30 Aug Travel to Rio de Janeiro with Confidence
I’ve just returned from my fourth trip to Rio de Janeiro and it still feels as special as it did the first time I visited, 17 years ago. It’s such an energetic, mesmerizing city, it’s no surprise that it’s usually a fan favorite with travelers.
I’ve also noticed that it’s become my ‘meet up’ city, having met five groups of friends and family here in the past two years. It’s not hard to convince people to join you on your travels when you name drop “Rio”.
But I also think that’s been my experience because so many people have Rio de Janeiro on their bucket list but are afraid to go without someone that has experience traveling there or with some knowledge of the Portuguese language. While both of these are advantageous, I don’t want the lack of those options to stop YOU from visiting.
So my goal with this article is to give you a good sense of what to expect and how to plan and navigate your time in Rio de Janeiro so that you can travel there with confidence!
WHY RIO IS LOVED
Let’s begin with the (obvious) reasons Rio de Janeiro is adored. Picture a city, nestled in between mountainous jungles and expansive ocean, that’s also speckled with lakes and bays, has miles upon miles of sandy coastline, dozens of activities, history, unique music such as samba and funk, beautiful people, and tart + icy cool caipirinhas! Awful, I know 😉
You’re likely familiar with the top activities…
Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)
This is my happy place. I highly recommend going in the late afternoon and sticking around for the sunset. There’s a concession stand and a small cafe/bar so you can relax, have some snacks and leisurely walk around.
Another suggestion is to visit Sugarloaf prior to the Christ the Redeemer so you’re in awe of both. (If you start at the highest point, you may slightly muddy expectations.)
Once you’ve got your tickets (and likely waited in line), you’ll take a cable car up in two phases, stopping first at a smaller rock called Morro da Urca.
While you’re in the area, stop by Bar e Restaurante Urca and pick up some pastel + caipirinhas to enjoy while sitting on the wall overlooking the bay. Or head upstairs to the dining room and indulge in some of their classics.
Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer statue)
This Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ stands atop Corcovado Mountain with its arms outstretched on the city of Rio. It is remarkable to stand on this small platform high in the sky, with this towering statue looking down on you and the incredible views below. Try to visit on a clear day to lessen your chances of clouds or haze obscuring your view. This is an extremely popular point of interest, so ideally a midweek visit, or even better, a low-season visit is encouraged.
You can get to the Christ The Redeemer statue by official van, taxi or funicular train. Due to robberies, the hiking trail is currently closed.
We bought tickets at a kiosk and picked up the official van in Copacabana (you can also buy advance tickets online or board at Largo do Machado and at Paineiras inside the national park). While the van was comfortable, the drive was a little nauseating, swirling at a slightly aggressive speed up and down the mountain.
Alternatively, you can book tickets in advance to take the funicular train from the Cosme Velho station up through the jungle vegetation.
The Zona Sul beaches of Ipanema, Copacabana & Leblon
Pack your canga (a large sheet-like wrap that you can use as a cover-up and beach towel), a fútbol (soccer ball), and bring some Reais to buy yourself a refreshing coconut and some nibbles from the food stands that line the beachfront sidewalks.
While here, walk to the tip where Ipanema meets Copacabana and climb up the small rocky formation called Pedra do Arpoador to enjoy some incredible views. Maybe even settle in with some beers and finger food to watch the sunset (note: there are no open container laws in Brazil).
Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro (Botanical Gardens)
This expansive botanical garden contains thousands of tropical and subtropical plants and trees, including a magnificent row of royal palms. You may also spot birds, turtles, butterflies, and monkeys. You’ll pay a small fee to enter (value delivered!) and it’s open 7 days a week, with limited hours on Monday.
While in the area, take a stroll through the public park, Parque Lage. Here you can check out the old mansion courtyard, and maybe grab a bit of food and a sip of coffee or wine.
Some other activities you may enjoy could be…
To wander around the cobblestone streets of the Bohemian hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa during the day. Here you’ll find a smattering of restaurants & bars, art galleries, and colonial mansions that have been converted to boutique hotels. Just be cautious walking around here, taxi drivers and locals would warn us that it can get a little dangerous, especially at night.
While in this area, you can walk over to the Escadaria Selarón (Selaron Steps). Or take a tour of the colonial areas of Centro (downtown) or the mansions of Cosme Velho.
The Carioca Lifestyle
The term ‘Carioca’ means an inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro. But like a ’New Yorker,’ it’s also a descriptor of a mindset. Cariocas tend to be very friendly and welcoming, effusing a positive spirit. They’re theoretically up for anything, excitedly making a lot of loose plans that don’t always become a reality (they mean the best!) Or if the plan does hold up, the meeting time, whether you’re aware of it or not, is very flexible. Cariocas are proud of their city and the combo lifestyle of beach and ambition. The beach is their backyard — they typically meet there (usually in the same spot), have a picnic, some beers, and play some footvolley.
