Whether you’re heading to Rio for a Samba-filled Carnival, or visiting A Cidade Maravilhosa (“The Marvelous City”) for the first time, Rio de Janeiro can be a challenging place to explore on your own. From the language barrier to fears about safety, it can be difficult or just plain daunting to explore “the real Rio,” particularly away from the glitzy beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Where does that leave you on a day at leisure? With these four one-day itineraries to help you explore The Marvelous City on your Brazil vacation, you’ll be mixing in with the Cariocas (Rio locals) in no time.
Views, Gardens, and Fabulous Ipanema
Chances are you’re staying somewhere in the Zona Sul, where Rio’s most famous beaches are located. So it only makes sense to build a day or two around it. Hop aboard an early tram up the Corcovado for your audience with Christ the Redeemer and Rio’s most famous panorama, which stretches from Maracana Stadium in the north to the peaks of Tijuca Rainforest in the south. In between you and those peaks lies Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden and Parque Lage, where the Visual Arts School of Parque Lage is housed in a beautiful former mansion. These make an easy next stop as you head back toward the beach.
Have lunch and perhaps shop a little in Ipanema, then spend the afternoon enjoying Ipanema Beach or Leblon Beach if you’d prefer a thinner crowd. You can even take in the view from Mirante do Leblon, a lookout at the far western end of the beach that will convince you you’ve been transported to a tropical island. However you choose to while away the afternoon on your Brazil vacation, be sure to arrive back at Pedra do Arpoador at the eastern end of the beach in time for sunset. As the sun vanishes behind Dois Irmaos, all of Ipanema Beach applauds the end of another beautiful Rio day.
In the evening, Ipanema is rich with dinner and nightlife options. As it’s a residential district, things are somewhat quiet and relatively safe here, but you should still consider a taxi or Uber if you are travelling more than a few blocks after dark.
Copacabana and Sugarloaf Mountain
As with the Corcovado, arrive early to beat the crowds for a spot on the Sugarloaf Cable Car. This way, you can spend a little longer enjoying the views, the surrounding forest, and displays devoted to the history of what was only the third such cable car to open in the world. Alternatively, visit late in the afternoon after the large tour bus crowds have left. The main difference will be in your photos, with the sun either lighting up the peaks of Tijuca behind you, or setting the sky ablaze behind them as it sets. Once you’ve descended, take a cab or Uber to either Duque de Caxias, or Copacabana Fort for some history lover’s sightseeing.
Both sites guard Rio’s most famous beach neighbourhood, where you can find a spot for lunch and spend the balance of the day relaxing. Copacabana Beach is where you’ll find tourists and Cariocas alike, enjoying the beach at its most unpretentious. Whether you stretch out for a few hours or wander the length of Copacabana, order up a caipirinha, the super sweet national cocktail made with cachaça, sugar, and lime, or an agua de coco (coconut water) if you’d rather keep a clear head. Don’t miss the historic Copacabana Palace hotel on your way.
Like Ipanema, Copacabana is filled with good options for dinner and/or drinks after dark, but again, take a cab or Uber if travelling more than a few blocks.
Glamorous Old Rio: Cinelandia, Santa Theresa, and Lapa
There’s a Rio de Janeiro away from the beach, and it delivers a glitz and glamour all its own. In the first half of the 20th century, Rio was the place to be for Brazilian creatives of all stripes, and nowhere was more glamorous than Cinelandia Square. It isn’t just the old picture palaces that are worth seeing. Attempts to make Rio the “Paris of the South” produced architectural marvels like the Theatro Municipal and the National Library. Spend some time on your Brazil vacation admiring the grand theatres here (some of which have begun to show movies again), then wander over to the colourful Selaron Steps in Lapa. Pass under the famous Carioca Aqueduct to Rio’s most controversial building, the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Time for a trip over the Aqueduct! Board the Santa Teresa tram and head into what was pre-Zona Sul Rio’s most glamorous neighbourhood. In Santa Teresa, you’ll find small galleries, bars, spectacular views out over Rio, some of the city’s most delightful streets and architecture, and plenty of lunch options if you haven’t indulged already. You can easily spend the afternoon exploring, or drop into the Parque das Ruinas and see one of Rio’s favourite mixed cultural spaces, built around the ruins of an old mansion.
