Rio de Janeiro is a postcard come to life!
Rio de Janeiro is a city larger than life, home of legendary beaches, birthplace of the samba and bossa nova, and watched over by Cristo Redentor, the ginormous Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain. I will never forget standing in awe at the foot of the Cristo and thinking, “It’s not a postcard! It’s real, and we’re here!”
Rio de Janeiro is a city of superlatives.
Rio is enormous, the second most populated city (with almost 7 million) in South America’s biggest country. And it’s Brazil’s most touristed city.
Rio’s geographical location is second to none. From its stunning and world-famous beaches to the landmark granite peaks that define the skyline and tumble to the Pacific Ocean, Rio de Janeiro is truly unique geographically. We honestly have not seen a more beautiful city.
Rio has a storied history. Rio de Janeiro, the River of January, gets its name from the first Portugeuse explorers to visit the area. Landing in January 1502, they believed the huge bay they encountered (now called Guanabara Bay) was the mouth of a river. Rio served as the capital of the Portuguese Empire for almost seven years and the capital of Brazil from 1763 to 1960, when the capital was moved to the new city of Brasilia. And in an unprecedented move in 1808, the entire Portuguese royal court – lead by Prince Regent Dom João VI – relocated to Rio to escape Napoleon’s advancing troops. This marked the first time in history that a Portuguese sovereign left Europe to live in a colonial territory, and Dom João and his family stayed in Rio until 1822. There’s lots more about this fascinating history here.
Rio is home to icons. Ever heard of a little ditty called Girl From Ipanema? Penned by a Carioca (Rio native) named Antônio Carlos Jobim, it’s the second-most recorded pop song in history (after Yesterday by the Beatles).
Rio was also the childhood home of Carmen Miranda, the famous film star of the ’30s and ’40s who danced with the “Tutti-Frutti Hat.” And too many other famous politicians, scientists, sports stars, and entertainers to name here.
Altogether, we spent 8 full days in Rio de Janeiro in October on our first-ever trip to Brazil. Check out our tips for first-timers here. We packed so much in that we decided to divide our Rio information into two posts. Here we look at things to see and do beyond the downtown historic district.
Usual note: Some of the photos are in galleries – just click on the first one to see full versions of each.
Corcovado Mountain and Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor is Rio’s most potent and recognizable symbol, watching over the city from atop the 700-meter Corcovado Mountain. Completed in 1931 in a striking art deco style, the Cristo himself towers at a height of 30 meters. There are very few places in Rio where you can’t spot the Cristo, and his position is so commanding that the statue receives up to five direct lightning strikes every year (check out this AMAZING video of a strike in 2014 that was particularly damaging). The city of Rio is committed to funding restorations as needed, although it’s getting harder to source the statue’s pale gray-green soapstone.
Our tips for visiting Cristo Redentor:
Make sure you pick your weather, because the Cristo is often shrouded in low clouds. It was pretty cloudy for most of our Rio visit, but if the weather was cooperating, we had a view of the statue from our hotel room balcony. When we could finally see the Cristo on a gorgeous, sunny morning, we went for it – and we were rewarded by perfect views and sapphire skies.
We rode in a shared van from Copacobana Beach all the way to the foot of the Cristo, but we ended up riding the more-scenic red “cog train” back down to the Cosme Velho neighborhood and catching an Uber back to our hotel. If you choose the van route, go to the Praça do Lido just across from the beach on Av. Atlântica near the Cardeal Arco Verde subway stop. You can’t miss the big ticket kiosk. Round-trip tickets for the van are about $12 US apiece.
And GO EARLY! We can’t stress this enough. On a sunny day, the Cristo is guaranteed to be crowded with tourists any time of the year. The statue opens at 8 a.m.
Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain)
Pão de Açucar is almost as iconic as Corcovado, rising 396 meters above the entrance to Guanabara Bay. Supposedly the peak gets its name from early Portuguese explorers, who thought it resembled the rounded loaves of sugar they carried onboard their ships. Riding the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf is a must-do, especially at sunset – and the fantastic views made for one of our most unforgettable Rio experiences. Also worth a visit: Red Beach, the beautiful beach just to the southeast of Sugarloaf.
Our tips for visiting Sugarloaf:
Just like Corcovado, it pays to watch the weather for Sugarloaf. If there are low-hanging clouds and you can’t see the top in mid-afternoon, it’s probably a no-go. If you want to catch the full effect of the sunset, plan on boarding the cable car at around 4 p.m. And yes, it might be crowded, especially during high season on a clear day. There are beaucoup bars and restaurants on top, but they close early – just after sunset.
We paid about $15 each for round-trip tickets to the top of Sugarloaf, with an intermediate stop at the top of Urca Hill (price depends on your age, and also the time of year). There’s also an option to hike up as far as Urca Hill, which we’ll try next time. The cable cars leave every 20 minutes or so from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. If you want to skip the (sure-to-be-long) queue to buy tickets on site, you can purchase them in advance online.
