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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Brazil

Wherever you are in Brazil, the infectious sound of samba wafts from bars, platters of perfectly roasted meats and obsidian black beans line tables, and startling echoes of “oi” (Portuguese for hi) burst from the mouths of lively locals. In Rio de Janeiro, legendary Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are set against the dramatic backdrop of Corcovado, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer. Full-day sightseeing tours tick off all of the Marvelous City’s highlights: the Selaron Steps, Rochina favela, and a samba show are typically covered, too. But Rio is just the beginning: The sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo—one of the world’s 10 largest cities—reveals its cultural wealth on a panoramic tour. In the Amazon rain forests of Manaus, biodiverse wildlife species allure nature buffs. In the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Iguassu National Park, the countless torrents of Iguazu Falls (Foz de Iguacu) create a thundering roar. In Salvador, an African influence dictates the vibrant energy of the city. And on the spectacular, car-free islands of Ilha Grande and Florianopolis, a vision of paradise comes to life. Myriad private and group tours help visitors experience it all with skip-the-lines entry to top sights, simple transportation options, and local perspectives. And Brazil borders almost every country in South America, making it an ideal starting point for any trip around the continent. Begin with New Year’s Eve or Carnaval—two of the world’s most spectacular celebrations in Rio—before continuing to discover Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, or Colombia.
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Tijuca National Park (Parque Nacional da Tijuca)
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A lush Atlantic rainforest, Tijuca National Park is an absolute wonder it is the world’s largest urban forest which covers 12.4mi² (32km²) and was a result of incredible forward thinking by Emperor Dom Pedro II.

In 1861 he saw the deforestation of the land around Rio and ordered that Tijuca be replanted to secure the water supply for future citizens. It was replanted over ten years ago and still plays a key role in making sure Rio has fresh water.

The national park includes the Corcodova which offers stunning views from its summit where the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer is situated. It also offers fantastic picnic areas, many waterfalls and some great walks.

Wildlife in the park includes insects, ocelots and howler monkeys. The reintroduction of birdlife has been particularly successful and it is a birdwatchers heaven.

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Iguaçu Falls (Cataratas do Iguaçu)
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This spectacular landscape of crashing waterfalls was once held sacred by the Guarani people, who called it Iguassu, or "Big Water." Straddling the border of Brazil and Argentina, Iguassu Falls is an incredible natural attraction of 275 waterfalls of various sizes, making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Puerto Iguazu is the Argentina gateway - from here you can tour the Brazilian side, tour both sides and take other sightseeing tours to nearby attractions like the San Ignacio Mission or the Itaipu Dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border.

While Argentina, with 80% of the falls, has more trails and activities, the Brazilian side, with tours leaving from Foz do Iguacu, offers the finest views. Pedestrian walkways descend into the fierce rainbow-strewn mists of Fiorano Falls, and take in panoramic vistas over the massive flowing curtain of Rivadavia Falls, which cascades across a plateau.

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Adolpho Lisboa Municipal Market (Mercado Adolpho Lisboa)
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The image of the art-nouveau cast-iron Adolpho Lisboa Municipal Market building is like a snapshot of the multiculturalism of Manaus as a whole. The building, inspired by Les Halles in Paris and constructed in 1882 during the Rubber Boom, is distinctly European, but when you step through the doors, there’s no mistaking you’re in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

As the city’s main market perched on the banks of the Rio Negro, vendors here sell a bit of everything, and for the visiting tourist, it’s a great place to sample exotic fruits, learn about traditional Amazonian medicines or shop for souvenirs, like leather goods and índio handcrafted items.

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Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Açúcar)
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You’ll see stunning views of Rio from atop Sugar Loaf Mountain (or Pão de Acúcar) which rises at the point where Guanabara Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Whichever way you look the city is a delight of sweeping beaches, sparkling water and green peaks. If you make the trip up in the late afternoon you can watch Rio as the light disappears and the fairy show of night lights begins. Looking west you’ll have an incredible view of Corcovado with the statue of Christ the Redeemer all lit up. At the summit there are some clearly marked wooded trails where you can view some wildlife and get away from the crowds. The crowds are densest mid-morning and mid-afternoon when the tourist buses arrive.
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Christ the Redeemer Statue (Cristo Redentor)
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Keeping a watchful eye over the people of Rio de Janeiro, the Statue of Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor) sits atop Corcovado 2,300 feet (700 meters) above the city. It was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

The largest art deco statue in the world, it is 130 ft (39 m) tall and the arms measure 98 ft (30 m) across. Made of reinforced concrete and sandstone the statue was unveiled in 1931.

