My favorite Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - Understand
Rio de Janeiro has fostered an image of a sun and beach lifestyle unlike any other city. Ask anyone in the world and she or he will associate certain things with Rio; spoiler alert - they aren't necessarily true. Rio has great city beaches and towering hills that make for surprisingly excellent views, but it is also a city in constant gridlock and with a major poverty issue. Rio has been trying its best to improve with the soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games, but it's still a work in progress - very much in progress. While Rio gets a lot of tourist arrivals, it has avoided the worst of the tourist traps and trashy areas. It's touristy, but it's not much worse than, say, Waikiki
Internet speeds in Rio are slow. While the country has decent broadband connections now, you will rarely see any of the locals care much about the internet speed or 'use a laptop' in public - that just seems to be an eternal sin. In those few days I visited, it seemed only foreigners used a computer in public (and mostly failed at it). Brazil is a rather modern country but internet adoption is far behind what you would expect.
Also, Rio is not cheap, even after the Brazilian Real lost half its value against the dollar. At 4:1, the city is just about right and not a place with great value. Lunch still costs $12-$15 in a decent place. Excellent food and coffee don't play a big role in the local life, so expect to find few positive culinary surprises.
People in Rio are friendly but busy. When is the last time you saw long lines in front of an ATM? Well in Rio you will see them (likely because so few people use a broadband connection!) Keep in mind that English is like a language from a different planet in Brazil (albeit a bit less so in Rio). How a place with so many international tourists gets away with such minimal English skills is a miracle to me. In a restaurant there is usually only one person that speaks a few words, but the other 15-20 people don't tend to speak a word. What an incentive to learn Portuguese quickly!
My favorite Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - Safety
I feel that safety here has come a long way. Terrorism is no real threat in South America and crime is down. The areas around Copacabana and Ipanema are very safe during the day and OK at night. Centro and Lapa can be a bit hairy at night, but as long as you use normal precautions you should be fine. It is a great idea to leave valuables in the hotel safe, take just as much cash as you need and only one credit card with you at night. If you get mugged, hand over that cash and the credit card and hope that you can keep your phone. The chance of this happening is small in most tourist areas in Rio, but if you venture into a favela neighborhood at night, all bets are off, of course.
My favorite Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - How to get around
If you can avoid the rush hour gridlock then you have plenty of options. The buses look clunky but are clean and fast if you can figure out the destinations and routes. Taxis are aplenty and the drivers have no trouble using a meter. Uber has arrived as well and it's my favorite way to get around in a new city, but it seems this city has few UberX drivers, since it was surging 2.5x many times in just 3 days.
My favorite Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - Sights
Rio is bursting with sights and things vying for your attention. The city is not boring!
The Christ the Redeemer statue was built in 1922 and is one of the major symbols of Rio de Janeiro. It's hard to resist the temptation to get up there. There is a train that takes you all the way, but lines can be long and the ascent is lengthy and slow. You need to take enough patience! The admission is R$62, which is worth it to me!
The view on a clear day (which is rather rare in Rio) is amazing and pays for all the touristy waiting-in-line that you had to endure.
Morro do Pao de Acucar
The Sugarloaf Mountain is another outstanding Rio landmark and much of the Corcovado advice applies here too. You will actually take two cable cars to get all the way to the top and pay R$71 per person for the return trip.
I did things slightly differently though and hiked up the Morro da Urca
(the smaller of the two peaks). The trail starts on the left side of the beach (looking towards the water) where the valley station of the cable car is. It's easy to find and well placed, but very slippery when wet and steep in certain sections.
It will take you about one hour from the cable car station (although you can race up in less time). The view from the Morro da Urca is already pretty spectacular and depending on the day it might be all there is, since the Sugarloaf Mountain gets a lot of fog and might be completely enshrouded.
Confusingly, you can't buy a ticket up at the Morro da Urca Station. You will need to either buy it in advance (which I was not clever enough to do!) or pay for a ticket down and another round-trip up. This makes no sense since there IS a ticket office up there - it just does not process round-trip tickets for some unknown reason.
Mureta da Urca
After your successful climb (or cable car ride) you can enjoy a view over the marina at Bar Urca
. Grab an ice-cold beer, a few oily seafood pastries and look cool along the sea wall. It's not fully clear why this place is so popular but you will notice it once you are there.
Santa Teresa is Rio's old town (not that the rest of Rio looks especially 'new') and may remind you of Lisbon
. It's like a smaller version of it, complete with hill views, street cars and cobblestone streets and sidewalks. It's a great way to take in Rio's other side. Stop by the Parque das Ruinas
for some history of Rio.
If you're walking back, stop by Bar do Mineiro
and have a beer (called chopp here) and a snack with the locals.
