Highlights of a Visit to Rio de Janeiro

Visiting Rio de Janeiro Highlights Christ the redeemer sunset rio

As a big fan of killing two birds with one stone (figuratively), I am always pleased when travelling to a location coincides with something else I had wanted to do. Like visiting a friend or relative who happens to live there, or attend a conference or a work-shop, or go to see a favourite band in concert.

Sport events don’t feature highly on this list, and neither on Loz’s, which is probably a good thing, since we started going out in 2010, when England played against Germany in the Fifa World Cup. That could have gone wrong.

But it didn’t, and we lived to see the next World Cup about to begin in Brazil, which we only visited for the first time about six months ago. We spent three days in Rio de Janeiro, where they had just started to launch the campaigns to gain attention for the big event. If I was into football, going to Rio during the World Cup would probably be about the best thing ever, but even without the football, I can assure you that Rio de Janeiro is a quite an amazing city.

So if you have the chance to spend some time there, by all means: take it! In this post, we want to introduce you to some of Rio’s most popular sights and answer some general questions; either for a short stay, or just to get you started. Kick-off in 3-2-1 – let’s go!

Top Sights in Rio de Janeiro

ipanema beach sunset rio brazil

The Beaches

Rio de Janeiro has more beaches than I have fingers on my hands, so you could do quite a bit of exploring, but make sure you visit at least Copacabana and Ipanema. Named after the districts they connect the ocean with, they won’t fail to provide you with a working of Rio’s magic.

Walking past the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel while sipping the juice out of a fresh coco-nut from one of the vendors along the promenade should suffice to check the beaches off your list, you might think, but don’t be so sure. The different times of the day attract different people, and if you return in the late afternoon after having been in the morning, you find everything completely changed.

Whatever people might possibly do after work – relax with a glass of wine, meet up with friends, go for a run or to the gym, play some volleyball – in Rio de Janeiro they’ll come to do it here, at the beach front. You could wander along Copacabana beach in the late afternoon, making your way over to Ipanema beach, past the Copacabana Fort. Facing the ocean, head to the little hill on your left, and watch the sunset with a variety of like-minded people. It’s a real high-light.

The statue of Christ the Redeemer

View of Rio from Christ the Redeemer at sunset

He is relatively young (completed in 1931), but quickly became an icon for Rio de Janeiro. Whether you perceive him as a symbol of Christianity or one of the largest Art Deco statues of the world: the guy does have presence!

I, for example, have a selfie-quota of basically Zero, but I was planning on doing one with Christ the Redeemer in the background, as a souvenir. I mean, I REALLY wanted to do that. And then I completely forgot. Because I had to take so many pictures of the statue. And then of the view. And then again of the statue. The vicious circle was only ended by a guard who told us it was closing time, which in this case equalled “Too late for a selfie”-time. Bummer.

But seriously, it’s a truly great sight. Due to the angle of all the pictures I had seen of it prior to coming to Rio, I had a totally different idea of its location and size, though. It is not in the middle of the city, and you can’t see it from anywhere, like I had thought, but this discovery took nothing away from it, let me assure you. And if you get confused as to how to get there, it’s your lucky day: we have already written a detailed blog post on that!

Sugar Loaf Mountain

view from sugar mountain rio

This sight will give you many (many!) more stunning (stunning!) views of Rio. A cable car takes you to the top of the first hill, from where you can also charter a scenic flight, if you feel so inclined; but first take the next cable car ride to Sugar Loaf Mountain.

I hope you charged your camera battery. I hope you brought a spare camera battery, too! Because even when you’re back on the flat, there’s a tiny charming beach nearby which makes for some nice shots, and if you walk a bit on the coastal walk along the hill, you might spot the tiny Marmorset monkeys who live in the forests there.

They do like you more if you have a banana on you, it has to be said. All the details on this sight, as in how to get there, how much it is, what to expect, are provided for you in the already mentioned blog post.

Selarón’s Steps

Selarón staircase Rio Brazil

After countless beaches, a gigantic statue and a luscious mountain with spectacular views, I bring you – a staircase! Made of tiles! But there’s no reason to be underwhelmed: it features 215 steps covered in over 2000 tiles by the Chilean artist Jorge Selaròn. He started his project in 1990 and didn’t really stop until his death in 2013.

Over the years, visitors started bringing tiles from their home country, and it’s the most random thing when you discover that of all these often beautiful and sometimes hilarious tiles on a staircase in Rio de Janeiro, many are from towns that you know very well! It’s both a colourful and powerful work of art. And it’s fun. And sporty (because you have to climb all these stairs). Basically the only thing missing is the chocolate.