On a clear day the views from the base of the statue are fantastic. At night the statue is lit up and seemingly hovers over the city as the mountain it stands on is dark. If it is cloudy the clouds light up and the effect can be quite spectacular and ethereal.

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Selarón Steps (Escadaria Selarón)
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Decorated with over 2,000 brightly colored tiles in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the Selarón Staircase (Escadaria Selarón) is one of Rio’s most vibrant and striking landmarks, marking the boundary between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods. The brainchild of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, the iconic steps have become one of the world’s most famous pieces of street art, drawing millions of visitors and gaining exposure in international commercials, pop music videos and magazines all around the globe.

Selarón started work on the staircase in 1990 as a tribute to the Brazilian people and his beloved adopted city, covering the 250 steps with an elaborate mosaic of tiles and updating the artwork over the years to include newly inspired tiles donated by visiting artists. Operating a gallery from his home, the artist lived nearby for more than 20 years, but tragically, he was found dead on the steps in 2013, leaving his memory to live on through the unique landmark.

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Copacabana Beach (Praia de Copacabana)
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Copocabana Beach, or Praia de Copacabana, is the Rio de Janeiro of the tourist brochures and deservedly so. It’s a breath-taking 2.5mi (4.5 km) stretch of bright sand that’s filled with people luxuriating in the sun and soaking up the atmosphere.

As night descends the lights go on and football is played until the wee hours. Other groups start singing and dancing and still others are just there to check each other out. The busy sidewalks can get seedy at night so take care.

Behind it rise the Sugarloaf and Morro de Leme and in between is one of the world’s most densely populated residential areas.It is possible to visit Rio and never leave Copacabana, many hotels are situated here and there are plenty of restaurants and bars and some decent shopping.

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Rio de Janeiro Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao)
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Far from a typical church, the Rio de Janeiro Cathedral is a tall, cone-shaped building that’s distinctive to the downtown Rio skyline. The unusual design was inspired by the Mayan pyramids and was built in the ‘60s and ‘70s by architect Edgar Fonseca. One of the most important contemporary religious structures in Rio, the cathedral is dedicated to St Sebastian, the patron saint of the city, and has received three papal visits.

Standing at 315 feet (96 meters), the hollow interior is undeniably the most impressive part of the building. Massive bronze doors give way to the circular nave, nearly 350 feet (106 meters) in diameter, fit to accommodate 20,000 churchgoers on foot. Four panels of floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows surround the structure, and a skylight in the shape of a cross at the top allows for natural light to flood into the interior. This unique cathedral is a must-see for those interested in contemporary architecture.

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More Things to Do in Brazil

Ipanema Beach (Praia de Ipanema)

Ipanema Beach (Praia de Ipanema)

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Charming and chic, Ipanema Beach (Praia de Ipanema) is the richer and ritzier sister of the also infamous Copacabana beach. Ipanema backs onto a fancy neighbourhood and there are plenty of high-end hotels.

The stunning beach gets divided up depending on the interests of the beachgoers. There is the family section, the gay section, the ageing-intellectual section and so on; you’ll soon find where you feel comfortable.

At night the beach is lit up and families come to the beach with their barbeques and cook dinner while others come down to watch the sunset.

Ipanema means “bad, dangerous waters” in Indian and it is indeed a good idea to only swim in the designated areas where the locals are swimming as the waves can be big and the undertow strong.

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Maracana Stadium (Estádio do Maracana)

Maracana Stadium (Estádio do Maracana)

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The gigantic Maracanã Stadium was built to open the 1950 World Cup. It holds the record for the largest attendance at a World cup final as 199,854 paying spectators crammed into the stadium and many more besides.

If you’re after the intense Brazilian football experience complete with the drums, flares, and chanting, then get to a game; otherwise the sports museum inside the stadium with photographs, cups, and Pele’s famous no. 10 jersey is a more sedate experience (enter at Gate 18).

