Hey kids! Hope you all are having great weeks, mine’s been a bit emotional.
My year-long journey in Rio has come to an end and my heart is just a bit confused. But, in light of that, I want to give you my insider knowledge to the city of Rio de Janeiro and how best to travel this beautiful city since I now know the city so well! This is the blog post that I wish I had going into the trip, so settle in and get comfortable because this is a long one…
First and foremost, lets talk about how to get there and get around. I think knowing a bit about a city’s transportation system before I arrive helps make my trip way more productive and enjoyable since it takes up so much time and energy figuring it all out without spending a fortune.
A quick note about flights beforehand, since I am from the US I needed a visa to enter and stay in Brazil for the year. If you don’t know how to apply for a visa, don’t sweat it, I didn’t either. My consulate in Chicago had an awesome website setup where they organized each requirement by country and length/reason for visiting. I was able to mail in my application from Minnesota and receive my approved visa back in about three weeks. I understand each consulate is different, so do some Googling and if you have questions, comment and let me know. I will try and help to the best of my abilities 🙂
Flights are expensive, just as a general rule, so don’t feel bad about picking a time/airline that’s actually convenient for you. It’s just not worth traveling for 30+ hours with three airlines just so you can save $200. I signed up for Delta SkyMiles and have had amazing crews each flight, they’re an obvious recommendation. Typical layovers in the US happen in Miami, Atlanta, Texas, and New York and almost all are overnight so bring your earplugs. For flight searching, my go-to site is always Kayak because when I’m not sure exact dates I want to fly, their grid method makes it easy for me to choose the cheapest days.
So, once you’ve arrived in Galeao and grab your luggage, you will either want to follow the crowd outside and try to carpool with someone in a taxi, or you can go upstairs to Departures and order yourself an Uber. Taxi prices to Zona Sul vary, but I wouldn’t pay more than R$120 and Ubers usually sit around R$30-R$40 if traffic is good. I know Uber is always cheaper, but if I can I like to support the local taxi service so try and carpool, people really don’t mind.
Overall public transport is great once you get in the city, with buses, trains, and cars to get you where you need. For buses, I love the app Moovit to make my transport easy. All you do is plunk in your beginning and end locations and it gives you bus numbers and transfers that are easy to follow. Bus prices are R$3-R$4 which is about $1 USD and the system is extensive, so this is a good option for budget travelers. My personal favorite is the Metro Train system because it is easy, quick and consistent. The city of Rio is shaped kind of like a crescent so it’s really just one line to hit all the major tourist spots and is only R$4.30. If you don’t want to buy individual cards each time, you can invest an extra R$5 for a rechargeable one and put as much money on there as you want. For rechargeable cards, make sure to only place the card over the top of the black readers so that you can keep it, single cards get dropped into the slot in front of the readers to be lost forever. If you’re traveling in style, Uber and taxis are the ultimate door-to-door service. If you’re feeling like a local, Zona Sul is also super accessible by bike. Thanks to Itau bank, a bike rental/borrowing system has been put in place to encourage this green mode of transportation. For info on how to sign up, click here
Where you stay in Rio will obviously have a huge impact on your trip, so you want to make sure you find the place that’s right for you. Hostels here are plentiful, but I’ve personally heard better reviews from people who have stayed in AirBnbs. Hotels are lined up in Zona Sul and usually have beautiful views of the beach, but are obviously more expensive so take a look at the three sites linked below to explore your options a bit.
Quick notes about neighborhoods, good ones to look out for are Botafogo, Leme, Ipanema, and Leblon. Flamengo is great if you want a residential experience, and Copacabana is the touristic spot and is usually very busy. I have stayed in a host family here since I was in a study program so I admittedly don’t know a ton about lodging, but it’s pretty straightforward like any other big city.
