Sun, sand, and surf are usually what comes to mind when people think of Rio. The most visited destination in Brazil, Rio has plenty to offer for all kinds of traveller, including relaxing on the beach, hiking through the jungle on the mountain peaks surrounding the city, and visiting some of the world’s most recognisable landmarks.
Rio was founded by the Portuguese in 1565 and from 1763 to 1960 it was the capital of Brazil. Rio hosted Portuguese royalty when Brazil became its its own Empire in 1822.
Where do you start? There are plenty of places to stay on a variety of budgets. I chose to stay along Copacabana beach. This iconic landmark is well known across the globe and is packed on sunny days. I chose this location for its views and for its accessibility to the rest of Rio.
Transportation around Rio is relatively easy, however we all have heard the stories of kidnapping from unlicensed taxis and the attacks and muggings of foreigners on trains and buses. This concern is justifiable, but if you are vigilant and aware of your surroundings public transportation is safe during the day.
I caught the train to the city centre, which is very straight forward. A single ticket will cost you R$4.80 (£0.90). Buses and trams are also an option.
Ubers are common in Rio and are cheap and safe. Cabs are also cheap, but be sure to check if they are a licensed or book one online or through your accomodation.
You’ll find colonial architecture from the Portuguese ruling period across Rio. Many of them have become abandoned, which is quite devastating to see. This may be due to restoration costs.
However, within the city there are some beautiful pieces of historical architecture. The Municipal Theatre opened in 1909, is built in an eclectic style, and is one of the most important theatres in the country. Covered in detailed gold work it truly makes the opera house a piece of art.
The Rio Legislative Assembly is a well designed piece of architecture, located in the centre of the city. It houses the state government of Rio and has been here since 1975.
Brazil is a very Catholic nation, and has the largest number of Catholic Christians of any country in the world. Catholics make up 64.6% of the population, and the next largest religion is Protestant at 22.2% of the population (2020). The remainder is split into spiritualism, other or no religion.
As such there are several religious landmarks to visit throughout the city. I will go through some of the main ones I got the chance to visit.
By far my favourite – and most shocking – place of worship is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian. This Cathedral is dedicated to the patron saint of Rio, Saint Sebastian, and was built in 1979 in a modernist style.
On the outside the design is meant to emulate the Mayan pyramids. It certainly needs sprucing up, but the inside is breathtaking.
An open style Cathedral with huge entrance doors, the style is relatively simple until you look up. Each side of the pyramid has beautiful stain-glass windows all the way up, with a giant well-lit cross hanging in midair. It’s free to enter and beautiful to enjoy.
Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária (Candelária church) is an important church in Rio, built between the 18th and the 19th centuries.
Due to this long gap between start and completion the outside is a Portuguese Colonial Baroque façade, while the inside is Neoclassical and Neo-Renaissance. It certainly is worth exploring to see the difference in styles, especially if you are an architecture buff.
Our next stop is the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was completed in 1770 and built opposite a convent of the old Carmelite order, where they set up base when they arrived in the 16th century. This church shows off the Portuguese colonial style.
Centro Cultural São Francisco da Penitência was built in 1733 and sits on top of a hill surrounded by a busy sector of the Centro district. Once you get to the top you’ll see the traditional looking church, and the inside is a very simple due to damage and lack of restoration.
Like I mentioned above, there are plenty of other places of worship across the city of all shapes and sizes for you to visit.
In Rio there are several important museums that you should consider visiting. The main one is the National History Museum, which was built back in 1603 and was originally the St James of Mercy Fort, followed by a prison for slaves in 1693, with war Arsenals added to it in 1764. It then became a barracks in 1835.
It finally became a museum in 1922 and goes through the history of Brazil, from the indigenous way of living, colonialism, the Brazil Empire and finally its independence into a Republic.
As someone who knew nothing about Brazilian history I found it very detailed and interesting. You could spend several hours here and a ticket will only cost you R$8.00 (£1.46 – 2020).
The Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) can be found at the waterfront on pier Maua, built in a unique design as it is a science museum.
It is a great place to take young ones and it is a popular spot, with long queues when I was there (it was a rainy day). It will cost you R$20.00 (£3.66 – 2020).
Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) is also in the port area, and focuses on art from Rio de Janeiro and its complexities, with great views of the harbour when you go up to the top floor. A ticket will cost you R$20.00 (£3.66).
Some other gems you can find around the Centro and the northern parts of Rio are the Aqueducto da Carioca, which was built in the 18th century to bring water into the city from the Carioca River, showing the true ingenuity of colonial architecture.