A fancier place to eat at is Aprazivel
, which has gorgeous views and reportedly good food. It will make you pay for these pleasures though!
Not far from Santa Teresa is Lapa - the nightlife and bar district of Rio. It's walking distance from Centro (handy if your hotel is there), but not really safe at night. Go during the day and there will be less crowds and you can get a better perspective of the Arcos da Lapa
Don't miss the artsy Escadaria Selarón
Centro has old buildings - and lots of them! You can watch the crowds hurrying to work at rush hour and see how the busiest part of Rio unfolds. Check out the old Stock Exchange (now a cultural center) and the many cathedrals. You will be forgiven for thinking you are in Mexico City or Europe.
Museu de Arte Moderna
Close to Centro but on reclaimed land is the Museu de Arte Moderna. It's a modern design both outside and inside and has a number of good exhibitions. It's very well worth doing if you have time.
Copacabana is the most touristy part of Rio de Janeiro and likely also where your hotel is. It's nevertheless a classy affair and the main beachside Avenida Atlantica looks more like Biarritz than Ko Phuket. Do yourself a favor and climb up to Bar do David
before sunset to grab a seafood or pork specialty bowl and a cold beer.
The Copacabana Beach is huge, clean and always inviting. Too bad the times I have visited Rio it's always been raining non-stop. I have a score of 8 out of 8 days.
Praia do Arpoador
Separating Copacabana and Ipanema is this pretty rock. It's safe to climb on (unless the surf is especially bad) and the sunset views are great.
Ipanema is the preferred neighborhood for Brazilian beach lovers. It has the same quality of beach (with a bit more surf) and much better food options. It feels distinctly artsy and less touristy than Copacabana.
Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas
Just behind the beach is this huge lake. Talk about an ample amount of water bodies in this city! You can walk all around it (it's a favorite jogging trail for locals) and eventually you will reach these parks:
The botanical garden is less botanical than you would expect, but it's a masterpiece of classic gardens with lots of fountains and sculptures. The entrance fee of R$9 is well spent!
Parque Lage is free and a great way to get away from the crowds. The park cafe is supposed to be really good, though I was not able to try it when I was there.
My favorite Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - Food
When it comes to food, Brazil is not a country that will delight you much. Frankly most options are just about OK - none of them are outstanding. You will be especially hard-pressed to find anything well-spiced, fresh or healthy; instead you will get deep-fried, lots of sugar and rough carbs.
Galetos Copa Rio
Surprisingly good tandoori (especially chicken) come out of Galetos Copa Rio. This place is a lifesaver, but also easy to miss!
I'm not sure why the Lebanese owners came up with such a non-descriptive name, but there it is. It looks rusty and it is somewhat, but better than the other options around. The food is just bland, though - not really fresh and just salty. It's not cheap either.
Sushi is surprisingly popular in Rio but the places I tried just look OK - not the places you need to eat at. I tried Ume Sushi
and Nik Sushi,
but would not go back to either.
This is the best-rated place on TripAdvisor and it's an all-you-can-eat Brazilian meat buffet. It will cost you about $35 per person.
My favorite Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - Coffee
Forget about coffee shops in the American sense if you want to avoid Starbucks. WiFi is not something you will find there (and if you do, it's usually broken) and people only tend to go for a quick espresso or a quick bite.
Clearly a pastry chef has started this chain. It has great looking (and tasting) pastries (as well as sandwiches in certain locations). The coffee is decent, too.
I walked into this one hopeful - but get this - they sell 10 packs of espresso tabs to you. If you go there in a group, you can just press your coffee into the Nespresso machines in the back of the store and then drink it. It's all a very fancy affair. I never thought Nespresso had such fancy branding!
This is likely my favorite place to have coffee, get a dessert and other food in Ipanema. The churros I ordered were easily the best food I had in Brazil. The ham and cheese sandwich was just OK though, so choose your dishes wisely. The coffee shop forms the second floor of the Livraria da Travessa book store.
This decent bakery and coffee shop brews OK coffee and has some good pastries as well. Nothing great, but better than being hungry.
This place looks the closest to an American-style coffee shop. The coffee is strong and the breakfast waffle will remind you of that Hilton breakfast you always hated. It's cheap, though.
No you are not in Colombo, Sri Lanka
but at Rio's Confeitaria Colombo, which has a super-stylish old-school coffee house setting.
My favorite Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - Conclusion
Rio is a great city to discover over a few days. It has an eclectic mix of beach lifestyle, great views and a Southern European savoir vivre. You will not run out of things to do before a week is over.
Don't expect culinary highlights, however. Take some nuts and crackers and then go to Buenos Aires
to eat some decent steaks and regain some weight!
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