Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Southeast Brazil
Sao Paulo’s version of NYC’s Central Park, leafy Ibirapuera Park was opened on the 400th anniversary of the city, in 1954, and it’s known as much for its museums and music hall as it is for its jogging and cycling paths by the lake.
The park buildings were designed by the modernist Oscar Niemeyer, known for designing Brasília’s public buildings. Covering 2 square km, Ibirapuera is the largest park in central Sao Paulo and the second largest in the city. Designed by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, there are 13 playing courts and playgrounds on the lawn. Come on a Sunday morning to enjoy a free outdoor concert in the Praça da Paz. Another nice Sunday touch is the Bosque de Leitura — a free outdoor lending library where you can borrow books and magazines (many of which are in English) to read in the park for the day.
Near Gate 3, it’s worth visiting the Museum of Modern Art (MAM). Here you can see Miros, Picassos, and important contemporary Brazilian works. Nearby, there’s the excellent Afro-Brazil Museum at the spacious Manoel da Nóbrega Pavilion — opened in 2004, it’s dedicated to showcasing the cultural achievements of Africans in Brazil. In January and July each year, the Biennial Pavilion hosts São Paulo Fashion Week and trade shows and biennials throughout the year. Sao Paulo has the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan, so it’s also worth visiting the Japanese Pavilion — an exhibition hall in Ibirapuera Park that shows Japanese art and has its own tea room and Japanese garden where you can feed the carp.
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.
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.
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.
This unlikely cobblestoned neighborhood close to the center of Rio de Janeiro has long been a tourist favorite among visitors to this Brazilian city. Santa Teresa (Barrio Santa Teresa) is located on the top of the hill of the same name, and takes its name from a convent built in the 1750s. It has a history as an upper class neighborhood, as some of its larger and more elaborately built mansions can attest. Santa Teresa has become an artist enclave in recent years, and is a great place to spend an afternoon, wandering among eateries, enjoying a cold beer, and checking out galleries and stands where you can buy artists renderings of the Cidade Maravilhosa (amazing city, as Rio is frequently called), or other souvenirs.
There are also a few museums worth visiting, such as the main art museum, the Museu da Chácara do Céu, housed in art collector Raimundo Otoni Castro Moya’s former mansion, that has works from Miró and Matisse, among other greats. Other architectural surprises include the Russian Orthodox Church. For the moment, the only way to experience the famous tramway that brought residents and visitors to the top of Santa Teresa is through the museum, Museu do Bonde, which tells the tram’s story, and shows it crossing the Carioca Aqueduct, at over 45 meters in height. The tram has been out of service since 2011, but plans are afoot to get it back up and running in 2015. For now, visitors take a taxi or the bus up the hill.
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.
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.
When Portuguese sailors entered Guanabara Bay in January 1502, they spotted Pedra da Gavea and thought its shape resembled a topsail of a ship, giving the now famous mountain its name. The granite peak rises 2,769 feet (844 meters) above sea level and plummets almost directly down toward the sea.
Under the administration of Tijuca National Park, Pedra da Gavea has a challenging but well-marked hiking trail to the top, where the views rival those from Sugarloaf and Corcovado. The entire hike takes about six hours to complete.
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.
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.
Home to the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan, the Sao Paulo district of Liberdade (Bairro da Liberdade) is a densely-populated neighborhood that’s a popular spot for locals and tourists looking to get a taste of Japanese culture and cuisine in Brazil.
Liberdade was settled in the early to mid-20th century by Japanese immigrants brought to Brazil to work in the coffee plantations around Sao Paulo. Since 1970, many people of other Asian ethnicities, especially Chinese and Koreans, have also moved into the area.
Marked by the nine-meter tall red Torii (Japanese Shinto arch) on Rua Galvão Bueno, and lined with Japanese-style street lamps, Liberdade offers a similar feel to other little Tokyo’s around the globe. It’s a particular draw to young Paulistano manga and anime enthusiasts, who are often seen dressed up as cosplay characters almost any day of the week, but especially on weekends.
The streets of Liberdade are filled with vendors and shops selling all varieties of Japanese and Asian goods including food, clothes, bags, shoes, and anime. On weekends, the Liberdade Street Market is an especially good place to find oriental handicrafts, as well as other street market goodies.
At the Santos Coffee Museum (Museu do Café) visitors experience the world’s favorite caffeinated-beverage through history and of course, taste. The Coffee Museum is housed in what used to be the Coffee Stock Exchange, where Brazilian coffee was weighed and traded before being sent through the Santos Port and overseas.
The Coffee Stock Exchange closed in the 1960s and fell into disrepair, but after decades of restoration efforts, in 2005 the beautiful colonial building re-opened as the Coffee Museum. The building’s architecture is a highlight of a visit to the museum. High ceilings with stained-glass skylights lie above ornately designed marble floors on the Exchange’s main trading room. The museum’s exhibition rooms explain the historical and cultural significance of coffee in Brazil, and worldwide, through photos, paintings, antique coffee-farming tools and more.
Brazil has a strong coffee culture – not only is Brazil the largest coffee producer in the world, but it is also is the second largest consumer of coffee. This is easy to see in every day life throughout the country, where a cafezinho (a little coffee), is customary in the mornings, after meals, and practically any time you want a pick-me-up. After touring the museum, be sure to try a cup of delicious Brazilian-grown coffee in the museum café for yourself!
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.
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.
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