Say the words “Rio beaches”‘ and Copacabana and Ipanema are probably the first to spring to mind. We were a bit partial to Copacabana and the adjacent cozy neighborhood, since we stayed right across the street from the beach in the Portobay Hotel.
We were interested to learn that Copacabana was once cut off from central Rio de Janeiro by a range of rugged hills, and was reachable only by boat until the construction of the Tunel Velho in the late 19th century. With that new access, tourism and development took off – and by the ’20s and ’30s, Copacabana was a sought-after destination for wealthy Cariocas. The Copacabana Palace Hotel, opened in 1923, still resides in stately splendor on the beach.
Rio de Janeiro is known for its black-and-white mosaic sidewalks, a custom adopted from mother country Portugal. Each neighborhood sports its own distinct pattern, but the wavy Copacabana design has become the most famous. You’ll find the walkways not only along the beach promenade, but throughout the Copacabana neighborhood. And if you look closely, you might spot one of the QR codes the city has installed in the mosaic to provide tourist information for visitors.
Cemetery of São João Batista
If you’re a taphophile (lover of cemeteries) as we are, the São João Batista Cemetery is a must-visit. It’s the Père Lachaise of Brazil, the final resting place of famous Brazilian artists, actors, writers, entertainers, inventors, and politicians. Situated in the shadow of Corcovado in the Botafuco neighborhood, São João Batista occupies 45 acres and includes more than 80,000 graves and some beautiful statuary.
Our tips for visiting São João Batista Cemetery:
It’s a good idea to take an Uber or taxi, since the cemetery really isn’t within walking distance to the subway and is surrounded by a somewhat rough neighborhood. We went by bike as part of a guided bike tour (see our Other Tips below). There’s no real signage or a map of the grounds inside; just ask an attendant if you’re looking for the grave of someone specific.
Lagoa and the Botanical Garden
Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (or simply Lagoa) is a large seawater lagoon in Rio’s upscale Lagoa district, bounded by Ipanema Beach and the Leblon district to the south and massive Parque Lage (home of Corcovado Mountain and Cristo Redentor) to the north. The Lagoa is ringed with a smooth and easy bike path and many lakeside restaurants and bars.
Rio’s sprawling and historic Jardim Botânico lies east and within easy walking distance of the Lagoa. Founded in 1808 by King John VI of Portugal, the garden has been continuously open to the public since 1822. A UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve, the Botanical Garden is a wonderland of exotic palms and orchids, landmark architecture, and troupes of acrobatic monkeys flying overhead in the trees.
We spent a pleasant morning riding rented bikes around the Lagoa and then visiting the Botanical Garden. Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time for the garden – it’s HUGE and we barely scratched the surface of everything to see. Next time . . .
There are numerous bike rental outfits along the Lagoa bike path. You’ll find the entrance to the Botanical Garden on Rue Botânico on the other side of the Jockey Club Brasileiro on the eastern side of the Lagoa. The garden is open every day from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and adult admission is about $13. There’s a spot to lock your bike just inside.
Our lodging. We had a fantastic stay at Hotel Porto Bay. Not only is the hotel right across the street from Copacobana Beach and within walking distance to some great restaurants, but the staff was incredibly accommodating. Case in point: After our red-eye flight from Medellín, Colombia, we arrived at the hotel at about 6:30 a.m. We must have looked more dead than alive, because the friendly desk manager worked some magic and got us into our room in about an hour, giving us time to enjoy breakfast first.
Take a bike tour. We had a great day with Douglas at Rio by Bike. The bike outfit is conveniently located in the Copacabana neighborhood a few blocks from our hotel. We did the Ultimate Rio Tour, which took about 7 hours and covered many places we might not have discovered on our own (big example: the the São João Batista Cemetery).
Restaurants. In the Copacabana district, we loved Quiosque Atlântico on the beach directly across from our hotel; Kinjo Nikkei for sushi and other Asian delights; Restaurante Basha for outstanding Lebanese cuisine; and Zagga Pizza Bar. If you’re visiting Sugarloaf, check out Terra Brazilis – a fabulous open-air restaurant overlooking Red Beach. And if you’re a fan of cachaça, the firewater that powers Brazil’s national drink, the capirinha, you must visit the Academia da Cachaça in the Leblon district. This place has the largest selection of cachaças we saw in any restaurant, and the friendly staff is more than happy to bring you samples (be careful, though – that stuff sneaks up on you!). The food is also excellent – try the feijoada, a type of black bean stew that is one of Brazil’s national dishes.
Getting around. Uber is fantastic in Rio – it’s fast, reliable, and convenient. We also relied heavily on the Metro subway system to get us to and from Copacabana when visiting the downtown areas. We did take one taxi from the international airport to our hotel after a mixup with our hotel driver (the Portobay more than made it up to us).
Timing. We visited Rio in October, shoulder season. The weather wasn’t perfect, but we did have some sunny days – and we were still able to enjoy off-season prices (including our hotel) and fewer crowds at most places.