As one of the only cities in the world that has beaches, a national park and skyscrapers all located within its limits, Rio de Janeiro is certainly unique. There are just so many things to do in Rio that are a must on any South America itinerary.
Add to that a massively diverse population and cultural heritage, and you have a melting point of culture, people, food and landmarks. A trip to Rio wouldn’t be complete without exploring all the famous landmarks and tourists sights, (check out the Rio de Janeiro Bucket List here), as well as sampling some of the best plant-based eating, and beach life.
I stayed in Rio for four and a half days and I personally thought this wasn’t enough for all the variety of activities this city has to offer. Rio has something for everyone, whether you’re a beach lover, mountain monkey, or art fanatic.
In this must-read travel guide, I’ll share with you my experiences of this lush, tropical city, where to go, stay, eat and how to get around, as well as all my tips and hacks for seeing the city. Let’s dive straight into this Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide.
*This ‘things to do in Rio’ post contains affiliate links meaning I might make a small profit if you choose to book at no extra cost to you. This helps me to keep providing you with top quality content for free.
THINGS TO DO IN RIO: GET IN
Plane – Rio has two airports, the larger RIOgaleão which serves most international flights and Santos Dumont which is located close to the city centre and is used mainly for national flights.
From the airport, it’s pretty easy to grab a taxi or Uber to your hotel. Note that at rush hour RIOgaleão can be a nightmare to get to so leave plenty of time. From Ipanema, it took me 2 hours during evening rush hour to get to the airport and I nearly missed my flight.
Bus – Most buses from around the country arrive at NovoRio, the main terminal just north of downtown. From here taxis and Ubers are readily available to transfer you to your hotel.
As one of Brazil’s largest cities, Rio de Janeiro has a great public transportation system consisting of the metro, tram and buses. The metro and trams are safe and easy to work out and you can buy your tickets from the ticket booths inside the metro stations.
Uber is also an ideal way to get around the city. It’s safer than a regular taxi, cheap and is a lifesaver when travelling late at night or to those out-of-the-way landmarks. Uber was definitely my best friend when in Rio.
WHERE TO STAY
The best places to stay I found to be were Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon. Downtown is also an ok option but the three upscale beach neighbourhoods are better for both location and safety. I stayed both in Leblon and Ipanema and they are both ideal for morning and evening beach runs, sunsets and are located close to the metro stations.
Selina Lapa Rio de Janeiro– located in the heart of downtown Rio, this ultra-trendy, comfortable property is simply a great option when in Rio. Rooms and beds are comfortable, showers have hot water and good water pressure and the breakfast is scrumptious. Perfect for backpackers and digital nomads wanting to meet other travellers. Check rates and availability here.
Ipanema Inn Hotel – Located just 130 metres from Ipanema beach, this gorgeous design hotel is comfortable and beautifully decorated with a great breakfast and spacious rooms. All rooms also come with a desk making it a great place to base yourself if you have a bit of work to do during your stay. Check rates and availability here.
Copacabana Palace, A Belmond Hotel, Rio de Janeiro – Easily one of the most luxurious and stunning places to stay in Rio, the Copacabana Palace boast, simple but modern rooms, a luxury spa, delicious buffet breakfast and a rooftop infinity pool over the most gorgeous sun-set view of Rio. 100% worth it the extravagant spend. Check rates and availability here
Vila Santa Teresa – For one of the most amazing boutique villa stays in all Rio and an incredible view to match, there’s nothing better than Vila Santa Teresa. With a world-class spa and outdoor pool and terrace, this Vila is easily one of the places to stay in Rio de Janeiro. Located in the neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. Check rates and availability here.
WHERE TO EAT
Health and wellness are alive in Rio and the food scene reflects that too. There are countless healthy eating options and I ran out of time to sample all the amazing plant-based restaurants and cafes that seemed to crop up on my radar every day. Here are my favourites:
Teva– this small and intimate restaurant located in Ipanema is pure heaven for the taste-buds. It’s 100% plant-based and the dishes are prepared with care, well presented and are healthy, nutritious and delicious. They serve a variety of dishes ideal for sharing as well as pasta, salads, crepes and mains based on international cuisines. A must- eat when in Rio.
Prana – Located close to the Botanical Garden Prana is an excellent vegetarian choice for a tasty lunch break amid all the exploring. Their simple but delicious lunch menu consists of three mains to choose from, one of which is always vegan and gluten-free. The portions are huge and they also come with a super fresh side salad.
Prana also has the largest selection of kombucha I think I have ever seen with 6 or 7 different flavours to choose from. If you like your kombucha, this gorgeous restaurant with all the feels will be a firm favourite.
