Ex-capital of Portugal at the beginning of the 19th century and ex-capital of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, this colorful stain on the map of South America, is a destination that you shouldn’t miss.
However, in 10 days, I did a lot of things and visited many attractions in Rio de Janeiro. Therefore, I made this list of places to visit and fun things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Top things to do in Rio de Janeiro
Visit Escadaria Selaron
Although it’s difficult to believe, it’s true that this work of art belongs to one single person. An extremely passionate and determinate man who finished transforming some trivial staircase into what today is one of the top things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Jorge Selarón, Chilean at origins, has dedicated the last years of his life to offer the city the most colorful staircase in the world. 215 steps with a length of 125 meters.
All thoroughly decorated with shiny pieces of mosaic, ceramic and mirrors, of different shapes and colors.
Selaron Steps are made up of parts brought from 60 countries from around the world. That is because his work became famous pretty quickly.
As a consequence, tourists wanted to help him by bringing parts from their own countries in order to complete the stairs.
Selaron used to be an artist, a painter, and a sculpture, but also a traveler. Before settling in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the ’90s, he traveled through more than 50 countries.
23 years later, he died right on the stairs he was working at. Surely his dedication was worth it since the stairs are now part of the best things to see in Rio de Janeiro.
Visit the Botanical Garden
I love botanical gardens, especially the ones filled with exotic plants, with huge leaves, flowers in shapes and colors that you don’t see too often and especially with towering palm trees.
Jardim Botanico of Rio de Janeiro raises the standards of palm trees. That’s because it has an alley full of towering royal palm trees, 750 meters long (the alley, not the palm trees) and super Instagrammable.
Avenue of Royal Palms is one of the most photographed places in Rio de Janeiro. And that is because not every day you get the chance to walk on an alley like this.
Besides the towering palms, Jardim Botanico has over 6500 species of plants and trees. Some of them endangered, while others I’ve never seen before somewhere else.
Also here you can find some monuments worthy of your photos. Don’t forget to add on your list the Central Fountain, which has been built in England and afterward brought to Rio de Janeiro to beautify the Botanical Garden.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian
I remember that I used to see the weird construction with a pyramidal shape in many photos of Rio de Janeiro. I couldn’t imagine back then that it can be a cathedral.
However, it seems that the architect Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca had a passion for Mayan pyramids and inspired himself from them when he created the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Therefore, the 75 meters building is obviously a successful copy of a Mayan pyramid, harmoniously combined with modern elements. The stained glass is the one that gets the attention first.
Because there are actually four of them, united as a cross on the ceiling of the Cathedral.
The light penetrates so beautifully through the colorful stained glass, and it gives a nice, warm, mystic feel. The Cathedral had been built between 1964 and 1979, and you must add it to the list of places to visit in Rio.
Admire the statue Christ the Redeemer
The most popular photos of Rio de Janeiro have the imposing statue in the foreground. Situated on the top of Corcovado Mountain, at an altitude of 700 meters, the reinforced concrete statue is one of the 7 New Wonders of our World, together with other 6 famous constructions.
Moreover, it’s also the biggest Art Deco statue in the world. Although there are other similar statues worldwide, the one in Rio de Janeiro is by far the most recognizable.
The monument was built between 1922 and 1931 and cost about a quarter-million-dollar. What many don’t know is that the sculptor of the face is a Romanian, Gheorghe Leonida. #proud
Given that it’s situated at high altitude, it happens that the statue is struck by lightning about 3-6 times a year, and suffer small cracks because of this. Fortunately, nothing irreparable so far.
At the base of the mountain is the largest urban forest in the world, Tijuca Forest, the one that you have to cross in order to get here.
You can do this either by walking or by hopping on the famous tram. There is no need to book tickets in advance, as the tram runs very often. You will find a seat even in the busiest periods. You can’t miss Cristo Redeemer when you visit Rio de Janeiro.
So you should check the weather to make sure it won’t be foggy on the day you visit. Otherwise, you risk not admiring the statue in all its splendor nor the magnificent landscapes of the city.
On Mount Corcovado, you will have some sensational views. You can see the Gulf of Guanabara, the famous beaches, the Maracana stadium and even the neighboring city, Niteroi.
Get tanned in Copacabana, Ipanema, Macumba or Prainha
Rio de Janeiro has been blessed with so many beaches that even a long vacation in la Ciudad Maravillosa would not be enough to see them all. Each has something special to offer.
Whether they are the most famous in the city, like Copacabana or Ipanema, whether they are secluded and wild like Prainha, the beaches of Rio de Janeiro are gorgeous.
Therefore, I could talk forever about them, and the most appropriate thing to do is to dedicate a separate article. What you need to remember, for now, is that going to the beach in Rio de Janeiro is a must.
Visit a favela
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit a favela, or at least not one of those I wanted to visit. The only favela that I went through is the one located in Santa Teresa, where I had the first accommodation in Rio.
Favelas are the bad-famed poor neighborhoods in Brazil, but the most famous ones are in Rio de Janeiro. They were formed as a result of the migration of the population from the villages to the urban areas, in order to find a job, no matter how poorly paid it would have been.
