The Ultimate Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide

The Ultimate Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide

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There’s a reason Rio de Janeiro is known as the Marvelous City (or Cidade Maravilhosa, if you want to start practicing your Portuguese.) Since you’re thinking of visiting, I’m guessing you feel called to Brazil’s vibrant culture, fun atmosphere, and unbelievably gorgeous beaches. But if you’re wondering what you should do, what places to see, and even about the basics of Brazil travel, then this complete Rio de Janeiro travel guide is for you!

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While Rio is sooo much more than just its beaches (although you’ll definitely get some beach recommendations here, not to worry), Rio truly has it all — from a bustling city life, to absolutely gorgeous tropical forests, and fascinating museums and history.

While you could spend weeks here without getting bored, I’d recommend spending a week at minimum to really get a grasp of the city. (And if you’re looking to add some other cities to your trip, check out this Brazil itinerary.)

Rio de Janeiro Basics

Currency in Brazil

The real, or reais (plural). At the time of writing, 1 US dollar is 4.95 reais. 

Language in Brazil

Portuguese. English speakers aren’t too common in Rio, but using Google Translate will get you far! There are options to type or even talk directly into your phone and it will translate. You can also use your phone camera to translate menus or other signs. I’ve found that this function doesn’t work perfectly, but it definitely helps. If you won’t have phone data in Brazil, you can download the language dictionary ahead of time and be good to go with or without WiFi access.

Getting around Rio de Janeiro

Ubers are always easy to access, and they’re extremely affordable,  especially compared to the U.S. The subway and buses are also very accessible, but especially at night, traveling by car is probably preferable.

Weather in Rio de Janeiro

Over the summer, from November to February, expect high heat and humidity, often ranging from the 80s to 90s. If you’re visiting during the winter, or May to September, expect temperatures in the 70s, but pack some pants and sweaters in case. Rio has a tropical climate, so prepare for rain throughout the year and bring a small umbrella. And don’t forget your flip-flops— you’ll find most Cariocas wearing them all the time.

Where’s the best place to stay in Rio de Janeiro?

This is up to your personal preference! My first time in Rio, I stayed at Selina Lapa, part of a chain hostel-hotels, mostly based across Latin America.

Its Lapa location was centrally located to a lot of attractions I was interested in. It was right around the corner from the famous Escadaria Selarón, and the charming and artsy Santa Teresa neighborhood. Lapa is also a great place for nightlife, with an abundance of affordable restaurants and bars. Book your stay here.

By car, it’s around half an hour from Rio’s best beaches, as well as from Downtown where many museums are located. Although, be warned, it gets quite loud and crowded at night, if this bothers you!

Other popular places to stay are Copacabana or Ipanema, home to Rio’s world-famous beaches along the city’s South Zone. I’ve stayed in both (at another Selina location in Copacabana, which you can check out here, and an Airbnb in Ipanema) and loved the proximity to many restaurants, shopping, and of course, the ocean. 

If I had to choose a neighborhood, I’d pick Ipanema, as I found it to feel a bit safer. However, it’s easy to navigate between both and ultimately won’t make a huge difference in your experience. Check out my guide with even more info breaking down all the pros and cons between Rio’s top neighborhoods, with more budget accommodations to choose from!

Best Things to do in Rio de Janeiro

Explore Jardim Botânico.

Just north of Ipanema is 340 acres of paradise. Truly one of the most beautiful slices of nature in Rio (which is saying a lot in a city full of nature), it’s more than worth spending a peaceful morning or afternoon strolling through the over  6,000 types of plants, trees and flowers.

The entrance fee is currently 67 reais (almost 13 US dollars). Sadly they didn’t accept my US student ID for a discount, but check out up-to-date information on the garden’s website.

Hike in Tijuca Rainforest. 

With dozens of possible hikes, you can spend days exploring its many waterfalls, monuments, and lush biodiversity. To be honest, I’m not the most adventurous hiker, but there are lots of beginner-friendly paths to take. I absolutely loved the Pedra Bonita trail. It’s considered a relatively easy hike, but the views are unreal. I’m all about the minimum effort, maximum reward when it comes to hiking.

Take a walking tour.

I personally love free walking tours. They’re an amazing way to cover a lot of ground and get an introduction to a new city. Guided by a local, you’ll learn about a city’s culture and history. Plus, you’ll get some ideas of places to return to or visit later. Just remember to tip your guide at the end!

Free Walking Tour Rio de Janeiro has some great options. I went on the Downtown and Lapa tour, the Olympic Boulevard and African Heritage tour, as well as the Lapa Pub Crawl.

Relax by the Mureta da Urca

Another spot to get a taste of that Carioca lifestyle is in Urca, a picturesque neighborhood that overlooks Guanabara Bay. The mureta, or “little wall,” is a popular spot for locals to hang out while taking in Rio’s stunning views. Grab a drink at a nearby boteco (or “root bar,” found throughout Rio) and enjoy the sunset!

Listen to samba. 

Every Monday night, you can join a crowd at Pedra do Sal for live music. A historic and religious site (learn more about it on the African Heritage tour!), Pedra do Sal is considered the birthplace of samba, an iconic music style that originated in Afro-Brazilian communities in Rio de Janeiro, and Bahia, another state in the northeast of Brazil.

Enjoy sunset at Arpoador.

Although Rio has so much more to offer than its beaches, no Rio de Janeiro travel guide would be complete without mentioning the beach at least once. While there’s an abundance of beaches to explore, Ipanema offers a picturesque view of two mountains, called Dois Irmãos (two brothers), tucked behind gorgeous water. 

Right between Ipanema and Copacabana, is a little stretch of rock called Arpoador. Every evening, you can find crowds of locals gathering to watch the sunset. While it’s worth stopping by any time of day, watching the sunset from here feels especially magical.

