Things to Do in Southeast Brazil
Keeping a watchful eye over the people of Rio de Janeiro, the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue (Cristo Redentor) sits atop Corcovado Mountain at 2,300 feet (700 meters) above the city. Unveiled in 1931 and voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, this impressive monument is often credited as the most iconic site in Brazil.
Decorated with more than 2,000 brightly colored tiles in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the Selarón Steps (Escadaria Selarón) is one of Rio de Janeiro's most vibrant and striking landmarks, marking the boundary between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods.
It’s easy to see why Rio de Janeiro was nicknamed the “Marvelous City” when you’re gazing down at it from the heights of Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Açúcar). From its soaring 1,300-foot (396-meter) summit, the city unfolds around you, with views of the iconic Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, the Tijuca Forest, and the Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue standing tall atop Corcovado Mountain to the west.
As one of the most expensive strips of real estate in Latin America, Avenida Paulista is Sao Paulo’s most famous thoroughfare. What started out as a residential street lined with neoclassical mansions is today a modern hub of business, culture, and entertainment.
Designed by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, Ibirapuera Park is Sao Paulo’s answer to New York’s Central Park. As the largest park in the city center, Ibirapuera encompasses 13 playing courts, jogging and cycle paths, a lake, several modernist buildings, and two of Sao Paulo’s most significant art galleries.
Tall and cone-shaped, the modernist Rio de Janeiro Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao) doesn’t look like a typical church. The unusual design was constructed between 1964 and 1979 by architect Edgar Fonseca. One of Rio’s most important religious structures, it is dedicated to St. Sebastian, the city’s patron saint.
Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Copacabana Beach evokes images of white-sand shores, sun-kissed volleyball players, tourists sipping agua de coco out of bright green coconuts, and bikini-clad revelers partying long into the night. And for the most part, that’s pretty accurate. Add in a touch of local carioca (Rio residents) flavor and a splash of the obscure, and it becomes obvious how thousands of people easily spend entire days (and nights) wholly entertained on the world’s most famous beach.
Whether you’re looking for the surf, the golden sands or to soar in the skies above, visiting Sao Conrado Beach (Praia de São Conrado) is a highlight of Rio de Janeiro. Here in this affluent, oceanfront neighborhood that’s sometimes called Praia Pepino, visitors will find an eclectic combo of people, many of whom are surfers or paragliders. The juxtaposition of social classes is evident out on the streets—yet everyone seems to equally enjoy the combo of sunshine and surf.
When strolling the sands of Sao Conrado, be sure to look up and scan the skies for hangliders circling above. The beach is a popular landing spot for groups of paragliders and hangliders, most of whom have launched from the slopes of neighboring Pedra Bonita. To get a birds-eye view for yourself—but keep your feet back on land—a strenuous trail climbs 2,500 feet up towering Pedra da Gávea. This stoic sentinel and oceanfront rock is a classic Rio landmark, though the round-trip climb can take a whole day—even for seasoned hikers.
Prior to the 19th century, Rio de Janeiro was surrounded by Atlantic rain forest. Today, all that remains is the 13-square-mile (33-square-kilometer) jungle known as Tijuca National Park (Parque Nacional da Tijuca). Studded with tropical trees knotted together by jungle vines, the world’s largest urban forest is home to ocelots, howler monkeys, more than 300 bird species, waterfalls, and one of Rio’s iconic landmarks, the Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue standing atop Corcovado Mountain.
Although less famous than its neighbor Copacabana Beach, Ipanema holds its own with quiet charm and considerably cleaner surroundings—and it does so without skimping on any of the white sands, blue waters, or local character that give Rio de Janeiro’s beaches their claim to fame.
More Things to Do in Southeast Brazil
In Sao Paulo’s downtown, the Monastery of Sao Bento (Mosteiro de Sao Bento) is known for its Gregorian chanting, exceptional bakery, and beautiful frescoes.
To catch the medieval chants of the monks, head to the 10am Sunday mass — get there early for a good seat. If you come for Sunday service, you’ll also get to hear the 6,000 pipe organ being played. For cake, jams, cookies, and breads prepared and blessed by the monks, look for the bakery to the left of the main hall. It’s a little more expensive than regular bakeries, but the quality is excellent and there’s a wide range of baked goods to choose from. Try the pão de mel — honey bread filled with jam and dipped in chocolate.
Surrounded by skyscrapers today, the Monastery of Sao Bento was built from 1910-1922, and it stands in the place of the original 17th-century chapel. Home to 40 cloistered monks, the monastery was chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for his stay during his first official visit to Brazil in 2007. Inside, see the famous murals painted by the Benedictine German monk, Dom Dutch Gresnicht Adelbert, who came to Brazil in 1913 especially to paint these Biblical scenes.
