I still have to pinch myself when I say it out loud: I was in Rio De Janeiro! The host city of the 2016 Summer Olympics is slowly shedding its reputation for crime and violence and is becoming a hot travel destination.
I spent one week in December frolicking on beautiful beaches, hiking in the jungle, and meeting some of the friendliest locals in the world. For anyone thinking of visiting, below are 8 activities that are not to be missed:
Visit Christ the Redeemer (of course!)
Okay, this one is obvious. Named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, Cristo Redentor stands over 100 feet tall on Corcovado Mountain, in Tijuca National Park. The statue itself is a sight to be seen but as you stand at the top of Corcovado, you’ll also get an unforgettable view of the Harbor in Rio De Janeiro (which was named one of the Natural Wonders of the World).
Unfortunately, the statue is the most popular site in Rio and the viewing area is small. During peak tourist season, you’ll find yourself in a claustrophobic space rubbing shoulders with everyone. The site opens at 8 am but the first train up the mountain leaves at 8:30 am. Those first 30 minutes are golden. Book a tour that drives you up early and you’ll enjoy the site with less crowds (at least, for a little while).
Take the cable car up to Sugarloaf
Another obvious pick. Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) is synonymous with Rio’s breathtaking landscape. Visitors first take a glass-walled cable car up to Morro Da Urca, and then take a second cable car up to Sugarloaf’s peak. At each stop, you get a panoramic view of the city that is distinctly different than the view from Corcovado.
During peak season, the lines here are also very long. In fact, there are two lines to contend with: the first is to buy tickets and the second is to get into the first cable car. If you’re visiting with a group, make sure you split your party between the two lines so that you’re buying tickets while waiting to get in (you’ll cut your wait time in half). Try to visit Sugarloaf on a different day than Christ the Redeemer so you can get in line early.
Buy souvenirs at the Hippie Fair in Ipanema
Held every Sunday from 9 am – 5 pm, the Hippie Fair (Feira Hippie de Ipanema) is a great place to find a bargain on authentic Brazilian souvenirs. Hundreds of stalls line General Osorio Square (Praça General Osório) and feature art, figurines, jewelry, lace goods, clothing, sarongs, and other accessories. The fair is also a great place to people watch, meet locals, and try traditional Brazilian street food.
Plan to spend at least 2 hours walking through the fair, and before buying, be sure to negotiate the price. Even if your bargaining skills aren’t effective, you’ll still walk away with a great deal. I purchased a hand-painted canvas for R$110 (or $29). In the states, a painting of the same size and quality would have run over $400.
Take the tram up to Santa Teresa
Once inhabited by the city’s upper class, the neighborhood of Santa Teresa is now an artistic hotspot and is famous for its winding roads, hill top views, and 19th century mansions. I visited on a quiet afternoon after hopping on the historic Santa Teresa tram, one of the oldest street railway lines in the world (it began operating in 1877).
The tram takes you from the city center up the Santa Teresa Hill and offers amazing (but admittedly terrifying) views of the city. Not so fun fact: the tram was shut down from 2011-2015 following a tragic accident that killed 5 people and injured 57 more. Since then, the city has renovated the network and invested in a fleet of new trams to ensure passenger safety. Still, the ride was a bit unnerving and the lack of guardrails in some spots didn’t help, but if you can muster up the courage, you’ll really enjoy the sites at the top of the hill.
Drink coconut water and caipirinhas on the beach
Do I really have to explain this one?
Caipirinhas are Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça, limes, and sugar. Readily available everywhere in Rio, this tropical drink is the perfect way to enjoy a relaxing day on the beach.
Coconut water is a staple in the Brazilian diet. It is served literally inside a large coconut, which is opened at the top using a machete in order to fit in a straw. Available at many of the kiosks by the beach, agua de coco is high in potassium and electrolytes, making it a perfect drink to rehydrate during a long day at the beach.
Watch the sunrise on Copacabana Beach
Sunsets in Rio get all of the attention. During the mid-summer months, it’s actually possible to see the sun disappear into the ocean from Arpoador Rock, where large crowds gather to watch and cheer this incredible event (since Brazil’s coastline faces East, it really should be an impossible event). The rest of the year you can still catch a great sunset from many other spots around the city, including Ipanema beach, Corcovado, and Sugarloaf.
But if you prefer a crowd-free experience, you’ll find the sunrise in Rio to be transcending. I made the effort to get up in the wee hours of twilight to stroll down Copacabana beach to watch mother nature’s spectacle. The emptiness of the beach amplified the soft sound of the waves and as the night turned to day, stunning rays of orange and pink began to rise from the ocean and blend into the sky.
You’ll hear a lot about safety concerns on Copacabana late at night or early in the morning but I was there before 6 am and felt perfectly safe.
Climb the Selarón Steps
Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón settled in Rio in the 1980s and dedicated over 20 years of his life creating a master piece that was inspired by the spirit of the Brazilian people. The 250 Selarón Steps (Escadaria Selarón) connect the neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa and are covered in tiles of vibrant shades of red, blue, green, and yellow. What began as a side project for Selarón, became a world-famous landmark featured in magazines, TV shows, and music videos. Tragically, Selarón never got a chance to complete his master piece. He was found dead (from mysterious circumstances) on his own steps in 2013.
Hike (or Climb, Hang Glide) in Tijuca National Park
Tijuca is the largest urban rainforest in the world and the home to more than 300 different species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. A lush labyrinth of plants, waterfalls, caves, and mountain peaks, Tijuca has something for every type of traveler. Hikers have their pick of both easy and difficult trails while avid adventure seekers can climb Corcovado peak and Tijuca peak or even hang glide off Pedra Bonita.
Admission to the park is free and you can easily hike on your own but you’ll have to pay an entrance fee to visit Christ the Redeemer (on Corcovado peak). Pricing for hang gliding and hiking tours vary based on the season.
I chose to book a guided tour (from JungleMe) for a full-day hike on a trail with steep terrain. I would suggest booking a tour if you are not an expert hiker but still want to take on a long and difficult trail. My experience was well worth the cost as our tour guide took us past waterfalls, caves, ruins, and brought us to several peaks with unforgettable views of the city.
And there you have it, 8 things you must do in Rio De Janeiro. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a great place to start if you’re short on time.
What’s on your list of must-do activities in Rio?