13 Best Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro: Unmissable Attractions and Activities

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From the towering Christ the Redeemer statute to the lively atmosphere of Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro is a city that makes the top of most people’s travel lists. For me, it was a must-visit in order to finish checking off the 7 Modern Wonders of the World. For others, it’s about the miles and miles of white sand beaches.

No matter why you’re called to visit Rio, we can assure you you’ll not regret the decision to visit. It’s actually pretty crazy how diverse it is. The stunning natural backdrop contrasts the panoramic skyline of skyscrapers and architectural history in the city center. The long stretch of crescent beaches that you have ample opportunity to view from above will leave you breathless.

Leblon Beach

We felt that it was an unforgettable city, filled with unique and fun things to do. Below you’ll find our list of the top things we added to our itinerary. There are dozens of other things you can do, but these were the ones we chose, and it was a fantastic visit.

Christ The Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer
(photo by Savored Journeys)

The Christ the Redeemer statue that towers over the city is one of the main draws for visitors. I personally had just this one of the New 7 Wonders of the World left to see, so it was important for me. The iconic statue sits atop Mount Corcovado, with breathtaking views of the city below (as long as it’s not foggy).

You might be interested to know that the statue is only 125 feet tall with its pedestal. For contrast, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall with its pedestal. That should put into perspective how underwhelming this statue is in reality. Yes, it towers over the city, but when you’re on the beach, you can barely see it on top of the mountain. For me, it was a bit of a letdown. Nevertheless, it’s something you must do in Rio.

We visited as part of a private, full-day tour that I booked on Viator. This is the exact tour we took. It was an 8-hour tour to whatever sites we wanted (many of them are below). However, it’s not difficult to do this on your own. Buy this Skip the Line ticket for Christ the Redeemer, get yourself to the train station, and away you go.

Us with Christ the Redeemer
christ2

Getting There

  • Uber/taxi: The easiest way to get there is an Uber or taxi to the Corcovado train station where you’ll take a 20-minute cable car ride most of the way up to the statue.
  • Metro: Take the metro to the Largo do Machado station and then transfer to the Corcovado Train station.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Aim for early morning or late afternoon on weekdays to avoid crowds.
  • Clear sunny days offer the best visibility of the cityscape, but it’s often cloudy up there. If you can, wait to buy your tickets until you know the weather outlook.
  • We highly recommend buying your ticket in advance to avoid queues, especially during the high season. The ticket includes the train.
  • When you get off the train, you can take an elevator and escalator up to the platform, which saves time if there’s not a long line, or you can walk up.
  • Get creative with your photo taking so you can get a pic of yourself with the statue.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf
Sugarloaf Mountain (photo by Savored Journeys)

I personally enjoyed the view from Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) better than from the Christ the Redeemer statue, but then it was quite cloudy when we were up there. In any case, the experience just feels more grandiose. Taking the cable car up and across from one mountain to the other was really breathtaking.

When you reach the top, there’s a 360-degree view of the city and Guanabara Bay, as well as a distant view of the Christ the Redeemer statue.

Getting There

Uber/taxi: Take an Uber or taxi to the base station at Sugarloaf, called “Bondinho do Pão de Açúcar” in Portuguese. Any taxi driver will know it.

You can buy your tickets at the entrance, but I don’t recommend doing that because the lines are long. Buy this Skip the Line ticket. It saves a ton of time because you can bypass all the regular lines. It’s more expensive, but worth it, especially if you have limited time.

You’ll take a cable car up to Urca Hill, then from Urca Hill up to the summit at Sugarloaf. Some parts of the mountain are currently shrouded in green tarps. They are trying to put in a zipline but are meeting with environmental pushback. We’ll see how that develops.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Visit early to avoid crowds and enjoy the tranquility of sunrise.
  • Alternatively, late afternoon visits allow for spectacular sunset views.
  • Sugarloaf can get busy between 10 AM to 3 PM, with much longer waits for the cable car.
  • Try to check the weather forecast before you get tickets.

