Rio de Janeiro, or the Cidade Marvilhosa to its local inhabitants, is a South American super-city of more than 14 million people, is a city of flair, style, history, culture, extravagance, and elegance, all woven together with inherent vibrancy and sensuality that can be felt nowhere else. Rio is a city where everything blends into everything else, the old and the new, the fast and the slow, the rich, and the poor.
With one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a city, from the air, Rio de Janeiro seems to cascade down the sides of the mountains to the north and spill down to the white-sand shores below, like molten lava flowing down the side of a volcano – slow, almost motionless from a distance, but full of heart and intensity. There are so many things to do in Rio de Janeiro, that you could spend weeks here exploring this city in all of its glorious detail, but if you only have a few days to a week, here’s how we think you could spend your time!
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1. Explore Copacabana
When you think of Copacabana, the mind flashes images of g-string bikinis, speedos, oily bronzed Brazilians on the beach, Samba and Caipirinhas! The 4 km beach serves many purposes to the community of Copacabana – early morning exercise; dog walking, yoga, working out, sunset walks, and football.
In the later hours of the evening, it serves as a backdrop to the many beachside bars between the road and the beach, where Samba tunes mix with the background music of the waves breaking onto the shore. Some of the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro are what the locals do.
Join the Rio natives for an early morning walk along the beach before breakfast, then dive headfirst into the Copacabana shopping district and hop on the Metro for the short ride into the historic center of town. After a few hours exploring the markets and historic buildings, return for an afternoon swim in the Atlantic waters and get started on the Caipirinhas while you wait for a sunset of hundreds of oranges, reds, and purples streaked across the sky!
To get a real taste of the Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro lifestyle, stay in a luxury hotel along the main seafront promenade, with views over the beach to the south and rooftop views of Christ the Redeemer and the mountains to the North.
We stayed in the Porto Bay Rio Internacional Hotel, a four-star luxury hotel overlooking the ocean. Our deluxe double room on the 17th floors had amazing balcony views from one end of Copacabana to the other and was modern, elegant and incredibly comfortable with a king-size bed. The shower in the open-plan bathroom was hot and powerful enough to pound away any remnants of aching muscles from a long flight.
Breakfast was the best buffet we’ve had in a hotel so far, with a wide variety of fresh fruit every day, 5 different detox smoothies and juices, real cheeses, homemade muesli, cold meats, and most importantly, a man solely dedicated to pouring hot, fresh coffee into your cup!
On the roof, the pool is enclosed by a frameless glass façade offering 270-degree views of Copacabana beach and the ocean to the South, the mountains, and Christ the Redeemer to the East and West. When you’re in need of relaxation, or you’re otherwise short of things to do in Rio de Janeiro, it’s a beautiful setting for a sunset drink! The staff was great – really friendly, helpful, professional, but still relaxed and personable to have a conversation with.
2. Explore the nightlife of Rio de Janeiro
When you think of Rio, aside from a giant statue of Jesus Christ, most of us think of wild parties, Carnival with beautiful women dancing in the streets, and the beautiful beaches of the Atlantic – lapped by the waves of the Atlantic to the South and surrounded by the busy city streets to the north.
But usually, when you arrive in a new city and head out into the town in search of cocktails and people to drink them with, it’s practically inevitable to end up in some dive bar designed purely for tourists and backpackers, selling cheap beers and mixers and packed with touts, pickpockets and ‘questionable women.’
Is this what we want though? Of course not! We travel because we want to experience real places, real people, and most of all, real life, which is why as travelers we gravitate towards locals – Local people, local culture, and local experiences! We hooked up with Tours Gone Wild, who among many other things (I’ll get to that later), organize nightlife tours around Rio de Janeiro’s best clubs and bars, with not a backpacker beer offer or ‘questionable woman’ in sight!
We were picked up from our hotel at 11 pm by our Tours Gone Wild party guide, and taken to Palaphitas Gavea, an exclusive guest list only club overlooking the seafront, with an open-air bar, club, and dance floor, packed with beautiful Brazilian people! They have full guestlist access to the best bars and clubs all over the city and they even organize party tours for Carnival too.
Without a doubt, a full-on night of VIP partying is one of the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro! But that’s not anywhere near everything – They organize loads of other tours and excursions, help with accommodation, transport, and connections, not only in Rio de Janeiro but in cities all over the world! To check out where Tours Gone Wild can take you – Click here.
3. Walk the historic downtown
Rio de Janeiro is a fantastic city for urban exploration – the blend of historic Portuguese colonial architecture, modern city life, and that famous Brazilian atmosphere makes it one of the most interesting and captivating cities in South America.
We booked a city walking tour with Context Travel, starting at the Convent of Santo Antonio, where the city of Rio de Janeiro was born back in 1608, making it the oldest standing building in the city. We learned all about the rich history of Rio and how it developed from a small colonial outpost to one of the busiest modern cities in the world.
