This is a very long guide that will, hopefully, answer most of your questions for planning a trip to Rio. I have linked more in-depth articles for you to continue reading. I’ve also linked hotel or restaurant recommendations within the guide directly to google maps to better orient yourself.
By the way, if you’re planning a trip to multiple spots in Brazil check out this Brazil travel guide first.
Second largest city in Brazil
Rio's capital until 1960 (when it was moved to Brasilia)
Brazilians speak Portuguese and it is not uncommon to encounter locals who don't speak any English. Although Spanish is similar to Portuguese don't think you can use it as a replacement.
Do You Need a Visa For Brazil?
First off, yes - you will most likely need a visa for Brazil. It is not hard to apply and receive the visa (but is slightly expensive). You can read my full article on Brazilian visas here.
Thank you to one of my readers for reaching out about the new Brazilian visa system.
As of yesterday, June 17, 2019, a visa is no longer required to visit from the US.
You can read more here.
Neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro
Rio is the second largest city in Brazil. There are so many things to see and do in the sprawling city so first, you must understand where the main sites are.
Downtown financial and business center. Nestled alongside new buildings are many historic buildings from Rios early days. Buildings of note include the Municipal Theatre, National Library, and National Museum of Fine Arts.
A charming neighborhood that has gone through a period of decay and neglect but is quickly being rebuilt thanks to a recent tourism surge. Hop on the historic tram instead of climbing the steep hills and take it to the tip-top of Santa Teresa. The walk back down offers many viewpoints and some of the most gorgeous panoramic views of coastal Rio. The best views in Santa Teresa, (and one of the coolest free attractions) is at Parque das Ruínas.
Restaurants and bars in the neighborhood are plentiful but try Aprazível Restaurant and Bar do Mineiro for a great time. There are unique lodging options in the neighborhood. Check out Hotel Santa Teresa and Rio 180 º Suites & Cuisine.
This is where we stayed and I definitely recommend having your home base be here as well. Copacabana is considered the most urban of the neighborhoods in Rio. The beach stretches for 2.5 miles and is best known for its nightlife. You can expect over the top bars, restaurants, and dance clubs that remain open until the sun comes up. We stayed at Hilton Copacabana, you can read my full review here.
The Belmond Copacabana is also an excellent choice for those with deep pockets - rooms are around $400 a night. Even if you don’t have the money to stay there, make a reservation at one of the three restaurants and then walk around before or after. Our favorite restaurants included MEE at Belmond and Amir.
Another famous beach area that you may know from a song (I hope girl from Ipanema is now stuck in your head). It may be small in size but Ipanema is vibrant with many things to do and see. Funky art and hip fashion are around every corner. Diversity is also a theme in the area. On one street you'll see jocks, hippies, the LGBT community, and tourists all co-existing peacefully with each other.
Ipanema has some of the best restaurants in Rio - be sure to check out Amazonia Soul for great acai bowls or Casa de Feijoada for classic (and cheap) Brazilian food. If you love meat check out one of the many Churrascaria, many have suggested Carretão. (We are pescatarians and did not visit during our time in Rio).
A great hotel to stay at here is Hotel Fasano, designed by Philippe Starck. Their rooftop pool and bar is particularly noteworthy.
Tijuaca National Park
An urban rainforest that is a must visit while in Rio. You can enjoy hiking, waterfalls, bird watching & vista points of Rio's iconic sights. Do not miss Parque Lage which holds trail heads for hiking including the famous hike to the Christ the Redeemer statue. The park also has a great restaurant with incredible views of the statue while you eat.
Best month to visit Rio
When it comes to the weather, the best time to visit Rio is between December and March. Temperatures are warm and the sun is out. The beaches will be the most crowded during this time though. Spending the holidays in Rio, especially New Year, is extremely popular. Hotel prices will be high and the best stuff sells out up to a year in advance.
February holds Carnival, an incredible festival to visit in person but be sure to book travel and accommodations WAY in advance.
Remember that Rio is in the Southern Hemisphere so between January and March, daytime temperatures can sometimes surpass 90 or 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Shoulder season on either end (autumn runs April and May and spring running October through November), are a great time to plan a trip. Temperatures fall back to the 70’s and low 80’s during the day and the 60’s at night.
During Brazil's winter season, (June-September) locals visit to enjoy the moderate weather while tourists head to Rio on vacation. Mild temperatures also come with inflated hotel prices. The winter months in Rio are also perfect for sightseeing with fewer rain showers and less fog on Corcovado (location of Christ the Redeemer statue) and Sugar Loaf Mountain.
Which airport to fly into for travel to Rio
The largest international airports in Rio de Janeiro is Rio de Janeiro-Galeão International Airport (Code: GIG) with many international flights from various airlines. The airport is situated 12 miles north of the city center.
