Instead of being Brazil’s rough and tough bad boy, Rio de Janeiro could be the most beautiful city on the planet. There are the ocean, the beaches, the hills, the vegetation, the views….I could go on and on.
But then there is the poverty, the violence, the hopelessness, the corruption, the dirt….I could go on and on.
And I do. In this refined guide to a rough city.
When visiting Brazil, a trip to Rio is inevitable. The country’s most important icons are not in São Paulo. They are neither in Recife nor in Salvador.
Whether it’s Christ the Redeemer, whether it’s the sugar loaf or the world’s most famous beaches Copacabana and Ipanema – all these sights and signs are right here.
So – bem vindos no Rio!
- Bem Vindos no Rio!
- Different Conditions in the Hoods
- Practical Information
- Pinnable Pictures
Bem Vindos no Rio!
From 1815 to 1821, Rio de Janeiro was actually the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. After Brazil’s independence, it remained the country’s capital until 1960. After that, she ceded this function to Brasília. However, with around 6.5 million inhabitants, Rio remains the country’s most important commercial and financial center after São Paulo.
A chain of hills divides the urban area into two parts. The Zona Sul, the Southern Zone, stretches along the Atlantic coast. Hence, here are also the famous beach districts of Ipanema and Copacabana. The northern part, on the other hand, includes the historic city center and today’s business center.
The guide to Rio that you are about to read is structured according to this geographical layout.
Different Conditions in the Hoods
The above-mentioned granite hills also include the two landmarks of Rio, the 394 meters high Sugar Loaf, located directly on a peninsula in Guanabara Bay, and the 704 meters high Corcovado with the Christ statue on the summit. Another one is the 533 meters high Morro Dois Irmãos. The highest point of the urban area is the 1022 meter high Pico da Tijuca, which is located in the middle of an extensive nature reserve.
Although it is quite normal that a big city consists of different neighborhoods, the immense socio-economic differences in Rio de Janeiro are just mindblowing – and sometimes also heartbreaking.
Most tourists and travellers stay in the Copacabana area which is understandable since you have the iconic beach literally at your feet. On the other hand, it is the best place to learn basically nothing at all about many other aspects of Brazil.
However, right behind the Copacabana is the Leme neighborhood which gives you a far better idea of what Brazil is really like.
Botafogo and Flamengo
I stayed in the Botafogo district. To me, it’s the ideal place, hence, I can only recommend it.
Botafogo is a mostly residential, middle-class neighborhood. Rather quiet, yet very pleasant. Also, it’s only one subway stop to the famous beaches. It is really close to the – partly a bit too run down – business center with all the museums and shopping opportunities.
Talking ’bout shopping: There is a big mall right next to the beach in Botafogo.
A beach? Yes, that’s right, there is also a beach, but unfortunately you can only go for a walk there and enjoy the incredible view of the Sugar Loaf since it’s far to dirty to bath or sunbath there.
A huge plus is Botafogo’s location: There is an incredible number of buses passing in front of the shopping mall, the ‘Metrô na Superficie’ – which is just a faster bus and no Metrô at all – and two subway lines. It cannot get more convenient!
Very similar is the Neighborhood of Flamengo, only it’s not as centrally located as Botafogo, but only one subway stop away.
I would always prefer the las two neighborhoods for their closeness to Brazilian life.
I also love the neighborhood of Santa Teresa which is on one of the many ‘morros’, the hills typical for Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately it’s located amidst a couple of Favelas, one of theme being the notorious Morro dos Prazeres – Hill of Pleasures. This Favela was considered pacified until recently two tourists were shot there; accidentally, wrong moment – wrong place, but does that really matter?!
According to prudent Cariocas, as the people of Rio are called, even the once pacified Favelas are dangerous again. I personally would not go there – especially since I find it a bit weird to go to a neighborhood to see how poor people live. Just ask yourself if you are doing this in your city, too – and then ask yourself why you should do it in Rio.
However, Santa Teresa is beautiful and they have hostels there. I don’t know how people who stay there manage.
Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro
Let’s just work our way around Rio starting in the west. The south-west, to be precise. And precise is key here since the northern parts of the city are the rough regions while the farther south you get, the more sophisticated get the neighborhoods.