So if you’re getting into the Carioca mindset, what might your day look like?
You may start the day with a jog or bike ride along the Lagoa and/or the Zona Sul beachfront.
If you want to cut across from the Lagoa to the beach using pedestrian walkways and bike paths, a good place to do so is at the canal that separates Leblon and Ipanema.
At the far end of the Leblon beachfront (closest to the Dois Irmãos rock formation) you can go up a short hill to the Mirante do Leblon that overlooks the beach from a bird’s eye view.
After a nice sweat, you can dive into the crisp ocean waters near Posto 9 & 10 in Ipanema which are the trendiest spots to hang out.
Rio has four major soccer teams which of course fuels some wicked rivalries! If there’s a home match, you’ll want to catch it at the famous, Maracanã stadium. You can browse matches on Futebolcard.com to see if any will be playing in Rio during your stay. In order to buy tickets, you have to create an account on the website. I did this in August 2017 and was able to get mobile tickets for R$ 40 a person (~$12 USD) for great seats in the sunny section 118. If the fútbol match is out of town, or you want a more casual experience, you can watch it on TV at Boteco Belmonte in Leblon or at a sidewalk bar in Baixa Gávea.
On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays you’ll find the crowds at the sidewalk bars at the beach, and at many establishments in the Ipanema, Leblon, Urca, Baixo Gávea, Botafogo, and Lapa neighborhoods.
At nighttime, two hotspots we’d recommend are:
Canastra Bar in Ipanema – a sidewalk wine bar that’s popular with locals. Come early (7/8 pm) for a table or standing spot that’s not in the street!
Bar Bukowski in Botafogo – an iconic rock-n-roll bar situated in an old mansion and courtyard. You can chill in the courtyard, sing karaoke with a live band or dance to different beats in one of a few different rooms in the mansion. They have some bar food and plenty of drinks. Note they charge an entrance fee of R$ 43 which is about $13 USD.
On Sundays, the beachfront road along the Ipanema/Leblon is closed to vehicles so bikers, pedestrians, and skaters can enjoy plenty of room to exercise. And nearby in Praça General Osório (Ipanema), there’s a really neat Hippie Fair Arts & Crafts Market.
Duration of Trip
In our opinion, the more time, the better! You’ll want a good balance between active and chill (beach!) time.
While we can’t pinpoint the perfect amount of time, I would say whatever your budget and calendar can afford. In the past two years, we’ve spent around twenty days in Rio and still haven’t done everything we’d like to experience here.
Most international flights in and out of Brazil go through GRU (São Paulo), GIG (Rio de Janeiro) and VCP (Campinas) airports. If you’re not flying directly to Galeão (GIG), then you may be taking a quick flight from GRU or VCP to GIG or Santos Dumont (SDU).
SDU is Rio’s domestic airport, located in the heart of the city. It has a beautiful approach and landing, so try to get a window seat if going through this airport!
Leaving the Airport
Check your hotel to see if there is a shuttle service option (free or paid).
At Santos Dumont SDU airport, you can find taxi kiosks leaving the baggage area, before exiting the airport where you can pay in advance with a credit card. Alternatively, you can enter a taxi line and you will pay the driver in cash.
At Galeão GIG airport, you have the option of taking a rapid transfer bus to the neighborhood you’re headed i.e. Zona Sul and it will drop you off at one of the metro stations. You can also pre-pay for taxis with a credit card at a kiosk or wait in the taxi line and pay the driver in cash. Alternatively, you can investigate shuttle transfer services on the link above.
If you need to transfer between the two airports GIG – SDU, there is a bus line (2145 – Real Auto Ônibus company) that’s efficient with nice seats, AC, and space below to store your luggage. It runs 5:30 am to ~9:30 pm, costs R$ 14 per person (approximately $4.50 USD) and comes every 25 minutes on weekdays and every 35 minutes on weekends and holidays. You should be able to pay upon arrival, we have successfully done so in the past.
Uber is also operating in Rio, although at the airport you may have a different pickup/dropoff area that’s a little less convenient.
If paying for transportation in cash, you may need to use an ATM in the airport to get the local currency Real (pronounced Reais when it’s plural). We seem to find better exchange rates using an ATM versus the airport currency exchange desks.
I would not recommend renting a car if staying in Rio city. You can get around on foot, by metro, Uber, taxi, and bus.
If you are taking a trip to Búzios/Cabo Frio, you may want a rental car. However, I would only encourage very confident drivers (Brazilians don’t really drive in lanes and road signs are tough) that are comfortable operating manual cars (automatic are harder to come by and often much more expensive) to do so. Alternatively, you can take a bus or a shuttle service there and then get around on foot and by taxis and water taxis.
