Last Updated on January 16, 2024 by Kelly
Rio de Janeiro, located in Brazil, is one of the most magical cities you will ever visit! The city has it all: world-class beaches, historic landmarks, and an absolutely dreamy landscape. The city is known as the Cidade Maravilhosa, which in Portuguese means Marvelous City. I’ve been to dozens of countries, and my trip to Brazil still stands out as one of my favorite travel memories. My brother and sister-in-law got married in Brazil, and we got to travel to Brazil for their wedding. Because we flew into Rio de Janeiro, we spent time in the city both before and after the wedding. In this post, we’ll share our picks for the top 21 best things to do in Rio de Janeiro. We’ve also included a complete visit guide, which includes our recommendations for the best hotels, restaurants, and nearby excursions.
Top 21 Best Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro
Here’s our picks for the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro. We created this map (below) so you can easily see where everything is located.
1. Copacabana Beach
Millions of tourists visit the world-famous Copacabana Beach each year, which is also called Princesinha do Mar (Little Princess of the Sea). The beach is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) long, and it’s one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen.
Running parallel to the beach is the street Avenida Atlântica, which is lined with hotels and restaurants.
You’ll definitely want to walk along the Copacabana Promenade, which is arguably the most famous promenade in the world. It was first built in 1906 using imported stones from Portugal. The stones are arranged in a mosaic wave design that mimics the waves of the ocean. As you’re walking along the promenade, you might notice the statue of a man sitting on a bench. That’s a statue of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, a famous poet and artist.
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You can swim at Copacabana Beach most of the year. Occasionally the city will place signs at the beach stating that the water quality is too poor for swimming. Just be sure to check current conditions when you visit. If you go swimming, never leave your valuables out on the sand. It’s better to bring a waterproof pouch and a floating attachment. (That way, if you drop your pouch, it won’t sink to the bottom of the ocean.)
Copacabana Beach is bookmarked by two historic military forts: Fort Copacabana to the south, and Fort Duque de Caxias to the north.
When we visited, we went to a bar on the beach and enjoyed our first caipirinha cocktail of the trip!
2. Fort Copacabana
As we walked south along the Copacabana Promenade, we stumbled upon Fort Copacabana. This fort was built in 1914 to provide military protection to the bay. The fort is home to the Museu Histórico do Exército (Army Historical Museum). We really enjoyed walking through the museum and learning about the Brazilian Army. But whether or not you’re interested in military history, we highly recommend that you visit this fort. It has outstanding views of Copacabana Beach.
|One of my favorite authors, Paulo Coelho, is from Rio de Janeiro. I highly recommend that you read his book The Alchemist.
The fort also has two very nice cafes with outdoor seating. We had one of our favorite meals in Brazil there. The food was delicious, and we had unbeatable views of one of the world’s most famous beaches. The cafes can be busy, so we recommend putting your name in for outdoor seating, and then perhaps walking around for awhile until your table is ready.
The fort also served as one of the venues for the 2016 Summer Olympics!
At the time of this writing, a full-price ticket is only R$ 6.00. Admission is free on Tuesdays.
3. Ipanema Beach
Another must-see destination in Rio de Janeiro is Ipanema Beach. We were able to walk to Ipanema Beach right after visiting Fort Copacabana. Our experience there was so dreamy. We spent a little bit of time walking on the beach and swimming, but I’ve been wanting to return to this beach ever since we left!
It is possible to go swimming at Ipanema Beach. You do need to exercise some caution when swimming, as the waves can get quite strong. Occasionally, the city will post signs that the water quality is too poor for swimming. When we visited, we walked in the water and splashed in the waves. We personally had a great time in the water.
If you can work it into your itinerary, we recommend staying at Ipanema Beach for sunset. The sun will dip between the mountains Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) for a truly spectacular sunset.
4. Christ the Redeemer
The famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro sits on top of Mount Corcovado. It’s one of the most iconic sights of Brazil, and it’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The statue is 98 feet tall (30 meters) and is an art deco depiction of Jesus Christ. The arms stretch 92 feet wide (28 meters). From the city below, you can clearly see Jesus’s arms outreached on top of the mountain.
