Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro
Keeping a watchful eye over the people of Rio de Janeiro, the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue (Cristo Redentor) sits atop Corcovado Mountain at 2,300 feet (700 meters) above the city. Unveiled in 1931 and voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, this impressive monument is often credited as the most iconic site in Brazil.
Tall and cone-shaped, the modernist Rio de Janeiro Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao) doesn’t look like a typical church. The unusual design was constructed between 1964 and 1979 by architect Edgar Fonseca. One of Rio’s most important religious structures, it is dedicated to St. Sebastian, the city’s patron saint.
It’s easy to see why Rio de Janeiro was nicknamed the “Marvelous City” when you’re gazing down at it from the heights of Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Açúcar). From its soaring 1,300-foot (396-meter) summit, the city unfolds around you, with views of the iconic Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, the Tijuca Forest, and the Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue standing tall atop Corcovado Mountain to the west.
Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Copacabana Beach evokes images of white-sand shores, sun-kissed volleyball players, tourists sipping agua de coco out of bright green coconuts, and bikini-clad revelers partying long into the night. And for the most part, that’s pretty accurate. Add in a touch of local carioca (Rio residents) flavor and a splash of the obscure, and it becomes obvious how thousands of people easily spend entire days (and nights) wholly entertained on the world’s most famous beach.
The gigantic Maracanã Stadium (Estádio do Maracanã) is one of the most iconic soccer temples in South America, built to open the 1950 World Cup. The site holds the record for the largest attendance at a World Cup Final thanks to the 199,854 paying spectators who crammed into the stadium in 1950 and also hosted the FIFA World Cup Final again in 2014 and the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. Officially known as MárioFilho Stadium but called Maracanãafter the small river that runs alongside it, the arena is now a historical site dedicated to its former use as a world-class arena and event venue.
Prior to the 19th century, Rio de Janeiro was surrounded by Atlantic rain forest. Today, all that remains is the 13-square-mile (33-square-kilometer) jungle known as Tijuca National Park (Parque Nacional da Tijuca). Studded with tropical trees knotted together by jungle vines, the world’s largest urban forest is home to ocelots, howler monkeys, more than 300 bird species, waterfalls, and one of Rio’s iconic landmarks, the Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue standing atop Corcovado Mountain.
Whether you’re looking for the surf, the golden sands or to soar in the skies above, visiting Sao Conrado Beach (Praia de São Conrado) is a highlight of Rio de Janeiro. Here in this affluent, oceanfront neighborhood that’s sometimes called Praia Pepino, visitors will find an eclectic combo of people, many of whom are surfers or paragliders. The juxtaposition of social classes is evident out on the streets—yet everyone seems to equally enjoy the combo of sunshine and surf.
When strolling the sands of Sao Conrado, be sure to look up and scan the skies for hangliders circling above. The beach is a popular landing spot for groups of paragliders and hangliders, most of whom have launched from the slopes of neighboring Pedra Bonita. To get a birds-eye view for yourself—but keep your feet back on land—a strenuous trail climbs 2,500 feet up towering Pedra da Gávea. This stoic sentinel and oceanfront rock is a classic Rio landmark, though the round-trip climb can take a whole day—even for seasoned hikers.
Although less famous than its neighbor Copacabana Beach, Ipanema holds its own with quiet charm and considerably cleaner surroundings—and it does so without skimping on any of the white sands, blue waters, or local character that give Rio de Janeiro’s beaches their claim to fame.
Decorated with more than 2,000 brightly colored tiles in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the Selarón Steps (Escadaria Selarón) is one of Rio de Janeiro's most vibrant and striking landmarks, marking the boundary between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods.
When Portuguese sailors entered Guanabara Bay in January 1502, they spotted Pedra da Gavea and thought its shape resembled a topsail of a ship, giving the now famous mountain its name. The granite peak rises 2,769 feet (844 meters) above sea level and plummets almost directly down toward the sea.
Under the administration of Tijuca National Park, Pedra da Gavea has a challenging but well-marked hiking trail to the top, where the views rival those from Sugarloaf and Corcovado. The entire hike takes about six hours to complete.
More Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome (Sambadrome Marques de Sapucaí)—also known as Sambodromo or Passarela do Samba Darcy Ribeiro—was designed and built by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1984. Established to host the city’s enormous Carnival celebration every year, the stadium features a 2,300-foot (700-meter) runway and seats 90,000 spectators.
Pouring down a hillside in Rio’s South Zone, the one-square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) Rocinha favela is crammed with a colorful maze of cement buildings, tin roofs, and upwards of 180,000 residents living in challenging socioeconomic conditions. The district is considered the largest favela in Brazil, complete with a culture and history of its own, and has entered a period of renaissance, with urban gardens, community art projects, and educational services revitalizing the neighborhood little by little.
This unlikely cobblestoned neighborhood close to the center of Rio de Janeiro has long been a tourist favorite among visitors to this Brazilian city. Santa Teresa (Barrio Santa Teresa) is located on the top of the hill of the same name, and takes its name from a convent built in the 1750s. It has a history as an upper class neighborhood, as some of its larger and more elaborately built mansions can attest. Santa Teresa has become an artist enclave in recent years, and is a great place to spend an afternoon, wandering among eateries, enjoying a cold beer, and checking out galleries and stands where you can buy artists renderings of the Cidade Maravilhosa (amazing city, as Rio is frequently called), or other souvenirs.
