Rio de Janeiro – the Marvelous City – is one of those places I’ve always wanted to go. Despite this, I didn’t know much about it. Like most travellers, I’d seen Christ the Redeemer in photographs and watched an overcrowded Copacabana beach on TV at New Year’s Eve, but that was it.
When I started to prepare myself for the trip and read more about the city, I got a lot more excited… but also more nervous. Now that I’m back, I know that Rio de Janeiro can be a dangerous place. But, if you’re careful, you will get to see the most beautiful views and experience a great adventure.
When to visit Rio de Janeiro
The summer months in Rio are from December to March and it gets hot, hot, hot! I visited in April and the weather was perfect. The only drawback of it was the days were a little shorter. On the other hand, at least I didn’t have to wait until 9pm to see the stunning sunsets, so I’d recommend it. Here, I’ve compiled my favourite things to do in Rio de Janeiro to inspire you too.
Day 1 in Rio de Janeiro
Landing in Rio and leaving the airport went pretty smoothly. We grabbed a taxi and in less than 30 minutes we were settling into the hotel. We chose PortoBay, located near the famous beach of Copacabana.
I was very happy with our choice. Our room had a massive bedroom and separate living room with a balcony and a wonderful view. It also provided a great free breakfast every morning and a nice pool on top. The staff were always very helpful and the location couldn’t have been better. After unpacking, we headed straight out to see the famous beaches that were our neighbours.
Copacabana is a 4km-long beach with a fabulously wide strip of golden sand, separated from the city by a barrier of high-rise hotels. It’s one of the most visited tourist sites of Brazil and, as a result, is alive with activities to enjoy. Big waves, people playing volleyball or football, tiny bars where you can sit and drink Caipirinha or coconut water with the perfect atmosphere… I remember sitting in one of those places thinking wow, I really am in Rio de Janeiro.
Ipanema Beach is located right next to Copacabana. Somehow, we managed to walk all the way there! Ipanema is a little bit smaller, less crowded and more charming. It’s a perfect place to watch the sunset. Grab dinner in one of the nearby restaurants beforehand, then top it off with drinks in a local bar.
Leblon Beach is considered to be a luxury beach despite being right next to Ipanema. There’s only a small canal separating the two. This beach is family friendly and there are many expensive houses nearby.
Of course, there’s a lot more to Rio than Copacabana, Ipanema and Lebon. You will find plenty of other beautiful beaches to explore, but for our limited time we decided to limit our beach-time to what we could fit into a walk. That left us plenty of opportunity to check out more things to do in Rio de Janeiro – on to day two!
Day 2 in Rio de Janeiro
Sometimes, long distance travel and jet lag can be a blessing in disguise. On our second day in Brazil, I woke up right before dawn and when I stepped onto the balcony I saw the most beautiful sunrise of my life. It was so wonderful to be there at that moment, watching the city wake up.
Christ the Redeemer
Our first plan for the day was to visit the famous Christ the Redeemer. An iconic, 38m-tall statue, erected on the granite edge of the Corcovado Hill, there’s no missing it, but it’s surprisingly tricky to get there.
We tried to find the train to take us all the way up through the stunning National Park Tijuca (one of the largest urban forests in the world), however our Uber driver decided to drive us a little bit higher, right to the Paineiras station. Here, you have to buy your ticket from the machine and wait for the shuttle to arrive. There is no room for cars further up, so this is a last stop for cars.
A short, winding ride took us to the Corcovado station, from which you can take 220 steps, a lift or escalators to the monument. We didn’t have the best weather that day but still managed to take some great photos. The Christ itself did not impress me initially. It looked very small from the bottom, and when I was at the top it was just overcrowded. I can’t image what it’s like during the high season! It was still worth the visit though for the views alone. On our way back we found the train, which took us all the way down to the city centre.
Sugarloaf is another attraction in Rio de Janeiro, which we decided to visit in the afternoon. “Pão de Açúgar” is a mountain with a relative height of 396m. You can only get up there by cable car. As the tram does not go directly to the top there is a small stop at Moroo da Urca, where you can grab some food, drinks and souvenirs.
By this point, the stunning views have already started, so make sure you walk around. Both rides are relatively slow and they climb vertically upwards. If, like me, you’re not scared of heights, it’s a really unique option for things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio has one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world but what I saw from Sugarloaf was just indescribable. The sunset over Christ the Redeemer, views of Copacabana after dusk, the bay of Guanabara, the surrounding mountains… it was all so amazing I didn’t want to leave! We bought a few beers in a little bar, listened to music and soaked up the view. Perfection.
Day 3 in Rio de Janeiro
Escadaria Selarón is another place that must be seen in Rio, so we went there the next day. Located between Gloria and Santa Teresa, the famous Jorge Selaron stairs, which the man of the same name covered with colourful tiles from different parts of the world, are very popular with tourists. You can even see them in popular music videos. I really enjoyed visiting this colourful place, so I’d definitely recommend it for your list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Santa Teresa is a charming little area full of artists and hipsters. You can visit a stunning park called Parque das Ruinas. Not long ago, this was a hot meeting place for intellectuals and all kinds of artists. Today, it stands as an abandoned multi-storey villa.
Lapa is famous for fabulous nightlife. The whole area is filled with pubs and bars, where parties last until dawn. If you feel like dancing, this is the place to be. Don’t miss Rio’s annual carnival either – it’s one of the most popular in the world.
Centro is right in the heart of the city, where modern skyscrapers rub shoulders with old, colonial tenement houses. This is a great place to visit during the week, when the streets are full of life as busy businessmen and women look for a bar for lunch.
There’s also wonderful architecture to admire, like Theatro Municipal. This is a beautiful building consisting of six huge stone columns and gold ornaments. Catedral Metropolitana, a sacramental structure in a conical shape, is also well worth a visit.
These places are very close to each other, so we decided to walk around, explore some side streets take in Rio’s buzzing atmosphere.
Day 4 in Rio de Janeiro
On our last day we had made plans for things to do in Rio de Janeiro, but the weather had other ideas. It was just too hot (and we were too tired!) to do much, so we chose to relax before our long flight the next day. Copacabana beach was our base for the day, but if we had had the time and energy, here are the other things to do in Rio de Janeiro that we had planned.
This is the park at the foot of Corcovado, from where you can start the trip to Christ the Redeemer. The park is also an ideal oasis for rest, with exotic vegetation and small, agile monkeys to spot.
Once the largest stadium in the world, today this attracts the biggest football fans.
This is a colourful favela that you might know from Michael Jackson’s video ‘They Don’t Care About Us’.
This is a botanical garden where you can admire the diverse vegetation from around the world with lots of alleys, waterfalls and palm trees.
I only had four full days in Rio de Janeiro, but it was enough to fall in love with the city. Home to one of the most wonderful views I’ve ever seen, the people, the food and the colourful streets were equally enchanting.
It is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but I didn’t feel as unsafe as I thought I would. I hid my phone in my underwear and stressed out a lot to start with, but after my first walk I realised, in my experience, that it wasn’t that bad. I might have been lucky, or maybe I was just careful enough, but I don’t regret the risks of taking each photo. Now I get to share those wonderful memories with my family, friends and you guys.
Don’t let your fear stop you booking your flight. This wonderful city is well worth exploring and with my guide to things to do in Rio de Janeiro, it’s never been easier to get out and do it! Still deciding on your destination? Be inspired by my guide to where to visit in South America and plan your trip today.