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach
Photo by Savored Journeys

Most visitors here will try to stay on Copacabana Beach (or nearby Ipanema Beach). It’s a great location for visitors. There are lots of food kiosks along the beach and tons of restaurants, bars, pharmacies, etc, in the surrounding streets.

We stayed at the Windsor California, which is located about halfway along the crescent. It was a great location. And it’s one of the only hotels with balconies. Splurge for it. It’s worth it. Copacabana was right outside our door (well, across the street).

What to Do

Kiosks: We spent a lot of time at the kiosks. At first I was worried they’d be terrible, but they really weren’t. We found a few we really enjoyed, like Dumare. We could sit there at lunch or dinner and watch the Footvolley and Pickleball games that were going on. There are happy hour specials and always live music.

Kiosk on the beach
Kiosk on the beach
Barraca on the beach

Beach: The beach is one of the main draws, but it can be really hot out there, so make sure you’re properly prepared. There are barracas (little huts) spread along the beach were you can rent chairs and umbrellas. It costs around $5 per chair and $15 per umbrella for all day. They will also bring you drinks, but there are lots of vendors walking on the beach with their wares at all times (food, drinks, even swimming suits).

Beach games: There are volleyball nets and soccer nets all along the beach where locals play games and get lessons, mostly in the evenings when it cools off. We really enjoyed watching the sport Footvolley.

Note About Safety

We heard numerous stories about belongings (especially phones) being stolen on the beach or while walking. It’s a popular scam to run or bike past and swip a phone, so just always be aware of your surroundings and don’t offer up your phone to these people by mindlessly walking with it or putting it in your pocket where it can be swipped.

Ipanema Beach

ipanema beach

Ipanema Beach is very similar to Copacabana, but it’s in a slightly more upscale neighborhood. It has all the same things – barracas to rent chairs/umbrellas, kiosks, sports, etc. The sand is the same. We weren’t too moved to trek there more than once, since we had a perfectly fine beach right in front of our hotel, but there were stunning sunset views with the backdrop of Two Brothers Mountain.

You can also find more upscale restaurants in Ipanema like Nosso and Zaza Bistro, which were two of our favorites. Maybe the caipirinhas were slightly better at the kiosks here, but they really wildly varied everywhere.

Things to Do

  • Sunset at Arpoador: It’s a breathtaking scene as the sky paints itself with the colors of dusk.
  • People Watching: Observe the vibrant culture and daily life of Cariocas (Rio residents).
  • Water Sports: Dive into activities such as surfing or stand-up paddleboarding.
  • Biking Trails: Utilize the Ciclovia De Ipanema for a bike ride with a scenic view.

Selarón Steps

Selaron Steps
Selaron Steps (photo by Savored Journeys)

The Selarón Steps, also known as the Escadaria Selarón, is a world-famous set of very colorful steps decorated with thousands of tiles from around the world, located between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods. The steps are the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, who used to live there, about halfway up the steps. He dedicated over 20 years to creating this masterpiece, which ended upon his death in 2013.

The steps are covered with over 2,000 brightly colored tiles from over 60 countries. Some of them were hand-painted by Selarón. We found tiles for all of the places around the world we have lived.

Getting there:

  • The Selarón Steps are easily accessible by public transportation, taxi, or Uber. Also, almost every tour of the city stops there. Our private tour stopped there and we ate lunch across the street.
  • Take a bus or metro to the Largo do Guimarães in Santa Teresa and then walk to the steps.

Tips for Visiting

  • Visit early in the morning to avoid crowds and get the best photos. There’s almost always a huge crowd.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes as the steps can be steep and uneven in some places.
  • Take time to appreciate the intricate details and the stories behind the tiles from different countries.
  • Also be sure to explore the surrounding neighborhood of Santa Teresa and ride the trolley.
  • If you’re hungry, pop across the street to Bar e Restaurante Os Ximenes and order some feijoada.

