Things to do in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Here are some of our favorite things to do in Rio de Janeiro, which we enjoyed for our week in one of the best cities in the world! From amazing beaches to historical landmarks, from fancy neighborhoods to bustling favelas, Rio is one of the most colorful and lit places on earth!

Beaches of Rio de Janeiro

One of the many things you can experience in Rio is the beaches and the colorful life which surrounds them. At first glance, the big beaches are not attractive at all because they are surrounded by many misconceptions and you can’t enjoy them fully.

“It is prettier in the photos” was what I thought before setting my foot on a beach. Even at a distance of a few blocks you can feel it is not true. And once you step on the sand all doubts surely vanish. It is just like in the photos – a huge beach, wide shoreline, the concrete silhouettes of hundreds of buildings, hills with favelas, authentically Rio. Copacabana is uniquely Copacabana. Ipanema is uniquely Ipanema.

sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema
sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema

It is amazing that on the sand itself there are only wooden huts, from which you can rent umbrellas and chairs. The bars are along the seaside alley. The space is enough and it is not taken over by restaurants. Also, there are no areas where expensive umbrellas are sticking out of the sand. If you need an umbrella, it is brought out for you and fixed into the sand wherever you’d like. We won’t compare the prices to those of places with two handfuls of sand and a huge hotel in the back. Everything is affordable to the people, the Cariocas and the foreigners.

sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema
sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema

We were warned to avoid some parts of the beach, mainly those in one end of Copacabana, next to the favela. We took a walk to that part and found out that, while in places there are more poor people, that doesn’t mean that you get mugged immediately. We were especially glad that we looked like locals (at least that is what one Carioca told us) and only the camera and the map could have given us away. We passed through darker and more secluded places and nothing much happened.

sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema

Whatever you need on the beach, you can get it within 5 minutes. A hundred sellers offer cold beer and water at affordable prices. They make caipirinha, roast cheese on demand, carry swimsuits for every taste and style, towels, sunglasses, jewelry, shrimp on a stick…I missed half the things. They manage to be somehow inconspicuous and materialize at your side only if you need them. Also, they always find the time to talk with their clients, even if when there is a language barrier.

sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema
sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema
sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema

We awaited the sunset on Ipanema beach while the hill on the opposite side, sheltering a huge favela, added beauty to the view.

Besides people like us who enjoyed the view and wondered what to photograph next, there were a lot of other groups, united by interest. You pass through the area of the gay community, and then there are the people who like smoking weed. Of course, no one bothers you unless you show interest. There was a huge crowd of people who played with soccer balls and made quite the view, a hundred balls jumping in different moments over the heads of several hundred people.

sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema
sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema
sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema
sunbathe in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on the beaches Copacabana and Ipanema

We are proud to say that we passed on foot through both beaches on our way home. It is 6-kilometer walk and every meter was worth it. We didn’t take photos or videos, some memories remain without digital copies. We are moving on, right after we finish our caipirinhas.

Favela tour – welcome to Rocinha

Rio is a big and beautiful city. There is no argument on the matter, but behind its beauty there always can be seen some hills with colorful houses. These are the places inhabited by people with no means to afford “normal” homes or those who want to be far from the watchful eyes of the police and the law. Those places are called favelas.

poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

The name came from the time when those hills were covered only by bushes and people who came looking for their fortune in the big city claimed the hills as their own and began building since they were under nobody’s ownership. There was a bush, which caused a lot of trouble and it was called favela. Nowadays nobody remembers favela as the bush, but they associate the word with something dirty, chaotic, dangerous…

Is it a good idea to go there? It is not recommended, but there are guided tours, which are allowed by the local gangs and we took advantage of one (for the right payment, of course).

poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

And yes, some hypotheses are confirmed from the get-go. Narrow streets, very aromatic, meaning smelly, there is garbage everywhere, as well as water from the sewers…

There are some shady types on the streets, but we didn’t see anyone with a weapon and nobody bothered us. Maybe it was because they know we are a part of the organized tour and our security was guaranteed in some sense. The guide told us that those places are ruled by drug lords, who are interested in expanding their territory and gaining power and don’t care about our funny little cameras or phones.

The people we saw on the street were happy and smiling. The sound of samba emanated from many houses, many of the locals invest in speakers and satellite dishes. Seems familiar, right?

There were cultural events included. We visited a small improvised gallery-atelier where several local artists worked. We had the opportunity to meet one of them, look at their art, and buy something if we liked it. It was a way to convince the young people that there was a way to earn money honestly and in accordance with the law.

After the visit, teenage street musicians played a samba song live, using old olive boxes and similar things as instruments. Some kids danced for us. We passed through the private bakery, where we tried the delicious cooking of some aunt.

poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

There are attempts to aid and improve the favelas. For example, in one favela the streets have been laid with asphalt, in other a lift has been installed, so the people won’t have to climb it on foot to get home. In Rocinha, where we were, there is a kindergarten which entertains the kids and keeps them off the streets while their parents are working.