About four blocks north of the beach of Ipanema is the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Wealthy Cariocas enjoy walking and jogging around this beautiful lagoon or hanging out at the posh Clube dos Caiꞔaras.
As you walk westwards around the lagoon, enjoying great views of Rio, you’ll first get to the Hipódromo da Gávea, the Jockey Club. It’s worth to take a closer look at the club’s fence since it’s decorated with a fun mural of viewers of a horse race.
At the end of the club, turn left into the Rua General Garzon and you arrive at the north entrance of the Jardim Botânico, Rio’s botanic garden, mostly known for its glorious palm-fringed avenue. But there are definitely many attractions – 9,000 plants from about 1,500 different species beautifully arranged between walkways, on hills, around ponds, and fountains.
If you want to spend a couple of hours in a tranquil environment, soothing for the eye and the soul alike, this is the place to go.
Of course, you do not have to walk around the lagoon to get to the garden. There are many buses going there – just type your starting point in this map and you’re ready to go.
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 8 a. m. to 5 p. m. and Monday from noon to 5 p. m.
The entrance fee is R$ 15 and they don’t accept credit cards – which is very unusual in Brazil.
Well, besides the Cristo and the Sugar Loaf, the southern part of the city is what Rio stands for: The beaches!
They are city beaches, yes. However, they are very nice and relatively clean.
It starts in the west with Praia do Leblon, leading into the Praia de Ipanema and Praia do Arpoador.
In this spot, you cannot continue, but have to cross the Parque Garota de Ipanema.
From this park called after the girl of Ipanema, you need to walk down the Rua F Otaviano before you can get back to the beach. Yes, the world’s famous Praia de Copacabana.
The Copacabana is hemmed with bars and restaurants, there is a market where you can buy souvenirs, there are public bathrooms – they really make sure that tourists have a good time.
Pão de Açûcar
Behind the Morro do Leme is Urca, another very nice part of Rio, crowned by the Pão de Açûcar, the sugar loaf.
Going up is devided in two parts – first you get to the Morro do Urca and eventually to the Pão. From here you have the most glorious view.
For R$ 80, you can go up every day between 8 a. m. and 7.50 p. m.
Once you are in the Urca and Praia Vermelha neighborhood, make sure to stroll around a bit – from here you can even walk along Avenida Pasteur to Botafogo – passing the Yacht club and the soccer club house of the rather hapless team of Botafogo.
Cristo Redentor and Trem do Corcovado
To get to the next – and most important – attraction of Rio de Janeiro, you have to leave the coastline and take the subway at Botafogo station northbound to Largo do Machado – which is two stops. There you catch bus #583 that takes you straight to the Trem do Corcovado – the train taking you up to Jesus.
This Christ statue was created in the art deco style by French sculptor Paul Landowski. The sculpture – 30 meters tall – was constructed between 1922 and 1931. Christ is protecting the city of Rio with his arms opened over a stretch of 28 meters.
Note: You cannot buy a ticket for the same day at the trem station. You need to buy the ticket either online or from an authorized dealer. At the trem station’s booth, you can only change your voucher for your ticket. Especially during high season, I recommend getting your ticket well ahead.
Trem do Corcovado
Rua Cosme Velho 513
Rio de Janeiro
Phone: + 55 – 21 – 25 58 13 29
The Cristo Redentor can be visited from Tuesday to Sunday from 8 a. m. to 7 p. m.
The train is leaving every 30 minutes and online-tickets are R$ 89.50 during high season and R$ 72.50 during low season.
Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM)
Continue the coastline up north passing Praia do Flamengo and you’ll get the Parque do Flamengo where the quite interesting Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) is located.
This venue is located in a park designed by one of the most influential landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. I’m introducing another of his fantastic creations in my post on Inhotim, a mesmerizing botanic garden and art venue on the outskirts of Brumadinho. Roberto Burle Marx is actually distantly related to German philosopher and politician Karl Marx.
Although the museums own a collection of 12,000 pieces, their temporary exhibitions are far more interesting.
Escadaria do Selarón
Walk down the Avenida Infante Dom Henrique and turn right into Rua Teixeira de Freitas and follow Rua Teotônio Regadas – here you are, at one of the most intriguing pieces of Rio’s street art, the Escadaria do Selarón.