Situated grandly atop downtown São Paulo’s Vale do Anhangabaú like a concrete wedding cake, the century-old Theatro Municipal still shines as an example of the city’s place at the vanguard of art in Latin America. Opened in 1911, the ornate showplace—styled in the tradition of the great European opera houses—has welcomed Maria Callas, Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, and Mikhail Baryshnikov to its stage.
Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome (Sambadrome Marques de Sapucaí)—also known as Sambodromo or Passarela do Samba Darcy Ribeiro—was designed and built by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1984. Established to host the city’s enormous Carnival celebration every year, the stadium features a 2,300-foot (700-meter) runway and seats 90,000 spectators.
Reigning supreme over the center of Sao Paulo, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Sé Cathedral) is one of the largest neo-Gothic structures in the world. The 12,000-pipe organ is among the biggest in South America and the church houses a vast number of religious artworks.
The gigantic Maracanã Stadium (Estádio do Maracanã) is one of the most iconic soccer temples in South America, built to open the 1950 World Cup. The site holds the record for the largest attendance at a World Cup Final thanks to the 199,854 paying spectators who crammed into the stadium in 1950 and also hosted the FIFA World Cup Final again in 2014 and the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. Officially known as MárioFilho Stadium but called Maracanãafter the small river that runs alongside it, the arena is now a historical site dedicated to its former use as a world-class arena and event venue.
Close to the center of Rio de Janeiro, the cobbled district of Santa Teresa has long been a visitor favorite. Though it started out as an upper-class neighborhood, it has now become an artistic enclave that’s famous for its bohemian cafes and galleries.
Home to the world’s largest Japanese population outside of Japan, the district of Liberdade was settled in the early to mid-twentieth century by Japanese immigrants brought to Brazil to work in the coffee plantations around Sao Paulo. Today, it attracts foodies and Paulistano manga and anime enthusiasts, who can be seen dressed up in cosplay.
This historic church is built on the exact spot where the famed city of Sao Paulo was founded. Constructed in 1554, Pateo do Collegio Chuch once served as a home, school and church for Jesuit priests. Today, the original structure includes a museum, café, library in addition to an operational church.
Visitors can explore the church’s seven halls that showcase sacred artifacts, indigenous art and a model of the city in its earliest state. Travelers should be sure to check out the famed Peace Bell—known by locals as Sino da Paz—which serves as a reminder of the need for peace, justice and empathy in Sao Paulo and across the world.
Approximately half the size of neighboring Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the 720-foot (219-meters) Morro da Urca is by no means insignificant. In fact, Morro da Urca is a necessary, and often overlooked, stop on the cable car ride up to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Before heading off to the larger hill, wander around the turtle-shaped mound for spectacular views of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, downtown Rio, Christ the Redeemer, and Sugar Loaf itself.
Pouring down a hillside in Rio’s South Zone, the one-square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) Rocinha favela is crammed with a colorful maze of cement buildings, tin roofs, and upwards of 180,000 residents living in challenging socioeconomic conditions. The district is considered the largest favela in Brazil, complete with a culture and history of its own, and has entered a period of renaissance, with urban gardens, community art projects, and educational services revitalizing the neighborhood little by little.
Far less crowded than Rio hot spots such as Copacabana or Ipanema, the art deco Flamengo neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul offers a comfortable downtown alternative to the more trendy beaches and resorts. While there, visit Flamengo Park, a grassy section of reclaimed shoreline that faces Guanabara Bay.
Rio de Janeiro’s vibrant and bohemian Lapa neighborhood is the epicenter of the city’s music scene, with an abundance of bars and clubs hosting local samba and forro bands. After dark, revelers spill onto the sidewalks of Rua da Lapa and Rua Joaquim Silva in the heart of Lapa.
Fronting one of Rio de Janeiro’s wealthiest and most exclusive neighborhoods, Leblon Beach (Praia do Leblon) is one of the city’s cleanest and safest beaches and a slightly quieter alternative to Ipanema. Separated from Ipanema by a canal, the beach is particularly popular with families, as it offers a play area with beach toys and playground equipment.
Standing 130 meters tall in the heart of São Paulo, the Martinelli Building (Edifício Martinelli) was the city’s first skyscraper. Built in 1929 with 12 floors to begin with, the remaining 18 floors you see today were completed by 1935.
A beautiful building that would look right at home in Chicago, the Martinelli Building was built by Italian immigrant-turned-business tycoon Giuseppe Martinelli, who arrived in Brazil in 1889. To prove to a skeptical public that the skyscraper was actually safe, he and his family actually lived in the top four floors until the Great Depression forced Martinelli to part with the building and let it come under control of the Italian government, who then sold it to the state of Brazil.
Today the Martinelli Building is home to the Departments of Municipal House and Planning and various company offices, with shops on the ground floor. To visit the top, head to the side door—visits are 30 minutes. You’ll go in a small group, taking the elevator up to the rooftop terrace. At the top, enjoy 360-degree views of the city that extends all the way to the horizon. You'll be given plenty of time at the top (around 30 minutes), though there’s no rush to make your way back down.
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