Rio is the tropical paradise of samba and beaches that they say, but it’s also a city of striking natural landscapes and rainforest, a fascinating mix of people, and has so many different layers to it if you’re able to move off the beach for a little and look around. Whether you want to visit for Carnival, the Olympics, or any other time you can, this city knows how to celebrate in a party-in-the-street-with-live-music-and-all-of-your-friends way that is so wonderfully Rio and happily infectious, you won’t want to miss it.
The recent host city of 2014 World Cup games and the future 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is all people have been talking about, and with good reason. The city looks even better than those screen-saver-worthy photos, and lives up to every bit of it’s lively, vibrant reputation.
We’ve written quite a few travel guides for Rio deJaneiro, and brought them all together here with any other essential tips that were missing. We present to you now, the master collection of them all: the Ultimate Guide to Rio de Janeiro.
Wondering how to get in, how to get out, and how to get around once you’re there? Read our post about transportation in Rio de Janeiro here for everything you need to know.
The City: By Neighborhood
The city is divided into a few zones: The South Zone is where all of the attractions are, and is safest for tourists. One of the things we love most about Rio is that, in the South Zone alone, there are so many different neighborhoods and areas that have distinctly different feels. It’s like a massive sponge with infinite nooks and crannies, and there is always more to explore.
And this is where the real action is: divided by it’s distinctive neighborhoods, here is a glimpse at the many vibes and attractions throughout the city to help you decide where to stay, and what to do and see in Rio de Janeiro.
You’ve heard the song ¨Girl from Ipanema¨ about the beautiful girls on a paradisiacal beach, and this is that Ipanema. This is the main tourist area with a ton of restaurants, bars and shopping, but it’s still beautiful, clean, and you can actually find people who speak English. A lot of people like how safe and modern it feels, but it’s quite touristy (and an upscale part of the city) and the crowds and prices reflect that. This is the most beautiful (and popular) beach, and whether you stay here or not, you’ll be spending time here. It also has a great farmer’s market on the main square and the Hippie Market on Sundays, where you can buy endless artisan crafts. You can get off the metro at the General Osorio square and walk in any direction and find fresh coconut water on the street, shops selling acai, and bars and restaurants where you can sit on the patio drinking a caipirinha and people watch. Don’t miss watching sunset from the big rock on the beach, Arpoador.
High-end and beautiful, not a backpacker scene. This is the most upscale part of the city, and offers quiet leafy streets lined with modern apartments, nice cars, and tucked away restaurants. It’s the best place to find high-end stores and fine dining, but otherwise it’s just a more expensive and residential version of Ipanema with fewer people on the streets (and a little less atmosphere). The beach here is at the end of Ipanema, and is notably quieter, cleaner and calmer. If you’re trying to get away from the crowds but want to be in a beach neighborhood, this is where you want to go.
More affordable than Copacabana, this is the first neighborhood away from the main beaches. Full of great local restaurants, laidback bars and a bustling neighborhood feel, this is where the locals go for atmosphere. Just get off the metro and you’ll start seeing it. Botofogo doesn’t have a real beach, but the Botofogo Bay has breathtaking views of Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) to one side, and Christ the Redeemer towering over all of the buildings in the other direction. This is the where you’ll go to access Sugarloaf and Praia Vermelha. Urca, the area near Sugarloaf, has become a new trendy place to hang out on the wall of the harbor with beers and appetizers from the bars across the street. It’s beautiful at sunset, with a panoramic view of the harbor and Christ statue. In this neighborhood you’ll also find the Santa Marta favela, famous for the painting project: Every home is a different bright color.
This is a major beach spot for most young travelers to stay, and it’s conveniently located to just about everything you’ll need. It’s the larger (and slightly less glamorous) version of Ipanema. The streets of Copacabana don’t have too much to see besides many tourists and shops catering to them, but like Ipanema it’s a large area that’s home to many hostels, hotels, restaurants, and some bars and clubs. There are many kiosks lining the long beach, and you can stop by any of them to have snacks and drinks. Usually live samba bands show up around sunset.
The nightlife central of the city, this is Rio’s biggest permanent street party. Weekday or weekend, the streets lined with bars and clubs are full of people playing live samba and dancing on the overflowing streets and sidewalks. Also home to a ton of street art and young bohemian residents, it can be a bit dead in the day but is always fun for a night out if you’re okay with a bit of grunge. There are a lot of people peeing on the streets, a lot of backpackers with dreads selling bracelets, and if you’re iPhone gets stolen it’ll probably be here, but there’s no place quite like Lapa. You can get a Caipirinha bigger than your head for $3 (to the right of the Lapa Stairs), and there are stalls on stalls of greasy late-night food (also incredibly cheap). During the day tourists flock to the famous mosaic Selaron Stairs and Lapa Arches, but both are also popular places at night to bring beers, hang out with friends, and definitely make some new unexpected ones. The last Sunday of each month hosts a popular street fair, and the bizarre Metropolitan Cathedral has a beautiful stained glass view from the inside.
