Welcome to Rio, “Cidade Maravilhosa”!
I fell in love with Rio within the first 24 hours after my first arrival on New Year's eve of 2016. I was supposed to begin an internship at an organization in Vidigal favela that night. Because of New Year's festivities, I was left by the driver at the base of the hill amidst a giant crowd of people partying, who I assumed wanted to steal my cell phone, but would soon learn, would welcome me like family with open arms and a cold drink ;). I proceeded to hike Dois Irmãos THAT NIGHT and watched Rio explode into fireworks amidst a crowd of partygoers until 3 in the morning. Rio is life.
Rio is also generally a 1 or a 10, but few inbetweens. It envelopes you. There is the most incredible live music popping on in the street, on the beach, in bars, in restaurants. You can bike the ciclovia that spans over 40 kilometers of beach, or surf some of the world's best beaches. There is BEAUTY, in the people, (who wear little clothing and fancy the gym), the openness sharing culture, language, and experiences, and nature!
Bem Vindo a Rio! I hope you fall in love with it as much as I have. And for any more information on Rio tours, favelas, getting around or meeting up you can always reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
To and from the Airport, there are two airports in Rio, GIG the international one which is about an hour (depending on traffic) outside most parts of the city, and Santos Dumont (nestled inside the city.) Uber is easy to get from both by walking outside of arrivals and will be a third of the price of a taxi. If flying into Santos Dumont get a window seat because the overhead views of Rio are pretty spectacular!
Since the Olympic games in 2016 Rio has an extensive and smoothly operating metro system. There is a web of underground metro lines that cross the on-land VLT train system. If you are coming from GIG, there is no lines reaching out that far unfortunately. Your best bet would be to UBER or take a Fresco Bus for 15R.
From Santos Dumont:
If you are coming from from Santos Dumont, you’re in luck! A minute walk outside the airport puts you at the Santos Dumont Airport VLT stop. Buy your ticket from the machine on the platform and take the train two stops to Cinelandia. Once at Cinelandia you can get off and access the metro system which is far more extensive. Each bus, train, or metro ride is 4.05R. Factor your fare wisely. In some cases if you are traveling with a group UBER will be cheaper.
Public Transportation, use it! While taking a taxi or UBER might be far easier, it can also be far more expensive. One way transportation on any given line is no more than 5 reales (currently most routes are 4.05 R). It's best to master the city's public transportation early on. Between the buses, metro, and train system, it's relatively easy to get around. Download Moovit App to map out your days beforehand (it generally works better than google maps).
I particularly love riding Rio’s buses because it gives you an on the ground tour of Rio’s city streets. Bus rides you can pay for IN EXACT CHANGE (or close to) or better yet buy a RIO CARD at a metro stop and add money to it. Rio Cards are accepted by buses, metro’s and the smaller vans that are used by favela communities. When you go to swipe your Rio card look for the yellow square as you enter the bus or at the metro entrance. Most buses operate on every town minute schedule but other vary especially on holidays (and there are A LOT OF HOLIDAYS HERE) so double check your Moovit App
If you are planning on staying in Rio for more than a week, buy a Metro or “GIRO” card. Or better yet buy the Rio Card (as mentioned above). Taking the metro makes you feel like a local. Use the MoovitApp to plan your route, buy the card at an automated kiosk or from a metro card work in the booth before, and you are good to go. The metro is smooth and on time. I have never had any safety issues but like any city keep your valuables safe.
- LADIES: there are female only cars that operate in the mornings from 7-9 and at night from 5-8. Look for the pink line on the platform or the pink cars. This extra level of respect and separation particularly makes me feel really good about riding the metro.
Uber, is widely accepted and used in Rio. Unlike neighboring South American countries, in Brazil Uber is everywhere. If you get a Brazilian SIM you can also download the 99car app to get an even less expensive ride-share service and will often summit the favelas which Ubers will not.
Plan Ahead Make sure you do your research. Something is always happening in Rio de Janeiro depending on the day. For example most museums are closed on Mondays, but free on Tuesdays.
Planning routes ahead can help to align transportation goals because crossing the city can sometimes take one to two hours in transit… so, plan ahead. That’s largely why this guide has whole day trips and tips.
What to see and do in Rio de Janeiro:
- First is a list of fun day trips each with a focal part of the city.
- Then you have a list of food spots to get your grub and samba on!
- Finally, you have some off the beaten path accommodations!
Downtown Rio (aka Centro) is as much historical as it is commercial. There is much to do in this part of town, so much you could probably spend weeks here and not be bored.