Due to the fact that the salaries were low, they had to look for cheap accommodations, thus forming these illegal and very dense settlements on the hills in the city.
In recent years, there has been an attempt to pacify the favelas, especially due to the Olympic Games that were to take place here, as well as FIFA 2014. If until that moment the favelas had their own laws, now everything seemed to be safer.
Next time when I visit Rio, I will definitely go to Favela Vidigal. Especially for the incredible view from there, since it’s located on Mount Dois Irmãos.
It is worth remembering that you can visit by joining an organized tour as well. But it is up to you whether you want to live this experience on your own or not.
Stay in a villa with a wonderful view of the city
Since you are in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, then you should make the most of it. And when I say the most, I mean each and every moment you will be there.
Nothing compares to enjoying your coffee while looking at Guanabara Bay, Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. Yes, you can have all these in the same picture at the same time. Especially if you choose to stay at The Villa, in Santa Teresa neighborhood.
I stayed in a very spacious room, with huge windows and a large terrace. 5 nights here and 5 nights in Pestana Rio Atlantica, a hotel in Copacabana, with a rooftop overlooking the entire beach. If I were to go back in time, I would proceed in the same way because it seems ideal.
Attend a football game on Maracanã
Between me and football is not necessarily a love relationship. However, I always wanted to feel the crazy atmosphere of a Brazilian stadium. That’s because I instantly associate Brazil with Pelé, Ronaldinho and other big names in the history of football worldwide.
So, we bought some last-minute tickets for the first match of the Brazilian Series A, between Flamengo and Cruzeiro. And the experience was wow!
In Brazil, football is true culture. So, the Brazilians make a big day show at the stadium, showing their full support for their favorite team. Therefore, expect to see lots of screaming, applause, hissing, songs, and lots of beer.
I recommend you wear the team’s t-shirt and claim that you are a fan of it. Even if it is not the case, to get even better into the incendiary atmosphere of the stadium.
With a capacity of about 80,000 spectators, the stadium is really impressive, being the largest in Brazil and the second-largest in South America, after the Estadio Monumental in Peru.
Opened in 1950, Estádio do Maracanã was the host of the final of the World Football Championship in that year, the 2016 Summer Olympics, but also the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Several international bands and stars have performed on Maracana, including Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Prince, George Michael, The Rolling Stones.
So, if you are wondering what to do in Rio de Janeiro to get fully into the atmosphere of the city, this activity necessarily goes on the list.
Visit Sugarloaf Mountain by cable car
Say yes to the most beautiful view of Rio and climb 396 meters, on Mount Sugarloaf, with the cable car! Of all the viewpoints of the city, Sugarloaf is my favorite.
This because it offers a complete panorama of the Gulf of Guanabara, including the beaches, but also Mount Corcovado and Tijuca Forest. The view is simply magical!
The name of the mountain Pão de Açúcar (sugar bread), in Portuguese, has an interesting story. They say that it resembles the form in which sugar was poured through the 16th century, to be transported by ship.
So, this could be the explanation for the funny name. I don’t know if this is true, but Sugarloaf truly has a special shape that differentiates it from a common mountain. Moreover, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2012.
100 years earlier, by 1912, Pão de Açúcar, but also Morro da Urca, the mountain nearby, could be climbed by cable car. From then until the present time, millions of people visit them and enjoy the beauty of the city from above.
However, others choose to come here on foot, following the marked routes. Sugarloaf Mountain should not be missing from the list of the most beautiful places to visit in Rio de Janeiro.
Ticket: 110 R$, online 99 R$
Enjoy Parque Lage
School of Visual Arts nowadays and residence of Enrique Lage in the past, Parque Lage is actually a beautiful building. Even InstagramMable I could say, situated at the foot of Mount Corcovado.
Responsible for the details of the whole design is the Italian architect Mario Vodret.
The one who successfully managed to integrate the building in the middle of a forest with alleys and paths leading to Tijuca. If you don’t have enough time to dive into the largest urban forest in the world, Parque Lage is the perfect alternative.
Access inside the building and the park is free. Parque Lage is very close to the Botanical Garden, so I recommend you visit them both on the same day.
Visit the Royal Portuguese Reading Room, one of the most beautiful libraries in the world
Rio de Janeiro proudly has one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, Real Gabinete Português de Leitura. Located somewhere in the old center, in a building with a facade inspired by the Jeronimos Monastery in Portugal, the library hosts an impressive collection of 350,000 volumes.
As you enter it, you feel overwhelmed by the bookshelves. Especially since they are separated by some wooden ornaments, thoroughly decorated, and enhanced by the light that penetrates the stained glass dome. Although not very large, the way it’s been designed makes it seem endless.
The library was founded in 1837 by a group of Portuguese immigrants who wanted to promote the Portuguese culture among the Brazilian community.
Their purpose was materialized a few years later by the appearance of the construction that would host their volumes. The building was built in neo-Manueline style by architect Rafael da Silva.