If you head up from Botafogo or Leblon, you’ll find yourself in the lush, feels-like-you’re-in-the-rainforest but also home to cool graffiti area around the massive Botanical Gardens (home to many species of plants, butterflies, birds and monkeys). It’s a very laidback but upscale area, and on the main road are a ton of amazing restaurants, cafes, and bakeries for foodies to indulge in. It feels a bit isolated in a good way, and you can walk and look at street art and winding streets for a long time. This is where you can find the beautiful Park Lage (yes, from the Snoop Dogg/Pharrell video), surrounded by rainforest and home to an art school. It’s also right near the Lagoon (Lagoa), so you can continue walking around that afterwards, or even stop and enjoy a meal or drink at one of waterside restaurants, bars and clubs.
More of a local feel than other parts of the South Zone, it has some casual corner bars with shirtless old men watching soccer and drinking cheap beer, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want to experience. There’s a scene of younger Brazilians living there too, and some nice local restaurants. Praça São Salvador is a little square in the Laranjeiras neighborhood, and a great place to barbecue and drink beers in the sun on the weekends, or have drinks on at night. The Aterro do Flamengo is a large grassy stretch great for playing soccer and going for a run, and the end of it is home to the modern art museum MAM.
Perhaps the most beautiful and casually cool area in Rio, the leafy hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa is a great place to wander around, despite being a little annoying to get to (you usually have to ask a few taxi drivers before one will agree to go up). Being on a hill, the views from just about everywhere are magnificent, and it’s basically the only spot you can find a high viewpoint that isn’t in a slum. Many of the classic homes are old and colorful, the street art is ever-present, and you can find adorable outdoor restaurants and bars (featuring everything unique or artisan you’re looking for), and even a one-screen movie theater. It really does have it’s own feel, and if you’re going to wander aimlessly anywhere, we recommend doing it here. Because it is a bit secluded, make sure to bring a map and avoid wandering with valuables on deserted side streets by foot. It’s a nice area, but it’s very easy to get lost and a tourist off the main road will stick out. You can climb the Lapa Stairs up to it, or walk up the hills next to the Gloria and Catete metro stations. Make sure to check out the amazing views from Parque das Ruinas, the shell of an influential artist’s former home, and come for a romantic dinner or laidback bar night on the main roads.
The downtown district is madly buzzing all day, as the center where most offices are. Everything is cheapest here, from kilo buffet restaurants to knockoff Brazil jerseys and watches for sale on the streets. It’s very crowded and crazy, but perfect for buying anything you need at bargain prices, from electronics and such at the Uruguaiana market, or clothes, souvenirs, party decorations, luggage, and everything else imaginable at the Saara street market. You won’t want to stay here, but visiting the markets is the perfect dose of downtown cheapness and madness, and it’s also where you can find most of Rio’s museums (the MAR Museum, CCBB & Museu Nacional de Belas Artes) and stunning Municipal Theater. Definitely avoid this area at night though, as it gets deserted and very dark (you can read more safety tips here).
Gloria / Catete
In between Centro and the beaches, these neighboring areas aren’t usually major tourist destinations, but are beautiful (if a tiny bit grungy), often overlooked by tourists, and great areas for grasping more of a local vibe. Many of the buildings have old, colorful colonial facades, and while a bit dilapidated, are lovely to walk around and see on your way to the next spot. And you can walk up to Santa Teresa from here, or over to the Lapa Arches, and they both host many farmer’s markets on the weekends.
Barra de Tijuca / Recreio dos Bandeirantes
The residential Barra area west of the Ipanema and Leblon is also known for great beaches with surf, clear water, and white sand. However, there’s a bit of land between those areas and where Barra and Recreio actually start, so despite being part of Rio it usually requires a full day to make the trip out. If you’re staying for a while in Rio though, this is a great way to avoid crowds and see the many beaches the city has to offer. Barra Shopping, a big American-style mall, is very popular with Brazilians (but may not be anything too unique if you have malls like this at home.
Portuguese for ‘slum’, these shantytowns and communities covering the hills of the city are an infamous aspect of Rio. There are thousands of favelas in the city alone, and represent how a large percentage of the population lives. For those interested in learning more about Rio’s favelas, which ones are safe to visit, and tours that will help you understand their history and role in the city, read our complete guide to Rio’s favelas here.
Where to Stay
Based on the descriptions of neighborhoods above, you can choose a neighborhood that appeals to you. Most tourists stay in the ‘South Zone’, most commonly in Ipanema or Copacabana. You’ll be near the beach, get all of the classic Rio vibes, and enough people will speak English. This area is safe and very easy to get around. For a higher end experience, stay in Leblon (basically an extension of Ipanema, but a bit further out). For a beautiful retreat further from the beach, stay in the artsy hills of Santa Teresa (but keep in mind that you’ll need to take a taxi to get in or out). For a stay full of the city’s best nightlife and a more bohemian, downtown crowd, stay in Lapa.
Booking.com and Agoda are two reliable sites with a ton of our favorite hotels and hostels on them.
***During the Olympics, a lot of people will choose to stay in areas closer to events (such as the typically out-of-the-way Barra neighborhood), and you should check out a map to see which area is best based on the events you will attend.