Something not everyone wants to talk about, but important nonetheless, safety in Rio is not to be overlooked. Although I would never discourage someone from traveling here, its important to know you need to look after yourself and take responsibility for your stuff. I can happily say that after a year here I have had absolutely no problems with theft or violence, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. When you’re walking on the street, don’t have your phone out. Put it in a purse or a backpack where it’s fully concealed and inaccessible to people passing by. Try to avoid bringing extra attention to yourself by wearing very Western clothing or speaking English loudly at night. Keep your bags in front of you and try to avoid walking alone at night. Watch your bags on the beach, and if you’re swimming have someone else look after them for you. If you’re going out, make sure you keep and extra R$50 in your shoe so you can get home in an emergency.
Overall, it’s pretty basic, just be aware of your surroundings. Trust your gut and don’t let your fear get in the way of you having a good time. Like I said, I’ve been fine here and I’m a 22 year old redhead who sticks out like a sore thumb, so take that as you will.
Now comes the fun part! Rio is a city packed with stuff to do, so much so that even after a year there are things I didn’t get to! See my categories below for a breakdown of recommendations;
I put this category first and foremost because of Christ. It’s the iconic statue that represents both Rio and Brazil, and gives stunning, sweeping views of the greater city that is 100% worth going to. The statue lies inside the Tijuca national forest and can be accessed by trolley car or van. Option one is to sign up for a tour that picks you up from the base of Tijuca and drives you all the way to the ticket booth, option two is to walk or Uber up to the base of the trolley car and take that the rest of the way, or option three is to hike up. I don’t recommend hiking because the trail has been known to be a target for petty theft and people have gotten everything taken including shoes on the trail, so be aware. I personally recommend finding a tour that will take you because not only is transportation easier, but with a guide you skip the crazy lines and go straight up. They also provide extra info about the city, so if you’re new the stuff is good to learn. Ask your hotel or hostel provider for info about specific tours, prices, and times.
The second most famous viewpoint in Rio has to be from Pão de Açúcar (pronounced Pow Gee Azu-car) where a system of gondolas will bring you up two mountains at the base of Leme beach to get the opposing view of the city that glows at sunset. Round trip tickets are priced at R$86 and, in my book, is better than Christ. Access to the base is easy since its next to the beach and is walkable from Botafogo Metro station or obviously accessable by uber. Quick note; Rio also has a chain of grocery stores with this monument’s namesake so if you’re searching online try looking for Sugarloaf Mountain instead!
Vista Chinesa is one of the most well known viewpoint for locals and is located on the opposite side of Tijuca National Forest as Christ, giving a completely different view of the city! Most popular by bike, the viewpoint is almost to the top of a steep 5 km trail that will guarantee to get you sweating, but well worth the work. If you’re lucky, you might also see some local monkeys that hang around, but just like any wild animal please don’t feed them!
Finally, I’ll add favelas into the mix because not only are they a unique view of the city, they are also a very important cultural piece of Rio with complex circumstances and ideologies around each of them. For a full break down of what favelas are and what they mean for Rio, please click here
History, Art and Museums
If you know nothing about Rio coming into your trip and really just want to get your feet wet in Brazilian history, take a walking tour of Centro. If you’re staying in a hostel or hotel they should have information on companies, times, and price points for you to check out. Brazilian history is super complex, especially in Rio, and lots of the buildings downtown offer insight into the rich history so get your walking shoes on and explore! If you want to go alone and just see place as a whole, take the metro to either Cinelandia, Carioca, or Uriguaiana, these offer the best starting points. Word of caution: avoid going to Centro in the evenings or weekends unless you have a specific destination. People only work in Centro, they don’t live there so outside of working hours its mostly deserted and a bit more dangerous.
While were focusing on Centro, let me suggest you go see some other spots while you’re down there. The Teatro Municipal at Cinelandia square is a must-see! Its the oldest and most famous theater in the city with huge pieces of iconic Brazilian music having been premiered there. The extravagant gold detailing and architectural details make it worth walking around, even if you aren’t seeing a show. Keep in mind that the theater is not normally open during the daytime so you will need to sign up for a tour through their website in advance, or buy tickets to a show.
