Niterói, Cabo Frio, and Búzios are a great start to any Brazil visit.
Did you know Brazil is so vast that you could fit the entire continental U.S. (at least the contiguous 48) inside its borders? Given that, it’s no mean task to figure out exactly where to focus your travel there. On our first trip to Brazil last October, we started with a deep dive into Rio de Janeiro (posts here and here) and then traveled south to Ihla Grande, Paraty, and Florianópolis. We were hooked on Brazil, but we felt we’d just scratched the surface. For a return trip, where would we go and what would we see? And how long would we stay?
The first part of the puzzle dropped right into place. Our good friends Ian and Nicky Mackenzie, creators of the awesome travel blog Above Us Only Skies, were doing an extended house-sit in the Rio-adjacent city of Niterói. If we started there, we’d be able to spend some time with them and get another dose of the Rio de Janeiro magic. From Niterói, we’d rent a car and head east along the coast of Rio de Janeiro State to the historic fishing village of Cabo Frio and then up to Armação dos Búzios, the “St. Tropez of Brazil.”
That’s how we started our second journey to Brazil, which stretched over five weeks in July and August. Over 36 days, we took 10 flights (including 6 domestic), visited at least 12 towns and cities, and stayed in 11 different accommodations. In this post, we focus on those first three destinations – Niterói, Cabo Frio, and Búzios – all within an easy day’s drive from Rio de Janeiro.
Usual note: Some of the photos are in galleries – just click on the first to see a bigger version and click through each.
Niterói: Rio’s Surprising Sister City
Most visitors to Rio de Janeiro don’t give Niterói much thought, although it is a bustling city of 500,000 in its own right. Situated just across Guanabara Bay, it’s just a quick and scenic ferry ride across from Rio’s oldest historic district, Praça XV. Overland, Niterói connects to Rio by the President Costa e Silva Bridge. (Fun fact: This bridge is the second longest in Latin America.) Niterói offers gorgeous views of the Rio skyline, fabulous and wild Atlantic beaches just a short bus ride away, and great restaurants. You probably won’t find any other tourists there; it’s working city that happens to be incredibly scenic. It’s a hidden treasure!
- Just as in Rio, Niterói is extremely well-served by Uber. The ferries to Rio leave from the Terminal Araribóia every 20 minutes or so from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (a ticket will set you back about $1.50 US, or it’s free if you’re old!).
- Two perfect places to watch the sun set behind the world-renowned Rio skyline are Praia São Francisco and Praia Charitas. Kick back and dig your feet in the sand at one of the beach quiosques, little stands selling chopps (draft beers), caipirinhas, and snacks.
- At the Mercado São Pedro, you can buy fresh fish and then have one of the restaurants upstairs cook it up for lunch.
- DO NOT MISS the pasteles de camarãoes, piping-hot fried pastries stuffed with shrimp and cheese, served at outdoor markets. We had ours at the Pastel Chorinho stand at a pop-up market in the São Francisco neighborhood. They’re absolutely to die for!
Rio: Dipping Back In
While we were staying in Niterói, we took the opportunity to ferry back over to Rio on two different days. We wanted to revisit some of our favorite haunts from last October and also take in a couple of new sights. Although we had ridden to the top of Rio’s iconic Sugarloaf previously, we’d heard it was possible to hike halfway up – to the top of Morro de Urca – and then catch the cable car to the top. That we did, and we also explored the nearby Urca neighborhood. On another day, we revisited the Ipanema area and discovered the historic Pedro do Sal neighborhood with Ian and Nicky.
- The hike to the top of Morro de Urca is a bit steep in places but is relatively short and easy. It starts on the left as you’re facing Praia Vermehla (Red Beach) and is well marked. When you get to the top, you’ll need to buy your ticket for the cable car ride to the Sugarloaf summit and then back down. There are plenty of friendly, English-speaking folks up there to guide you.
- In the Urca neighborhood, we had a fantastic lunch at Bar Urca. Another nice lunch spot, just off Praia Vermehla, is Terra Brazilias.
