Several times a year, I get excited emails from friends and acquaintances heading off to Rio de Janeiro for the first time. The request is always the same: can I recommend some places to see, restaurants to visit and attractions that are “off the beaten track” for most tourists. To my shame, I usually only manage to tap out a few quick thoughts before returning to deal with the rest of my ordinarily-enormous inbox.
I’m writing this blogpost so that next time the request comes, I’ve got something more meaningful to point people at.
One doesn’t have to have visited Rio before to know that the city is inspiring, intimidating, uplifting, depressing, hectic and tranquil in equal measure. Taking into account the satellite cities that surround Rio, its metropolitan area is close to fifteen million people – making it virtually impossible to get to know each area well.
I don’t claim that the below is by any means a definitive guide to Rio – but it is guide to the things I like and the things I enjoy doing while in town. Boa sorte e divirta-se!
I’ll start by addressing the big elephant in the room when it comes to any discussion about visiting Rio: safety.
Rio’s reputation for violence amongst would-be tourists is slightly undeserved. The overwhelming majority of visits to the city are entirely trouble free. Cariocas are, by nature, extremely warm and friendly people – but it’s important to always keep in mind that you will be visiting one of the most socially polarised cities in the world where crushing poverty can often be found only a stone’s throw from gauche opulence.
There are a few basic steps you can take to make sure that you stay out of trouble.
I rarely carry a wallet when out in Rio and instead usually only carry one bank card and a small amount of money with me. If you are coming from London you might want to think about keeping a credit card and a couple of larger bills in an Oyster card holder – that’s what I usually do. If you’re in the unfortunate enough to be mugged, just hand everything over straight away and calmly walk away afterwards.
Unless I’m going out for an evening at a friend’s house or at a restaurant in a very safe neighbourhood, I usually don’t wear the nice watch my parents bought me for my 21st birthday as it would only serve as a target for an opportunistic mugger. You don’t really need a watch in Rio as most main roads in the city are lined with huge digital clocks displaying the time and temperature. Additionally, nobody in Rio cares about being on time anyway so, even if you’re half an hour late for your appointment, nobody will care…
While the beach is a huge part of Rio culture, you should generally avoid the seafront promenades after sundown – particularly Copacabana. The beach can become a gathering point for druggies and other people up to no good in the evening. On a positive note, there is actually relatively little other than residential buildings and condominiums located on the beachfront (most bars and clubs are a couple of streets back) so you won’t be missing anything when it’s dark.
Buses are safe to use during the day but can be a pretty bewildering experience if you’re using them for the first time. If you’re in any doubt, shout the name of your destination at the bus driver before getting on and you’ll either get a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Unless you know exactly where you are going, you should use taxis later in the evening – generally speaking, the drivers are honest and the fares affordable (make sure they turn the meter on!).
The Rio de Janeiro Metro system is modern, clean and safe to use at all times but is subject to some delays as the city prepares for the upcoming Olympics and World Cup. It has an English-language website and journey planner which can be found here.
My final piece of advice in terms of safety is a pretty simple one: be sensible. Don’t whip your iPad out while on the bus, stay on well-lit roads rather than taking short cuts through parks or alleyways you’re not familiar with and avoid using your camera on the street outside of established tourist areas.
Do not attempt to enter favelas (slums). People who live in favelas are very proud people who react badly to foreigners who view their communities as a tourist attraction. If you choose to take the bus while in Rio then you will pass close to a number of favelas. These buses are safe but you should not take photographs or leave the bus while passing through.
If you take a realistic view of risks to your own safety when you’re in Rio, you’ll be fine.
The Christ Statue and the Sugarloaf
I’m not going to offer a detailed write-up of either of these attractions as the chances are they’re already top of your list of places to visit. If you have bizarrely decided to visit Rio without knowing anything about either of the city’s most iconic landmarks then you can find their English language websites here and here.
Both attractions are well worth visiting but, if you’re very short of time, you should prioritise the Sugarloaf over the Christ Statue as you’ll get a much better view of Rio and the surrounding bays from there.
There is a fair bit of walking involved in visiting both attractions so you should consider taking some water up with you – if only to avoid having to pay the rip-off prices the Gombeen men selling water at the summit charge.
Along with Ipanema, Copacabana is probably Rio de Janeiro’s favourite neighbourhood. I wouldn’t say it was a disappointing place to visit but it certainly has an air of faded glory about it with many of its more glamorous residents having long decamped to Leblon, Ipanema or upcoming neighbourhoods like Barra a little outside the city.