You should also check out the Museu do Amanha by the bay. This was opened specifically for the World Cup and Olympic Games to help Brazil use its global platform to spread the world about climate change and sustainability. This museum not only is a stunning architectural masterpiece, but is unlike any other museum you’ve been to because instead of telling you about the past, its telling you about the future. Keep an open mind when you go in order to get the most from it. (Also, go on Tuesdays because all city museums are free that day of the week!)
If you find yourself on a museum kick after Amanha, make sure to check out the art museum back by Cinelandia next to the library. This museum showcases true Brazilian art, and helped me understand the first big break the Brazilian people made in understanding their own cultural identity. Get ready for lots of foliage and dense forest paintings!
Finally, I highly suggest you go down Olympic Boulevard and see the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vangolo Wharf, which was the main port in which almost all African slaves were brought through and purchased in the 1800’s. It’s estimated that 900,000 people were brought through and “is the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent” according to UNESCO. The reason the port is not on water anymore is not because of changing sea levels, but because of a huge expansion project Rio took on in the 20th century, breaking down mountains to create more land space. This is a very special, powerful thing to see that is not really talked about a lot.
Moving a bit south of Centro now, we arrive in Lapa where you can see the old aqueduct, turned trolley car line, that is the Lapa Arches. (Remember the love scene in the animated movie Rio with all the beautiful falling flower petals? Yeah, they are riding over the Lapa Arches in that scene… that movie is so weirdly geographically accurate I give Dreamworks major props for doing it so right). These arches are a symbol of the city, and if you want to ride the cable car yourself, I suggest walking up the hill first and riding the car down because down is free but up is not. The rides used to be super affordable and accessible to locals for daily transportation, but recently they redid the lines and now prices are sky high and pretty much for tourists only.
Right by the arches are the Selaron Stairs (Escadaria Selaron) which are filled with hand placed tiles designed by the Chilean artist Jorge Selaron and contain location from all over the world (there was even a Minnesota tile if you can believe it!) These stairs are a wonderful place to mozy around and most times there is even a musician at the top playing music that just gently drifts down the rest of the stairs.
My final location is also in the Lapa area, and is something a bit unusual. There is a cathedral called the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian built to look like a Mayan pyramid with floor to ceiling stained glass panels. The inside is just as grand as the outside with giant statues hanging from the super high ceiling, making the alter look very small. The church does hold regular masses, one in which I attended, and although the mass is all in Portuguese and the echoing is intense, I enjoyed it. This spot is worth popping into if you’re in the Lapa area
One of my main reasons I fell in love with Rio was because it was so integrated into the surrounding mountains and forests. You could literally walk up a hill and feel as thought you were lost in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Not to mention, since there were so many mountains to choose from, hiking was plentiful right in the city. I’m hoping to make a separate post soon about all the hiking spots in Rio in full detail, so for now I’ll just give basics and redirect you later 🙂 First off, Dois Irmaos. This hike is by far the most popular in Rio for its view, accessibility, and moderate level of difficulty. With the trailhead in one of the most popular favelas, Vidigal, you not only get to enjoy a hike, but also a motor taxi ride through the favela which is a once in a lifetime opportunity! The hike takes maybe two hours total and is medium difficulty. Other great hikes along the city are Moro da Urca, Pedra Bonita, Pedra da Gavea, and Pedra do Elefante.