In general, The cheapest airfares you'll find are from February (after Carnaval) to May and then less so (but still cheapish) from August to November. If you are traveling from a major hub, like New York or Miami for instance, you'll sometimes find tickets for as low as US$699 including taxes.
Once in Rio, you can fly to many cities via smaller airlines. We flew from Rio to Iguazu Falls - a relatively tiny airport - and had no trouble. We flew on the regional airline Gol.
Best ways to Get Around Rio de Janeiro
Is Uber in Rio?
YES! Uber is available and is a great option. While in Rio we almost exclusively used Uber to get around and found it quite easy to flag down drivers and explore the sprawling metropolis. Most cab drivers in Rio barely spoke English, so Uber made the experience much smoother since our destination was already in the app. We also enjoyed the added safety and peace of mind that comes with using Uber as it pertains to your route.
Cabs in Rio
There are four different types of cabs in Rio (Yellow taxis, Special service cars, Radio taxis, Illegal taxis).
Yellow taxis are yellow with a blue stripe painted on the sides. In Rio, these cabs can be found everywhere and you will be able to wave one down at any time of the day or night in the tourist areas of the city. There are also numerous taxi stands where taxis queue to pick up passengers. Be very careful taking taxis in Rio. Most drivers don't speak English (remember Brazilians speak Portuguese) and they will take advantage of tourists by going the long way or the complete opposite direction. We had an awful experience in one cab and used Uber for the majority of our trip.
Special service cars are private cars that have no identifying markings nor a typical cab light on top. They are typically called by middle to high-end hotels by a doorman. Hotels explain they are safer and more comfortable than a regular yellow taxi off the street. Special service cars in Rio do not use a taxi meter. Plus, the drivers are not regulated. Drivers can quote whatever price they think is reasonable or think that they can get. Again, I would stick to Uber.
Radio taxis are usually blue, green, or white. If you don't want to deal with Uber or the high cost of Special service cars these are your best bet. You can avoid being ripped off, especially after arrival at the airport, by taking a Radio Taxi. These are called (or your hotel staff calls) one of the four Radio Taxi companies. The operator will give you a non-negotiable price which does not depend on the time of day or traffic.
Getting around Rio via the Bus
Buses are the cheapest and most convenient way to get around the city due to the high number and frequency of lines running through the sprawling city. Rio has designated bus lanes in most streets which make travel times much shorter, especially during rush hour. For the adventurous or budget traveler, it is worth taking the time to navigate the system or a learn which routes to take around Rio.
Be extremely mindful of questionable people around you and hold on to your belongings at all time. Keep an eye out for pickpockets when the bus is crowded. Night buses are infrequent, and most lines will usually not be running by the time the bars and clubs are full. Buses cost R$3.95 and most come without air conditioning. You can pay the fare with your RioCard (rechargeable card accepted in all ways of transportation) or money.
Traveling Rio via Subway
The subway is a great and cheap option to travel Rio - especially when you want to beat traffic.
I have a full article that explains the Rio subway (or MetroRio) and how to obtain a RioCard here.
Traveling Rio by Bike
Rio de Janeiro is a perfect city to view on the back of a bike. Recently, the city has built and improved its bike lane infrastructure with almost 400km of lanes currently. The bike lanes are well maintained and most notably, you can bike all the way from Leblon to Centro on dedicated bike lanes along the coast. There is a public system called Bike Rio (similar to CitiBikes you see in most US cities). The price is R$10 per month or R$5 per day. Download their mobile app to register, find stations, and withdraw bikes. You can only withdraw bikes by using the app so having WiFi on your phone is a must.
Best things to see and do in Rio
This is just a short list of things to do and see in Rio. Read the full list including entrance prices and operating hours here.
Best Restaurants in Rio
There is so much food to try in Rio (at many different price points) that I created a whole list for you to look over. Read the full article and find out what the best restaurants in Rio are here.
Where to Stay in Rio
Like I said from the very beginning, where to stay in Rio is highly dependant on what you want to see and do. I highly suggest staying on Copacabana beach no matter what season. The area is fabulous and the sunrises are some of the best in the world. I stayed at Hilton Copacabana and can’t recommend it enough. It is a mid-range hotel price with the best value for money. Read my full review of the Hilton Copacabana here.
That being said… here are my recommendations for some different neighborhoods:
Santa Teresa: Check out Hotel Santa Teresa and Rio 180 º Suites & Cuisine.
Ipanema: A great hotel to stay at here is Hotel Fasano, designed by Philippe Starck. Their rooftop pool and bar is particularly noteworthy.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing a travel guide for Brazil along with you. Here are some of the best travel guides I recommend...
And of course, if you have any questions DO NOT hesitate to reach out to me via Instagram, Twitter, or just shoot me an email (tessajuliette at gmail dot com).