Its official name is 'Mário Filho Stadium' but it's called 'Maracanã' after the small river that runs alongside. In the 1990s it was modified to become an all-seated stadium and now holds under 100,000.

The four main teams of the city play here and it will host the opening of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies. It is being renovated for these events (scheduled to reopen in 2012) and will finally hold around 103,000 spectators.

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Sambadrome (Sambadrome Marques de Sapucaí)

Sambadrome (Sambadrome Marques de Sapucaí)

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At Carnival time the Sambadrome is the heartbeat of Rio de Janiero. A 3,000ft (700m) stretch of road designed as a 90,000 capacity parade area with stadium seating rising on each side of the road.

Samba schools have 80 minutes to parade through the center of the Sambadrome performing their samba school anthem impressing the crowd with their music, dancing and floats. it is an incredible spectacle; seven teams compete each night in a concert that lasts over ten hours.

During the rest of the year the Sambadrome hosts the occasional music concerts. Some of the more famous names to play include the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton and Coldplay. If its not Carnival and there's no concert then the Sambadrome can be very empty and quiet but it is still a fascinating piece of Rio’s culture and there is a small museum that showcases its history.

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Morro da Urca

Morro da Urca

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Sitting in the shadow of big brother and Rio de Janeiro icon, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Morro da Urca is just as important if only because the cable car trip up to Sugar Loaf includes a stop atop this turtle shell-shaped rock. Not to be outdone by its better-known neighbor, the 720-foot hill, a little more than half Sugar Loaf’s height of 1,300 feet, still offers spectacular panoramic views of Christ the Redeemer and Corcovado, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Guanabara Bay, downtown Rio, and Sugar Loaf itself (something you can’t see when you’re actually on it).

At the top of the Morro da Urca, the visitors’ center provides elevators for special needs guests, restrooms, and souvenir and food concessions. Hiking trails skirt the Morro, starting at Praia Vermelho, but one of the most exhilarating options available, if not exactly popular or cheap, is a helicopter ride around Sugar Loaf and over nearby Copacabana.

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Lapa Neighborhood

Lapa Neighborhood

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The most bohemian of Rio de Janeiro’s neighborhoods, vibrant Lapa is best known for its eclectic music scene, with an abundance of bars, clubs and venues hosting local samba and forró bands. After dark, the main streets of Rua da Lapa or Rua Joaquim Silva come alive, with dancers spilling onto the streets and top clubs like the Rio Scenarium, Arco Iris and Asa Branca teeming with locals and in-the-know tourists.

Even in the daylight hours, Lapa is a colorful district to explore, with the striking colonial buildings now home to a string of vintage shops and cafés frequented by Rio’s creative types. The area is also home to two of the city’s most iconic landmarks, most notably the Lapa Arches (Arcos da Lapa), an enormous 18th-century aqueduct that towers 64 meters over the central square. With the 42 grand arches dramatically lit at night, the arches make a popular meeting place for cariocas, as do the brightly painted steps of the Selaron Ladder, a short walk away.

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Santa Teresa (Barrio Santa Teresa)

Santa Teresa (Barrio Santa Teresa)

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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 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.

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Leblon Beach (Praia do Leblon)

Leblon Beach (Praia do Leblon)

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Fronting one of Rio’s wealthiest and most exclusive neighborhoods, Leblon Beach is a slightly quieter alternative to its neighbor Ipanema. Separated from Ipanema by a canal, the beach is popular with families with young children, as it offers a play area equipped with beach toys and playground equipment, collectively called Baixo Baby.

While calmer and less crowded than Copacabana and even Ipanema, the sandy stretch still offers beautiful views of the mountains, a string of beach bars serving caiparinhas and all the usual amenities, like chairs, umbrellas, showers and food stalls. While it’s also one of Rio’s safest and cleanest beaches, it’s still a good idea to leave valuables at the hotel and keep an eye on your belongings.