These stairs leading to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa consist of 215 beautifully decorated steps.
Chile-born Jorge Selarón decorated them with tiles from over 60 countries: First, the artist used tiles from construction sites and waste dumps, but eventually, visitors from around the world contributed.
Of the over 2000 tiles, about 300 are handpainted by the artist depicting a pregnant African woman. Selarón claimed he financed his work by selling more than 25,000 portraits of this lady.
Jorge Selaron settled in Rio de Janeiro in 1983 and began to ‘renovate’ the stairs in 1990. Until his mysterious death in 2013 he never considered his work done. As soon as he finished one section, he started to work on another one.
Selarón was found dead on his famous steps on January 10, 2013. Until this day the circumstances of his death are unclear.
I’ve dedicated an entire post to Rio’s fantastic Street Art.
Parque das Ruinas
Once you climb up the stairs – which might take a while not because of the height, but because there are millions of details to be admired – you can continue your walk to the Parque das Ruinas from where you have the best view of all that makes Rio grand.
Little tip: If you don’t have much time in Rio and can make it to only one observation platform, you might consider coming to this park instead of standing in line at the Trem do Corcovado or the Bonde Pão de Açûcar.
From the Parque das Ruinas, it’s only a short walk – alongside cute little specialty shops, you might consider doing your souvenir shopping right here – to the Largo do Guimarães. From here you can take the old Bonde, the tram, back down to Lapa.
It is better to do it this way for two reasons: Climbing the Selarón stairs up gives you a much better view at all the details than taking them down; and while they charge you R$ 20 for the tram when coming up, taking it downhill from Santa Teresa is actually free.
Coming back from Santa Teresa to Lapa, you’ll find yourself in the city’s old, historic neighborhoods – and busiest business and shopping streets.
Walk down the Rua Evaristo da Veiga to the Praça Floriano dominated on its northern end by the Teatro Municipal, built from 1904 to 1909 in an Eclectic and Art Nouveau style – inspired by the opera house in Paris.
Next to it, you’ll find the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, housing fine international and Brazilian art such as sculpture, painting, drawings, and photography.
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
Avenida Rio Branco, 199 – Centro (Cinelândia) Rio de Janeiro RJ – CEP: 20040-008 – Telefone: (21) 3299-0600
Terça a sexta-feira das 10 às 18hs; Sábados, domingos e feriados das 13 às 18 horas. Ingressos: R$ 8,00 Sunday free
Around Praça Tiradentes
As you continue on the Avenida Rio Branco, don’t miss the lovely colonial church Igreja Nossa Senhora do Parto to your left right before Rua da Carioca.
Rua da Carioca ends at the Praça Tiradentes. It’s actually a rather unspectacular square.
However, turning right, you’ll see the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, a beautiful library founded in 1837 by immigrants from Portugal. This way, they intended to maintain the Portuguese language.
Walking from Praça Tiradentes towards the Guanabara Bay, you’ll get to the majestic Assembleia Legislativa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, the Seat of the State Assembly.
Turn left and walk up north, passing three ladies. What – three ladies? Yes, first to your left is Nossa Senhora – which means ‘our lady’ – do Carino.
One blog further to your right Nossa Senhora da Lapa dos Mercadores and finally at the Praça Pio X the baroque Nossa Senhora da Candelária.
When I write north, I’m talking about the northern part of the center. I would never dare to send you to the north of Rio and I cannot recommend to venture there by yourself.
So the most northern area for us is the Praça Mauá where you’ll find the spectacular Museu do Amanha – the museum of tomorrow. This institution is dealing with all different aspects of planet earth and its inhabitants.
Interesting facts and fun hands-on exhibitions – but also the unusual appearance of the building, designed by Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2015, make this museum a must-see when in Rio.
Museu do Amanha
Praça Mauá 1
Rio de Janeiro
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m., entrance fee are R$ 20
Across the Mauá square is another museum, the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), housing different exhibitions on Rio-related topics.
To be honest, the most impressive thing about this venue that was opened in 2013, is the building itself. It was designed by Paulo Jacobsen, Bernardo Jacobsen, and Thiago Bernardes and grants a fantastic view of the adjacent Museu do Amanha and the Baía de Guanabara, the Guanabara bay.