If you are going to Ilha Grande, your best bet is a shuttle transfer to a water taxi. Angra dos Reis and Paraty are compact/walkable so I would recommend a shuttle transfer or bus to these locations as well.
If you rented a car and park along the street (or anywhere that isn’t private) you may notice a person that’s hanging around and helping people in/out of spaces. They usually are identified by having a handkerchief or piece of fabric tied around their arm, or in their hand. They’re called ‘flagers’ and they’re working for tips to ‘keep an eye on your car’. Help them out with a few Reais, or else…
*IMPORTANT* There is a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving. It is enforced, taken very seriously and there are random checkpoints. Do not drink a drop of alcohol and get behind the wheel. For example, one night we were having pizza in Vitoria with Daniel’s family. I had a beer and Daniel didn’t even want a sip because he was driving (this is when I learned of the zero tolerance). On our way home, we hit a checkpoint. He had no problem, but we saw three other cars/drivers detained.
Rio offers a nice range of choice in the way of accommodations. We’ve used Airbnb to stay in apartments and booking.com for hotel stays. Hotels in Centro and Copacabana will typically be a little less expensive than Zona Sul and Santa Teresa areas.
Personally, we’ve enjoyed staying in Ipanema — close to Leblon two blocks back from the beach at Mar Ipanema Hotel, in the middle on Rua Prudente de Morais near the intersection of Rua Joana Angélica and at the other end near Praça General Osório. We also had a great time staying at a boutique hillside hotel in Santa Teresa. Most recently, I stayed with a local in Jardim Bontânico and would highly recommend to someone that’s maybe visiting Rio for a second (third or fourth!) time and wants a more local experience.
We’ve also had a few occasions where we were traveling and came into Rio late or had to leave early in the morning and just wanted to crash somewhere convenient and/or less expensive. Centro is a good option if you’re flying in or out of SDU or GIG — it’s convenient to both airports. We’ve also stayed at the Linx Airport hotel when we flew out of GIG early morning. One word of caution is that the Linx hotel charges A LOT for food and drinks. We learned our lesson and the following stay, we took their free shuttle bus to/from the airport and stocked up on a 1.5 liter of water and dined in the food court instead.
Leblon, Ipanema, Jardim Botânico, Gávea, and Santa Teresa are all great neighborhoods to dine and drink. The first three will likely have costlier options. I found Jardim Botânico to be a little less touristy and really enjoyed the restaurants in this area. Sometimes I felt Ipanema and Leblon were hit or miss.
While pricey, the high-end, trendy hotels, like the Fasano and Quitéria in the Ipanema Inn have very solid menus. Popular restaurants like Zazá Bistrô Tropical will require advance reservations. Espírito Santa restaurant in Santa Teresa elegantly serves up nice indigenous Brazilian foods and amazing cocktails in bowls. There are some casual chains like Gula Gula and Balada Mix that make decent lunch spots. My friend and I really liked Empório Jardim in Jardim Botânico for breakfast. We loved the healthy gourmet lunch buffet at Celerio in Leblon UNTIL we went to pay. They charge a hefty price per kilo that we hadn’t noticed. So if you’re fancy, that could be your spot.
If you’re a chocolate lover, do yourself a dangerous favor and walk into a Kopenhagen store. I say proceed with caution because it’s so incredibly delicious you may find it difficult to not buy a ton of chocolate and return every day for their decadent cappuccino with chunks of chocolate, whip cream, and chocolate-covered-wafer spoon.
English is not widely spoken in Brazil. In the tourist areas of Rio, you may do okay. Some Spanish may be spoken, due to the influence and tourists from Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. You’ll probably use a lot of hand gestures and any Spanish you know to try and get by.
Good, non-official rules to know:
the letter “i” is pronounced like “ee”
in most cases, if the word ends with “m” it is pronounced like “n”
in many cases, the letter “d” is pronounced like “dgee”
in some cases, the letter “t” is pronounced like “chee”
Good phrases to know:
oi / olá = hi / hello
bom dia = good morning/good day (pronounced: bon gia!)
boa tarde = good afternoon (pronounced: bo-ah tar-djay)
boa noite = good evening (pronounced: bo-ah noy-chey)
tudo bem(?) = how are you & I’m doing well/everything is good (pronounced: tu-do bain)
e você = and you?
prazer = nice to meet you
tchau = bye (pronounced: chow)
até logo = see you later
sim / não = yes / no (pronounced: seen / na-own)
por favor = please
de nada = you’re welcome
obrigado (m) / obrigada (f) = thank you (pronounced: o-bree-gaa-dow / o-bree-gaa-da)
(eu) não entendo = I don’t understand
(eu) não falo Portuguese = I don’t speak Portuguese
fala inglês? = do you speak English?
