Rio de Janeiro is fascinating, exciting, and sometimes a little scary. With so much history and natural beauty, one thing is for sure: you’ll never get tired of this unique city.
As cities grow, there are few that are as unique as Rio de Janeiro. The name alone conjures up images of giant statues of Jesus, chaotic carnivals and beautiful beaches filled with beautiful people. Then there’s the other side of the big city, with its neglected poor and resilient, unique favela culture. However, looking down on the urban area from Sugar Loaf Mountain Park or any of Rio de Janeiro’s other mountains, it is easy to think of it as one of the best examples of man and nature living in harmony.
The development of a huge urban area along such a mountainous coastline may seem almost impossible, but that’s the beauty of it: the sprawl of the city, broken only by towering tropical peaks, stretches all the way to the broken bays made up of endless beaches and uneven coves covered with small islands. Immersed in a confident Latin American culture full of history and pride, there are countless opportunities for you to experience unique experiences in Rio de Janeiro. Here are just a few of them.
Find your bearings at Praça 15 de Novembro
Known as Centro, downtown Rio can get a little hot and crowded, but the city center is the perfect place to learn about Rio’s history and begin to reveal its complex identity. As the location where the Portuguese royal family landed when they first arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Praça 15 de Novembro is a great place to start. There you can find some of the city’s finest colonial buildings, including the Imperial Palace – where Princess Isabel proclaimed the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1888 – and the Tiradantes Palace, currently the seat of the State Congress, where you can learn about Brazil’s turbulent political history. When it’s time for a break, the bar spills out into the street from the Arco de Teles on the north side of the square.
Praça Quinze de Novembro – Centro
Take the rack railroad to see the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro
For Rio’s residents, having a New Seven Wonders of the World overlooking your house is another aspect of daily life. completed in 1931, the 30-meter (98-foot) tall Statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro seems inseparable from any thought of Rio de Janeiro. Unique doesn’t even begin to describe it. Although it is located at the top of Corcovado Mountain, you can reach the top by train. This 20-minute journey is unique in itself, using the old European-style mountain railroad built here in 1884, decades before this statue. In fact, this is probably why the mountain was chosen as one of Christ’s holy sites. There is also a magnificent view of the old neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. This system can only carry 540 people per hour, and tickets do sell out in advance. To buy in advance and avoid long waits at the stations, visit this reservation site.
Corcovado train entrance: 090, r. Cosme Velho, 461-513-Cosme Velho
Sing a world-famous song on Rio’s beaches
Who can forget Barry Manilow’s “Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl,” or ol Blue Eyes” (Frank Sinatra) whispered “Tall, bronze, young and lovely” (Tall and tan, young and lovely)? So “Her name is Leo, and she dances on the beach? “Technically, two of them aren’t just random names for Rio’s beaches. Copacabana” is about a cabaret girl working in a club near Havana, and Duran Duran’s “Rio de Janeiro” isn’t even about the city, once they rewrite the story. Simon Le Bon took an original idea from bassist John Taylor and created a story about a girl named Rio, not about the place. But The Girl from Ipanema is a model who probably lives nearby and walks to the beach every day. In any case, all three songs are inspired by the beauty of Rio de Janeiro. If you go to the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and don’t find yourself involuntarily humming these tunes, it’s probably because you somehow always avoid hearing them.
Visit the favelas with the locals
In the past, the rather colonial, theme park-style jeep tours of Rio’s favelas have rightly met with some opposition. But these communities are unfathomably complex places that must be treated and experienced with respect, if at all. The only way to do this is to make sure your money is going to someone in the community and that your knowledge comes from first-hand experience. With these two caveats in mind, it’s possible to really begin to appreciate the extraordinary culture that thrives here. For example, this particular guided Rocinha Favela walk is non-intrusive and aims to dispel many stereotypes by exploring the daily life, history and struggles that many residents face.
Experience the warmth of the Cathedral of Iasiado in Rio de Janeiro
As the most Catholic country in the world, religion is an important part of Brazil’s identity. There is no clearer symbol than the towering cathedral in the heart of Rio. A modernist building (built in 1964), this volcanic structure is ugly to some, but beautiful to others – either way, it’s very impressive. It is huge. It can hold 20,000 people at any given time. Inside the building, you’ll find neon stained glass panelling all the way up to a light-filled cross on the building’s circular roof. This inspiring building is located on the edge of Centro.
Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the Maracanã soccer match
Besides Catholicism, Brazil has another religion: soccer. What is its most sacred institution? The Maracanã, located in the heart of Rio de Janeiro. This huge stadium once held 150,000 spectators, but has now been transformed into an all-seater stadium with a capacity of 79,000. That’s still enough to form an electrifying atmosphere. Two teams call this place home – Flamengo and Fluminense – and it’s one of the most joyous, festival-like rivalries in Brazilian soccer. But if you’re not lucky enough to get a ticket to a Fla-Flu match, other important games are played here, including international matches. One highlight was the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (although Brazilians didn’t like it because their team was ignominiously kicked out of the tournament by Germany), but none of the locals heard about it.
Av. Pres. Castelo Branco, Portão 3 – Maracanã
Start your day with a cup of home-grown coffee
For a country that exports so much coffee, it’s hard to find a decent cup in Rio de Janeiro, but there are a growing number of cafes dotted around the city where you can find great homegrown coffee. Walk into a coto cafe. These people take their coffee very seriously. Their mission? To provide inexpensive, good-quality Brazilian coffee to the masses. Their approach? Uniqueness-they don’t have a set price for their coffee. Instead, customers are invited to peruse a board that lists the café’s monthly overhead (including the previous month’s profits) and are asked to pay what they think is a reasonable price. The café has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and the product itself is spectacular. Or, for coffee in a unique setting, try Confeitaria Colombo: intricate tile floors, a stained glass roof and well-dressed wait staff.
Curto Café: Av. Erasmo Braga, 278 – Centro
Confeitaria Colombo: R. Gonçalves Dias, 32 – Centro
Eat until you have to lie down next to the grill
There are many culinary highlights in Rio de Janeiro, including pao de queijo (cheese bread) and a delicious turkey bean stew, but the ultimate culinary experience (read: food challenge) is the spanakopita. Not ideal for vegetarians and vegans – or for the well-fed – who worked their way carelessly through the table, offering a variety of different meats. Diners use a red and green card system to indicate whether they want to keep eating – most people need at least some respite. carretao is one of the best spanakopita in town. Located on a street by Copacabana Beach, it has the perfect combination of a prime location and a prime spot.
Carretao: Rua Siqueira Campos, 23 – Copacabana
Learn how to dance the samba
First of all, if you Google “samba school”, you will probably get a lot of information about Carnival. This is because samba schools in Rio are not educational institutions. They are actually established social clubs that compete against each other every year at the carnival. They even create their own costumes, stories, music and lyrics every year. When you can attend a samba night hosted by one of these schools, the best way to learn how to dance to samba music in order to learn first is to search for samba classes. There are many great places to learn samba in English in this city. The Rio de Janeiro School of Samba Dancers between Copacabana and Ipanema Beach has great group classes that offer a crash course in rhythm and steps to get you on your way.
Rio Samba Dancers: r. Francisco Otaviano, 61 – Copacabana
Dancing all night in Lapa
With your new dance skills, it’s important to know that no trip to Rio is complete without a night in Lapa. Start at the Arch, also known as the Carioca Aqueduct. this is the best place to tap into the true spirit of Lapa, with live samba music on the streets and vendors selling a healthy dose of caipirinhas to get everyone moving. Street parties are held on Fridays and Saturdays and go on late into the night. From there, nightlife is the logical next stage of the night. Around Memdesa Avenue, northwest from the ferry, there are dozens of excellent fences. The bars have decent cocktails and vibrant dance floors. A ten-minute walk north from here, the bar Scenarium has the normal live music. No matter where you end up, Lapa is a uniquely memorable night out.
Hang gliding adventure over the city
There’s no better way to get the full view of a city than to see it from above, and for those who want to see the unparalleled city in the most exciting way possible, there’s only one option: hang gliding. Launching from one of the many mountains that surround the city, you’ll soar over the rainforest and the Atlantic Ocean before making a decent landing on one of Rio de Janeiro’s white sandy beaches. In the off-season (April to November, excluding holidays), flights tend to be much less expensive. This is not for the faint of heart, but a truly unique experience. Try this unmistakably popular 2.5 hour tandem flight, for a great balanced experience and competitive year-round prices.