There are also a few museums worth visiting, such as the main art museum, the Museu da Chácara do Céu, housed in art collector Raimundo Otoni Castro Moya’s former mansion, that has works from Miró and Matisse, among other greats. Other architectural surprises include the Russian Orthodox Church. For the moment, the only way to experience the famous tramway that brought residents and visitors to the top of Santa Teresa is through the museum, Museu do Bonde, which tells the tram’s story, and shows it crossing the Carioca Aqueduct, at over 45 meters in height. The tram has been out of service since 2011, but plans are afoot to get it back up and running in 2015. For now, visitors take a taxi or the bus up the hill.
Fronting one of Rio de Janeiro’s wealthiest and most exclusive neighborhoods, Leblon Beach (Praia do Leblon) is one of the city’s cleanest and safest beaches and a slightly quieter alternative to Ipanema. Separated from Ipanema by a canal, the beach is particularly popular with families, as it offers a play area with beach toys and playground equipment.
Approximately half the size of neighboring Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the 720-foot (219-meters) Morro da Urca is by no means insignificant. In fact, Morro da Urca is a necessary, and often overlooked, stop on the cable car ride up to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Before heading off to the larger hill, wander around the turtle-shaped mound for spectacular views of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, downtown Rio, Christ the Redeemer, and Sugar Loaf itself.
The Mirante Dona Marta literally translates to ‘lookout,’ and visitors to the site will get just that — an incredible view of some of Rio de Janeiro’s best sights, often without the crowds. Standing there one can see the long stretches of lush forest and white sand beach below, and even take in the famous sights of the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain.
The area functions as a helipad and observation point, with panoramic views of Guanabara Bay and Copacabana. At 1,200 feet (364 meters) high, it provides excellent sunrise and sunset vistas and photo opportunities of the natural surroundings and the city below. Many who know Rio well cite it as their favorite viewpoint.
Situated at the heart of Zona Sul in the shadow of Corcovado, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon serves as a recreational area and beauty spot for local residents. It boasts more than 4 miles (7 kilometers) of bike and jogging trails, boathouses for rowing, and sometimes hosts live music.
Rio de Janeiro’s vibrant and bohemian Lapa neighborhood is the epicenter of the city’s music scene, with an abundance of bars and clubs hosting local samba and forro bands. After dark, revelers spill onto the sidewalks of Rua da Lapa and Rua Joaquim Silva in the heart of Lapa.
A serene, verdant oasis in the midst of bustling Rio de Janeiro, the city’s Botanical Garden (Jardim Botânico) offers a chance to see and learn about both Amazonian and imported plants. There are over 6,500 species of plant contained in the 133-acre (54-hectare) plot, as well as an important research facility and botanical library.
Nicknamed “The Smile City,” Niteroi is home to nearly 500,000 people and just a ferry ride away from the hustle and bustle of Rio. And while the soon-to-be-home of the summer Olympics definitely has a draw, travelers agree the charm of Niteroi sends plenty of visitors across the waters to its much more scenic shores.
In addition to exploring some of the country’s most secluded (and beautiful) beaches, travelers can wander the halls of Nitero’s Museum of Contemporary Art or take in a show at Teatro Popular. Some of the best city views can be found at Parque da Cidade, and catching sunset from this high up neighborhood is a must for couples in love. History buffs can also get their fill on tours of several area forts, including Fortaleza de Santa Cruz and Barao do Rio Branco.
While the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema offer a lot to see and there is always something going on, sometimes visitors find themselves in need of a break from the vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro. Grumari Beach (Praia de Grumari) is one of those beaches that is still a real insider tip and since it can only be reached by car, it is not very well known by tourists. Here, you can enjoy peace and tranquility surrounded by rolling hills and deep green Atlantic rainforest. The powdery sand along the 3 kilometer long beach is a bit darker, which, combined with the wild landscape, creates a stunning backdrop for this day trip.
Just like the adjoining Prainha Beach, Grumari Beach is part of a nature reserve and still very off the beaten track. Accordingly, visitors are predominantly locals and the signs of mass tourism have not yet manifested. The bay is very clean and pristine and can often be found completely deserted during the week. Due to its status as an environmentally protected area, there are no people living in the immediate area, but the village of Guaratiba is located fairly close by. The locals there live mainly from fishing and accordingly, some of the best seafood restaurants in Rio can be found there.
The Vista Chinesa (Chinese View) is one of the most striking monuments of the Tijuca Forest, erected in 1903 to honor Rio’s Chinese immigrants. The Chinese-style pavilion perched atop Alto da Boa Vista, some 1,247 feet (380 meters) above the city below, offers a stellar view away from the masses of Sugar Loaf and Corcovado.
While the official name of Flamengo Park is Parque Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, Rio residents know it only as Aterro—a name that translates as “landfill.” Lest you think this beautiful park is built on a festering trash heap, the name is derived from land that was used to fill a portion of the bay. Today, that fill is home to the largest park in Rio de Janeiro, encompassing nearly 300 acres of outdoor urban green space. This is where Rio comes to play as well as work up a sweat. Morning joggers and walkers line the park’s promenade at sunrise, and the action continues throughout the day with soccer, basketball, tennis, and volleyball on the park’s modern facilities. This is also home to the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art, as well as a sculpture that honors the soldiers who died in WWII. Visit on a weekend and you might find marathoners finishing a race at the park, or cyclists preparing for a long ride through the city’s Zona Sul. Whenever you visit, Flamengo Park is a unifying space for Rio residents and visitors, where the simplicity of a picnic or jog in the park is a pleasure that all can enjoy.
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