Our guide believed that all attempts to aid and fix the situation are without result, except for the special healthcare projects and an emergency clinic. According to him, before their implementation whoever got sick would lack the funds for a doctor and would eventually die. The pacification of the region was also for the sake of appearances. The region should’ve looked safer for the World Cup and the Olympic games. The police chased the drug lords from some of the favelas and they moved to others. Now some of the hills are drug and gun-free, but others are swarming with crimes. By the way, here’s our perspective on staying safe in Rio.

He also mentioned paradoxes like having a policeman on one end of the street while on the other drugs are being sold. There much to improve and if someone wishes to help, they won’t be turned away. However, the situation in Rio reminds me of the stray dogs problem in Sofia – the resources for solving it are available, but those who own them have no interest in implementing them.

With these thoughts, we came down from the hill (good thing that we didn’t have to climb all those steps on the way up). We were all in one piece, along with all our gadgets, and we successfully went back to the hostel.

poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

Sugarloaf Mountain

It was too early for us to end our cultural outing and the weather was lovely, so we decided to go to Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugar Loaf is a tall mini-mountain or a hill, which can be reached by two lifts so you can enjoy the unique view. There were even clouds at this altitude, so it was definitely worth it. We won’t explain why, we’ll let the photos talk for themselves.

poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
poor places with colorful houses in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

Cristo Redentor

The saga of our visit to the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor) went to a not-so-poetical article with a very poetic initial name – Jesus and the Rain.

A day trip to Petropolis

No matter how much we dream of an endless summer, the heat is heat and at one moment it becomes unbearable. Even though it is late spring in Rio, after a week there and sleeping with the ventilator turned on these past days we started feeling like two steaks cooking in our own sauce. We were planning the spend our very last day there on the beach until the weather forecast of 36 degrees Celsius forced us to search for alternatives.

Petrópolis is and alternative for travelers to the heat in Rio in Brazil

In Paraty, we met a Belgian woman traveler who recommended Petrópolis. It was also mentioned in the thick book about South America that we carry around with us. The culmination was the reviews that said “It’s 10 degrees cooler than Rio!” and “Go there to take a break from Rio!”. And so, we caught a rickety bus 175 from our pleasant ghetto, we reached the Novo Rio bus station and after 2 hours (including looking for the cash machine and the bus company) we arrived at the station in Petrópolis. There we were informed unusually easily which bus to take to the town center and what are the local tourist attractions. It is important to note that the distance to Rio is 65 km and also the altitude of 800 m, which means that the temperatures drop by 10 °C.

Petrópolis is and alternative for travelers to the heat in Rio in Brazil

Petrópolis doesn’t have much of the Brazilian charm since it has been designed by a German. The European vibe is everywhere, in every church or famous house. Not to mention the many pale blue-eyed Portuguese speakers we met… While we were passing by the many river branches, several charitable Santa Clauses came with pickup trucks and gave presents to the children on the streets.

Children’s eyes are wide to see Santa’s presents
Hunchback bridges
Museo Imperial
Weinnachtsmarkt
Petrópolis is and alternative for travelers to the heat in Rio in Brazil
“Typical” Brazilian architecture
Petrópolis is and alternative for travelers to the heat in Rio in Brazil
Petrópolis is and alternative for travelers to the heat in Rio in Brazil
The Hole
Catedral Sao Pedro de Alcantara

Some say that Imperial Palace is the most interesting museum. We saluted it from the outside because we were headed to Cervejaria Bohemia. It is the oldest brewery in Brazil, even though it has Czech origins. The interactive tour gave us knowledge about the history of beer, the method of production and most importantly – about beer degustation. We were the only non-Brazilians in the whole crowd but Nace arranged for us a private guide in English for every stage of the tour. What a service! Two birds with one stone – cooling off on the outside as well as on the inside!

The history of beer – it goes back a long time
The Beer Master’s office
Petrópolis is and alternative for travelers to the heat in Rio in Brazil
Cheers!
Nace drives tipsy
Petrópolis is and alternative for travelers to the heat in Rio in Brazil

Going back to Rio took even less time – it was under an hour. Sadly, the first step out the bus sent us back to the desert. The sensation reminded me a lot of the time I got off a plane in Doha, Qatar where the temperature during the night was 38°C.

Visit Sambodromo and samba schools rehearsal

To raise the temperature even more we joined the rehearsal of three more samba schools at the neighboring Sambodromo.

With passionate music and the emotions of hundreds of people, we overcame the heat and we forgot all about our complaints!

Experiencing Rio like locals

One day in Rio, we felt like ordinary locals.

Or like true Cariocas.

Or we saw from the most dismal to the most beautiful. We were people of contrasts.

travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

Now we can track the buses with but a glance and know where to expect bus stops.

Now we are no longer scared by the multiple lanes of the boulevards.

Now we no longer care if we pass by homeless, crazy or criminally-looking people. We even started handing them the empty cans of beer to save them the search through the garbage.

Now we go to lesser-known beaches and we know the prices of a big bottle of beer or water.

Now everybody addresses us in Portuguese and expects us to answer in kind.

Now we visit the local restaurant for a second time and they remember what we prefer to eat.

Now we no longer startle when we see the beginning of the favela on the opposite side of the street.

Now we have forgotten what air conditioning was and we don’t faint at the mere 36°C temperature.

Now we are no longer gringos on Copacabana, but Cariocas on Sambódromo.

travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
travelling like locals in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

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