When I first booked my trip to Rio de Janeiro with my friend from college, I was surprised when several people actually warned me to be careful. A few even told me not to go. No one had ever told me not to go somewhere, especially people who know me well. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been anywhere truly dangerous, but Rio has that reputation. But in reality, it is only dangerous to tourists who aren’t careful about where they go and who don’t keep an eye on their belongings.
Before I arrived, I was told by people who had been there, including Brazilians, where to stay and to avoid any area designated as a favela. Three areas that are safe for tourists to stay, and just happen to be the most desirable, are Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblun. All three have beautiful beaches, a plethora of hotel and Airbnb options, restaurants, nightlife, and the cafe scene is actually starting to take off in these areas. I was surprised at the lack of quality coffee and cafes in Copacabana. In one week, I only managed to find two cafes that served up a decent cuppa Joe, and my hotel was NOT one of them. I get the impression that properly brewed coffee and cafes with atmosphere are soon going to be more popular in Rio.
After all the warnings and all the hype about Rio being a dangerous place, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I LOVED IT! And so did my friend. It’s a beautiful city with something for everyone. I would go back in a minute, and here’s why!
#1 Beautiful beaches, and lots of them
The beaches in Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblun have white sand, beautiful blue water, and beachfront casual dining. I have to mention that anything you might want to buy will eventually walk by you while you lounge in the sun. Jewelry, sunglasses, juice, water and soft drinks, bikinis, hats, you name it. Even grilled shrimp on a grill! And I can’t forget to mention my favorite item, caipiranha, a refreshing lime and rum drink that I quickly became addicted to! What I liked most about the vendors was that they weren’t pushy and knew how to take no for an answer. The food and drink sellers just call out what they are selling and only stop if you flag them down.
Beaches in Rio are beautiful and fun, with lots of opportunities to play volleyball and other beach sports. But I have to include a word of caution here. Do not take valuables to the beach, and NEVER leave your bag unattended or out of your line of sight. Thieves and vendors are very skilled at taking bags, so just don’t take one. We were told to put our sunscreen, water, and snacks in a plastic grocery bag and leave everything else in the hotel room, including our phones.
Of course, we didn’t listen, and my friend’s bag got swiped when we were both facing away from our bags, lying in the sun, wide awake and talking to each other. We made two mistakes – bringing our phones (but they didn’t take my bag for some reason) and turning our chairs so our bags were behind us. Whatever you decide to take to the beach, keep it in your sight at all times.
#2 Trekking in the forest just 30 minutes from the beach
Behind the infamous Christ the Redeemer statue lies Tijuca National Park. This area is actually a forest that was reconstituted over 100 years ago because the government at the time realized the problems deforestation was posing to the water supply to the city. Now it is lush, green, and host to an amazing array of flora and fauna. You can hike in Tijuca by yourself, but not all trails are clearly marked, so a guide is recommended. My friend and I had a guide through Jungle Me tours, and I think having a guide made all the difference.
Our guide, Eddie, gave us a history lesson before our trek started. We learned about how Rio came to be developed the way it is, reforestation, and the current political situation in Brazil. It was fascinating, unlike my high school history class… We did the Peaks and Waterfalls trek offered by Jungle Me, the longest and most challenging, although if you’re reasonably fit, it’s not difficult. From the two peaks, you can see almost all of Rio. Beautiful views and and waterfalls make this trek my top pick. On our back to the city, Eddie took us to the Chinese Vista, a beautiful pagoda with incredible views of almost all of Rio. We also avoided traffic by going this way, so ask your guide if you can do the same.
#3 The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue
While I wasn’t that impressed with this particular tourist attraction, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Corcovado (“hunchback” in Portuguese) Peak, located in Tijuca National Park, is where the infamous Christ the Redeemer statue is located. There are three ways to get there on your own, none of them expensive. This attraction is offered on tours, but prices vary. In my opinion, a guide is unnecessary and it is much cheaper to go on your own.
We were warned about walking up the very steep trail, which takes about 3-4 hours. We warned about it being steep, but about it being potentially dangerous. People have been robbed on this trail, especially since tourists are likely to have money, phones, and cameras on them. My friend and I decided not to take the trail because it was so hot and humid, and I not too proud to admit it. As far as I know, the cost to take the trail is free but you’ll pay about R$31 or about 9 USD to enter Christ the Redeemer.