Food Tour

food tour
Local food (photo by Savored Journeys)

We are huge fans of learning about the culture of a place through food and there’s really no better way to do that than through a food tour or visiting the markets. This should be at the top of your to-do list. We recommend contacting Tom at Eat Rio (tom@eatrio.net). Let him know that Savored Journeys sent you. The daytime walking food tour is 5 hours and will introduce you to a wide variety of food and drink.

Best Street Eats

  • Açaí: This local favorite is made of crushed açaí berries, often blended with ice and sometimes served with add-ons like granola or banana.
  • Pastéis: Enjoy these deep-fried pastries, typically stuffed with cheese or shredded chicken, perfect for a quick bite.
  • Tapioca: These are delectable gluten-free crepes made from tapioca flour, filled with a variety of ingredients, ranging from savory to sweet.
  • Feijoada: This is Brazil’s national dish, so you don’t need a food tour to find this one. It’s super filling, with beans and sausage in a casserole-like style.
  • Caipirinha: A classic Brazilian cocktail made with cachaça, sugar, and lime, creating a refreshing and citrusy flavor profile.
  • Cachaça: A distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice, commonly associated with Brazil and often used as the primary ingredient in the traditional Brazilian cocktail, caipirinha.

Red Beach

Red Beach
Red Beach

Nestled at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, Red Beach (Praia Vermelha) is a much calmer beach experience than the other spots we’ve already mentioned.

You’ll be treated to picturesque views of Sugarloaf Mountain as well. The reason it’s called Red Beach is because the sand is a fine, reddish color, unlike any other beaches in the area.

  • Access: Getting to Red Beach is easy. It’s accessible by public transport or car, and once there, you’ll find it’s less crowded than Copacabana and Ipanema.
  • Activities: Take a leisurely swim in the calm waters, or take the trail that leads up to the Morro da Urca, providing some pretty cool views.

Remember: Although swimming is generally safe, be aware of any warnings or advisories regarding tides and currents on the day of your visit.

Churrascarias

Churrascaria

This site does focus on food, so we better include some food! One of the top food experiences you need to have is a Churrascaria. It’s a quintessential Brazilian dining experience, and one you’ll likely only do once. You’ll see why when you get there. It was so full-on from the moment we sat down that we didn’t even get a proper photo.

Churrascarias are traditional Brazilian steakhouses that specialize in the art of grilling and serving a wide variety of high-quality meats, including different cuts of beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and sausage.

It’s not really worth it to go there and order a la carte off the menu, so just prepare your stomach and go all in. Your meal starts right away with carts of salads and sides that you can choose from, baskets of fries, etc, brought to the table. Then the real show begins. Passadores (meat waiters) will come by with an array of meats skewered, grilled, and carved tableside and they will continuously circulate the restaurant, feeding you endlessly until you say stop.

Where to Go

There are so many of these that you can really just pick one that’s close to where you’re staying, if you want. Two that are often recommended to tourists are Churrascaria Palace and Fogo de Chao. Those are fine, but if you want a more upscale, less touristy spot with an incredible view, go to Assador. It was recommended to us by a local we met in Mendoza, Argentina. And it was very much worth it. The meal was outstanding.

Hang Gliding

hang gliding
Laura hang gliding

The coolest thing we did in Rio was go hang gliding. I’ve always wanted to do this and Rio seems a pretty amazing backdrop for it. You really get to see it all from a unique perspective and it’s very peaceful, yet thrilling.

We booked this experience on Viator. Here is the exact one that we booked. Our guide, Ricardo Hamond, is extremely experienced. He’s been doing this for decades. He made us feel very comfortable with it. The only thing I’d mention is that he’s only one guy (with a helper to drive and assemble the glider), so you go one at a time, with a bit of time in the middle. If you’re a group, you’d probably want to go with a company that has many guides.