The beauty of the library can be admired even in a few film productions. And it was recognized by Time magazine as the most beautiful library in the world.
Although it is an unmissable tourist attraction, you will not find too many tourists inside. So, you will have time to admire it from every angle.
Walk the Streets in downtown
Everyone knows that Rio is not the safest city and that you have to be very careful when you go out, and guard your pockets as if they were your eyes. Especially in Centro and especially during late hours.
I don’t want to contradict these opinions, statistics or myths. But I didn’t feel any fear, and I didn’t have any incidents in these areas.
Although you will meet a lot of homeless people, especially gathered near the most visited sights, the police patrols are there too. Therefore, you can feel safe even in the most uncomfortable places.
It may not be the safest destination in the world, but with great caution, you can visit the city without any unpleasant incident.
Centro is a mix of historic buildings and skyscrapers. That’s because here are the largest corporations in the city. If you want to explore the most colorful streets and the most beautiful architecture you should walk on Rua da Lapa and Avenida Mem de Sá.
Visit the Museum of Tomorrow and the National Museum of Fine Arts for a wonderful portion of the culture. But also for the splendid architecture of the buildings.
You must add on the list of beautiful buildings Teatro Municipal, a superb example of architecture with green towers and golden details, but also Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária.
Walk under the Arcos da Lapa
The Carioca Aqueduct is a true example of colonial architecture, very well preserved today. And even useful, because the famous yellow tram passes to Santa Teresa on top of it every day. Its initial purpose was to bring the inhabitants of the city closer to the only source of water, the Carioca River.
The 42 vaults that make up the aqueduct on two levels are a true symbol of the city. But also an element that appears very often in movies and serials.
Try the açaí and other local food
A certain species of palm trees that grow in Brazil, Peru, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago produces some cranberries-like fruits. Similar in terms of aspect only, because the taste is not related.
You will find this fruit a lot on the wide beaches of Rio de Janeiro. And, most of the time, you will find it in the form of a refreshing purple desert, seasoned with all kinds of edible ornaments.
The taste is sweet-sour, perfect for the hot summer days on the sand of Copacabana. So I recommend you try it. In addition to the famous açaí, in Brazil, you must also try Pão de queijo, the delicious balls made of bread and cheese, Feijoada, Bacalhao, Moqueca, but especially the famous desert, Quindim.
Take a photo on the Telegraph Stone
You have certainly seen before, all over Instagram, the rock that seems to sit in the air. Yes, the famous Instagrammable stone is located in Rio de Janeiro, about an hour away from Copacabana beach. Two hours, if we consider the hike through the forest.
Even if it is partly a simple optical illusion, you must know that the rock hanging 354 meters above the sea is not the safest place to take your selfies.
The view is incredibly beautiful and the picture will surely get a lot of appreciation, but you must be precautious. You also need to be patient, because, to take a picture here, you will have to sit on a long line.
Day trip to Arraial do Cabo
I have not been to the Maldives or the Caribbean yet, but many who have been are swearing that the water from Arraial do Cabo is very similar to that in those places. Maybe I wouldn’t bet for that, but I can confirm that it is a place worth visiting.
I would call it the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. Depending on the route chosen, the more scenic or the faster, you will arrive in 2-4 hours. Which means you need at least one full day to spend there.
The most Instagrammable place in Arraial do Cabo is As Prainhas do Pontal. The famous endless steps leading to the beach. You can get there by car also, but you will have to pay a fee.
Explore the neighborhood of Santa Teresa
Famous for the narrow streets, pastel buildings, fences covered with ivy and the yellow tram, easily confused with the one in Lisbon, Santa Teresa is probably the most bohemian neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.
It is located on the hill that bears the same name, and that means only one thing. From here, you will also have beautiful views of the city. Also, it could be a perfect place to stay when you visit the city.
In addition to the reasons mentioned above, Santa Teresa must be added to your itinerary for the famous Stairs Selaron, Parque Das Ruínas, and Convento Santa Teresa.
Get lost inside Tijuca Forest
Rio de Janeiro is also a city of records, and one of them is owned by Tijuca Forest. The tropical jungle in the city center is the largest urban forest in the world. Hundreds of species of plants and animals, many of them endangered, can be admired in all their splendor here.
The twisted paths will also lead you to waterfalls, the Tijuca Forest being the proud owner of about 30 waterfalls. Of course, the sound of water will be accompanied by the noises produced by the curious marmosets.
The little monkeys have transformed the branches of the trees into swings. And they swing on them whenever they see a tourist walking through their forest.
Admire the view at Mirante do Leblon
Mirante is a kind of magic word that you will see both in Brazil and Portugal. It means belvedere, and it is the obvious indication that in that place you will have a sensational view.
Mirante, in Brazil, is everywhere and this is because in Rio there are countless viewpoints.
One of my favorites is Mirante do Leblon. Where Leblon beach is framed, as in a picture, of flowers and palm trees. You can get here by car or on foot. And if you want an even higher view, climb to the top of Dois Irmãos.