1. Start in the heart of Centro; Central station. This is the main hub of transportation in the city center, with the metro, bus, and train stations all nearby.
2. Walk east on Av. Pres. Vargas until rua Camerino. Turn left on Camerino and walk until the Jardim Suspengo do Valongo. This beautiful, romantic garden is perfect for a morning stroll. See if you can find all four Roman god statues.
3. Walk into the surrounding neighborhood a bit and you'll find Pedra do Sal, a well-known bar, famous for it’s Monday night parties where crowds dance the Samba in the streets. It's also an important historical site, having been a large slave market in the 1600s.
4. If you only have limited time, make sure you go through the Museu do Amanhã.
5. Directly adjacent, you'll find the MAR (Museu de arte). With a large selection of incredible art, it would be easy to spend an entire afternoon here. Admission is free Tuesdays.
6. While Rio de Janeiro has many impressive historical buildings, Igreja Nossa Senhora da Candelaria is definitely one to stop by. Built-in the 1600s, the inside of the Church is even more impressive than the outside. According to legend, the couple who built the church was on a ship in the middle of a storm and promised, should they survive, to return and build this church dedicated to the lady of Candelaria.
7. Finally, walk back down Av. Pres. Vargas to Uruguaiana station. As well as another metro stop, there are many small shops selling anything from cell phone cases to flip flops. Here is a great place to find some good deals on whatever you might be looking for, but once the sun goes down and the shops close, it’s not the best place to be at night.
Centro Tour Option:
- Gabriela Palmares with Sous Carioca offers an incredible Little Africa Tour that covers this area giving the historical context of slavery in Rio de Janeiro. I highly recommend going on this tour to get a more well-rounded understanding of the city.
Considered one of the safest favelas in Rio, Vidigal is sandwiched between two of the richest neighborhoods, Leblon and Sao Conrado, on the side of Morro Dois Irmãos. With stunning views to be seen on every street, tourists rarely venture here, though it's just a ten minute walk from Ipanema.
1. Take the motor taxis to the Vila Olimpica, near the top of the favela. At the furthest left corner of the field, there is access to the Dois Irmãos hiking trail.
2. Trilha Dois Irmãos is best done just before sunrise, but any time of day is good! It is a moderate 45-minute summit and provides THE BEST VIEWS of Rio! Tour options at the end of the section.
3. Bar da Lage is one of the most upscale bars in the favela, very uncharastically so. It is right next to Mirante do Avrao, a hotel and nightclub. Checkout either for some delicious food, the best views of Rio and SAMBA!
4. Right next to both is Casa da Tapioca. If it's open, treat yourself to some authentic Brazilian tapioca. If you continue down the stairs next to Casa Tapioca you will enter the Mirante with multiple colorful murals and another epic photo opp!
Vidigal Tour Option:
Favela Experience based out of Vidigal offers day UNIQUE and customized tours to meet the local leaders of Vidigal while exploring drumming, beer, capoeira, or the Dois Irmaos hike. Click Here to see all of their tours led by local community members.
Yet another secluded neighborhood that tourists can easily miss. It's easy to fall in love with the winding streets dating all the way back to the 1750s. Santa Teresa has one of the OLDEST street railway systems IN THE WORLD, having run continuously since its opening in 1877. You must stop here to ride the tram and feel the essence of Rio’s bohemian hipster, vibe.
1. Start at central. Walk just one block to the Campo de Santana. This beautiful park is much smaller than some of the others but still offers a wonderful place to bring a book for the afternoon. See if you can catch a glimpse of the tiny capybaras that litter the grounds; it's not something that you see everyday!
2. Biblioteca Parque Estudal is just next to the park and offers a nice, quiet place with wifi if you ever need to get out of the sun for a bit.
3. The Real Gabinete Português de Leitura is on your way to the next stop, and certainly worth a look inside. Old books line the walls, making you feel as though you've been transported back in time.
4. If you're looking for a lunch stop, check out Confeitaria Colombo. One of the ten most beautiful cafes in the world, the salgados and desserts are to die for. You would be hard-pressed to leave without trying a few.
5. Your last stop before Santa Teresa, Centro Cultural Sao Francisco da Penitencia is a historic center dating back hundreds of years. The architecture is particularly important and is altogether considered a work of art.
6. Finally, you'll arrive at the tram – the bondinho de Santa Teresa. You can ride it through Lapa and straight into Santa Teresa.
7. Get off the trolley at Largo dos Guimarães. Santa Teresa is full of these small plazas with cute restaurants and shops tucked into the hills. As it's one of the more expensive neighborhoods, don't be surprised when the prices go up.