com licença = excuse me (pronounced: con lee-cen-sa)
desculpe = sorry
socorro! = help! (pronounced: so-ko-ho)
quanto custa isso? = how much does it cost?
a conta por favor = the bill please
onde fica o/a/os/as _____ = where stays the (m/f and s/p) _____ (it’s how you ask where something is located that has a more permanent state | pronounced: own-dgee fee-ka)
onde fica o baneiro? = where is the bathroom?
certo = true (also used as ‘okay’ like when nodding in agreement)
uma bagunça = a mess (pronounced: uma ba-goon-sa) — this is a fun word and there’s always an opportunity to blurt it out and sound like you know what you’re talking about 😉
To learn more Portuguese, try the Babble app. I love the layout of their courses — beginner’s, grammar, Portuguese for your vacation or everyday life, and much more!
Summarized Thoughts on the Tough Subjects
The words “Rio” and “crime” are frequently used in the same sentence. It’s a large city with a sharp contrast of wealth and poverty that’s plagued by drug cartels and corruption. There are upsetting stories of robberies and stabbings or shootings of locals and tourists alike. And the situation has gotten worse since the Olympics in 2016 due to the recession and lack of state and federal government funding to pay public employees, including police officers.
It would be horrible to be one of those statistics. However, most large cities have crime and some risk involved. I feel like depending on who you speak to, Rio de Janeiro is either praised as a wonderful city to visit (usually by someone who has been) or it’s considered somewhere dangerous you’re not sure you want to go (usually someone that hasn’t visited, harboring a fear of it).
But I don’t always like to give in to the fear and ‘what ifs’. I believe it’s important to gather information, evaluate the risk, and if you do pursue, you go in with eyes wide open, taking precautions and being aware of your surroundings. To help you stay out of harm’s way, download this OTT app to check real-time alerts on any nearby danger. OTT stands for Onde Tem Tiroteio which translates to “where is the shooting”. Be safe!
We really do NOT recommend going on a favela tour. Even some of the ‘pacified’ Rio favelas have become dangerous in the past year. As mentioned above, police budgets have been slashed and they have not been able to maintain a proper presence, leading to cartel turf wars and shootouts with police and military.
While we were in Brazil June-August we constantly heard news stories of stray bullets from these battles hitting locals in those favelas, including at the entrance to them. There were also stories of two different tourists being shot or stabbed for just visiting the favelas.
And while some of the favela tours/visiting programs could be fostering relationships and giving a face to some of the wonderful people that live there, they could also border on insulting (i.e. selfie culture). If you truly want to get involved, consider a program that has a steady presence, volunteer work, and aid.
Note for U.S. Citizens: It’s a good idea to enroll your travels on the U.S. Department of State tool, STEP. Doing so informs the U.S. Consulate in the country you’re traveling to of your whereabouts and contact information. They’ll send you alerts/announcements on any pertinent info. For instance, if there will be a protest in the city you’re in, or if there are alerts to danger or extreme weather in the area. Also if there is an emergency, they can immediately connect with you.
Enjoy a Little Rio Inspiration
Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite in Portuguese) – a Brazilian crime film that’s subtitled in English. It tells a semi-fictional story (a highly feasible plotline) of a BOPE (Special Police Operation Battalion) assignment to pacify a dangerous Rio slum prior to a visit from the Pope. If you’re a Narcos fan, you’ll recognize the captain
City of God – a famous Brazilian film (subtitled in English) about the different life paths of two boys that grew up in a violent favela in Rio de Janeiro
Fast Five – the squad attempts a heist in Rio de Janeiro and is met with force from a federal agent (Dwayne Johnson)
Rio – a cute animated film of a macaw’s adventure and romance that’s set in Rio
Seu Jorge (Samba rock)
Anitta (pop & Rio funk)
Ludmilla (Rio funk)
The excitement doesn’t have to end, Rio de Janeiro (RJ) state packs more splendor – with its ‘Sun’ and ‘Green’ coasts. You can head east to Cabo Frio, Arraial do Cabo and Búzios, or west/southwest to Ilha Grande and Paraty.
Additionally, you can find affordable flights across the country with low-cost carriers like Azul and GOL. Do you desire the beach life and dunes to the northeast? The canyons, German & Italian towns and wine valley to the south? Maybe the wetlands and water activities inland to the west?
Brazil has such an incredibly diverse landscape and culture, you’ll find whatever you’re looking for in this beautiful country!
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Have you visited Rio de Janeiro? If so, what was your experience like?
Leave a comment!
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