There are several ways to get to the top of Mount Corcovado to see the statue up-close. The first is to take the electric, eco-friendly train to the top (Trem de Corcovado). This is the route we took, and we absolutely loved it. We were able to travel through Tijuca National Park on our way to the top. The route is filled with lush greenery, and it was a really fun experience. At the time of this writing, an adult ticket during peak season is R$105,50. Trains typically depart every 30 minutes, and the train operates from 8am to 7pm.
When you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with expansive views of Rio de Janeiro, the ocean, and the mountains. It was such an incredible view! We recommend visiting the statue as soon as it’s open for less crowds. It’s also best to visit on a clear day so you can get the best views. Because of our itinerary, we had no choice but to go on a partially cloudy day. We couldn’t even see the statue even though we were standing right at its base! We were disappointed, but grateful we could at least see views of the city. We decided to have a beer at the cafe at the top, and after 30 minutes, the clouds parted and we ran up the stairs to see Christ the Redeemer! Thankfully we were able to see the statue after the clouds cleared!
5. Sugarloaf Mountain
Another site that is emblematic of Rio de Janeiro is Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar). This dome-shaped mountain is clearly seen from Copacabana Beach, and you’ll see its profile on postcards and t-shirts throughout the city. The mountain was named “sugarloaf” because sugar cane was often traded and exported from Brazil. The mountain loosely resembles a pile of refined sugar. We also think the views are pretty sweet! The smaller mountain and the base of Sugar Loaf is Morro da Urca.
The most popular way to get to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is by cable car. You’ll take a cable car up to Morro da Urca, and then another up to Pão de Açúcar. You’ll have exceptional views of Copacabana Beach, the city of Rio de Janeiro, and Guanabara Bay.
We think the best time to visit Sugarloaf Mountain is late in the afternoon. You’ll be able to see the views during daylight, as well as during golden hour and potentially sunset. You’ll want to time your visit with the weather. If it’s too cloudy, your views could be restricted.
6. Selaron Steps
Artist Jorge Selarón created the Selaron Steps (Escadaria Selarón). He started the project in 1990 when he began updating the tiles on the staircase directly outside of his home. He replaced the older tiles with brightly colored green, yellow, and blue tiles that reminded him of the Brazilian flag. He slowly started renovating more of the staircase as he was able to purchase more tiles. As the project gained recognition, travelers began bringing him tiles from all over the world. He added red tiles on the side of the stairs to pay homage to his home country of Chile. The stairs are located in the Lapa neighborhood.
7. Santa Teresa Tram & Neighborhood
The yellow Santa Teresa Tram will take you to the historic Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio. The tram is the oldest electric railway in all of Latin America. The Santa Teresa neighborhood is filled with charming mansions from the 19th century, as well as some incredible restaurants and bars. The tram will take you to the town’s main square, Largo dos Guimarães. You might also want to check out Parque das Ruinas and it’s Cultural Centre.
8. Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow)
The Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) is a science museum located in Rio de Janeiro. The architecture of this building will grab your attention, as white scaffolding juts out into the sky. The museum features a number of exhibitions that center on questions such as “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The museum has exhibits on the Cosmos, Earth, Anthropocene, Tomorrow, and Us. As of this writing, tickets start at R$ 30,00.
9. Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden)
The Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro is filled with an abundance of plants, paths, and greenhouses. There are 6,500 species in this 130-acre garden, and it’s a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve. Historically, the garden was established in 1808 by the King of Portugal. It’s been open to the public since 1822.
Highlights of the botanical garden include the Visitor Center (housed in a historic building), the Japanese Garden, the Sensory Garden, the Orchidarium, the Old Academy of Fine Arts Portal, and the Museu Casa dos Pilões. The park is also a great place to go bird-watching. There are over 140 species of birds at the botanical garden.
To visit this park, there is a cash-only admission fee at the park’s entrance. (R$ 67,00 for foreign visitors at the time of this writing.)
10. Tijuca National Park
Want to see a rainforest that’s located in a city? Tijuca National Park is the world’s largest urban rainforest. Admission to the park is free (unless you are planning to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue at the top of Mount Corcovado). There are lots of trails in the park, waterfalls, and hikes. Because the park is so big, it’s not a bad idea to go on a guided tour. There’s all sorts of tour options (like a jeep tour of the rainforest or a guided hiking tour).
11. Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro (Metropolitan Cathedral)
The Metropolitan Cathedral is architecturally very unique and looks reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid. The building was finished in 1979.
12. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária (Candelaria Church)
The Candelaria Church, located near the Museu do Amanhã, is a much older church. Construction for the church began in 1775.
13. Pedra do Telégrafo
Tourists hike here in order to create the optical illusion of hanging from this rock with a view of the ocean in the background. The entrance to the trail is about a 90-minute drive from Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, so definitely allow time in your itinerary for this one. The trail is 2.2 miles roundtrip with 941 feet of elevation gain. (Trail information linked here.)
14. Ilha Fiscal (Fiscal Island)
Ilha Fiscal is a small island located in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay. Before Brazil became a republic, the “Last Ball of the Empire” was held on this island. Tickets to the island for guided tours are sold at Espaço Cultural da Marinha. It’s about a 10-minute boat ride to get to the island.
15. Parque Lage
This public park contains a historic mansion that has been featured in a number of musical videos by celebrities. The mansion is now home to the Visual Arts School of Parque Lage as well as a picturesque cafe.
16. Aqueduto da Carioca (Carioca Aqueduct)
This aqueduct was built in the 18th century to provide fresh water to the people of the city. Because it’s located in the Lapa neighborhood, it’s also known as Arcos da Lapa.
17. Mirante do Leblon
At the end of Leblon Beach is a lookout point with views of the city and ocean. This is another great place to watch a Rio de Janeiro sunset.
18. Theatro Municipal (Municipal Theater)
The Theatro Municipal is a historic opera house. Inspired by the opera house in Paris, this theater is very ornate.
19. Food Tour
20. Cachaça Tasting
Cachaça is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane. It’s the main liquor in Brazil’s most famous cocktail: the caipirinha. There are multiple tours in Rio de Janeiro that offer Cachaça experiences.
21. View the Harbor of Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro Harbor is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. It’s the world’s largest natural bay and contains more volume of water than any other bay. The harbor is also known as Guanabara Bay. We think one of the best places to view the Harbor of Rio de Janeiro is from Sugarloaf Mountain!
What to Pack for a Trip to Rio de Janeiro
Here are some things we recommend you bring when traveling internationally:
- Power Bank Phone Charger: Before we leave home, we have at least one (if not two) power banks fully charged. That way we can charge our phones on the go while we’re traveling. Because we use our phones for navigation and for photography, it’s really important that we don’t run out of battery.
- Passport Holder: We like to use a passport holder or wallet to keep all of our important documentation in one place.
- Power Adapter/Voltage Converter: Whenever traveling internationally, it’s important to be able to charge your electronics safely. We’re recommending this power adapter and voltage converter because it can be used globally. It’s a little more expensive than some basic products you can find, but this one has a multi-protection safety system. It also lets you charge up to 7 devices simultaneously. (You don’t need to fight with anyone in your travel party about access to outlets.) It works in over 150 countries.
- First Aid Kit: Whenever you travel, be sure to have some basic first aid items on hand. We most commonly like to have an assortment of bandages in case we get a blister or cut.
- Anti-Theft Travel Backpack: Having an anti-theft travel backpack can give you peace of mind as you explore any large city. The one we linked here has lockable zippers, a RFID-blocking pocket, and cut-proof material. This backpack is also extremely light to carry. If you plan on carrying valuables such as a camera, cell phone, and wallet with you, we recommend considering a backpack such as this one.
- Packable Rain Jacket: This rain jacket folds up small and can be easily placed in your backpack. You’ll be prepared for rain just in case!
Recommended Hotels in Rio de Janeiro
PortoBay Rio de Janeiro
When we visited Rio, we stayed at the PortoBay Rio de Janeiro. We absolutely loved this hotel, and we highly recommend it to anyone looking for lodging in Rio de Janeiro. My brother and sister-in-law travel to Brazil as often as they can to visit family, and this is also their preferred hotel. The hotel is located right across the street from the famous Copacabana Beach. Many of the rooms have either excellent views of the beach, Mount Corcovado, or Sugarloaf mountain. Our room had a view of Christ the Redeemer statue, and my family had a view directly of the beach.