Heading to Ilha Grande? Click here for all the information you need to plan your trip.
THINGS TO DO IN RIO
MARVEL AT CHRIST THE REDEEMER
No trip to Rio will ever be complete without a visit to the majestic Christ the Redeemer Statue on top of Tijuca hill in the city. Perched on a mountaintop overlooking the city, Christo Redentor is the symbol of Rio de Janeiro.
Considered one of the seven wonders of the world, make sure to come up here to witness the sheer size of the state and what a process it must have been constructing such a thing at this height. The views are otherworldy too and you can pretty much see the whole bay of Rio de Janeiro.
When visiting make sure to come on a clear day as the statue is often shrouded by thick cloud.
To get to the Christ the Redeemer Statue you can either hike all the way to the top (the path starts from the back of Parque Lage), take a bus tour or take the tram. The tram is the most popular option. The tram departs from R Cosme Velho- just search ‘Trem do Corcovado’ to find it on Google Maps. The tram does get extremely busy to try to pre-book your tickets in advance or come at the beginning of the day or at the end.
VISIT THE FAMOUS LANDMARKS
No trip to Rio would be complete without a visit to the famous landmarks. Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain are two of the most popular places in Rio for a reason. They are stunning and a must-see for first-timers in the city. Did you know you can hike up to Christ the Redeemer and partially up Sugarloaf Mountain? Take in the breathtaking scenery on your way up and make a day of it.
TAKE IN THE CITY FROM ABOVE
This wouldn’t be a proper Rio de Janeiro travel guide without the mention of the viewpoints. Rio is full of many different viewpoints in and around the city, allowing you to get a different view of the city at each one. Some of the most popular viewpoints include Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf Mountain, Mirante Dona Marta, Vista Chinesa and Dos Irmaos hill.
Whichever one you end up going to, they’ll provide you with a breathtaking view you won’t forget in a while and you’ll see why Rio might just be the most beautiful city in the world.
EAT AÇAI -ON THE DAILY
Endemic to the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest, açai is a small berry packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. While only recently breaking into the health food scene in the West, açai has been a staple of the Brazilian diet for a long time.
In Rio you can just about get it anywhere, from cafes, açai stands in malls to beach vendors. Do bring a sustainable/reusable cup/bowl otherwise you’ll get your açai bowl in a plastic cup.
RUN/PLAY VOLLEYBALL ON IPANEMA BEACH
Health and fitness culture is thriving in Rio with the centre of it at Ipanema beach.
Ipanema beach is definitely a must-see anyway and no doubt you’ll walk down the famous promenade or even catch some rays on the fine golden sand. At sunset and on the weekends, Ipanema comes to life with people running, cycling, skating and getting their dose of Vitamin D.
Why not join the locals for a run or beachside workout or even join in on the beach volleyball?
SIP CAIPIRINHAS AS THE SUN GOES DOWN
There’s no better way to toast the perfect day in Rio than with a caipirinha at sunset. The classic Brazilian cocktail is traditionally made with cachaca (sugar cane liquor pronounced ka-cha-sa), lime juice and sugar, just beware, they make it strong.
There are many bars to choose from but my favourite place to sip one and watch the sun go down was on Copacabana beach. With so many beachside bars to choose from, simply sit back, relax and rest those tired legs after a day of exploring.
VISIT REAL GABINETE LIBRERIA PORTUGUES
For literary treasure in downtown Rio head to Real Gabinete Português de Leitura or the Portuguese Reading Room. This extravagant and highly ornate library of Portuguese literature is the largest outside of Portugal, containing hundreds of volumes by Portuguese authors and it’s one of the best things to do in Rio.
Admire the swirling, golden pillars, exquisitely carved wooden bannisters and ornate marble doorways. This is easily one of the most impressive libraries I have seen to date on my travels, not to mention, it makes great subject matter for an Instagram shot.
VISIT A FAVELA
Favelas are an essential part of life in Rio de Janeiro and visiting one will give you an insight into the lives of regular people, the history of the city and how favelas originated as well as give you the chance to contribute to the local communities and give back.
I organised my favela tour with Favela Santa Marta Tour and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.
Felipe took us into Santa Marta, a relatively safe and pacified favela and we learned about the history of it, got the chance to visit a local pre-school and meet the kids, we met some local residents and played football with them as well as learning about how favelas have grown to function with little to none government intervention.
The tour was a fascinating insight into Rio life and urbanisation and I’d highly recommend you do one. Click here for more information and to book.