Stroll through the gentle neighborhoods of Santa Teresa
As a great stopover in Rio’s bohemian area, and on the way back from visiting the Christ Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Santa Teresa is a must-see for anyone who wants to get to the other side of Rio. The cobblestone streets, pretty colonial houses and cafes are the polar opposite of the busy areas that hug the coastline. The rickety tram is reminiscent of Lisbon, which may well be its influence. Santa Teresa was once the domain of the rich and famous until they fled to the south of the city, away from the city center, in the 1960s and 1970s. It has since become a center for artists and artisans, and there are still many small stores in the narrow streets of Santa Teresa where you can buy local art.
Escape from the heat of Jadimportico
If you’re tired of Rio’s noisy streets and beaches and want to get out and get some air, Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling botanical gardens are an ideal antidote. It’s a tranquil space where tall palm trees scramble to the sky and fountains spout a constant stream of cooling water. It is near the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon, at the foot of the Pedra d’ agua, opened in 1808. Birds chirp, frogs croak, and you can barely hear the sound of vehicles in the distance. You might even see a monkey or two. Particularly striking among them are the more than 600 species of orchids, and you will occasionally find gaps in the trees where you can see the impressive statue of Christ of Rio de Janeiro in the distance.
R. Jardim Botânico, 1008 – Jardim Botânico
Jump on the beach until you find that little patch of sandy peace
Beach life is an important part of life in Rio de Janeiro. Socializing, exercising, self-reflection – a lot of things are done on the beach. Copacabana and Ipanema are spectacular places – a must-see – but when you’re looking for a calmer place, away from the crowds, there are plenty of beaches away from town that are just as spectacular as these two places. Drive southwest along the city’s main highway to Barra da Tijuca and you’ll find many beautiful beaches. and Praia da Macumba are among the best. Although they may not be completely empty, they are usually much quieter than the stalwarts of the city center. To make the most of this opportunity, you can rent a car for the day and go to the beach along the coast. Be sure to get a convertible and drive a bossa nova.
Transcend it all at Pedra da Gavea
Despite Rio de Janeiro’s jaw-dropping scenery, there are still places that can truly amaze new and old visitors alike. While the most popular attraction is Sugar Loaf Mountain, the vibrant and adventurous Gavea hike. At 844 meters (2,769 feet), it is one of the tallest mountains in the world, directly adjacent to the ocean. This massive behemoth is located on the west side of the city’s historic district and offers stunning views of Rio de Janeiro and its surroundings. For those less prepared, the long hike can be dangerous and may take 4-6 hours, including a short climb and about 30 meters (98 feet) of rock climbing. But there are some very good journeys available, such as this one, which will help you climb and provide the necessary equipment and expertise along the way.
Barra da Tijuca
Immerse yourself in the knowledge of the Royal Reding Cabinet of Portugal
Without a doubt, as one of the largest libraries in the world, the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet is an important cultural institution in Brazil. It has the largest collection of books in Portuguese outside of Portugal. Perhaps more importantly for visitors, the building’s unique beauty makes it a must-see for book lovers and those who can appreciate the beauty of architecture. The building’s exterior and interior follow the so-called Neo-Manueline architectural style, which is a Portuguese style Gothic building. One of the most influential is the reading room, which has three levels of bookshelves, enough to humble even the most intelligent person.
R. Luís de Camões, 30 – Centro
Looking to the future at the Museum of Tomorrow
One of Latin America’s 21st century architectural masterpieces, the Museum of Tomorrow is part of a broader redevelopment of the city’s old docklands. This inspiring museum takes visitors on a journey through natural history, assessing the impact of humans on our planet. As a country with 4.9 million square kilometers of forest, Brazil urgently needs to address these issues, and the Museum of Tomorrow is doing its part to bring this issue into the spotlight, asking what can be done to build a more sustainable future. Ironically, at the time of writing, Brazil’s leaders represent a huge step backwards for our wild spaces, which is a testament to how prescient and urgent this museum’s dialogue is.