These days it no longer carries water, but became a tramway at the end of the 19th century from central Rio to the hilly suburb of Santa Teresa.
Arco do Tele is a simple quaint archway that was built in the 18th century, leading into the Teles de Menezes area that is bustling every night with music, food and booze.
The most iconic spot in the Centro of Rio is Escadaria Selarón, also known as the Selaron Steps. By using ceramic tiles along a staircase the artist Jorge Selarón designed the area in honour of the Brazilian people.
This place is very busy at the bottom of the steps and there is a line to get that instagram photo. I suggest going up the steps a bit to see more of the design, and get your photos further up.
What Rio is renowned for are its beaches, in particular Copacabana beach. It’s wavy black and white promenade goes along the whole 4km beach front, and was built in the 1930s.
The waves can get large and are a blast to play in, with the beach packed with tourists and locals alike.
The beaches are swarming with vendors selling literally anything from ice cream to pizza, hats and random t-shirts. However, it is important that you DO NOT bring any valuables to the beach or leave your stuff unsupervised, as it will likely be involved in a snatch and run.
The promenade itself is filled with beach bars selling food and drinks until late, with live music to get people to take a seat.
Overall Copacabana beach is safe during the day and the early evening, when activity is still abundant – but be careful at the late hours of night.
At both ends of Copacabana beach there are forts. At the far north end (left if you are facing the beach itself) you will find Duke of Caxias Fort. This hilltop fort is a memorial and contains some historic exhibits and some amazing views of Copacabana from above.
At the south end of Copacabana beach is Copacabana Fort. This was a military base built back in 1914 and is open to the public as an Army History Museum that will cost you R$6.00 (£1.10 – 2020).
There is a famous hotel in the middle of the Copacabana beachfront, known as Belmond Copacabana Palace. This Art Deco hotel dates back to 1923 and was one of the great hotels of the early 20th century, having many celebrities stay there. Rooms can be upwards of R$2,733.00 (£500 – 2020), so not for us budget travellers.
The next beach over (to the south) is Ipanema Beach. This beach is populated with locals, and there is a renowned area for the LGBT+ community between lifeguard towers 9 and 10.
Like Copacabana beach there are lots of beach volley ball courts, as this is one of the National sports of Brazil, especially in Rio. Like Copacabana beach there are small gym facilities all along the beach. These are always busy with really muscular men and women working out (always an additional pleasant site when you go for a stroll along the promenade 😉).
To the North of Ipanema Beach is Pedra do Arpoador, a rocky formation that sticks out from the beach that you can walk on and get views of both beaches.
Some people even go to its highest point and get photos with mountains and Tijuca forest in the background.
The final major beach in Rio you can visit is Praia do Pepino. This beach is a bit further south, so unless you are staying on it you are best to get an Uber /taxi or bike there.
This beach is also known for hang gliders and paragliders, as they land here after their jumps from the mountains of Tijuca National Park.
I had a go at hang gliding, as it is one of the iconic things to do in the city. Even though I have a fear of falling I can not recommend it enough.
It felt exhilarating in the clouds over the forest and the beach, and I got some amazing views of the entire city. I used Riohanggliding.com, which costs at least R$690.00 (£126.00 – 2020) in the off season. Pricey yes, but totally worth the experience.
Lake Rodrigo de Freitas is located behind Ipanema Beach and is one of the nicer districts within Rio.
There is a walking track around the entire lake that is roughly 7km long and gives you the opportunity to walk, run or bike ride around, with some stunning views of the mountains and Tijuca forest.
In the north part of Lake Rodrigo de Freitas is Parque Lage. This is a public park located at the foot of Corcovado, and in the 1920s this mansion was built for Enrique Lage and his wife and became public property in the 1960s.
The old mansion has a large pool in the centre and is a hot spot for Instagrammers. There is usually a line of people wanting to get the perfect photo.
The park itself contains a small walking trail where you’ll encounter an aquarium, small ponds and a cave you can wander in.
The area is also home to several monkeys, so be sure to dispose of all your food waste properly.
The Corcovado mountain just behind Parque Lage is home to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Christ the Redeemer. This iconic symbol of Rio is visited by millions of tourists and locals every year, some even on a pilgrimage. There are three ways to reach the top of Corcovado mountain:
- Walking the hiking trail – however, this is dangerous to do by yourself or in a small group as mugging do occur
- Take a bus right up to the top
- Take the train
The hike is free but the entrance to the visitor centre in Christ the Redeemer is R$30.00 (£5.50 – 2020). The bus in high season will cost you R$40.00 (£7.30 – 2020). The train will cost you R$82.00 (£15.00 – 2020).