Once You’re There: Where to Explore
In Rio, you’re going to be bouncing between the three different faces of the city: the beach, the rainforest, and the cityscape itself. What’s so unique about Rio is that they intertwine with one another so beautifully, making it very different from most other major cities.
Of course, the first stop on any trip to Rio is the beach, and rightfully so. You can read our guide to the city’s most popular beaches here, with everything you need to know to experience them like a local.
Once you’ve sang ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ on the famous beach and crossed it off your list, there are a ton of smaller ‘secret’ beaches, as we call them, that most tourists don’t know about. We’ve compiled our favorite lesser-known, hidden gems of tropical beaches here.
The rainforest weaves throughout Rio de Janeiro, so you can access and explore the rainforest through different hikes in and around the city center. They all offer amazing views and incredible wildlife such as dense rainforest canopies, waterfalls, cliffs, and even monkeys right in the city.
The Best Things to Do & See
If you have just a short trip and want the highlight reel, we’ve listed our ten favorite sights and sounds of Rio. Read our list of the best places and experiences you really can’t miss here. (Though the neighborhood guides above offer a much more extensive list for when you’re through with the first 10!)
For the best photo spots and impressive views from every different part of the city, check out our guide to Rio’s best views here. Rio is a city known by it’s dramatic views, and they are what truly make you realize why it was named ‘The Marvelous City’.
What to Eat
Rio isn’t known as a food capital, which makes it even more important to know what is good and what isn’t. Here are the classic dishes and types of restaurants to experience that we know any traveler can appreciate.
Kilo: These restaurants have buffets where you pay by the kilo. They usually have Brazilian staples like rice, beans, meats, fish and salads, and range from high end to very affordable. More affordable ones for backpacker budgets can be found in areas like Centro and Lapa (Nova Lapa is a great deal), whereas ones in shopping malls, Ipanema or Leblon can get pricy very quickly (Fellini is one of the nicest).
Rodizio: All-you-can-eat is a popular theme in Rio de Janeiro, the antidote to everyone’s dedication to a perfect beach body. Try pizza rodizio (Broz is affordable and delicious), sushi rodizio (Dombri Edo in Everest Hotel is high quality, mid-price), or a churrascaria.
Açai: You know it, the Amazonian superberry, blended into an amazing frozen treat. Try it in any fruit juice bar (they’re everywhere, Bibi Sucos is a nice one in Zona Sul, but anyone will do). It’s very sweet here, so order ‘sem acucar’ if you want the au natural version.
Caipirinha: Brazil’s national drink, this cocktail of sugar cane rum (cachaça), lime, ice and sugar is sweet and strong. Try a caipiroska if you prefer vodka instead of rum, and play with the fruit options. Caipirinha maracuja (passionfruit) is always a popular one, but some places go wild with exotic amazon fruits (such as the upscale Palaphita Kitch at the Lagoa).
Churrascaria: A classic Brazilian barbecue restaurant, they serve unlimited meat right off the grill. Porcao in Flamengo is a wonderful high end choice, Estrela do Sul is a more affordable local spot in Botafogo.
Feijoada: A stew of black beans with various meats, this is the quintessential Rio dish, usually served on Sundays with tons of family, friends and live music. It’s simple and classic, and the atmosphere usually surrounding a feijoada is probably the best part. (Bar do Mineiro in Santa Teresa does a great one in a classic setting, and they have a full bar).
Snacks on snacks: The traditional Portuguese word for the nonstop fried snacks you’ll find literally everywhere. In every bar, restaurant, and street corner juice shop, Brazilians are ordering thousands of different fried snacks. Try: pão de queijo (little cheese-filled balls of bread), empada (stuffed pastry like an empanada), pastel (an airy fried crisp filled with meat or cheese, your choice), pipoca (street-side popcorn with giant pieces of bacon in it), coxinha (fried teardrops of shredded chicken, com catupiry means it also has cream cheese), kibe (an Arabic fried thing with spiced shredded beef inside), tapioca (a bizarre amazing crepe-like thing that is made on the street, can be filled with any sweet or savory filling), & bolinho de bacalhau (fried balls of cod; the fish flavor may not be for everyone, but it’s a local favorite).
Rio de Janeiro’s claim to fame: Carnival. Truly one of a kind. We’ve been around the block a couple times a lived to tell the tale, anyone thinking of going absolutely should and can read our complete Rio Carnival guide here.
You can read up on our essential Rio safety tips in our safety guide here. It’s plenty safe to travel to Rio, but there are a few things you need to be aware before you do so that you can count on a smooth trip.
Here are the rest of our Rio guides that you travelers may need:
- Top 10 FAQ About Rio (with answers)
- What to Do When it Rains in Rio
And for those of you planning an extended stay:
- How to Find an Apartment in Rio
- How to Get a Job Teaching English in Rio
Sit back, relax, grab a caipirinha and enjoy ‘The Marvelous City’ like it was meant to be enjoyed.
We hope our Ultimate Guide to Rio de Janeiro helps you make the most of your trip, and we always love to hear your feedback. Feel free to share additional questions or thoughts in the comment section below!