7. Walk down the hill to another plaza, this one called Largo do Curvelo. Just another city point where the views are fit for a king.
8. Finally, one of the most popular tourist sites, walk down to Escadaria Selaron, the famous stairs covered in artistic tiles. Iconic photo opp here! See if you can find a depiction of a pregnant man. It is said that this is self-portrait of sorts of the artist himself.
Though one of the things Rio is most well known for, there is so much more to the Corcovado experience. Tourists almost always pack the platform of Christ the Redeemer. But there are a few secrets that can help turn your experience into a one-of-a-kind.
1. Get a glimpse of the panoramic view atop Corcovado. While it's most famous for the 38 meter statue of Christ the Redeemer, the views are reason enough to visit. There's a train and many private buses available to take you up, but you might want to try ascending or descending on the trail that goes all the way up and down the mountain. Be warned: it is not for the faint of heart. Roughly a two-hour hike one way.
2. The trail down drops right into Parque Lage, another beautiful, yet often forgotten spot in Rio. There are ruins situated throughout the park, once forming a mansion in the 1920s. The main mansion still stands, now housing a lovely little cafe that, while expensive, has some delicious options.
3. Close by is the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. While walking around the lake is very enjoyable, it’s rather big to walk all the way around, so if you are interested in seeing the whole space, it’s best to rent a bike. For only 10 reales an hour, there are places all around the lake where you can rent them and cruise around quickly.
I'm always an advocate for supporting small business owners and venturing off the beaten path. These accommodations are in Rio’s favelas and so they are slightly less traditional but are EPIC:
Mirante do Avrao, Vidigal:
- Mirante do Avrao is one of Rio’s most famous restaurants and night clubs because of its unique location at the very top of Vidigal. You will be surrounded by the bustling community but also secluded in the luxury of the space itself rest aside the giant natural park Dois Irmaos. Perfect place if you want some of the best live music out your door at night!
- Cost: $60-$160USD/night
The Maze, Bed & Breakfast:
- The Maze is a world-renowned jazz club and art gallery. You will be an insider into a local hotspot the minute you step out your room. And breakfast is included!
- Cost: $30-$45USD/night
- Hotelzinho is a local hip hostel in Rio’s Vidigal community. Short walk to the beach, great vIews and you feel like you are part of the community!
- Cost: $18-30 USD/night
Boquetim is an old school samba club. Get some bar food and pull up your chair to some of Rio’s best samba. Closed on Monday. Poppin on Thursdays after 9 pm.
- THE BEST SUSHI IN RIO, and affordable! Seriously. JC was a sushi chef at some of Rio’s best restaurants before deciding he wanted to make a fine-dining sushi restaurant in Vidigal. Take a moto-taxi from the plaza of Vidigal to “JC SUSHI”. Follow the red signs because you will be walking to this very elusive and sexy spot through windy alleys and up some stairs.
- Acai is VERY popular in Rio, but to get it true Acai experience YOU MUST eat a bowl here. Each bowl can be served without the additional sugar so you can taste the acaii fruit. It is a huge bowl and can easily be shared. They also serve typical food from Amazonia including crab soup. A famous local hot spot.
- All you can eat seafood and BBQ for 150R. It is on the expensive side but worth it for a special night. This is one of Rio’s best restaurants!
- Feeling homesick or want to feel like your in an episode of Friends? This quintessential chicy NYC style cafe also serves waffles, fruit smoothies and everything caffeinated. Amazing American and Brazilian coffee!
Community in Action, connects travelers with volunteer opportunities throughout Rio. From working in Daycares, teaching English, and painting murals. I currently teach English in Vidigal thanks to Community in Action. Wendy their current director works hands on with a multitude of social project across Rio’s favela communities and connects them with foreigners looking to expand their stay. Depending on how long you will be in Rio depends on what project you’ll be connected with. The intention is not to create a project for foreigners to feel good about themselves, but to see where assets align with existing needs to create connection and change.
There is no fee just amazing impact!
Reach out to Wendy here: email@example.com
Favela Inc. Social Impact Hub: Imagine a buzzing co-working office overlooking the expansiveness of the bright blue Atlantic and the hum of the busy street outside. Favela Inc. is a small business incubator situated in Vidigal. For over a year it has been helping local favela-based businesses and nonprofits grow in Rio’s favelas.
The physical space it occupies serves as a community hub for digital nomads, community leaders, kids, and friends from the community to hangout, drink coffee, take classes. They have plenty of volunteering opportunities, head to their website to find out more or feel free to contact me directly.