Traveler’s Guide • Top 10 Places to See in Rio

Two months into my stay in Sao Paulo, my friend and I were getting a bit tired of the “hustle and bustle” character of the city. That is the reason I left New York. So, we planned a weekend getaway to Rio de Janeiro, which I would characterize as Brazil’s LA or Miami, for its slower pace and warm weather.

Thanks to recent athletic events like the Olympics and World Cup, classic songs like “Girl from Ipanema” (1964) and “Copacabana” (1978), and the Pixar film, Rio (2011), the city has gotten the distinction of being one giant party. But this narrow viewpoint is very American and Europeanized. It erases the rest of the city’s worth. To understand the city, you really have to visit it. Besides retaining some of these elements, Rio also preserves its history and culture. We got a chance to visit some of these points in March 2018 and I have compiled them into an all-inclusive guide below. Here are the top 12 places to visit in Rio de Janeiro!

The Beach

Feel like a boujee celebrity by visiting any of Rio’s three prestigious beaches: Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana. If you are looking for a quieter spot than Leblon – which is not yet subway accessible and is not mentioned in any popular songs is your spot to tan on. Neighboring Ipanema is very sporty, has a handsome gay scene, and is of better quality than its counterparts. Lastly, Copacabana is the most touristy and you will get haggled by beach vendors every ten minutes. It arguably is the best for photo opportunities. Make sure to watch the sunset at Arpoador Rock!

Nightlife

After a full day at the beach, hop into the shower and then into an Uber towards one of Rio’s many bars and clubs. Some of its most renowned nightlife can be found in the neighborhoods immediately bordering the beaches.  

Neighborhoods like Lapa and Santa Teresa towards the center are also known for their more “local” nightlife. When visiting with my friends, we were able to get on the list for a concert happening at the local racecourse, so make sure to look out for these kinds of events as well.

Corcovado Train/Christ the Redeemer

Operating Hours: 8 AM to 9 PM, every day; buses leave every 30 minutes

Est. Duration: 2 hours

Entrance Fee: 62 Reais cash or credit (BRL) during weekdays, 75 BRL on holidays or weekends; 49 BRL for children under 11

Everywhere you go in Rio, Christ the Redeemer looms over you. As one of the “7 Wonders of the World,” it is a must see. I am not even religious, but my friends and I went for Easter, and seeing him literally rise was overwhelmed me with emotion. There is a certain thrill to being up there. Some of the best views of the city are from the observation deck – where you get an appreciation for the bay, the mountains, and the urbanity of the place. Additionally, the ride up is in a fun trolley through the woods of the mountain.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Operating Hours: 8 AM to 9 PM, every day; cable car leaves every 30 minutes

Est. Duration: 1.5 – 2 hours

Entrance Fee: 80 BRL cash or credit for main tour; 120 BRL for historic or backstage tours

This mountain, similar to the Corcovado Mountain, offers amazing views of Rio. It can arguably be skipped if you have already been to Corcovado, but you might still want to visit for the following two reasons. One, you go up in a completely different and unique way. A cable car that is suspended more than 300 meters is your ride up! Second, you can go up during or after sunset which allows you to appreciate the city’s beautiful night lights.

Lage Park

Operating Hours: 8 AM to 5 PM, every day; Bistro Restaurant – 9 AM to 11 PM

Est. Duration: 1 hour

Located at the base of Corcovado Mountain, this park provides access to a 2-hour trail that takes you to Christ the Redeemer. I will not be walking that trail (ever), but if that is how you want to get up there, go for it. What is more interesting to me about this park is the Visual Arts School. Opened in 1975, the school is inside a beautiful marble mansion. As a tourist, you can find art exhibitions and a beautiful (but pricey) poolside cafe here. I went in for WiFi and paid like 20 R for a yogurt. The park also has natural caves, an aquarium, and monkeys freely roaming.