In the evening, return to Lapa, choosing from its many restaurants before hitting one of the samba clubs that fill this lively nightlife district. Lapa, where samba was born, captures the spirit of Rio at its most authentic. It’s also an edgier neighbourhood than the beach districts, so don’t go wandering on your own after dark. Cab or Uber, always.
The Changing Face and Unique Experiences of Rio
Start your morning down at Gamboa, Rio de Janeiro’s renewed harbourfront district. The once run-down and dangerous area is now well and truly revived, boasting the world’s largest street mural, Las Etnias (The Ethnicities) by Eduardo Kobra. Its top new attraction is probably the otherworldly Museum of Tomorrow, which looms over Guanabara Bay, containing exhibits devoted to exploring climate change. If your museum tastes swing more toward art than science, pop into the Rio Art Museum on the other side of Praca Maua, or wander through downtown to Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil.
If you have time, you can cut your lunch budget in half by eating downtown with the locals rather than in the Zona Sul or Santa Teresa, so consider a smorgasbord plate paid for by weight for a real Carioca lunch. Then spend the afternoon doing something unique to Rio on your Brazil vacation. You might join a favela tour to meet the people in one of Rio’s poor, yet lively and welcoming hillside communities. It can be unsafe to enter a favela on your own, so these tours are a great way to see what they bring to Rio without the risk. Alternatively, get back to nature with a trip into the Tijuca Rainforest, or if you’re feeling adventurous, take to the skies with a hang-gliding experience off Pedra da Gavea.
In the evening, hit the town in Lapa, Ipanema, or Copacabana. Alternatively, try some of the more local bars in Botafogo, or if you’re there on the right night (check the schedule), cab or Uber to a samba school and join in a rehearsal. Mangueira and Salgueiro are two well-respected Rio schools that welcome visitors to their rehearsals, provided they are willing to dance! Don’t worry, they’re more interested in your enthusiasm than your skill. Just confirm the rehearsal by phone before turning up, particularly leading up to Carnival, when the competition is getting serious (some rehearsals may be closed to visitors) and in the months immediately after, when rehearsals may not follow their normal schedule. Carnival themes are normally chosen and rehearsed in earnest from mid-year.
Notes on Touring: Like most major destinations, there are group tours available in Rio de Janeiro to help get you to the major sights without having to pay for cabs, queue for tickets, or navigate foreign public transit. These can be useful, since a number of Rio’s highlights, including the Corcovado, Sugarloaf, and Tijuca Rainforest aren’t really convenient to the subway system (which is safe and reliable, but designed for local workers rather than tourists). They can also tie you into the group’s schedule and cover sights you aren’t that interested in seeing. For this reason, Rio is one city where I recommend splashing out for a private tour if you don’t already have one included. A private tour can be customized to include the sights you really want to see, omit the ones you can visit on your own, and if there’s time, throw in some unique additions (and amazing views of Rio) most tourists never reach.
Notes on Safety: Many North American travellers have an exaggerated sense of how “dangerous” Rio de Janeiro is. Statistically, the city has an undeniably high crime rate, but much of this happens in poorer northern and western parts of the city, where tourists don’t tend to venture. Simply put, be prepared, not paranoid, and understand that with Rio’s vast income gap, you’ll need to take extra precautions. Consider carrying a cheap wallet with just the essentials, keep any bags strapped across your body rather than over your shoulder, and use a credit card as often as possible (even many beach stalls will accept cards). Be sure to have at least a little cash on you at all times, both for small purchases, and in case the worst happens and you are robbed. It is much better to hand over a wallet with a little cash quickly than to have a thief think you are holding out or resisting. Never leave bags or valuables out on the table where they can be seen and snatched, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record take cabs or Uber after dark. They’re reliable and relatively cheap in Brazil, and will more than pay you back in peace of mind.
Carnival: Capture the Spirit of Rio on Your Brazil Tour