Before visiting Rio de Janeiro you will hear horror stories: that 1 in 5 people get violently robbed, that locals will go as far as stealing your shoes and that you should separate your money in two pockets so that if you are robbed twice in a night, you will have something to satisfy the robber and he will refrain from killing you. The truth is we never experienced anything remotely like the above. Possibly, we got lucky or possibly the media has managed to successfully spook tourists based on a once off shooting in a particularly dangerous favela. I’m sure that there are bad neighbourhoods in Rio, like most big cities around the world & you could probably get yourself into trouble if you went looking for it. However, if you are sensible and refrain from particularly stupid behaviour like walking along a deserted beach drunk and alone at night, you will be more than fine & safe in Rio!
Things to Do in Rio
Here is our ‘must do’ list of things to do while in Rio:
Visit Sugarloaf Mountain
Uber became our best friend while in Rio due to the super cheap price of using the service (especially if you used Uber Pool). Going to Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio was about the only time that using Uber became a problem. Our Uber driver, for some bizarre reason, kept repeating ‘Sugie Sugie?’ and had no idea of where this famous landmark was. Strange, for being one of the most popular and and iconic landmarks in Rio. Despite this minor setback, it is clear why Sugarloaf Mountain is rated the #1 attraction in Rio on tripadvisor – the views at the summit are fantastic! A cable car takes you to the top of Sugarloaf mountain and costs $76 Reals or around $23 USD per ticket. In order to reach the summit, you are required to take two 10 minute cable rides (included in the entry price). The views after each cable ride are equally stunning. If you are spoiled for choice, pick a day that is clear & sunny for the best panoramic views. You can also enjoy a short rainforest walk at the top, where if you are lucky, you may spot a small monkey!
If you would rather use the great public transport system in Rio to reach Sugarloaf, the nearest metro station is Botafogo. Botafogo is around a 10 minute bus ride away to Sugarloaf (take the 581 or 513 bus). Public transport in Rio costs around 4 Reals one way ($1.20 USD).
One of the best beaches in Rio is Copacabana Beach. Here, you can see all that is famous of Brazilian Beaches – traditional Brazilian ‘bum bum’ bikinis, people playing beach soccer and drinking Caipirinha’s from pop up beach bars. In summer, the best time to visit the beach is in the early morning or late afternoon when the weather isn’t as hot and there are less people on the beach. Be careful with your belongings on Rio beaches, unattended items on the beach are known to be stolen. On Copacabana beach, there were lockers that you can pay to have your things secured if you wish to go for a swim. It is easy to access Copacabana Beach by metro. The closest metro station to Copacabana Beach is Cardeal Arcoverde.
Walk the Escadaria Selaron
This staircase, otherwise known as the Escadaria Selaron, looks like it should belong in Barcelona due to its colourful ceramic tiles all along the staircase. The colourful ceramic tiles and mirrors come from all from different parts of the world. The history of the stairs is that in 1990, Selarón, a resident of the street started renovating the dilapidated steps that ran along the front of his house with the colours of the Brazilian flag. What started out as a hobby for Selarón turned out as an obsession and he sold artwork to fund the tiling of the stairs. The stairs can be easily accessed by public transport. The closest metro to the Escadaria Selaron is the Cinelandia metro stop.
Ride on the Santa Teresa Tram
If you feel like trying something a little different you can go on a short tram ride across the aqueduct up to the Santa Teresa district. This open tram is a fun way to spend a few hours in the morning or the afternoon. If you are over 60 or a Brazilian resident, the tram ride is free. Otherwise, it costs around 20 Reals (or around $6 USD).
Take a look through the modern Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian
It is very interesting to take a look through the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian as it is not at all what you expect of a Cathedral. The Cathedral is a very modern design with 4 panels of floor to ceiling stained glass windows meeting a cross skylight in the middle. Inside the Cathedral is quite beautiful on a sunny day as the colourful light shines in.
Go to a Theatre Performance
The Municipal Theatre in the centre of Rio is not only a magnificent building both inside and outside but also offers top quality performances at bargain basement prices. We were lucky to see the Nutcracker ballet perform for around $5 USD. If you are a student, entry is half price! The closet metro station to the theatre is Cinelandia.
Visit Ipanema Beach where the Grandma from Ipanema might just walk by
Another great beach to visit while in Rio is Ipanema Beach which famously inspired the song, the Girl from Ipanema. It is also a great place to wind down and watch the sunset after a busy day of sightseeing. Apparently, the song was written about a beautiful 15 year old girl who walked by the beach everyday. This girl, still around today, is a celebrity in Brazil now known as the ‘Grandma of Ipanema’. The closest metro station to Ipanema beach is General Osorio.
Visit Christ the Redeemer!
Any visit to Rio just wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Christ the Redeemer Statue! A top tip here is make sure you go on a sunny day. On a day with clouds, you may not be able to get great pictures or even be able to see the statute in front of you! In order to reach the famous statute, you have 3 options: catch the train through Tijuca National Park, get a taxi half way up & take a van the rest of the way or hike up to Christ the Redeemer. Despite being the most expensive option, we chose to take the train as saving a little money on the van would probably prove pointless after factoring in the cost of the taxi and hiking up the mountain simply wasn’t an option. The train up to Christ the Redeemer (which includes entry) was quite pricey at R$ 74.00 in high season ($22 USD). While there are no discounts for students, seniors over 60 pay only R$24.00 – yay Dad! To access the train, go to Corcovado train station where you can take the train to the top of Corcovado Mountain. We found the quickest & easiest way to access the Corcovado train station was by using Uber. There is free internet at the Corcovado train station to book your return Uber journey.