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Vista Chinesa

Vista Chinesa

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With iconic landmarks like Sugar Loaf and Corcovado mountains, Rio de Janeiro has no shortage of famous lookouts, but if you’re looking for a unique view away from the masses, head to the Vista Chinesa. An oriental style pavilion perched at 380 meters on the Alto da Boa Vista, the Vista Chinesa (literally ‘the Chinese View’) is one of the most striking monuments of the Tijuca Forest, erected in 1903 to honor Rio’s Chinese immigrants.

Regarded as one of the grandest Chinese monuments in South America, the award-winning gazebo offers spectacular views over the city, spanning the coastal lagoons and mountaintops, including the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado, Ipanema and Copacabana beaches and Leblon. The easiest way to reach the Vista Chinesa is by taxi or tour bus, but adventurous types can also tackle the climb on foot or mountain bike - a steep yet scenic 6km trek that’s not for the faint hearted.

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Paulista Avenue (Avenida Paulista)

Paulista Avenue (Avenida Paulista)

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One of the most expensive strips of real estate in Latin America, Avenida Paulista is São Paulo’s most iconic thoroughfare. What started out as a residential street lined with the ornate neoclassical mansions of 19th-century coffee barons has, in a little over a century, turned into an urban canyon of glass and steel and a modern hub of business, culture and entertainment.

Anchored on one end by busy Shopping Paulista mall and on the other by multi-use architectural standout Conjunto Nacional—vaguely reminiscent of the famed congress building in Brasília—, Avenida Paulista serves as the address for many of the city’s most important cultural institutions, including the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), lush Parque Trianon and the Casa das Rosas arts center (located in one of the last mansions remaining on the street).

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Pelourinho

Pelourinho

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Pelourinho is Salvador’s original colonial center and was Brazil's first slave market. Its name is derived from the post or pillory that African slaves were tethered to and whipped by their Portuguese overlords. Despite containing the largest concentration of Baroque architecture in the Americas, Pelourinho was a seedy no-go zone until the mid-1980s largely due to drugs and prostitution. Since being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Pelourinho has been restored to some of its former glory along with plenty of restaurants, bars and open-air cafes from which to sit and drink in the colorful and architecturally rich surrounds.
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Ibirapuera Park

Ibirapuera Park

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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.

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Sao Paulo Municipal Theater (Theatro Municipal)

Sao Paulo Municipal Theater (Theatro Municipal)

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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, and Ellington to its stage. A recent multimillion-dollar renovation has restored the grandeur of the structure, which serves as the official home of the São Paulo Municipal Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo City Ballet, among other artistic organizations.

With a design inspired directly by Milan’s Teatroalla Scala, the theater was erected during the height of São Paulo’s wealth and influence as the center of Brazil’s coffee industry, though the location of the structure is called Morro do Chá—Tea Hill.

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Sé Cathedral (Catedral da Sé)

Sé Cathedral (Catedral da Sé)

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Lording over the heart of the city, the immense Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption—abbreviated to Catedral da Sé in reference to its status as the seat of the local Roman Catholic archbishop—almost seems out of place with its mid-century Modernist neighbors. In fact, the current neo-Gothic structure is the third incarnation of the cathedral, the first church having been established in 1589. Designed by German architect Maximilian Hehl in 1912, construction on the current church began the following year, only coming to full completion in 1967, a full 50 years after Hehl himself died and 13 years after the cathedral was inaugurated for São Paulo’s 400th anniversary in 1954. One of the largest neo-Gothic structures in the world and certainly the largest in Brazil, the cathedral’s massive dimensions include a length of 364 feet, a 98-foot dome, and a height of 301 feet from ground level to the tip of the twin spires.

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Floriano Peixoto Square (Cinelandia)

Floriano Peixoto Square (Cinelandia)

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Located in Rio’s central financial district, Cinelandia is the common name for an attractive Parisian-style square officially named Praça Floriano Peixoto. During the early years of the twentieth century, Rio’s city center was remodeled to make the city more trendy and livable. An eighteenth century convent was torn down to make way for the public plaza, and by the mid twentieth century, Cinelandia was home to a municipal theater, national library and school of fine arts.

In the location of the former convent, several buildings went up that housed some of Rio’s best cinemas, lending the area its modern nickname of Cinelandia, or Cinema Land. While most of the theaters have since closed, the area remains a vibrant district thanks to its cultural attractions and diverse dining options.

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