PortoBay Rio de Janeiro also has a lot of amenities. We were greeted with sparkling wine at check-in and they had an incredible rooftop pool. They also have a beach service, transfer service to the airport, and doctor available upon request. For dining options, there’s a rooftop bar, lounge downstairs, and a restaurant on-site. We easily walked to Copacabana Beach, and we were within walking distance of Ipanema Beach. We were really pleased with this hotel and we were glad we chose it for our trip.
Other Hotels Near Copacabana Beach
Of course, there’s plenty of great places to stay in a major city such as Rio de Janeiro! We recommend staying near Copacabana because the beach is stunning! It’s a popular tourist destination, and there’s plenty of hotels and restaurants clustered along the beach.
Here’s a few hotels you might want to consider:
- Fairmont Rio de Janeiro Copacabana: This luxury hotel has two swimming pools and an excellent restaurant.
- Copacabana Palace, a Belmond Hotel, Rio de Janeiro: If you’re looking to go all out, the Copacabana Palace is arguably the most famous hotel on Copacabana Beach. The rooms are light and airy with luxury finishes.
- Mirasol Copacabana Hotel: We stayed here our first night in Rio de Janeiro. We especially loved the views from the roof top!
For a full list of hotels in Rio de Janeiro, click here.
Recommended Restaurants in Rio de Janeiro
Some places you might want to check out in Rio de Janeiro include:
- Confiserie Colombo: This bakery and coffeehouse has grandiose decor. It’s over 100 years old and it’s one of the most beautiful cafes in the world.
- Cafe 18 do Forte: This is a restaurant located right at Forte Copacabana.
- Confeitaria Colombo Cafe do Forte: This is where we had lunch right outside Forte Copacabana. We had a gorgeous view of Copacabana Beach! We personally recommend eating here!
- Ristorante Hotel Cipriani: Not staying at the Copacabana Palace? No problem! Have dinner there and enjoy!
- Churrascaria Palace: This Brazilian steakhouse is one of the best places to try Brazilian barbecue.
Some of our favorite Brazilian foods and beverages are:
- Cachaça: Distilled spirit from sugar cane juice.
- Caipirinha: A cocktail made with cachaça, lime, and sugar.
- Pão de Queijo: These small, baked cheese rolls are a personal favorite of mine!
- Brigadeiros: Traditional Brazilian desserts that are similar to chocolate bonbons.
Location of Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is located on the southeastern coast of Brazil. The city lies within the state of Rio de Janeiro. (Both the state and city have the same name of Rio de Janeiro). In this article, we’ll be discussing the city.
The city of Rio de Janeiro has water views of both Guanabara Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Rio de Janeiro is approximately 725 miles (1,167 kilometers) from Brazil’s capital city of Brasilia.
The Harbor of Rio de Janeiro is also the world’s largest natural bay. Because of this, the harbor is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
How to Get to to Rio de Janeiro
To reach the city of Rio de Janeiro, you’ll most likely fly into the main airport of Rio de Janeiro/Galeão – Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport. (The airport code is GIG). The airport is commonly called by its original name, Galeão International Airport.
The beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are approximately 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the airport.
Expect the drive from the airport to take between 30-60 minutes depending on traffic. You can book a taxi for a flat rate inside the airport. This may be slightly more expensive, but if you don’t speak Portuguese and you aren’t as knowledgeable about the area, it’s the most convenient option in our opinion.
8 Tips for Visiting Rio de Janeiro
- Portuguese is the official language of Brazil. If you don’t speak Portuguese, we recommend downloading the Google Translate app on your phone. We were able to easily translate our sentences to help us get around.
- Download relevant maps you might need on your phone in advance so you can reference them offline if you don’t have cell coverage.
- The official currency of Brazil is the Real. We recommend ordering some Real currency from your bank at home in advance of your trip, that way you have some small bills on hand should you need them. We usually give our bank a few weeks’ notice to do this before a big trip.
- We like to place cash in multiple different places. We never put all of our cash in one place (e.g., a wallet) in case we lose it or it’s stolen. That way, we have some back-up cash in another backpack, piece of luggage, etc.
