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.
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.
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.
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.
A serene, verdant oasis in the midst of bustling Rio de Janeiro, the city’s Botanical Garden (Jardim Botânico) offers a chance to see and learn about both Amazonian and imported plants. There are over 6,500 species of plant contained in the 133-acre (54-hectare) plot, as well as an important research facility and botanical library.
The city of Petrópolis (also known as the Imperial City) was founded upon royal opulence and wealth, and this is reflected in the lavish design of the city’s Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal). The ornate iron-and-glass structure was originally used as a hothouse for growing orchids and is now a venue for various cultural events.
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.
Barra da Tijuca (Barra) is one of Rio de Janeiro’s newest neighborhoods. It earned its nickname as the Brazilian Miami for its gorgeous sandy beaches and palm-fringed boulevards, which are flanked by mega malls and glass-fronted skyscrapers.
Glória Marina (Marina da Glória), with its coastal views and epic mountain scenery, is one of Rio de Janeiro’s most popular waterfront destinations. Nestled between the Sugar Loaf and Corcovado Mountains, the marina offer visitors a picturesque place to take in live music performances, public and private boat parties and ship tours of the city. Visitors say the cuisine at nearby Barracuda Restaurant is some of the best in town (and so are the views!) but travelers agree it’s the reasonably priced diving certification classes and personalized sailing lessons that make Glória Marina truly worth the trip.
More Things to Do in Southeast 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.
Those who have already been enchanted by the Jardim Bôtanico, but are looking for a less popular venue, will find a tranquil paradise at Lage Park (Parque Lage). The small park at the foot of Corcovado Mountain was once the residence of the rich industrialist Enrique Large and his wife, the singer Gabriella Besanzoni. Surrounded by monkeys and birds hopping from branch to branch in the Atlantic rain forest, the park resembles an oasis and it is easy to see why the couple decided to settle down here. The mansion was built in the colonial style, but was later remodeled by Italian architect Mario Vodrelan and enclosed by a perfectly landscaped English-style garden. Today, the building hosts the Escola de Artes Visuais – the visual arts school – as well as a café, both of which are open to the public.
Behind the turquoise pool in the courtyard, the wooden benches of the café and the embellished facade, Christ the Redeemer rises into the sky and creates the perfect backdrop for a day away from busy Rio. Apart from the nice view of the Christ, the delightful pastries at the café and the occasional exhibition or event, the Parque Lage also offers nice walks through the lush landscape with lots of things to discover. Visitors can enjoy fish tanks holding a variety of Brazilian species, admire fountains, ponds, caves and a tower and find plenty of benches to sit and take in the scenery.
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.
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.
The Mirante Dona Marta literally translates to ‘lookout,’ and visitors to the site will get just that — an incredible view of some of Rio de Janeiro’s best sights, often without the crowds. Standing there one can see the long stretches of lush forest and white sand beach below, and even take in the famous sights of the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain.
The area functions as a helipad and observation point, with panoramic views of Guanabara Bay and Copacabana. At 1,200 feet (364 meters) high, it provides excellent sunrise and sunset vistas and photo opportunities of the natural surroundings and the city below. Many who know Rio well cite it as their favorite viewpoint.
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.
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.
Popular in summer when the coast became hot and muggy, Petrópolis was the mountain getaway for Brazil’s imperial court. Nestled about 3,000 feet (914 meters) high in the Serra dos Órgãos range, the city still serves as a heat-beating retreat for the nearby residents of Rio de Janeiro.
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.
Holding more than 9 million volumes, Brazil’s National Library (Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil) is the largest of its kind in Latin America. Founded in 1810 and relocated to its current Greek Revival-style building in 1910, the library maintains an archive of the country’s most important publications, periodicals, photographs, films, and music.
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.
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.
Boasting the title of Latin America’s largest aquarium, Sao Paulo Aquarium is home to more than 3,000 creatures. Immerse yourself in different sections of the aquarium—which include fresh water, Antarctica, and the ocean—to discover exhibits that span 300 species of marine life and other mammals.
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.
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