Rio de Janeiro has a soft, saccharine buzz. Life is sweet here, but slower. Cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known, aren’t as hurried as their Paulista counterparts. You’ll feel it in yourself too, and not because you’ll be on the beach every day. (It’s the other way around, actually.) The city’s rhythms are, in a sense, their own Rio de Janeiro travel guide.
Rio inspires as many iconic songs as New York or Paris—“Only a Dream in Rio,” “Copacabana,” “Girl From Ipanema”—because this relaxed town, backdropped with beachfronts and spiked with cachaça, fuels nostalgia in those who leave. (“Saudade” is the word for this longing you’ll feel for Rio after you’ve left.)
Lucky for you, you’re on your way to Rio, and not on the way out. So as you plan, run through this Rio de Janeiro travel guide a few times. It’s especially good if you want to visit the four or five key tourist attractions, eat world-renowned food (and sometimes just simple local fare), spend a lot of time with your butt in the sand, and a little time inside a samba club, too.
Savor every second.
Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide: Where to Stay
Ipanema or Copacabana, no question. You’ll want to be close to the beach—either one. Ipanema is less touristy, but still bustling. Copacabana is bigger and busier, but easier for swimming.
Hotel Fasano in Ipanema is exactly the luxury you want to return to after long days in the sun and at varying elevations. (The rooftop pool and panoramic views aren’t so bad, either.) Otherwise, try Casa Mosquito (weird name, cool hotel), which mixes the vibrancy of Copacabana with the sophistication of Ipanema—also with cityscape and waterfront views.
A General Safety Tip for Rio de Janeiro
Both Ipanema and Copacabana are fairly safe—they’re heavily trafficked with tourists and patrolled by police. On one hand, that means fewer confrontations and blatant crimes. On the other hand, it means there are more people to target for pickpocketing and beach-bag snatching. So, as a rule of thumb: Keep your things close, and pay attention at all times. Don’t walk with head staring down into your phone. Don’t abandon your bag for a swim, or put it more than a foot away from you. (If you go for a swim, ask other beachgoers to watch your things, and set it beside them. It’s up to you to gauge their trustworthiness, but I’ve only ever had good luck.)
Don’t walk around too far after dark; Ubers and taxis are cheap, and Uber is especially trustworthy. And of course, don’t make it easy for anyone to discreetly pickpocket you. Close any bags, wear tighter shorts, don’t put anything in your rear pockets…you get the idea.
All this being said, both beaches (as well as Leblon) are generally safe places until it gets dark.
Thursday: That Famous Visual Comes to Life
Evening: There are no alternatives to your first activity in Rio: Get yourself to Ipanema Beach for sunset. Order a couple chairs from any of the vendors that line the backside of the beach—each one serves the space directly in front of it, and the sweet spot is somewhere around tent 70, between the big No.8 and No.9 lifeguard stations. The water here is especially good for swimming on calm days, and the crowds are less rowdy.
Anyway, your “host” will bring you the chairs and the tent, which all cost a couple bucks, and then he or she will take your order. Get some caipirinhas, or coconuts if you need a post-flight pick me up. Try to holler at the passing vendors for some açai, but don’t order any drinks from them (they’re not as fresh as the drinks from the tents). Then, savor the sunset with that oft-Instagrammed backdrop of the Two Brothers Hill. Don’t worry, you’ll be back here again later in the week. Maybe more than once.
Hopefully you wore your nice Birkenstocks, because dinner is nearby in Ipanema, at Gero. It’s fancy, and it’s Italian, which is where half these Brazilians trace their roots, so you know it’s good. Get something with seafood, like the grilled shrimp risotta, since it’s so damn fresh here. And for dessert, get the chocolate-smothered lemon cream puffs—or, if you’d like to use their fancy name, profiteroles al limone com chocolate.
Friday: Copacabana and Sugar Loaf
Morning: Head to the tip of Copacabana for breakfast with a sprawling view at Café 18 do Forte. Order the Carioca breakfast if you want to try traditional Rio fare, which includes bacon farofa, eggs, and even a Carioca coffee, which is like an Americano, only more appropriately portioned.
Next, give yourself a few hours to relax at Copacabana this afternoon, while the sun is high in the sky. Find a spot between posts 5 and 6—the tent for Barraca Maezinho is a good wager for calm waters. In general, Copa is more bustling than Ipanema—it’s certainly the more famous of the two, though Instagram is boosting Ipanema’s profile quite a bit. While there are lots of vendors waltzing around you in the sand, you have calmer waters and more frequent snacking options here than around the bend at Ipanema.
Afternoon: Get fresh juice, salad, or something heartier at Brazilian Dois em Cena in Copacabana before grabbing a car to Sugar Loaf. (You might hear locals call this mountain by its proper name, Pão de Açúcar.) Typically, you don’t need tickets in advance for this; just buy them upon arrival and take the two teléfericos to the top of Sugarloaf. A recommendation: Stop for a break midway, when the first cable car lets you out atop Urca Hill. At the very least, you get an entirely different panorama vantage on the city and bay, and you might spot some monkeys on the green-shrouded pathways before heading up to the very top. (You’ll also be able to spot Christ the Redeemer, which is on the docket for tomorrow!)