Copacabana is home to my favourite place in Rio; the Forte de Copacabana (Copacabana Fort). The Fort is an old military base built on a rock that juts out into the bay, giving you a fantastic panoramic view of the Copacabana Bay, the Sugarloaf, Ipanema, Leblon and a number of islands just off the coast. When I was growing up the Fort was closed to non-military personnel but is now home to the Naval History Museum and is one of the best places in Rio to take photos of the city’s amazing surroundings. There is a restaurant and a couple of cafes which are an excellent place to watch the sundown. Don’t miss it. You can find its website, including prices and opening hours here.
If you want to experience a taste of what Rio de Janeiro must have been like during colonial times, you should head for the stunning Copacabana Palace on the seafront. A favourite of visiting Russian oligarchs (I too wish I could afford to stay in the Palace’s $5000-a-night ocean view suites), the drinks aren’t cheap but you’ll struggle to find anything matching its opulence and grandeur anywhere else in the city.
Beach culture is entirely synonymous with Rio de Janeiro and it’s more than likely that your plans when visiting will involve a visit to one or more of the city’s famous beaches.
You will undoubtedly have heard of Copacabana and Ipanema, both of which are very easy to reach by public transport and certainly worth visiting your time in Rio. It is perfectly acceptable to head to and from the beach using public transport (even if you’re covered in sand!), although some bus routes stop a couple of blocks back from the beach. In the case you find yourself dropped off on a crowded street back from the seafront, just approach any passing person and say the word “praia” (pry-ah) and they’ll be sure to point you in the right direction – which shouldn’t be any more than two or three hundred metres.
One of my favourite things to do is to take a bus to Leblon and to walk along the seafront through Ipanema to Arpoador – a huge rock jutting out into the ocean that acts as an unofficial “border” between Ipanema and Copacabana. It’s a very relaxing walk that will take you along one of the nicest stretches of beachfront in the city.
If you want to give this route a try, take any bus to Leblon, turn your back to the mountain towering above you and simply walk towards the rocky peninsular jutting out into the sea in the distance. The distance from Leblon to Arpoador is about three miles and can be very leisurely walked in about forty minutes. You can either take the pavement or walk along the sand itself with the water lapping at your feet.
You could choose to stop off for a swim en route to break up the walk (although you should avoid swimming in Leblon as the water is often quite dirty) but I prefer to wait until I get to Arpoador out of some kind of notion of having “earned” the right to swim after a good walk!
Arpoador is a particularly good place to swim as the rocks have created a small bay which is completely free of the powerful undercurrents that exist along much of the coastline without damaging the ability of waves to form. If the waves are big enough and you are feeling brave then you can even jump off the rocks into the water – but be sure to time your jump with the arrival of a big wave so as to avoid injury! It’s also a great place to watch sundown, with many people gathering on the rock each evening to cheer and clap for the sun as it disappears into the ocean.
Personally speaking, I draw zero enjoyment from sitting on a densely-crowded beach with 100,000 (at a conservative estimate) other people fighting for space. As such, I tend to avoid the beach at the weekend – but that’s just a matter of personal preference.
If you’ve got a little bit longer in Rio, I would recommend that you head a little outside the city to Barra da Tijuca (usually known simply as “Barra”).
One of the wealthiest areas of the city, Barra is home to miles and miles of sandy beaches that feel far less hectic than the beaches in the city. While some of the beaches in Rio were damaged by unsuitable 1960s tower blocks and land reclamations to increase road capacity, the more modern developments in Barra are far more sympathetically built. During the week the beaches in Barra are almost deserted, meaning that you can properly relax without crowds of people around you.
While many Cariocas will recoil in horror when you tell them you are intending to travel “all the way” to Barra to go to the beach, it’s actually a surprisingly easy journey that will give you a great overview of the city’s varied social mix (including briefly passing alongside the Rocinha slum and the Barra condominium complex which is home to Ronaldo) and some sweeping views of the sea that hit you unexpectedly as soon as you leave a dark, congested tunnel complex. Buses 309 (from Centro to Alvorada via Botafogo and Avenida Sernambetiba) and 333 (from Rodoviaria Bus Station to Barra via Avenida Sernambetiba) will get you to Barra in half an hour to forty minutes, depending on the time of day.
If you do visit Barra, my recommendation would be to press the bell to stop the bus as soon as you pass lifeguard post number seven (you can’t miss the posts – they’re located every kilometre along the coast with their numbers painted prominently on them). Aside from being a nice spot of beach, there are a couple of very nice huts on the promenade that serve excellent seafood dishes. Buses to return to the centre of Rio can be picked up on the same side of the road as the beach (heading east) and run every fifteen minutes or so.
While Rio most certainly has its fair share of tourist tat (think key-rings, embarrassingly clichéd t-shirts and zippo lighters), you can actually pick up some relatively nice souvenirs during your visit.
