Rio De Janeiro has a ridiculous number of things to do. One of the first things you should do is get acquainted with the layout of the city. If you haven’t already read my huge travel guide for Rio. Below I’ve listed the things you can’t miss while in Rio. I’ve also grouped them by location to make it a bit easier on you.
If you don’t have much time in Rio I suggest booking a private guided tour. Rio is huge and this is the easiest way to see a ton of attractions in a short amount of time. A great tour that hits all of the main attractions is The City Tour: Corcovado and Sugar Loaf arranged by Rio Cultural Secrets. Pick up is included and your day begins with an up-close viewing of the Christ statue on Corcovado island followed by a visit to the Selarón Stairs, in the heart of Lapa. After a walking tour of the main city, you will end your day on the top of Sugar Loaf mountain. Find out more information here.
Even the most traveled tourist will find Copacabana beach beautiful and astonishing. There's a reason it's known as the best beach in the world. Copacabana (the neighborhood) is considered the most urban of the neighborhoods in Rio. The beach itself 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. The main stretch of beach is long and wide with soft white sand. There are chairs to be rented all along the beach and vendors selling food on and off the sand.
While wandering the beach don’t miss the Belmond Copacabana Hotel. I know. A hotel on the can't miss list, really? Hear me out...
It is absolutely gorgeous, has three great restaurants inside, and is the spot where the famous Copacabana song by Barry Manilow was conceived. Staying here is expensive (around $400 a night) so if you can't afford that I understand. Instead, make reservations at one of the restaurants (I suggest MEE, a Pan-Asian restaurant with one Michelin Star) and wander the hotel before and after your reservation.
Read on: Best Restaurants in Rio
The most modern neighborhood of Rio and immortalized in Morales Vinicius song The Girl From Ipanema which describes a beautiful woman he saw on the beach. He wasn't wrong, beautiful people still frequent the stylish bars and clubs in Ipanema. The neighborhood is also incredibly diverse with jocks, hippies, the LGBT community, and tourists all co-existing peacefully with each other.
While in Ipanema you won’t want to miss Praia do Arpoador — especially around sunset. A large rocky pier that lies between Copacabana Beach and Ipanema Beach. It offers, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful sunset views in Rio. Watch the last of the sun's rays before they disappear into the ocean between the Morro Dois Irmãos (two twin cones mountain). Stake out a good spot at least 30 minutes before sunset begins and join in with locals as they clap when sunset concludes.
With its landmark statue of Christ the Redeemer and gorgeous panoramic views of the sprawling city, getting to the top of Corcovado Mountain is a must do in Rio. But you can’t forget, or leave out, Sugar Loaf mountain either.
Christ the Redeemer Statue (Cristo Redentor)
Assembled on site and opened in 1931, Cristo Redentor, an elegant art deco statue of Christ can be seen all around the city from various points. The statue sits on top of Corcovado hill and is Rios ultimate symbol. The statue can be seen up close by hiking or taking a funicular train to the top. It recieves over one million visitors a year.
Before going to the statue or topping the mountain, check the weather, because oftentimes clouds envelop the peak. The funicular train ascends 20 minutes with a gorgeous ride through dense trees. It operates 365 days a year from 8 AM to 7 PM. A roundtrip ticket is R$51. Be aware that the queue for the train can get long.
Pão de Açúcar
Also known as Sugar Loaf mountain taking the gondola to the top is one of the most popular activities in Rio and a definite must-do. Several lookout points offer majestic 360 views that include the bay, the city center, and the famous beaches. Even if you do Corcovado mountain I suggest going to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain as well. It is truly special seeing the Christ statue in the gorgeous skyline from above.
Don't buy your ticket ahead of time - the cheapest way to get tickets is at the actual base. They cost R$62 for a roundtrip ticket which includes two cable car rides to get to the top. The gondolas are in service from 8 AM to 8 PM. If you combine a hike to one of the bases (up or down) you can receive discounted tickets down.
Real Gabinete Portugues da Leitura
A large library that is frequently named one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Also, it's completely FREE. Originally founded in 1837 by a group of Portuguese immigrants, the inside has absolutely gorgeous neogothic architecture and a church-like atmosphere, where light filters in through a colorful stained glass window. It houses a large number of Portuguese authors with books on display from as early as 1470's.
A gorgeous old bakery that is has some of the most stunning architecture. It has been open since 1894. Service is speedy and you should stop in for a cake and coffee at the very least.
The gorgeous building was inspired by the Opera Garnier in Paris and has been the pride of Rio since it opened in 1909. There is an underground restaurant that you shouldn't miss. Book a tour or better yet see a show here.
Read on: Full Brazil Travel Guide
The largest football stadium in South America and at one time it was the largest on Earth. It recently underwent renovation for the 2014 World Cup. Inside you can tour a Soccer Museum.
Santa Teresa Neighborhood
Yes, the entire neighborhood is something you shouldn’t miss. 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.
Parque das Ruínas
The best views in Santa Teresa, (and one of the coolest free attractions) is at Parque das Ruínas which is an open-air building that in years past held some of the ritziest social gatherings with famous attendees. Entrance is free and there is a small cafe on site.
Descend this public stairway made by artist Jorge Selaron. It is known for its colorful hand-painted tiles (as well as its crowds).
Other Things You Can’t Miss
Another thing you cannot miss due to its unbelievable beauty. The lush botanic garden is open 8 AM - 5 PM daily. Definitely plan on spending a few hours wandering the fountains, ponds, statues, and gardens. The gardens were founded in 1808 by Emperor John VI. Today it is one of the most important botanical gardens in the world, with over 8000 species of plants growing in their natural habitats and in greenhouses. Admission is R$6.
A park that has been around since 1809 with a beautiful mansion on the grounds that now serves as a school of the fine arts. The courtyard of the mansion holds a restaurant with some excellent food as well as a perfectly framed view of Christ the Redeemer. The park is also the beginning of the hiking trail to the top of Corcovado Mountain.
Parque Nacional da Tijuca
The national park is open each day from 8 AM to 7 PM and is full of walks and trails that will give you breathtaking views of the city. It is one of the largest urban parks in the world.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing a travel guidebook along with you. Here are some books 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