Tourists can also take a tram or a van, and the entrance fee to the Redeemer is included. We took the van since it departed from Lido Park which was steps from our hotel. A ticket all the way to the visitor’s center at the top was R$62 or about 18 USD. From the visitor’s center, you only have to climb about 50 steps, and you’ll practically get hit in the face by Christ the Redeemer. Once you reach the top, there are numerous viewpoints with outstanding views of Rio and the sea. It was a bit hazy the day we were there, so not that great for taking pictures, but the views were incredible.
The tram departs from the neighborhood of Cosme Velho, and is about a 40 minute walk from the nearest subway station, Largo do Machado. Uber or a taxi are also an option to get the Corcovado train station. The train is about R$74 or 21 USD. The tram looks pretty cool and is rumored to have beautiful views on the way up, but the van was just too convenient for us.
It’s also possible to drive yourself if you’re brave -and patient – enough to tackle driving in Rio. I wish you all the best with that. Drivers will park at Paineiras and take a city van the rest of the way (just like we did when we took a van) or you can walk the rest of the way on the road. Prices for the entrance and van from Paineiras are about R$40 or 11 USD.
#4 Sugarloaf Cable Car
My friend and I opted for another day at the beach rather than experiencing the cable car. We’d already seen views of Rio from multiple viewpoints, but on my next trip, I will definitely do this. The cable car departs at 8:00AM, 11:00AM, and 2:00PM. It holds 65 people (insert bug-eyed emoji here!). I would suggest buying tickets in advance, especially during peak season, since departure times and numbers are limited. The cheapest excursion is R$80 or about 22 USD, but there are several cool tours to choose from.
The Historic Tour and Backstage Tour are both R$120. I think they both sound particularly interesting and might make the trip more memorable, especially if you’ve already seen views of Rio from other viewpoints. There is no need to book an organized tour through a third party unless you want the convenience of transportation to the cable car. You can buy your tickets directly through the Sugarloaf Cable Car website.
#5 Visit Rio’s Historic Center and Santa Teresa Neighborhood
My friend and I chose to visit the historic center on our own, which I now think may have been a mistake. Free Walker Tours has several free walking tours to choose from (the expectation is that tourists tip the guide) and I wish we had done the downtown tour. It would have made what we saw much more meaningful. What we experienced was beautiful architecture, street art, street markets, and some surprisingly uncrowded streets just made for walking. There are also some of the oldest restaurants in Rio. We chose one full of locals and were not disappointed.
Free Walker Tours also offers a food tour in the Santa Teresa neighborhood that I would love to check out the next time I go to Rio. We only had six days in Rio and we wanted plenty of beach time. That said, this food tour is definitely on my to-do list for the next time. The cost is R$95 or 27 USD. It includes about 8 food samples and a tour of the Santa Teresa neighborhood, including the Selaron steps.
#6 Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro
The Metropolitan Cathedral is, quite frankly, one of the strangest buildings I’ve ever seen. In my opinion, it’s not a beautiful building, but it’s unusual and eclectic. That’s exactly the reason I recommend going to see it. It was built between 1964 and 1979. The most interesting feature is the cross that is displayed not behind the altar, as it is in most cathedrals, but suspended from the ceiling in the front of the altar. It’s rather unorthodox shape is modeled after the Mayan pyramids. The architect is Edgar Fonseca. He certainly created a unique work of art when he designed this cathedral.
#7 …and so Much More!
Six days is just not enough to see and experience Rio to its fullest. In addition to what I’ve mentioned, there’s still the botanical garden, hang gliding, aquarium, and museums. The people of Rio are friendly and helpful, the food is amazing, accommodation is reasonable. There is never a dull moment in this city.
If you’re interested in tours rather than going on your own, there are a lot of great options. I was so pleased with our tour of Tijuca National Park. There are other great tours I would like to take the next time I go. If you’d like to look at tours, including tours of the botanical gardens and Tijuca, there are some great tours through this Viator link.