For a full overview of all the souvenir options open to you, I would recommend that you haul yourself out of bed on Sunday morning (after no doubt binging heavily on caipirinhas the night before) and head to the Feira Hippie in Ipanema. The Feira Hippie – or “Hippie Fair” in English – is home to the city’s largest collection of arts and crafts; including Brazilian-made jewellery, watercolour paintings, wooden pestle and mortars, carved parrots, bows and arrows, wooden pestle and mortars etc. There’s something for everyone there – and, even if you don’t see something you like, the fair is worth a visit in itself.
Getting there is fairly simple. Just take any bus heading to Ipanema and get off at Praça General Osório (pronounced “Prash-ah Zheneh-ral Osorio”) and you’ll see a mass of tents occupying a park in the middle of the square. The fair is technically open from 07:00 to 19:00 each Sunday but most stall-holders will have packed up and gone home by about 14:00.
While there are many excellent bargains to be had at the Feira Hippie, its prices have risen sharply in recent years in line with both rising incomes in Brazil and an increase in tourists visiting the city. Feel free to haggle with the stall-holders, most of which will speak enough English to be able to cut a deal with you.
Many of the stallholders at the Feira Hippie take part in a far smaller fair that takes place each weekday evening in Copacabana. I tend to find that the prices in Copacabana are slightly lower, especially for paintings. If you want to give this fair a try, then just head for the Copacabana Palace and you’ll see a number of tents filling a large traffic island just across from the hotel.
Where should I eat and drink?
Food is a huge part of Brazilian culture and is something the people of the country are extremely proud of. Despite a proliferation of American-style burger joints having popped up all over the country in recent years, Brazilian families – rich and poor – still eat the country’s traditional dishes on the majority of days.
“Traditional food” tends to mean some kind of chicken, beef or pork accompanied by black beans (feijão), rice (aroz) and farofa (toasted manioc flour, best used to soak up meat juices). Fish dishes are also popular, particularly salted cod (bacalao).
With so much open space, Brazil is one of the largest meat-producing countries in the world, making products such as steak and prime rib incredibly affordable. As an additional benefit, Brazil’s sheer size means that the majority of meat comes from free-range farms where pigs and cattle are able to roam freely without being pumped full of the chemical stimulants we’re used to in Western Europe and North America.
You will find a huge number of what appear to be steak houses wherever you go, although these restaurants will be very happy to serve chicken, pork or vegetarian dishes. Away from traditional foods, Brazil’s huge Italian (the pizzas in Brazil are widely considered the best outside of Italy), Japanese and Lebanese communities mean that there is always a wealth of food to choose from wherever you go.
While there are bargains available, you should not expect to find particularly cheap deals on restaurants while in Rio. As a rule of thumb, if a restaurant’s décor is up to the same standards of a reasonably expensive restaurant in Western Europe then you can expect the prices to be virtually equivalent to those you pay at home.
It’s very difficult to give a definitive list of the best restaurants in Rio but I would certainly recommend you consider the following during your visit…
Bar / street food – At the end of nearly every street in the centre of Rio, you’ll see a small bar with a number of plastic chairs outside. These bars (or “botequins”) are some of the greatest examples of social integration in Rio because, as the evening progresses, they’ll fill up with all sections of society – from the wealthy managing director of an investment bank to the porter who runs his building. The bars are usually neighbourhood-focussed so entering them can be pretty intimidating as, if it appears everyone knows each other, it’s because they probably do. If they’re located in a good neighbourhood, then feel free to go inside. Order an Antarctica Original (a big, ice-cold beer) and a couple of hot pasteis from the food counter.
In the main tourist areas, big efforts have been made to try and emulate the spirit of these local botequins by offering drinks and tasty snacks at very affordable prices. If you’re minded to give one a try, I can recommend nothing more than to head for Pavão Azul on Rua Hilário Gouveia in Copacabana for a steak and cheese sandwich and some cod croquettes (bolinhos de bacalhau).
A little up the scale from the “rough and ready” nature of botequins, you’ll find similar food and drink at Boteco Belmonte which has branches in Ipanema, Jardim Botânico, Copacabana, Urca, Lapa, Leblon and Flamengo. Another good option is Conversa Fiada in Ipanema.
Bar Urca – An institution in my family, Bar Urca is one of my favourite places in the world, let alone Rio de Janeiro. Located in the bohemian Urca district of the city overlooking the Guanabara Bay, the restaurant is split into two parts the downstairs being a fairly informal bar where you can grab some snacks and a beer and take them to eat on the harbour wall across the road while the upstairs is a formal restaurant with bow-tied waiters. In honesty, both options are excellent.