Escadaria Selaron

Bust out your most colorful outfit and visit one of the world’s loudest (in terms of how decorated it is and how many people visit it) staircases. Made of hundreds of murals, big and small, from all over the world, this staircase is loads of fun. Some of the best pictures and videos you will get will be captured here. The stairs are also packed with vendors and are great for buying souvenirs and local snacks.

Santa Teresa Tram

Operating Hours: 7 AM to 9 PM, every day; tram every 30 minutes

Est. Duration: 30 minutes

Entrance Fee: 40 BRL cash or credit (round trip)

Similar to San Francisco’s iconic trolley, Rio has one running through some of the city’s central neighborhoods. Historically, the trolley tracks have been much longer, but most of the length has been closed down for renovation. You can still travel about 1 mile on it and get amazing views of the city when going over the former aqueduct. On one end of the trolley is the downtown area and on the other is the hipster neighborhood of Santa Teresa which is a great stop for local artwork.

Maracana Stadium

Operating Hours: 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, every day

Est. Duration: 1 – 1.5 hours

Entrance Fee: 60 BRL cash or credit for guided tour or 50 BRL for unguided; half of for students

The 2007 Pan American Games. The 2014 World Cup. The 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. They all happened right here! I do not even like sports, but even I could not deny how cool being in the presence of all that history is. Inside the museum, you can play interactive games, look at trophies and see the same chairs Queen Elizabeth and Pope John Paul II sat on when visiting Brazil. You also get to stand on the same field where the games went down!

General Downtown

The historic downtown area is the place to go for history and photography buffs. Much of the colonial architecture from the when Brazil was ruled by Portuguese crown and Rio’s period as Brazil’s capital from 1763-1960 are still around. Many of these buildings are decked out in marble, gold, and stone – they are absolutely stunning. Some highlights include:

The Cathedral

Operating Hours: 8 AM to 5 PM, every day

The Royal Portuguese Reading Room

Operating Hours: 9 AM to 6 PM, every day; closed holiday

The Municipal Theatre

Operating Hours: 11 AM to 5 PM, closed Mondays

Est. Duration: 1 hour

Praca Alagoas

Botanical Gardens

Operating Hours: 8 AM to 5 PM, every day; opens at noon Mondays

Est. Duration: 1.5 – 2 hours

Entrance Fee: 15 BRL cash; free for children under 7

You probably know that Brazil contains more than half of the Amazonian Rainforest, right? Well, if you cannot make it out to the rainforest just visit the Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens contain more than 6,500 species of flora that are all home to Brazil including many of those found in the rainforest. Besides the natural art of the flora, the gardens also contain several artsy sculptures and monuments adding to the vibrancy of the park.

Museum of Tomorrow

Operating Hours: 10 AM to 5 PM, every day; closed Mondays and holidays

Est. Duration: 2 hours

Entrance Fee: 20 BRL, free on Tuesdays

Even if you do not go inside this science museum, the incredible and futuristic outside is worth a visit. It is very much in keeping with the vision of Brazil’s premier architect, the deceased Oscar Niemeyer, who was responsible for many of the white futuristic buildings seen throughout many of Brazil’s largest cities.

Ferry/Niteroi

At Brazil’s port make sure to catch a ferry to the city of Niteroi. Besides offering great views of Rio and its monuments, Niteroi has its own charm and significance. There are several monuments and museums currently open or under construction that are being dedicated to architect Oscar Niemeyer. Visit “Oscar Niemeyer Way” to get a better idea of what his work was like.

Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it can also be ugly. Rio is one of cities in Brazil (and the world) with the most economic disproportion amongst classes. The economic gap is evident as you travel throughout the city and see favelas (the equivalent of a ghetto) nestled in mountains, looming over the rest of the city. The poverty is at the same time in your face but is kept at a distance. I tried grappling with some of the feelings I felt experiencing that, as well as theory studied in class, in the following essay.  

For a full photo album with all pictures, go here.

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