Museu de Arte do Rio
Praça Mauá 5
Rio de Janeiro
Much better art can be seen alongside the adjacent Avenida Rodrigues Alves.
The main work was painted by Brazil’s graffiti superstar Eduardo Kobra. He created his epic mural Ethnicity on the occasion of the Olympic Games in 2016.
However, also other very talented muralists perpetuated themselves on these walls and abandoned buildings.
I’ve dedicated an entire post to Rio’s fantastic Street Art.
The Avenida Rodrigues Alves is also the perfect place to grab a bite – or a souvenir – and watch people strolling by between old structures of the former storehouses – the global gentrification you find in basically every bigger city.
The last northern stop was not for me, but it will be for you, you soccer aficionados: If you walk back to the Praça Pio X and take the subway at the Uruguaiana station, it will take you right to the soccer mecca, Estádio Mário Filho, better known as Maracanã.
The stadium can be visited, The tours last an average of 40 minutes, but on days when a match is taking place, the last tour finishes three hours before the game.
Estádio Mário Filho
Avenida Presidente Castelo Branco
Rio de Janeiro
Can be visited daily from 9 a. m. to 4 p. m.
A guided tour costs R$ 60, a non-guided tour costs R$ 50
The last place I’d like to introduce is located on the other side of the Baía de Guanabara. It’s the town of Niterói.
Niteroi is worth the visit for three main reasons. Firstly, you cross the Baía de Guanabara on a comfortable, relatively cheap ferry. Secondly, from the other side of the bay, you have a great view of Rio de Janeiro. And last not least, you get to visit one of the most important buildings that the world-famous Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer designed. It’s shaped like a flying saucer and houses the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói.
There are two ways how to get to Niterói. You can either go by bus crossing the Ponte Rio – Niterói. I find this is completely pointless and not very charming.
You absolutely should take the ferry that leaves Rio at the Estação das Barcas at Praça Quinze de Novembro behind the State Assembly.
This ferry operates daily from 6h às 23h30 and costs 6 R$ one way. It takes you to the Praça Arariboia in Niterói in about 20 minutes.
As you leave the terminal, you will spot a little mobile tourist information. Here you can obtain a map for free. Albeit, you don’t really need it. Just turn right and walk along the road as it’s turning along the shore. It’s a scenic walk of about 3 kilometers.
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói
I will not lie to you: When I visited the museum, there were two completely pointless exhibitions and I’ve heard from others that the venue cannot exactly pride itself on showing breathtaking art. The visit is still worth it – for the building and for the views.
And another thing: You don’t have to walk there, there is a bus circling between the port and the Mirante, the observation point the museum was built on. Actually I’d recommend to walk there – which will take about 30 minutes – and take the bus on your way back.
I will not lie to you. When I visited the museum, there were two completely pointless exhibitions. Actually, I’ve heard from others that the venue cannot exactly pride itself on showing breathtaking art. The visit is still worth it – for the building and for the views.
And another thing: You don’t have to walk there. As a matter of fact, there is a bus circling between the port and the Mirante, the observation point the museum was built on. Actually, I’d recommend walking there – which will take about 30 minutes – and then taking the bus on your way back.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. and entrance fee are R$ 10,00
How to Get There…
Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport
If you are just coming to Brazil, you’ll probably arrive at the Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Galeão on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. As a newbie, you’ll probably spend far too much for a cab at a licensed taxi stand – they charge around 120 R$ to the city center. Nevertheless, especially if you’ve just landed after dark, you still might want to take a cab. There are desks where you pay a standardized fare so that you don’t have to haggle with the driver.
However, a metered cab will cost about half of that.
Also, there is a comfy shuttle bus for R$ 15 going to Ipanema, making some additional stops on the way.
However, this can be tricky if you’re not familiar with Rio since the drivers are not helpful at all. If you know where you are going and you tell them, they stop. If you don’t know it, they just go.
Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend taking the bus after a long, tiring flight. In Rio, you have to be on the alert, and you won’t be when you are exhausted from travelling. Hey, you’ve paid a lot of money for a ticket, just spend some more and get to your final destination safely.
As I extensively pointed out in my post on travel anxiety and travel safety, the general rule should always be Safety First. It’s ridiculous to spend hundreds of dollars on an air ticket and eventually risking your life because of 30 bucks.