The statue was built in 1931, is 30 meters high and has an arm span of 28 meters wide. Sitting 700 meters above sea level it has always been a symbol of Christianity across the world. It was made a wonder of the world in 2007.
Once you reach the top you may be fighting the crowds, as there are usually so many people at the top trying to get a photo of or with Christ the Redeemer.
You will also get some amazing views of Rio, which are stunning. To get the best views of Christ the Redeemer you should go in the morning with the sun in front of it, and the best views of the city are in the afternoon with the sun behind Christ the Redeemer.
The next famous must-see in Rio is Sugarloaf Mountain.
This site was opened in 1912, and the original cable cars that have been upgraded twice since.
Sugarloaf gets its name from its shape, as it looks like a traditional refined loaf of sugar. In 2012 Sugarloaf Mountain was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it sits on the mouth of Guanabara Bay on the peninsula of Rio.
The mountain is made of granite and quartz and is similar to several others around Rio that have sheer cliff faces. This is why cable cars are the only way to reach the peak of 396 meters.
A ticket will cost you R$104 (£19 – 2020) in high season, and the views are amazing of Guanabara Bay, where you can watch the boats come and go as well as planes land and take off from the domestic airport. At the back of Sugarloaf mountain you get some amazing views of the other mountains and the rainforest around Rio, as well as Copacabana beach.
One final stop in Rio is for football fans – Maracanã Stadium. Home to the Flamengo, Botafogo, Fluminese and Vasco da Gama clubs, it was opened in 1950 and has a capacity of 78,838 (seated) – although once in history for the World Cup against Uruguay it held up to 199,854 spectators who saw Uruguay win 2-1.
A stadium tour costs R$65 (£11.87 – 2020) and it doesn’t include much in comparison to some stadium tours across Europe and America. However, if you are a big football fan I’d recommend it.
When in Rio there is so much to see and do. However, there are also day trips you can do during your visit.
The Tijuca rainforest is within the city limits of Rio, and is part of the Atlantic Rainforest that was largely deforested during the Empire of Brazil, being chopped down for coffee and Tabacco plantations and destroying the river system in Rio.
The Atlantic forest is now only 5% of its original size, with 4% of that in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Although it’s not near it’s original size, the forests today are protected and are being expanded to help local animal and flora populations to thrive.
Tijuca National Park is a section of the forest that divides the city of Rio into four sections. These four sections of forest are great places to go hiking for a full or half day. Three of the four sections are accessible for tourists and production is underway to make a two-week walking trek the far west to Sugarloaf Mountain.
You can complete these hikes by yourself or with a guide, but I recommend a guide in certain sections as there is a risk of being mugged, and it is important to never hike alone.
My hike through Tijuca National Park was only a half day, and it included views over the National Park and a waterfall. I love to hike and totally recommend even those who are not big fans of hiking to give it a go when you visit Rio.
Make sure you bring sunscreen, a hat, lots of water and mosquito repellent.
Another big day trip that is popular from Rio is to take a boat to the Bay of Angras dos Reis, to see Ilha Grande and some of the other 365 islands in this bay. The journey from Rio takes roughly three hours via bus and there are several companies that can take you out on the water.
Their itineraries change daily depending on where other boats are – so no tour is the same – but with enough islands to see one everyday of the year you will be spoilt for choice.
The tour I went on first took me out to the Botinas Islands, which in English means ‘boots’, as the two islands look like two boots.
Here I got the opportunity to go snorkelling as there were several fish around the two islands. This is also a great place to just relax in the water.
I then was taken to Ilha da Jibóia, the second largest island, where we went for an easy 10 minute hike across the island to Dentist’s Beach. This is a lovely location to lay down and do some tanning or have a splash in the protected cove.
Our lunch stop was also on Ilha da Jobóia within another cove, where we were served fish or chicken with a range of sides (especially the Brazilian favourite of black beans on rice).
I will point out that during your time in Rio – unless you go to really fancy restaurants – it’s hard to see many vegetables!
Our final stop was to Bonfim Chapel. This chapel is on an island by itself, and is only open on a Sunday (for obvious reasons). It is really calming and has some views of the Bay Area.
The drive back will take another three hours (with a stop off) and the roads back into Rio are terrible. There were so many potholes it felt like I was going to go flying at many points.
There you have it, my itinerary of Rio de Janeiro for a week. You can spend longer in this city if you want to relax more on the beach, but for those that love to keep busy this will certainly give you enough time to see all of the landmarks and enjoy yourself.
Be sure to be vigilant and careful, as even though it’s a fun, exciting city where the parties seem to never end, it also has dangers you need to avoid with reasonable action.