Go on a Favela Walking Tour
One of the most interesting activities to do while in Rio is to go on a Favela walking tour. When you think of a Favela, you think of lower socio-economic citizens of Rio living in an area which is dominated by drug violence. Due to this perception, most people chose to take a guided tour if they wish to enter into a Favela area. While the Favelas are far less dangerous than in years past due to the increased police presence, while having a beer with one of our guides at the end of the tour, we did meet a lady who told us that her son was a drug lord and ‘not to be scared because we are always welcome here’. Therefore, it is clear that the drugs are still quietly in operation in Favela, even today. We found it very interesting that the shortcoming of the Brazilian government means that citizens of the Favela can still live without clean drinking water and there can at times be sewerage and garbage disposal issues in the Favela.
We went on a guided tour with Rocinha by Rocinha, a company started by a young local resident of the Rocinha favela, Erik. We loved the concept of Erik’s business, instead of paying a set price, you pay a tip to the guide at the end of the tour. Erik was a fantastic guide and we would highly recommend him if you are looking for a guided tour of a Favela while in Rio.
Watch the sunset at Arpoador
Where the beaches of Ipanema & Copacabana meet is a great clean beach with rocks to sit on and watch the sunset. We loved sitting here and enjoying a beer at the end of a busy day. There are many local vendors which will sell you cheap drinks to enjoy as you watch the sunset.
Take a stroll through the gorgeous National Library
The National Library is such a beautiful building that it is worth a look if you are around the Central area of Rio near the Cinelandia metro station. If you arrive between 1-2pm, there are usually free english tours of the building running.
Things to Eat
One of the most delicious things to eat while in Brazil & a must try is the Acai – a delicious ice creamy desert with a berry flavour. You can buy it from a street vendor 200 ml for 3 Reals (Just less than $1 USD).
Indulge in the cheap street sweets including Dulce de leite
One thing that we particularly enjoyed in Rio was indulging in the cheap street food including the delicious fudge-like dulce de leite treat which can be purchased by local vendors. You can buy a sweet treat for between 1 – 2 Reals (about 0.50 USD). This lady stands near the Starbucks at the Cinelandia metro entrance.
Try one of Rio’s many per kilo buffets
You practically cannot walk down a street in Rio without seeing one of the many per kilo buffets. At first, I thought this concept was a total rip off scam like weighing chocolates in a fine chocolate store. However, considering you are able to get top quality steak for between 30 ($10 USD) – 75 ($23 USD) Reals a kilo (depending where you go) that’s really not too bad a deal! The key is with these places is to go easy on the rice, potato & beans and pile up that meat!
Try a delicious corn on the cob
If you are looking for a cheap snack, corn on the cob can be found at literally every corner of Rio de Janerio. You can buy a corn on the cob for 3 Reals (less than $1 USD).
Visit the local’s favourite budget restaurant: Rotisseria
One of the best cheap eat finds in town is the local favourite, Rotisseria. This Lebanese restaurant serves up delicious Lebanese meat pastries filled with beef, chicken, cheese or many other things for only 5 Reals each ($1.50 USD). Usually around 2-3 is enough to fill you for a light dinner.
Drink beer on the streets with the locals
There are many places on the streets of Rio where you can sit and share a cheap large beer (enough for two people) for only 6.50 Reals ($2 USD).
Eat a local kebab
If you don’t feel like eating at a restaurant, you can always eat a kebab grilled directly on the street. You have the choice of chicken, beef, sausage or a mix of all. There is usually a line up as they are quite delicious! This lady sometimes can be found near the Cinelandia metro station. Each kebab costs only 4 Reals each ($1.22 USD) – what a bargain!
Hot dog stands & toasties for lunch!
As you can see, Rio does a great job of the cheap street food. For lunch, Michael enjoyed having a hot dog or a cheese & ham toastie. A simple, quick & easy lunch will set you back only between 1.99 – 3.50 Reals (0.60 – 1 USD). There is a lot of street food located around the metro stop Cinelandia.
For delicious Italian style pizza be sure to visit Pensao da Nonna
I’m convinced Pensao da Nonna really does serve up the most delicious Italian style pizza in all of Rio. You can buy a very large pizza which serves about 3 hungry adults (picture doesn’t do the size of the pizza justice) for around 35 Reals (around $10 USD). This pizza shop can be found in the suburb of Catete in Rio.
Where to Stay?
If you are travelling on a little bit more of a budget in Rio but want to stay in nice & comfortable accomodation, we highly recommend the Catete area. The area isn’t as touristy as Ipanema or Copacabana and does require a metro ride to reach the beach. However, it gives you a far more local & less touristic experience and also provides you with far more affordable food and drink options in the surrounding area.
We stayed at the 1900 Hotel and were very happy with our selection of accomodation. During low season, you can score a room here for between 35 – 45 USD. The rooms are clean, comfortable, have good wifi, air conditioning and a yummy breakfast included. The only downside to the rooms is that they are a little on the small side.
For even a little more luxury on the same street, try the Royal Regency Palace Hotel. From what we gathered, this hotel is owned by the same people. However, it is newer and even more luxurious than 1900 Hotel.