Top Tip: When visiting a favela, make sure to do it with a tour. Not only can it be unsafe going alone but you’ll also miss out on the vital information that makes the tour so special.
SHOP FOR HAVAIANAS
With a Havaianas store on almost every main street, there’s no better place to shop for Brazil’s most famous flip-flop than right here in Rio. You’ll find so many different styles and colours that normally don’t ship internationally at a third of the price. In Brazil, they also sell sandals, beach towels and accessories.
GO FOR A HIKE IN TIJUCA NATIONAL PARK
Rio de Janeiro might just be the only city in the world with a national park in its centre.
Tijuca National Park makes a wonderful respite from the hustle and bustle of the city and you can organise a number of different hikes, jeep and waterfall tours through the park. This pristine jungle is full of endemic flora and fauna, uncrowded trails and beautiful waterfalls.
Make sure you take a guide with you for any hiking you do in the National Park as it’s pretty easy to get lost.
MARVEL AT THE ESCADERIA SELARON
Located in both the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods of downtown Rio Escadaria Selaron is the mind-blowing work of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron who in 1990 embarked on a project to regenerate the local downtown area and attract visitors to this part of Rio.
He decorated a staircase with more than 2000 uniquely colourful tiles from around the world. The staircase is a true work of art and you can spend hours there marvelling at every tile individually and the story behind it.
Escaderia Selaron is a really popular thing to do in Rio and if you want to take photos here I recommend coming early. I arrived at about 8 am and I was the only tourist around.
WALK AROUND DOWNTOWN RIO
Downtown Rio is full of interesting spots, architecture, markets and places to see and it’s defiantly worth checking it out when downtown.
Some noteworthy sights include the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian, Carioca Aquaduct, Confetaria Colombo and the Municipal Theatre.
All these sights are located within 10-20 minutes walking distance from each other. Combine these with a visit to Escaderia Selaron and Real Gabinete Librería Portugués.
GO FOR A STROLL IN PARQUE LAGE & BOTANICAL GARDENS
As you’ve probably already gathered there are a lot of green spaces in Rio and to add to that ever-growing mountain there’s Parque Lago and the Botanical Gardens, located very close together.
Sitting at the base of Corcovado Mountain with Christ the Redeemer looming overhead, Parque Lage is a tranquil, lush oasis, perfect for an afternoon stroll.
Check out all the unique, tropical vegetation from this part of the world as well as the main park building. It’s a beautiful neoclassical structure with a gorgeous courtyard in the centre, which you’ll probably recognise from Instagram. The mansion, built by an Italian architect is now home to a wonderful cafe and the School of Visual Arts.
Just down the road is the Botanical Garden which makes for a lovely afternoon stroll amid all the green. Make sure not to miss the insane palm avenue consisting of rows of hundreds of palms.
TOP TIPS FOR VISITING RIO
Stay safe – you’ve probably already heard that Rio doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to safety, even most Brazilians will tell you it’s dangerous.
Having said that however there’s nothing to worry about, it’s a city like any other, but you should take some precautions. Leave your flashy, expensive jewellery and accessories at home, don’t flash around expensive gear, don’t leave your belongings unattended, especially at the beach and always take a taxi or better still an Uber at night.
Use Uber– Rio is blessed with Uber and it’s a safe, cheap and fast way to get around the city. I find that taxi drivers everywhere have the opportunity to charge you more when they realise you’re from out of town but this doesn’t happen through Uber. Make sure to always take an Uber at night or when going into an area you’re not too sure about.
Pack clothes for rain and shine – Rio is a rainy city and the weather can change very fast. Winter (June-August) tends to the drier than summer (December- February) but unexpected thunderstorms can happen at any time. When I visited in December I had many grey and rainy days.
Brush up on your Portuguese (or Spanish) – English is not widely spoken in Rio so it’s definitely useful to learn a few basic phrases in Brazilian Portuguese (it is quite different from the Portuguese in Portugal). People also understand a little Spanish. I speak Spanish and I personally found that people understood me very well but I found it hard to understand them.
Public toilets– they are virtually non-existent away from the beaches but malls are plentiful. A great tip is to look for a mall when nature calls when you’re out and about.
For more things to do in Rio:
If you have any comments or questions about this Rio de Janeiro travel guide please leave them below, I’d love to hear from you.
Planning a trip right now? These are just some of my favourite websites I use to book everything from hotels to rental cars!
Rentalcars.com for quick and easy car rentals worldwide
Booking.com for great deals on hotels
Agoda also for great deals on hotels
Things to do in Rio related posts you might like:
LIKE IT? PIN IT AND SHARE THE LOVE!