Every building that you would simply look at and walk past on your own has a story and an important part to play the birth and growth of the city over its 420-year history, from conquering kings and crazy queens to gold, diamonds, and its short-lived status as the capital city of Portugal! Make sure you check out the Confeitaria Colombo, the oldest and most prestigious coffee shop in the world on your way around – it’s an experience all unto itself. We rarely, if ever, recommend guided tours but with so much rich history, it should be high on your list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
4. Go Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro’s Coast
The landscape of Rio de Janeiro is fascinatingly beautiful – numerous tree-clad mountain peaks cascade down towards the Atlantic Ocean, with white-sand beaches and an archipelago of small islands peppering the waters of the coast.
There are many easy to medium hiking routes up to the peaks that give great views of the city and the ocean, but one day, as we walked along with one of Rio’s many beaches, we glanced up at the sky just in time to see a giant bird-shaped object fly over our heads. There was something hanging from it – a person – HANG GLIDING!
We searched online for tandem hang gliding companies and some of the best reviews came from Rio ASA Delta, owned and run by Fabio, a pilot with 12 years of experience and even a number of competitions under his belt. Fabio picked us up at our accommodation for the short drive to the top of a cliff edge overlooking the beach and the ocean, where we went through our safety and launch instructions and prepared for take-off.
One-by-one we stepped onto the launching pad and got ready to go – On the count of three, we ran towards the edge with the glider, falling in mid-air momentarily before taking off and soaring upwards into the sky on a sharp gust of wind. As you feel the wind lift you into the vast blue, you can’t help but take in a sharp breath, before circling higher and flying off towards the ocean hanging by a nylon strap, suspended from a thin piece of canvas stretched out over a metal frame to form a huge wing!
The wind was strong that day, allowing the pilot to lift the glider higher and higher into the air, circling back around over the mountain we launched from, flying through the air like a rabbit caught in the talons of a giant bird – with a huge smile on our faces! Then the glider tilted and turned in a wide, banking, sweeping turn and dived downwards towards the beach below, skilfully spirally, rising and falling through the currents of air until they aligned with the landing area, which was a small strip of soft, white sand on the beach.
Poised for landing, we glided gracefully towards the ground at quite a speed, pulling up at the last second, stalling the flight in mid-air, like a huge swan landing on a lake, to gently reunite our feet with the soft sand. The experience of a lifetime and by far one of the ultimate things to do in Rio de Janeiro! Check out Fabio’s Facebook page too, for loads of photos, videos, and reviews.
5. See Christ the Redeemer
At the top of everyone’s list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro, is this magnificent monument. At the peak of the Corcovado Mountain, standing 700 meters high in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro is the Christ the Redeemer statue. It’s high on the bucket list of many to stand in front of the 38-meter high statue of Jesus Christ, his arms open wide as a symbol of enduring peace.
We organized our tour with Tours Gone Wild and was assisted by the local tour company called Gray Line Brazil. We had over an hour exploring the magnificent statue from different angles and taking in the glorious panoramic views in all directions; mountains, and dense forests which seem to wrap the city in a thick blanket to the North, while the cool Atlantic Ocean bathes its shores and gently from the South. Even the journey to the top of the mountain is an experience – a 20-minute train ride which winds up the hill through the forest, with views over the city and the ocean.
6. Markets in Gloria and Uruguaiana
A relaxing way to spend your Sunday morning, walking through stalls of fresh fruit, meat, fish, seafood, spices, and even artisanal crafts and jewelry. This is not a market frequented by many tourists as it’s in the local residential area of Gloria, just a short Metro ride from Copacabana and Cinelandia.
Everything is interesting and colorful here, even the garlic and chilies are laid out on small paper plates and arranged in an even pattern across the tabletops. Many of the market stalls are held from characterful Volkswagen vans, which combine with the sights, sounds, and market buzz, make for amazing photo opportunities as well.
If you’re looking for a market experience with clothes and souvenirs at really low prices, with very few tourists in sight, then take the Metro to Uruguaiana, where you’ll find street after street of shops and market stalls.
7. Climb the Lapa Steps
Our Rio de Janeiro walking tour with Context Travel ended with a visit to the Lapa Steps, a masterpiece of recycled tiles and paint, created by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who bought a house in the Lapa District of the city back in the 1980s and began sticking broken tiles to the walls of the filthy, neglected stairs which ran past his home, linking the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods.
His work started to gain the attention of local passers-by, then travelers from around the world, many of whom donated tiles from around the world to the project, although he also painted some tiles himself. Selaron’s life continued like this until January 2013, when his body was found on the steps, covered in paint thinner and with burn marks to his body. The exact cause of death is still a mystery and it’s not known if it was an accident, suicide, or homicide, but rumors include death threats from a former business associate and Selaron asking to be taken into the subway so he could throw himself under a train. His death will probably always remain a mystery, which only adds to the curious magic of his creation.
8. Find accommodation in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
Have you been to Rio de Janeiro, or are you planning to go soon? We would love to hear more suggestions to add to the list, so let us know in the comments and we can consider adding them to the article!
NEXT STOP: Buzios and Arraial do Cabo, Brazil!!