Not a fan of heights or exercise? Then live the true carioca life by spending the day on the beach! With miles and miles of white-sand coastlines, Rio’s beaches are famous for a reason. Walk the famous sidewalks, grab a coconut, dip your toes in the waves and enjoy yourself! Beaches in Zona Sul are organized in posts from 1-12 going east to west and are clumped by neighborhood. Posts 1 and 2 are Leme, 3-6 is Copacabana, 7-10 is Ipanema, and 11-12 is Leblon. Each post has a social tag, for example post 9 is the party post, 11 and 12 are more for young families, and 2 and 3 are for sports. Of course these are not strict by any means, anybody can go anywhere, but its good to keep cultural norms in mind
Music and Parties
In addition to beach life, Rio is also super famous for it’s nightlife (and with good reason too). Music really is the heartbeat of the city and people go wild any night of the week! Below I have only pointed out a few main places to go, but keep in mind parties happen all over. Facebook is an awesome tool to find out what’s going on at any given night.
First off, Pedra do sal! the birthplace of Samba, every Monday and Wednesday people gather here to dance, drink, talk, and listen to music and honor the place where Rio’s signature tunes come from. Located right by the UNESCO world heritage site on Olympic Boulevard, this place is awesome to see both during the day, and at night!
Baixo Gavea and Canastra. These two bars “host” a large outdoor gathering every Thursday (Baixo) and Tuesday (Canastra). The bars themselves are quite small, but draw hundreds of people each week for a large-scale cocktail hour. Starting roughly at 10pm, these things can go on until 3am or later!
Beco das Garaffas is an old hole-in-the-wall music club in Leme that is said to have been one of the major locations fostering the growth of Bossa Nova music and is totally worth going to see! There is a “Little Bottles” club for upcoming talents and a “Big Bottles” club that are for headliner singers and musicians. Shows are maximum R$45 and are the perfect cozy, romantic setting to help you appreciate the major genre that comes directly from Rio.
If you are looking to take part in the wild Brazilian parties you’ve heard about, Lapa is your place! No matter the day of the week or time of year, there are parties going on in Lapa that last until dawn and will not disappoint you or your expectations. Make sure to visit the little blue casas outside the club area to get some cheap food and drinks before heading inside. Normal club entrance is R$30 but sometimes you can bargain them down if you’re a foreigner or have a big girl group. Super important safety note about Lapa, dont bring anything with you that you dont absolutely need! Lapa is notorious for being a bit shady and it is the easiest thing in the world for thieves to reach in your bag as your dancing and take your things. Keep keys and phones in a hidden place and always put an emergency R$50 in your shoe if you need to get home in a pinch. Be safe, but have tons of fun! I personally have some very fond nights in Lapa and I suggest you try it out 🙂
Out of the City
Now, if you find yourself with spare time or are wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a bit, try one of these smaller towns close to Rio. Many of these I hope to have a separate blog post for, so here is just a quick summary for you, with links if applicable.
Ilha Grande: Secluded island about an hour south of the city. This is the ultimate tropical getaway that is very reasonably priced, but beware of bad weather.
Petropolis: Mountain town just inland of the city, with Germanic influence you feel like you’re almost in a different country. Explore the Portuguese Palaces and get some great local brews on a day trip here.
Arrial do Cabo: Peninsula saturated with secluded beaches and turquoise waters, this dream landscape is just and hour north of the city and can easily be combined with a trip to Cabo Frio as well.
Buzios: More of an up-scale Arrial, this beach town feels way more like a vacation with cute boutiques, great food, and of course every water sport you can imagine!
Minas Gerais: The closest state to Rio, Minas has incredibly great food and a much more at-home feel. Dotted with waterfalls and mountain landscapes, this historic state take a bit longer to get to but is well worth the effort.
We made it! Wow, if you’ve made it this far in the post I thank you for the bottom of the heart. Also, I hope that this was helpful! Like I said, this was the blog post I wish I had going into this experience so I tried to be as thorough as possible. Of course, if you have questions please leave them in the comments and hit the follow button to see new updates!
Enjoy your time in Rio!! It’s one of the most beautiful cities on Earth and is an amazing place to witness. The energy and the people made a wonderful home for me over the course of this year and if you are fortunate enough to go, I promise you won’t regret it.
Lots of love,
Next to Read: On Learning a Language Abroad