Details

  • Departure Point: Av. Pref. Mendes de Morais, 1501 – São Conrado
  • Departure Time: Flights typically begin at 8:00 AM, continuing in half-hour intervals. We did ours at 11am. You may get delayed if there are unfavorable weather conditions.
  • Cost: It’s $180 through Viator, which includes insurance.
  • Duration: The flight lasts around 8 minutes (give or take, depending on your weight). The whole experience was 2 hours for two of us.
  • Photos: Photos and videos of your flight are included in the price, and you can pay a little extra to get a 360 app of the experience.

Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa is a vibrant neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro known for its colonial mansions, bohemian vibe, and artistic flair. It’s quite a bit different from the other parts of Rio, and I definitely think it’s worth visiting. It’s a hilltop district so there are panoramic views along with historical landmarks, and some cool shops.

Santa Teresa Tram

tram street art
Tram Street Art commemorating a long-time tram driver (photo by Savored Journeys)

If you can, take a ride on the iconic Santa Teresa Tram, the oldest electric railway in Latin America. It’s a fun way to explore the neighborhood. You’ll traverse arches and climb steep hills, while enjoying a unique perspective of the area’s picturesque streets and the city below.

The tram was brought in from Lisbon, Portugal, where you’ll also still find these historic cars. It’s a bright yellow and noisily lumbers along the tracks, so you’ll definitely know it’s coming.

Museums and Galleries

Museum of Tomorrow
Museum of Tomorrow (photo by Savored Journeys)

If you’re looking for something a little different than beach time, or you want to escape the extreme afternoon heat, there are a few really good museums to explore.

  • The Museum of Tomorrow: A relatively new addition to the city, this museum offers an innovative experience focusing on science and the future. You can explore five interactive areas: Cosmos, Earth, Anthropocene, Tomorrow, and Us.
  • Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM): Set in a modernist building designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidy, MAM houses a vast collection of modern and contemporary art. It’s a pivotal cultural space for art enthusiasts.
  • Museu Histórico Nacional: As one of Brazil’s most significant history museums, it charts the country’s rich narrative through a comprehensive array of exhibits and artifacts.
  • Museu da República: Housed in the Palácio do Catete, the former presidential palace, this museum presents an extensive look at Brazil’s political history. Its lush gardens and theater are a bonus.

Here’s a quick reference for your museum visits:

Museum NameFocusNoteworthy Feature
The Museum of TomorrowScience and the futureInteractive exhibitions
Museu de Arte ModernaModern and contemporary artArchitectural design
Museu Histórico NacionalBrazilian historyComprehensive collection
Museu da RepúblicaBrazil’s political historyHistorical building

Carnival

carnival in rio

Although we’ve never been to Rio during Carnival, it’s obviously one of the biggest draws to the city. During Carnival, there’s a whirlwind of activities, costumes, and parties. It’s an incredible thing to see, but you have to be prepared for it.

  • Book Sambadrome Tickets: Your first step should be securing tickets to the Sambadrome parades, which are the major events where Rio’s best samba schools perform for audiences with music, dance, and elaborate costumes.
  • Join the Street Parties: Known as ‘blocos’, these are the soul of Carnival, offering free, lively gatherings across the city. With roughly 500 blocos, you have ample opportunity to dance and mingle with locals, and to dress up in costume yourself.
  • Cordão do Bola Preta: This bloco is one of the oldest and draws over a million participants annually.
  • Carmelitas & Sargento Pimenta: Explore thematic blocos like Carmelitas for beautiful costumes and live music, or Sargento Pimenta for a unique blend of Beatles music performed in samba style.
  • VIP Experience: For a more luxurious experience, consider VIP seating which can include added benefits like open bars, food buffets, and private performances.

Waterfalls and Natural Parks

Lage Park
Lage Park

If you want to immerse yourself in the natural beauty that the city offers, beyond the iconic beaches and Christ the Redeemer statue, there is plenty of opportunity for that.