Airport RJ Santos Dumont
If you are coming from a different place in Brazil or another Latin American country, chances are that you’ll arrive at the Santos Dumont airport. This one is basically in the city center. Consequently, the connection is no problem at all.
If in doubt, get on the light rail – the tram – to Cinelândia. There you have a connection to the subway system which is really good, reliable, and clean in Rio. And taking a cab won’t burn a hole in your pocket, either.
By Long Distance Bus
If you are coming by bus, you’ll arrive at the Terminal Rodoviário Novo Rio. While the bus terminal is pretty good with many services, the surroundings aren’t. Therefore, refrain from lingering around especially after dark.
If you don’t want to take a cab, you can take the light rail at Rodoviário towards Santos Dumont. Then, you get off at Cinelândia and continue on the subway from there.
Talking ’bout cabs: It’s very easy to move around in Rio. The public transport system covers the entire city – whether by Metrô, the subway, by light rail – or tram – or by bus. A ride costs about one dollar.
For each of these means, you can get a separate card that can be charged. But the only thing you save this way is time, no money. There is no such thing as a day ticket or some other form of a pass. You have to pay for every ticket individually. Also, tickets from one means of transport to another are not transferable. Hence, I wouldn’t really call it an elaborate system, but it takes you where you want to go easy and relatively fast.
Besides regular cabs, Uber is really big in Brazil, too.
Where to Stay
Obviously, in a touristy place like Rio de Janeiro, you’ll find everything from a bunk bed in a dorm of a cheap hostel to a wide range of luxury places.
The highest density of lodging options is along the Copacabana.
I personally loved to stay in Botafogo since it’s very comfortable and safe yet a truly Brazilian neighborhood. The adjacent quarter Flamengo is equally nice and recommendable.
On this map, you can check out lodging options* in the various neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro:
Cash And Cards
The currency in Brazil is the Real (plural Reais) and the rate is 1 US$ = 5,09 R$ (December 2020). For further conversion check this page.
Apart from cash, you can pay by credit card at all the attractions I’m mentioning in this post.
Of course, there is cash and there are cards. Because of the relatively high crime rate such as pickpocketting, Brazilians tend to pay even tiny amounts with debit cards. Even street vendors and hawkers are accepting them when someone just buys a newspaper and a chewing gum.
Although there are notably many ATMs all over the place, not all of them work with international credit cards. But don’t panic, there are so many different banks – sooner or later, you’ll figure out which one works with your card.
Especially in Rio de Janeiro, but also in other big cities like São Paulo or Belo Horizonte, be cautious where you use the ATM – you shouldn’t do your banking in whatever neighborhood and especially not after dark.
Since Brazil used to be a Portuguese colony, people speak Portuguese. Surprisingly few people speak decent English.
Also, don’t rely on your knowledge of Spanish or Italian. Although I personally find that one could easily scrape through with these languages, most local people don’t seem to hear any similarity whatsoever.
I therefore strongly recommend learning at least some Portuguese before visiting, e. g. online with babbel.com.
For two weeks, I actually took language lessons which was a great experience and enriched my stay in many ways. To learn more about this option, please go to my post Language Learning in Brazil.
Connection and Communication
Brazil is one of the very few countries where I got a national SIM-card. To be honest for the sole reason that I had accidentally blocked mine and wasn’t able to use my phone at all. I got a pre-paid card from Claro and was very happy with their service.
This being said, I prefer to use free WiFi. Actually, there was a connection to the internet without any issue at basically every museum, eatery or café and, of course, hotel. Worked like a charm.
At the end of my trip to Brazil, I had three or four different adapters. Although there is an official type N socket and plug, you’ll find also type C plugs. Also, there were type A sockets like in the US – howsoever, it was a wild mix, but in the end, everything turned out fine.
Also, the voltage is either 127 or 220 V and the frequency 60 Hz. Thank God, nowadays, all these chargers for phones and readers and computers have integrated adapters. Therefore, voltage and frequency don’t really matter.
By the way, you’ll find this kind of practical travel info in my post World’s Most Complete Travel Information – an indispensable globetrotter-classic.
Rio de Janeiro was only the first stop of my exciting visit to Brazil’s South. Go to the main post to check out all the other destinations.
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