Evening: Take a cab to nearby Bar Urca, on the same peninsula as Sugar Loaf. Come for maracujá caipirinhas and well-executed Carioca platters, but stay for the sea-level views of the bay.
Go close to home for drinks in Ipanema, at the hip Canastra Bar. There are always beautiful people pouring onto the street, and even more beautiful people pouring wine and cocktails until late. (Head to the basement bar, past the bathrooms, for some live music if it’s happening that night.)
Saturday: It’s Time to Meet Jesus
Morning: Grab something quick but ample for breakfast, since you’ll do a morning jaunt up to Christ the Redeemer—because you kind of have to see the statue before you go. It’s one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, after all. There are two ways up, and both require advance reservations. Instead of crowding into a van with a bunch of strangers, coast on the Trem do Corcovado with a bunch of strangers—it’s more peaceful, more reliably on time, and only slightly longer, distance-wise. (It picks up and drops off at Largo do Machado in Cosme Velho.) There isn’t much to do at the top of Corcovado besides take photographs and dodge selfie sticks, so you can safely budget three hours for the entire excursion.
Afternoon: Tourism can be taxing, especially when it’s as crowded as at Christ the Redeemer. So, kick back with lunch and some lake views; the Lagoa (Lake) Rodrigo de Freitas is nestled to the west of Copa and north of Ipa, and you’ll make a meal on the southeast corner of it, at Bar Lagoa. I love the hearty Brazilian food, and better still, the cozy green interior makes you feel like you’re nestled in the jungle alongside a lake. This place isn’t fancy, but it’s off most tourists’ radar, and you’ll feel like you had an authentic experience amongst happy locals.
Don’t eat all your French fries at lunch, because you’re gonna show off your beach bod at Ipanema again. And no, you’re not sacrificing anything more important for the beach. This is the Carioca lifestyle, man! Relax and get a drink, and take a nap under the sun. You flew here for this. The least you can do is bring back a speedo tan.
Evening: Once the beach buzz wanes, go honor your reservation at Sushi Leblon. Just as in São Paulo, you have to give the local Japanese cuisine a try, since the fish is so fresh and Brazil has the largest Japanese hub outside Japan. If you want a night out, I’d ask around to see if any bloccos (a Brazilian street or block party) are happening. This isn’t a weird question, particularly between December and April. Maybe that’s not your scene, especially if it isn’t ticketed and gated to keep the pickpockets away. You’ve got an early morning anyhow, so order another round at dinner and call it a night.
Sunday: Fine Dining and Samba
Morning: OK, so you didn’t need to get up at the crack of dawn today, but it’ll be glorious to soak up the early morning on Leblon beach before all the families fill it up. Go for a walk along the water, and into Ipanema, or have a run along the bike path just behind the beach. Leblon isn’t as good for swimming as neighboring Ipanema, but it’s more relaxed in the sand itself, thanks to a less cruise-y crowd. (Hence the families.)
Then, you’re off to the famous Parque Lage for brunch inside the Botanical Gardens, at the foot of Corcovado. The café is aptly named Plage Café, and this meal is alllllll about the location. You’ll sit next to the palace’s famous courtyard pool, looking up at Christ the Redeemer. After breakfast you’ll meander around the stunning Botanical Gardens, where you’ll get a true taste for verdant Brazil.
Afternoon: You’ll tick off a couple final sightseeing spots this afternoon, by pointing yourself to the Centro neighborhood. First, the Museum of Tomorrow: From far away, it looks like the Millennium Falcon crashed into the side of the earth; up close, it resembles the upper skull structure of a krill-eating humpback whale. (You’ll understand when you see it.) The museum’s exhibitions explore how technology, humanity, and nature are shaping the future, giving you some food for thought for your next beach visit. (It’s tomorrow morning, before your flight.) Then, go snap photos at Our Lady of Montserrat Church (aka Igreja Nosa Senhora de Montserrat) inside the São Bento Monastery. Also nearby are the National Historical Museum and Naval Museum, if history and/or ships are your thing.
Evening: Get a 6.p.m dinner (technically a late lunch, per your body clock) nearby at Térèze, in bohemian Santa Teresa. Térèze is a Brazilian bistro with the charm to hold court with that Parque Lage brunch, combining Gallic tradition with unusual local cuisine to create a high-end experience. (Try the lamb with tuber terrine!)
After dinner, it’s (finally) samba time. Check the calendar at Rio Scenarium in the Lapa section of Santa Teresa before your trip and book accordingly; most of the live Sunday shows start at 8 p.m. (and often another one later, around 11), and the pavilion packs with passionate samba lovers. (Some 2,000 people can crowd into the three-story space.) If you don’t have a date to dance with, someone there will graciously give you some baseline Samba lessons. Just book ahead—it does fill up!
Monday: It’s Obvious.
Morning: I dunno, beach? It’s your last chance. Pick your favorite between Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon, since you know them all by now. Have a Carioca and tapioca omelet on the way back to the hotel, and bring your laidback, balanced, and happy-go-lucky attitude back home with you.