Tijuca National Park: Explore the world’s largest urban rainforest, covering 32 square kilometers. Trek through dense foliage leading to waterfalls, such as the Cascatinha Taunay, one of the park’s tallest. Keep an eye out for wildlife, from vibrant toucans to playful monkeys as you follow the trails.

Popular TrailsAttractions
Pedra BonitaPanoramic city views
Pedra da GáveaChallenging climb
Pico da TijucaHighest peak in the park

Remember to stop by the Alto da Boa Vista, a serene area perfect for a relaxing picnic amidst towering trees and the soothing sounds of nature. Lage Park, located at the foot of the Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, is renowned for its lush gardens, historical mansion housing an art school, and scenic views, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and culture enthusiasts.

The park’s biodiversity is striking, with an array of endemic fauna and flora. You might spot different species of monkeys, birds, and butterflies, and encounter the remnants of coffee farms, evidence of the park’s historical past.

Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon: Located in the Zona Sul, the Lagoon is an idyllic spot for a leisurely cycle or a scenic walk. Surrounded by Rio’s grandeur, the water mirrors the sky as you unwind in this tranquil setting.

Accommodation and Areas to Stay

Copacabana Palace
Copacabana Palace (photo by Savored Journeys)

When planning your stay in Rio de Janeiro, selecting the right neighborhood can greatly enhance your experience. Two of the city’s most iconic areas, Copacabana and Ipanema, offer a uniquely vibrant atmosphere and convenient access to beaches and local culture.

Copacabana

Copacabana is located in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, along a 2.5-mile stretch of beach. The beachfront area is lined with numerous hotels, ranging from budget-friendly to luxury accommodations. The neighborhood was once considered the pinnacle of glamour and remains a hub for tourists with its lively atmosphere and abundant dining options. It’s clean and safe.

  • Windsor California It’s located in the center of the beach so it’s very convenient for exploring both sides. It’s an affordable luxury hotel with balconies in some rooms and great views.
  • PortoBay Copacabana – Another great affordable luxury hotel with balconies and nice, updated rooms in a good location.
  • Fairmont Copacabana – For a splurge, the Fairmont is a very nice luxury hotel on the southwest end of Copacabana, near to Ipanema, with a large outdoor pool and a good restaurant/bar.
  • Copacabana Palace – For almost the same cost as the Fairmont, this hotel is by far the nicest hotel on central Copacabana. Some rooms have Juliette balconies.

Ipanema

Ipanema has some upscale accommodations and trendy boutiques scattered throughout the area, though not as many to choose from, with a sophisticated ambiance. It’s less crowded compared to Copacabana, yet still offers plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops to explore. I wasn’t able to find a hotel there that I liked, however.

Best Time to Visit

The best time for you to visit Rio de Janeiro is between December and March, when the weather is warm and sunny, perfect for beaches like Copacabana. This period aligns with the famous Carnaval festival, usually held in February or March, a spectacle you don’t want to miss. However, these are also the busiest months. For a less crowded experience, April to June and September to November are also good times with pleasant weather.

Transportation Tips

  • By Air: Galeão International Airport is your main gateway to the city.
  • Public Transport: Make extensive use of the Metro Rio, buses, Uber and taxis.
  • Renting a Car: Not advisable due to traffic; parking is scarce especially near popular areas like Ipanema.
  • Walking: Safe in tourist areas during the day; avoid less crowded places after dark.
  • Bike: Bike Rio offers a bike-sharing scheme with stations across the city.

Staying Safe

  • Beach Safety: Don’t take valuables to the beach, and be wary of strong currents at Copacabana.
  • Pickpocketing: Pickpocketing can occur, especially at the beach. Stay vigilant and don’t make it easy.
  • Travel Insurance: Always have travel insurance that covers theft and health issues.
  • Emergency Numbers: Familiarize yourself with local emergency contacts.
13 Best Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro: Unmissable Attractions and Activities

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