Rio in a Nutshell
I am not a city girl, despite living in a city, and although I thoroughly immerse myself in the joys of city living, I much prefer quiet, open spaces, where nature sounds abound. Yet, I almost instantly fell head-over-heels in love with Rio de Janeiro, and despite spending three weeks discovering this enigmatic city, I left, longing for more. It feels to me as if I’ve hardly scratched the surface of this richly layered city, which is indeed Cidade Maravilhosa or the Wonderful City.
Here is a glimpse of some of the best things to see or do in Rio.
1. Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Rendentor)
The first tram (BR 74 per person, return) leaves at 8 am, and if you, like me, are averse to crowds, being first on the mountain will reward you with breathing space for a short while, and photographs without the bobbing heads of strangers in them.
The views from the top of the 710 m high Corcovado Mountain is simply put, breathtaking, and should not be missed.
Even when going early, the area at the foot of the statue is small, and will soon fill up with jostling bodies. Get away from the crunch by visiting the small chapel at the back, inside the base, of the statue.
At the foot of the mountain, just around the corner from the tram station, past a big bus stop, you will find the charmingly, quiet square of Largo do Boticario. It hints at the grandeur of yesteryear, and with its colourful, but peeling paint, conjures up romantic notions that has nothing to do with the lives or struggles of the people who live there these days.
2. Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) and Urca
Iconic and enduring, Sugar Loaf Mountain has been painted, sketched, and photographed by travelers ever since Rio was founded. One can walk up the first hill, Morro da Urca, and although it is a steep climb, it makes a great alternative to the cable car for those who are up to a challenge. The route is accessed from the lovely walkway, Pista Claudio Coutinho, which wraps itself around one side of Morro da Urca, and is a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll or something more strenuous like running. You may even encounter a group of military recruits on their morning jog if you are lucky. Access to the walkway is at one end of Praia Vermelha, which is a lovely beach frequented by locals. There are various restaurants on Morro da Urca, but for views even more lovely, one has to take the cable car from here up Sugar Loaf Mountain, where more restaurants and bars await. If you take it from the bottom all the way to the top (2 separate stations) it will cost BR 76 per person, return.
The leafy suburb of Urca is often referred to as the safest in Rio, because of the military base at its end, a military college at the other, and one road leading in and out, where a permanent police kiosk stands guard.
Explore the quiet streets, before ending your day drinking a beer on the sea wall with the many locals, who congregate here at sunset. Indulge in barbecued meat at Garota da Urca, or buy an excellent take-away pizza to eat on the wall from the tiny, but excellent Sasso Pizza, near the Zona Sul supermarket.
3. Niteroí City Park (Parque da Cidade de Niteroí)
Some say that the best thing about Niteroí is its view of Rio. I completely agreed with this statement, as I sat gazing back towards Rio from the viewing platform in Niteroí’s Parque da Cidade, even though I am sure there are many other hidden gems in this city that can either be reached via the 13 km long Rio-Niteroí bridge, or ferry. Take a ferry from Praça XV to Charitas, and catch a taxi from there to the City Park.
Worth visiting is the Museum of Contemporary Art. Not so much for the art, as for the views, and wonderful architecture of who is perhaps Brasil’s most beloved architect, Oscar Niemeyer. The entry fee is BR 6, unless you visit on a Wednesday, when it is free. From here it is easy to take a ferry back to Rio from the Arariboia terminal, which is located a short taxi or bus ride from here.
4. Botanic Gardens (Jardim Botânico)
It is a wonderful green space that provides a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 8 am – 5 pm, and Mondays from 12 pm -5 pm.
A short walk away from the Botanic Gardens is Parque Lage, another wonderful green space to explore. There is also a lovely café in what used to be the old manor house.
Two good places for a meal, when visiting the Botanic Gardens are Couve Flor (a pay by kilo restaurant) or La Biciclette for a light meal and good coffee. They are both located in Rua Pacheco Leão that hugs one side of the Botanic Gardens.
5. Take the tram to Santa Teresa
Start your visit at the Arcos da Lapa (Lapa Arches) & Catedral Metropolitana, before heading towards the tram station nearby.
Santa Teresa is often described as bohemian, and is a quaint neighbourhood that deserves exploring by getting lost in its maze of steep streets. Visit the many quirky shops, and stop for a meal or an ice-cold beer at one of the many restaurants.
The Parque das Ruinas & Chacara de Ceu are located next to one another and is well worth a visit.