Cabo Frio: A Fishing Village with a Colonial Pedigree
After a few days in Niterói, we rented a car and drove two hours east to the laid-back fishing town of Cabo Frio. As a bonus, Nicky and Ian came along for the ride (returning to Niterói later that day via BlaBlaCar). Founded by the Portuguese in 1615, Cabo Frio boasts gorgeous beaches and a beautiful colonial district called Passagem. The unexpected culinary scene and gorgeous beaches of Cabo Frio draw hordes of Brazilian vacationers but relatively few international visitors.
On our way to Cabo Frio, we made a stopover at Arraial do Cabo for a quick look at one of the most breathtaking beaches we’ve ever seen: Praia do Pontal do Atalaia. This beach is renowned for its swimming and diving, and – as we later found out – is a prime location for spotting humpback whales. We parted company with Ian and Nicky there, and sure enough, they spied whales offshore a little while later. Wish we’d hung out just a bit longer! Just across the channel from Pontal do Atalaia is the world-renowned Praia do Farol, accessible only by water taxi or tour boat.
Cabo Frio tips:
- We loved our accommodation, the Hotel Paradiso del Sol, right on the little Passagem beach and just a couple of blocks from Cabo Frio’s renowned gastronomic district.
- Favorite restaurants were Arcos do Canal for fabulous Brazilian-inspired Italian cuisine, Ikoniko for inventive and yummy sushi, and Jose Bakery for tasty desserts and cappuccinos. Guess we were needing a break from Brazilian fare!
- A great lunch spot on Praia do Peró, with super-friendly people, is Restaurante Âncora.
Búzios: Brigitte Bardot Slept Here
Just up and around the cape from Cabo Frio is the resort town of Armação dos Búzios. Once a quiet fishing town with echos of Brazil’s whaling past, Búzios became a favorite stop for the international jet set after French actress Brigitte Bardot lived there for a time in the 1960s. Although Búzios is undeniably more upscale, it still retains its aura of a bygone fishing village. And the nearby beaches are breathtaking.
- If you’re driving, pay close attention to the metered parking areas. Some places have automated pay stations, but others have attendants walking around nearby to take your money.
- We can’t recommend our lodging in Buzios for a variety of reasons (just Contact Us if you want the details).
- Our favorite dining experience was the waterfront Restaurante O Barco, known for its moqueca – a type of fish stew made with coconut milk and Brazilian dende oil. It was fantastic! (Thank you, Gilda Baxter of the blog Traveler Interrupted for the recommendation.)
- We had another great dining experience at Silk Beach Club on Praia Joao Fernandes (although it was a bit of a process to get in).
- Cabo Frio and Búzios are only about a half-hour drive from each other. We spent a few nights in each, but if we could do it again we’d base ourselves in Cabo Frio and spend more time exploring Arraial do Cabo.
- Renting a car is not terribly expensive in the Rio area and the best way to see all of the beaches and other sights around Cabo Frio and Búzios. We were pleased with our rental car from Movida. Picking up the car in Niterói and then returning it in Rio at the domestic airport only added a little to the cost and made it easier to catch our flight from Rio to Recife.
- As we discovered on our last trip, buying a local SIM card in Brazil is not easy for non-residents. Most providers require customers to hold a CPF number (the Brazilian taxpayer identity number). Last October, the only provider we could find that didn’t require CPF was TIM – and we ended up paying through the nose for it. But with this trip we tried something new: an eSIM from Airalo. Not only was it less expensive than TIM, but the convenience of stepping off the plane and instantly having cell service was a joy. Maybe an eSIM isn’t the right solution for everyone, but it worked perfectly for us.
- On this trip, we discovered that being “oldsters” has its benefits. Many museums and other attractions offer discounts, or even free entry, to folks over 60. Just ask!
Niterói, Cabo Frio and Búzios were a perfect beginning to this epic trip. From Búzios, we drove back to Rio de Janeiro and took an early flight to Recife in the northern state of Pernambuco. In that area, we’d explore Brazil’s colonial Portuguese roots and visit one of the most beautiful islands we’ve ever seen. Stay tuned to our blog to find out more, and visit us on Instagram for more photos!
Coming Up: Recife and Olinda on Brazil’s North Coast