My recommendation would be to arrive early for dinner and order a selection of pasteis de camarão (shrimp) and quieijo (cheese) (like a small pasty but lighter) and a beer and linger on the harbour wall for a while, watching the sun disappear for the evening. After a few beers, head upstairs and grab the moqueca camarão a baiana (shrimp stew from the state of Bahia in the north of Brazil). A portion for two will easily do for three of the most ravenous eaters. While the meat dishes are also good, you’d be a fool not to focus on fish while here. It’s a very special place you should not miss out on.
Quadrifoglio – One of the nicest restaurants in the city, Quadrifoglio has three branches: an expensive one and a heinously expensive one. This is Rio de Janeiro high society at its peak – think customers in remarkably-press white linen suits, imported French wines, smooth piano music, annoyingly quadrilingual waiting staff and immaculate white table cloths. The food and atmosphere, however, almost makes up from the horror you’ll experience when paying the bill. The selection of meat and fish dishes, from the Italian-inspired menu is mouth-watering. The more upscale and intimate of the two branches can be found on Rua J J Seabra in Jardim Botânico while the more fun and upbeat Quadrifoglio Cafés are on Avenida Borges de Medeiros by Lagoa (the view from the new ‘Lagoon’ restaurant complex is not to be missed) and Rua Dias Ferreira in Leblon.
Lapa – If you’re up for a big night out, you certainly shouldn’t miss out on visiting Lapa. Located very close to the city’s business district, Lapa was for years a largely abandoned and sketchy part of town which was avoided by all by the hardiest of Cariocas.
Thankfully, some shrewd local businessmen seized the opportunity to renovate Lapa’s stunning colonial Portuguese buildings and create an area that is home to some of the city’s best nightlife and live music. Walking through Lapa, you’ll pass by a bewildering number of restaurants and bars but I’d recommend you head to Rio Scenarium where there’s live music every night until about 05:00. Feel free to try one of the many street stalls selling beers and caipirinhas. You’ll find an extensive bar guide on the Time Out website.
Steak – Over the past couple of years, a number of churrascarias have opened up across the UK, meaning that the “all you can eat meat” concept is not as new for Brits as it once was. What will be new, however, is the quality of what you are served in Rio’s churrascarias. Churrascarias vary widely in terms of price, from pretty expensive to extremely expensive.
Right at the top end of the scale is my personal favourite, the Porcão which has branches in Ipanema, Botafogo and Barra. A dinner for two would set you back about £100 there – which is ridiculous when one considers the relatively low salaries most Brazilians live on. Further down the scale, you can’t go wrong with Churrascaria Palace on Rua Rodolfo Dantas in Copacabana or Carretão which has branches in Copacabana and Ipanema.
If you’d prefer to try a steak without the “all you can eat” element, File de Ouro on Rua Jardim Botânico is a superb bet. The Time Out review explains what to expect there far more eloquently than I can.
Pizza – As I’ve already mentioned, Brazil has one of the largest immigrant Italian communities in the world. This has given rise to a vast number of excellent pizza restaurants which can be found right across Rio de Janeiro. My two favourite pizza restaurants are Diagonal Pizzaria and Pizzaria Guanabara, both of which can be found on Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva in Leblon. Both are extremely relaxed, stay open until 04:00 every day and serve an excellent calabresa (Brazilian sausage) and onion pizza.
Other sources to look at – I wouldn’t claim that the above recommendations even touch upon a fraction of the many excellent places to eat in Rio. Do draw inspiration from some other sites such as the excellent EatRio.net or the ever-reliable TripAdvisor.
Is there anywhere else I should visit in Brazil?
To answer this question adequately would require several more thousand blog posts.
In a nutshell, though, you should certainly consider visiting the seaside party resort of Buzios which can be reached by bus in about two hours from Rio. During the summer months, Buzios comes alive as tens of thousands of Cariocas head there to enjoy the open-air nightclubs and fantastic bars and restaurants which line the Rua das Pedras. Try Takatakata and Chez Michou for starters.
If you’ve got a couple of spare days then you should certainly consider taking the short and relatively inexpensive (about £60 per head if booked a month or so in advance) flight to Foz do Iguacu on the Brazilian-Argentinian-Paraguayan border. I’ve written a blog post which looks at what you might expect to see in Foz. It’s one of the best places I’ve ever visited, so you should certainly give it some thought.
What have I missed?
I appreciate I’ve not actually listed any suggestions about where to stay in Rio. That’s because I stay with family when I’m here so I don’t have a clue.
If you know me and I’ve directed you to this page, please feel free to ping me an email with any other questions you might have and I’ll try and help.
Otherwise, have an excellent trip.