mama Ruisa - a unique 4 star guesthouse with an exotic Brazilian feel and an exquisite French touch. There’s a beautifully manicured garden and pool for guests to enjoy during the day, and helpful staff to serve your every needs.

  • Casa Marques - Located on the hills in the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa, this hotel is a tribute to Brazilian artists and designers with a European flare and luxurious rooftop terrace. Each of the rooms are comfortable and cozy with a unique view, original work of art, and beautiful artisanal Brazilian rugs.

Copacabana

Yes there are endless songs written about the streets of Copacabana and the beaches here, and while it’s beautiful, it’s a little less refined than Ipanema. You will likely find cheaper accommodations here, but it also tends to be more touristy in the shops and surrounding restaurants. We also found that there was more of a “party” type atmosphere/late night life which may or may not be what your looking for. The location here could arguably be more convenient though than Ipanema as it is closer to many of the main attractions of Rio, so there is that to consider.

  • Hotel Emiliano - This 5 star hotel provides a unique and memorable experience, offering exclusivity and sophistication in every detail. With private butler service, stunning rooms decorated by world renowned interior designers, and even a helicopter pad Emiliano is the ultimate luxury experience.

  • Hotel Belmond Copacabana Palace - Open since the 1920s, the Belmond in Rio has long housed the rich and famous in this 5 star art deco style luxury hotel with incredible views. Each room is unique with antique furniture, french style linens and exceptional beach side views. Also on site to enjoy, is a Michelin star restaurant and boho chic pool deck.

  • PortoBay Rio Internacional - An unbeatable view in the heart of Copacabana with rooftop pool deck and comfortable suites. This 4 star hotel offers you comfort and style with a location to enjoy the energetic Copacabana spirit.

Best Places for Photos

Best View Points:

  • Dona Marta Look-out - This was probably our favorite lookout in all of Rio - you get incredible views of Christ the Redeemer, The bays of Rio, and Sugar Loaf Mountain. There’s a great rock wall to post up on and look over the city, but also don’t miss the fact that you can maneuver down a trail below the wall and miss a lot of the crowds, but still keep the views.

  • Christ the Redeemer - As mentioned above there’s a few different ways to get up to see Christ the Redeemer, but there’s also a few different ways to see it to. You can go all the way up to the top to see it up close (the stature is actually 125 feet tall) but there’s also some other great view points from all over the city to see it.

  • Sugar Loaf Mountain - You can’t miss the cable cars when you are in Rio. You’ll see views of so many of Rio’s bays and take in just how expansive the city Rio is. It extends as far as the eye can see and scales up seemingly impossible heights into the mountain side.

  • Two Brother’s Cliff - This is located at the end of Leblon beach and allows you to take in the whole coast all the way up to Ipanema. Find the cobblestone pathway and take it all the way down to end for some truly stunning views.

  • Rato Molhado Viewpoint - Don’t miss this look-out on the way up to Dona Marta and Christ the redeemer. There are big trees and a bench there perfect to sit a while and take in the views without any of the crowds.

  • Pedra da Gávea - A hike on the very southern end of Rio for incredible sights. Grab this view at sunrise to see a morning glow you’ll never forget.

Best Architecture:

  • Arches of La Pas - Double-stacked white arches housing the old Santa teresa Cable cars.

  • National Cathedral of Rio - One of the tallest buildings in Rio, built in a modern style on the outside reflecting almost a pyramidal shape, but still gorgeous stained glass on the walls.

  • Sao Bento Monastery - Also known as the “Gold Church” of Rio, the inside of this church is essentially dripping in gold from floor to ceiling.Certainly a very impressive sight, and then around back you can find an impressive view of the one of a kind Contemporary/Neo-Futuristic building.

  • Lapa Steps ( Escadaria Selaron ) - these colorful mosque tiles are a really vibrant part of Rio and make for a very colorful photograph. Definitely try to hit these early as they fill up fast with people.

Best Beaches:

  • Ipanema at Sunset - Ipanema might be one of the most famous beaches in Brazil, but for good reason. You get an absolutely breathtaking view of the the rock formations and the cities build up into the ridges. This is probably the most picturesque beaches we’ve ever been to.

  • Copacabana Beach - Copacabana beach is another gem in Rio. The bays are longer stretching with views of both Sugar Loaf Mountain and Copacabana Fort as well as endless activities to do during the day.

Tips Before You Go

Safety:

One of the questions we get all the time is, “Is Brazil safe?” and especially Rio de Janeiro. Rio has a long history of crime and violence. There’s a stark difference between the living conditions of the wealthy and the poor, with a small, yet growing middle class mixed in there. You can see this as you are driving through the mountains with the “favela” towns along the hills. These are essentially concrete blocks built on top of each other with no plumbing, sewage system, or electricity and a whole family living in one cramped space. Because of this large difference in economic security, there is unfortunately a lot of crime and theft in the city. Here are the places to be most cautious:

  • Favelas & immediate surroundings: It is no surprise that in the favelas themselves or just outside, you ought to be more aware of your surroundings. If you plan to visit, try not to carry much on you and going with a guide is always strongly recommended.

  • Beaches: But another place where the crime rate is high is on the beaches. This is because there is no discrimination on who can be in which part of the beaches as they are open to the public. This means that anybody and everybody goes to them. Again try not to take too much with you when you go to the beaches, no extra cash or expensive items. And as a rule of thumb, though we normally like to have secluded less crowded beach experiences, the crowds can actually be your friend at the beaches in Rio. Not so crowded that your uncomfortable, but if there are enough people around, your chances of being confronted are much less.

While in Rio the key is to be inconspicuous. if you are a female we recommend taking off all jewelry ESPECIALLY anything shiny or gold. This is what most are looking for and will stop you on the streets if they see it. Also try not to show off your expensive gear. We know this can be hard as photographers, but try and put the camera away when your not capturing something or just walking in the streets.

Plan for at least 5 days in Rio de Janeiro

Rio is very large and there is so much to see. Not only that but it’s spread out between mountain ridges and coastline that you need to drive through. It can take you an hour just to get up to Christ the Redeemer from the city center because you have to get to the top, wait through lines, and then could take an additional 2 hours if you go at a busy time as they limit the number that can be at the monument. Each activity will likely take longer than you think, and it’s nice to be able to actually appreciate some of the beauty without having to try and cram in the next sight.

Consider the Holidays/Festivals

Rio hosts some of the largest festivities in Brazil which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about them. Two big ones to keep in mind are:

  • Carnival which takes places at the end of February. This is a crazy time and celebration with almost non stop parties. Similar to Mardi Gras in the New Orleans but with much more dancing and costumes.

  • New Year’s Eve: This is again a time for a lot of parties in Rio. They have a special tradition of staying out all night, wearing white, and releasing flowers into the ocean at midnight. It can be fun to experience but again, if you are not into large crowds, consider this when planning your trip.

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