The Selaròn Steps are in the Lapa district, and there are two other sights nearby that I would like to mention to you. One of them is the Carioca Aqueduct – that is just around the corner, not even a five-minute walk away. The impressive arches were built in the 18th century, and served to transport water from the river Carioca to the city. There is a big space in front the aqueduct where I was told people meet in the late afternoon to practice Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art form. I would have liked to see that, but we didn’t have enough time. Apart from that, Lapa is not the safest place.

carioca aqueduct Brazil rio

The other sight is the Cathedral of St. Sebastian of Rio de Janeiro. Mind you, Rio has no shortage of churches and monasteries which you can visit, but this is the only one that looks like an alien space ship in the middle of a city (even more so at night, all lit up in neon colours). Which might not have been the intention of the architect, Edgar Fonceca, whose design was inspired by a Mayan pyramid. While it certainly gets mixed reviews from people with Christian faith, I thought it was stunning.

These sights are all free.

Honourable mentions

The Maracana Stadium

This open-air stadium was built for the World Cup in 1950, and is the biggest one in the whole of Brazil and South America. Although we aren’t sport fans, it’s a sight that was dearly recommended we visit, so we took a cab (but you can easily get there by public transport) and went to Rampa A for the tickets.

Unfortunately, the next guided tour in English was only in another three hours, when our research had made us think it was hourly. As I still can’t find any decent information on this on the Internet I suggest you inquire at the place you’re staying at and maybe ask them to call the Maracana customer service to make sure you’re going at the right time. This is the official  Maracana website.

The Favelas

favela rocina rio brazil

‘Favela’ basically means ‘slum’. In Rio de Janeiro, various of these have grown around the city throughout the years. I had heard about them, and about drug lords, crime and violence. Didn’t really sound very intriguing. But then I read a fellow travel blogger’s post about her stay in a favela, and, in combination with the great and colourful pictures, suddenly it looked not at all ‘slummy’, but like a place that I wanted to visit, too!

We were very lucky to get to meet yet another travel blogger, Kay, while we were in Rio. She not only showed us the city, but also one of the Favelas, where she had been volunteering for months. We entered a world of colourful houses, steep and narrow roads, chaotic wires, splendid views, and a lot of people who looked at us with a bit of curiosity, but friendly. It was very special to see another side of the city, but bear in mind that a lot of controversy comes with what is essentially called ‘slum tourism’.

If you would like to go, make sure to do some research as to how to do it or who to go with, or at least inquire at the tourist office for a tour company/guide officially approved by them. Whilst in the Favela, we accidentally overheard a tour operator telling his group not to look anyone in the eye or it could end bad because people are very dangerous here. You do not want to be on a tour like that.

Miscellaneous

decaying beetle VW rio brazil

You won’t have trouble making your time in Rio work for you. There are many green areas and parks, including a National Park (Tijuca National Park); a big heart-shaped lagoon (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas), and countless look-outs. There are museums, galleries, churches and old forts. There are shopping centres, city tours, and a vibrant night-life.

For more detailed information, WikiTravel is a good resource, and of course, the TripAdvisor community has plenty to say on Rio!

Last words and further reading

WikiTravel will in fact help you out with most of your questions, like how to get around, or what to eat, or which districts might apply to whom when it comes to accommodation. Whatever you do, please read up on the Safety Warnings before you go! Rio has not won any awards yet for being the safest city on earth, so it’s good to be prepared and know how to react when something happens.

Speaking of accommodation – we recommend checking out Rio's listings on Booking.com or TravelPony.com – between those two we usually manage to find a great deal on accommodation without going crazy spending hours looking at booking sites!

Furthermore, get ready to practise your Portuguese! It’s very useful (like anywhere, really) to know a few words of the local language, like “bom-dia” (good day), “obrigado” (thank you), “Desculpe, eu nao falo portugues” (Sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese), “Voce fala ingles?” (Do you speak English?). We survived very well on “Bom-dia” and “Obrigado”, and pointing on maps and pictures.

Copacabana Beach Football World Cup

Of course, we also had the wonderful Kay of The Kay Days show us around, who learned to speak fluent Portuguese after coming to Rio from America in order to study abroad. Thanks a billion, Kay!

So now you should be a bit equipped for your time in Rio. Even if you don’t go anytime soon, you can annoy your friends when you’re watching the World Cup together, by knowing more about Rio de Janeiro’s sights than they think you should.

Have a good time, everyone, and thanks for reading! Also, if you want to add another favourite sight of yours in the comments, please do!

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