Any travel guide to Rio de Janeiro would be incomplete without mentioning its beautiful beaches, especially Ipanema and Copacabana. Right in between you kind find the perfect spot to watch the sunset, at Arpoador.
Arpoador, between Ipanema and Copacabana.

Places you must see in Rio de Janeiro 

The Sugarloaf Mountain

This is one of the top tourist destinations in Rio, and for good reason. For incredible panoramic views of the city, you won’t want to miss this one. I’d especially recommend visiting around sunset, although it can get crowded at this time. To take a cable car up the mountain, you must buy a ticket either in advance or at the ticket office, which opens at 8 a.m. Cable cars leave every 20 minutes and cost about $33 USD. You can also hike up if you want, but be sure to buy your ticket before embarking.

The Museum of Tomorrow

The Museum of Tomorrow, or Museu do Amanhã, located in Centro, or Downtown, is an innovative science museum with several exhibitions about the cosmos, the  Earth, and of course, the future, all with a sustainability lens. 

With a student ID or if you’re under 21, admission costs 15 reais, which is 2.89 US dollars. A full-price ticket is $30 reais, or 5.79 US dollars.

Parque Lage

One of my favorite spots of this entire Rio de Janeiro travel guide is Parque Lage. Situated next to Jardim Botânico, this is a beautiful park with a romantic European ambiance.

While the park is free, it’s worth grabbing a drink or snack to enjoy the iconic architecture and pool. To explore the upper floor, you can either pay an admission fee or buy something from the gift shop.

Mirante do Leblon

If you keep walking from Ipanema, soon you’ll reach Leblon, another beach and accompanying neighborhood. Here, you’ll be led to Mirante, a gorgeous spot to sit and relax while overlooking the water. Grab a fresh coconut or a caipirinha to drink, and enjoy the ambiance.

Barra da Tijuca

Barra da Tijuca

For a beach a little more off the beaten path but beloved by locals, head to Barra da Tijuca, which could be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour away from the South Zone area, depending on traffic. Not only is this area less crowded and generally safer than the South Zone beaches like Copacabana, but it’s absolutely beautiful. (Want some tips for staying safe in Rio? Check out this guide!)

Royal Portuguese Reading Room

Located in Centro, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room is an absolute gem that sadly took me several visits to Rio to actually make it to. Not only is it free to visit (!) but it is breathtaking — it first opened in the 1880s, as a way to promote Portuguese culture to those living in Brazil. It is now the home to over 350,000 literary works, making it the largest collection of Portuguese books outside of Portugal.

Christ the Redeemer

The Christ the Redeemer is another spot that tops every “what to do in Rio” list. But to be honest, it never had a huge appeal for me. Be warned that this place gets super crowded, and it will be a struggle to get a photo with the famed Christ statue. However, the views were out of this world, and it is a world wonder for a reason.

I ended up going on a day tour my first time in Rio, which took me through the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods, the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao (a modernist, cone-shaped church) and the Sugarloaf Mountain as well. I’d recommend doing something similar to make the logistics of transportation easier. You can check out Viator or Get Your Guide, but I bought a tour through Selina, the hostel where I stayed, the day beforehand. If you choose to buy your tickets to the statue separately, it’s cash only at the entrance, and costs about $11.30 USD, or R$55.50.

Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil

I just had to sneak one more museum onto this list. I’ve visited the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil two or three times, and I’ve always enjoyed my time. It’s free to visit, and always has unique exhibits that will show you a different glimpse into Brazilian culture and history.

Want some more museum recommendations? Check out this post with 6 of the best museums you can’t miss in Rio.

What to eat in Rio

The typical Brazilian meal generally includes meat, rice, and black beans topped with farofa, a cassava flour mixture toasted with seasonings and sometimes bacon. Many meals also come with a small portion of vinagrete, which is a Brazilian-style tomato salad similar to pico de gallo. 

For breakfast, you’ll find that many Brazilians tend to keep it on the lighter side compared to the United States. Bread or pound cake is commonly served with coffee. Some people add cheese, ham, or scrambled eggs.

For a quick bite, try pão de queijo, a small, baked cheese roll. They’re not nearly as cheesy as what you may be envisioning, but they’re probably even more delicious. No joke, I think about these all the time, so if you eat cheese, be sure to try them. Nearly every restaurant will have them. 

A sunset view from Sugar Loaf Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro is a must-see.
Sugarloaf Mountain

While in Rio, enjoy an abundance of fried snacks, such as pastels (similar to empanadas) or coxinhas, which is essentially a chicken croquette. Also be sure to try tapioca, which is similar to a crepe, except its texture is different. It can be served either sweet or savory.

As for dessert, grabing a brigadeiro from a bakery or on the street is a must. The most classic type is similar to a chocolate truffle, but there are plenty of other flavors as well, varying from coconut to caramel.

Long story short, Rio is so full of delicious food, that it’s even worth its own blog post. So if you’re looking for even more tips for all the best things to eat and drink in Rio, check out this post.

What to drink in Rio

If you drink alcohol, cachaça, a Brazilian spirit is a must-try. In my opinion, the best way to try it is in cocktail form. Similar to a mojito, a caiprinha is a cachaça-based cocktail with mint and lime. Try its classic version or my favorite, by adding passionfruit.

If shots are more your style, go to Casa da Cachaça in Lapa, Rio’s first cachaça bar. There, you can select from over 100 different flavors, ranging from run-of-the-mill to more interesting varieties like bubblegum, or the Gabriella, a sweet and cinnamon-y experience.

If you’re looking for even more things to do, check out this day trip guide to Niterói, a hidden gem right next to Rio de Janeiro. And before you head off, check out my Rio de Janeiro packing guide. It has 12 essential items that you won’t want to forget.


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