8 of the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro

The ‘Marvellous City’ has become Brazil’s tourism capital thanks to beautiful beaches, amazing natural surroundings and a delightfully vibrant way of life

Chris Wilson
Tuesday 02 January 2024 16:44 GMT
Such is its fame that Rio de Janeiro is sometimes mistakenly thought of as Brazil’s capital
Such is its fame that Rio de Janeiro is sometimes mistakenly thought of as Brazil’s capital (Getty Images)

Images of raucous Carnival parties, pristine beaches and the vivid colours of the landscape below Christ the Redeemer fill the minds of would-be visitors to this vibrant former capital. For many people, Rio de Janeiro is synonymous with Brazil – the coastal city representing the very idea of Brazil.

The azure waters that surrounded Sugarloaf Mountain, and the golden sands of Copacabana, are landmarks of Rio, and of Brazil as a whole. But the beauty of Rio can also be found in what you unexpectedly discover after arriving, in the lesser-visited spots.

A host of museums and art galleries chronicle both Rio and Brazil’s medieval and colonial past, some remnants of which are visible today, both in the city’s landscapes and in a samba culture throughout neighbourhoods such as Lapa and Santa Teresa.

A city as eclectic as Rio contains an impossibly large number of things to do on your visit, but we’ve rounded up a list of the best to help you plan your visit.

Cocktails and kickabouts on Copacabana or Ipanema

Copacabana is one of the main locations for Rio’s Carnival celebrations (Getty Images)

Rio’s beaches are one of its more recognisable features, and have greatly contributed to the city’s modern-day image. The two-and-a-half mile golden stretch of Copacabana has become as synonymous with Rio as the Redeemer or Sugarloaf, being a focal point of the city for celebrations, protests and everything in between. Usually, the beach is strewn with various characters, from caipirinha-sipping tourists and local kids playing beach football to people taking a stroll along the promenade and vendors plying their trade.

Not too far from the western end of Copacabana, the similarly beautiful yet slightly less well-known Ipanema beach lies in front of the eponymous neighbourhood. More popular with locals, this stretch is a social mixing point, with sports, surfing and LGBT+-friendly sections.

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Ascend to Christ the Redeemer

The Redeemer statue was built between 1922 and 1931 (Getty Images)

El Cristo Redentor towers above the city as a symbol of Christianity known throughout the world. This 38-metre tall, 28-metre wide structure stands on top of the Corcovado mountain.

Though seeing it is easy from many corners of the city, especially when it is lit at night, a journey to the top of the Corcovado mountain to get up close to the statue is one of Rio’s ‘must-do’ activities. Most choose to get to the top via a 20-minute train journey that begins within Tijuca National Park – tickets include a round-trip and entry to the attraction for around £25 online.

Visit during Carnival

Brazil’s Carnival celebrations date back to 1723 (Getty Images)

Few places in the world party like Rio does during Carnival. As celebrations go, this is one of the most famous – and wild – on Earth, perhaps only rivalled by the same festivities in Salvador.

Held every year in the week leading up to Lent (9 February to 14 February in 2024), this festival welcomes around two million people per day to the streets of Rio, revelling in samba-driven street parties, musical performances and large-scale parades in the purpose-built Sambodromo. Up to 500 free street parties take place every day during Carnival, with costumed revellers and samba music making the streets a sea of colour and noise. There are different themes in each so-called bloco, ranging from Super Mario to the Beatles.

Hike up Sugarloaf Mountain

This peak is named after its resemblance to a sugarloaf (Getty Images)

Another symbol of the city, the 396-metre tall Sugarloaf Mountain (known locally as the Pao de Acucar) stands with the Redeemer and Copacabana as the unofficial trinity of Rio’s must-see sites. The summit is accessed by cable car, with the journey taking you first to the top of Urca Hill and then to the peak, as panoramic views over Rio’s hills skyscrapers and sands appear beneath you. At the top, you’ll get to add in views of Christ the Redeemer and more of the city’s coastline.

The cable car journey takes under 10 minutes and costs around £25, with cars leaving every 20 minutes. Visit before sunrise or sunset for the best views, or come around 8am for the quietest time of day.

Sample some nightlife

The Arcos de Lapa, an aqueduct that used to carry water to downtown Rio, is the symbol of the neighbourhood (Getty Images)

Outside of Carnival time, the Lapa neighbourhood is the city’s nightlife centre. It’s a former red light district just south of the centre, and consists of colourful alleys that are home to dozens of clubs, bars and restaurants, with places that cater to both tourists and local revellers. This is the tourist nightlife centre, popular with a younger crowd eager to take advantage of drink and entry deals.

Close by, bohemian and artsy Santa Teresa is a good place for quieter nights on the town, with plenty of traditional cocktail bars and some more chic hangouts. The southern areas around Ipanema and Gavea are popular too, with the Baixo Gavea square known for busy nightlife during the weekend, while Botafogo and Copacabana remain reliable options, with Botafogo the better choice for more rowdy, longer lasting nights out.

Catch a game

The Maracana remains one of football’s most symbolic stadiums for fans the world over (Getty Images)

Brazil’s stylish victories in five World Cups have led to it becoming football’s adopted home. You may be lucky enough to see the national team play at Rio’s Maracana stadium, but if not, try and catch a home game from either local squad Flamengo or 2023 South American champions Fluminense. The 2024 season runs from 14 April to 18 December, giving you a chance to see the beautiful game in one of its spiritual homes.

Stroll through the Botanic Gardens or the Parque Lage

The Botanic Gardens were created by Brazil’s Prince Regent in 1808 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Rio’s parks and gardens provide an oasis of calm in a sometimes dizzying city, away from hectic traffic and hedonistic parties. The most well-known is the Jardim Botanico, a sea of green that spans an 840-acre space filled with around 9,000 tropical plant species.

The more adventurous alternative is the Parque Lage, at the foot of the Corcovado Mountain. This former estate is now a public park, at the centre of which lies a 19th-century mansion surrounded by dense forest and towering hills. Visitors can explore caves and see an aquarium or art exhibitions.

Another scenic spot is the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a tranquil lagoon encircled by a four-and-a-half mile walking and cycling track. Vendors along the route sell food and drink, with the area particularly popular at the beginning of long summer nights.

Visit a museum

The Museum of Tomorrow was built ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games (Getty Images)

It’s easy to swap hedonism for history lessons in Rio. For the low-down on Brazil’s past, start at the National Historical Museum, which contains over 300,000 pieces that help illustrate the country’s complicated history. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a more recent addition to the city is the Museum of Tomorrow, a ground-breaking science museum with exhibits on space, humans and the challenges that we face in protecting the Earth.

The Museum of Modern Art showcases works from the last two centuries – including pieces from Joan Miro and Jackson Pollock – and the Chacara do Ceu, victim of a famous robbery in 2006, holds pieces from a range of international artists, including Henri Matisse.

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