Make your way down the hill via the Escadaria Selaron or Selaron Stairs, which have become synonymous with Rio, and should not be missed.
6. Discover the centre of town
The Centro or centre of town holds many wonderful gems like the Teatro Municipal, Biblioteca Nacional, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Nossa Senhora da Candelária, Mosteiro de São Bento, and Museu do Amanhã. If you are an art lover, it is worth visiting Paço Imperial and Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB), as both regularly host contemporary exhibitions. The best way to explore this area, though, is to simply walk its streets, and appreciate the contrasts between the old and the new as reflected in its architecture. It is the office hub of Rio, and rather congested during the week, so if you prefer to have more breathing space, you should time your visit here to fall over the weekend.
Have a coffee and selection of delectable pastries at Confeitaria Colombo. Yes, it is very touristy and a bit over-rated, but how often can you say that you’ve been to a tearoom that has been operational since 1894? It recalls an era of elegance with its high floor-to-ceiling mirrors, marble, and stained glass.
7. The Beaches
Rio’s iconic beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon should not be missed, even if, like me, you do not like sizzling in the sun.
Once you’ve explored the beaches, you should also explore the neighbourhoods. I loved shopping in Ipanema best (including the Hippie Market on a Sunday), while Copacabana has an excellent choice of restaurants. For the best view of Copacabana Beach, and a good meal and some craft beer, I would highly recommend Café 18 do Forte at the Forte de Copacabana. El Born is great for tapas, Beefit for healthy juices and vegan food, and Sofa Café for a good cup of coffee. But by far the best food we had in Rio was at Venga, so if you like Spanish food, you should not miss having a meal here.
Arpoador Rock, overlooking Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, is popular to watch the sunset from. While we were in Rio the sunsets were mostly obliterated by clouds or rainstorms, but living in the desert, we celebrated every lightning strike, thunder bolt, and drop of rain that fell.
- While in Rio, make sure you drink at least one Caiparinha (but be careful of this powerful, sugary cocktail, as 3 will have you on your face), enjoy some of the many different craft beers, and eat some of what can arguably be described as the best ice cream in Rio at Bacio di Latte. Also try some Açaí na tigela (frozen Açaí pulp).
- For something special buy some beautiful jewellery created by Maria Oiticica. The Botanical Garden Shop stocks here jewelery, but she also has a stand alone shop in the Rio Sul shopping centre. If you love leather shoes or sandals, a visit to one of the many local Mr Cat stores will make you very happy. And of course, buy a pair of Havaianas in their place of birth.
- If you love books, you should not miss Livraria da Travessa in Ipanema. It is a bookstore that will steal your heart, and although most books are in Portuguese, there are English ones too. Soak up the atmosphere over a cup of coffee or light meal at the in-house café.
- Most museums in Rio are closed on a Monday, but double check with each individual one, as well as their specific timings, to avoid disappointment.
- The buses in Rio are much cheaper than taxis, and are efficient and easy to use. A single trip, will cost you BR 3.80, which you pay in cash to either the bus driver or conductor.
- The cariocas (Rio locals) are friendly, and will warm to you even more if you try to speak some Portuguese. It is amazing how much one can understand, when both parties engage in a dance of language and gesture. Most restaurants have an English menu, even if the staff does not speak English, but it is a lot more fun to stick to the Portuguese version. As a vegetarian, I pointed to pastries, for example, asking if they contained meat. The response I got often was a negative shake of the head, emphasised by the words, “No! No carne. Presunto.” Or “No! No carne. Frango.” I soon learned that presunto is ham, and frango, chicken. It left me hungry, my husband happy, and with both of us two Portuguese words richer, and something to laugh about later.
- It is important to note that Rio is not a cheap city, so brace yourself.
- We stayed at Hotelinho da Urca, which was adequate for our needs. What made it special was the warmth and helpfulness of Andreas, Julio, and Isabel, the tasty breakfasts, and the lovely view from the communal area at the top.
- There are many wonderful opportunities to hike in Rio. It is the one thing I regret not doing whilst there, but the January heat was simply too much for this activity, and is a good reason for me to go back during another season. I am told that April is arguably the best month to visit Rio. The night before we left, I spoke to another tourist, who repeatedly returns to Rio, and always makes use of Trilha a Pé for hiking.
- Rio de Janeiro (A Resident’s Perspective) – Gary Ridge
- Chasing Bohemia: A Year of Living Recklessly in Rio de Janeiro – Carmen Michael
- Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City – Luiz Eduardo Soares
- Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro – Janice Perlman
Visited: January 2017