- Make photo copies of your passport and any other important documentation. Store them securely in another piece of luggage in case you lose your originals.
- Create a master itinerary that includes dates of travel, addresses of all hotels, and relevant confirmation numbers. That way, you have all of your travel details in one place. We also like to give a copy of our master itinerary to a trusted family member at home, should they need to reach us in an emergency.
- Look into getting travel insurance in advance of your trip. (Especially regarding medical coverage.) Don’t travel abroad if you don’t have medical insurance. Make that a priority for your budget.
- If you’re a citizen of the United States, consider signing up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. You’ll register your international trip, and the government will alert you in the event of an emergency.
Guided Tours of Rio de Janeiro
One excellent way to see Rio de Janeiro is to take a guided tour. You won’t have to worry about planning the travel details, and your guide will be knowledgeable about the local culture. This full-day tour will take you to all the best places in the city, including Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer.
The following destinations are also located near Rio de Janeiro if you have time to extend your trip:
- Buzios | 113 miles away: Buzios is a popular destination for beaches. We spent several days in Buzios, and it was a relaxing getaway from the city.
- Prainha Beach | 24 miles away: Prainha Beach is a pristine beach that is very popular. The water is a bright turquoise, and the beach is surrounded by rainforest.
- Angra dos Reis | 103 miles away: This archipelago contains numerous islands that are ideal for a beach vacation. Boats take tourists to some of the most popular island.
Frequently Asked Questions About Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
What are the best things for kids to do in Rio de Janeiro?
Some activities that kids might enjoy while in Rio de Janeiro are the cable car ride up to Sugarloaf Mountain and the train ride to the Christ the Redeemer statue. Beaches like Copacabana Beach and Ipanema Beach are great options for a sunny day. Kids will also enjoy the Museum of Tomorrow and the botanical gardens as well.
What are the best beaches to visit in Rio de Janeiro?
If you’re visiting Rio de Janeiro, you can easily visit two famous beaches that are back-to-back: Ipanema Beach and Copacabana Beach. A little outside downtown Rio de Janeiro you will find Praia da Barra da Tijuca (16 kilometers away). If you’re willing to venture a little further, we especially enjoyed visiting the beaches at Buzios (192 kilometers away).
How many days do you need in Rio de Janeiro?
We recommend spending at least 3 nights (4 full days) in Rio de Janeiro. We spent two nights in Rio and we could have used at least one more day to see more of the sights. With two days in Rio de Janeiro, we were able to see Copacabana Beach, Fort Copacabana, Ipanema Beach, and Christ the Redeemer. If we had more time, we would have liked to have visited Sugarloaf Mountain. If you have 4 or more days in Rio, you can also add the botanical gardens and the Museum of Tomorrow.
What are some good rainy day activities for Rio de Janeiro?
On a rainy day in Rio de Janeiro, you can plan to do cachaça tasting at local bars, visit the Museum of Tomorrow, and eat at Confiserie Colombo.
How safe did you feel visiting Rio de Janeiro?
From our personal experience, we had no safety issues while we were in Rio de Janeiro. We visited popular destinations, traveled as part of a group within our family, and we didn’t wear flashy valuables. (I left my wedding ring at home prior to leaving for the trip.) While walking on the street, we used a hand strap for our camera. We didn’t leave any valuables unattended at the beach. I wore a cross-body purse.
Is visiting Rio de Janeiro worth it?
Visiting Rio de Janeiro is definitely worth it! Visiting Rio de Janeiro was easily one of our favorite travel experiences. We truly enjoyed the natural beauty of the beaches, mountains, and rainforests. The people were warm and friendly. The sights in the city were spectacular. We would go back to visit in a heartbeat.
Summary: Best Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro
We hope this article was helpful to you in finding things to do in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is a must-see destination in South America. This was one of our favorite trips, and it was made even more special by attending my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding. We highly recommend that you add Rio de Janeiro to your bucket list!
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Disclaimer: We always strive for content accuracy. Since the time of publishing, travel-related information regarding pricing, schedules, and hours may have changed. Please look up such information directly from each vendor or institution for the most current information.