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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Rio de Janeiro

Buzzing Rio de Janeiro—the second largest in Brazil—is famous for its miles of stunning beaches, rich musical culture, and beautiful people. Experience it all at once by simply people-watching on one of the beaches, which Cariocas (Rio locals) consider their backyard. On legendary Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon beach, you’ll find residents and visitors alike socializing, relaxing, eating, drinking, dancing, and playing. Off the sands, see the best of Rio—while maximizing time and minimizing crowds and potential language barriers—on a guided city tour. A cog-train trip up Corcovado to the famous art-deco Christ the Redeemer statue or its twin peak, Sugar Loaf Mountain, rewards with stunning views of the urban sprawl, lined by white-sand beaches and the sparkling Guanabara Bay. Cruise that very bay for a different but equally epic perspective on the city, then feast on a Brazilian-style barbecue at a churrascaria. Stay up late to catch a samba show in Lapa, or wake up early to trek through the tropical Tijuca Forest or the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. Walking tours stroll through the streets of historic and bohemian Santa Teresa, or up into the hills for a look at favela life in Santa Marta or Rocinha. And for sports lovers, behind-the-scenes tours of Maracana Stadium showcase the country’s national obsession: futebol (soccer).
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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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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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Red Beach (Praia Vermelha)
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Praia Vermelha is one of Rio’s smallest beaches but also one of the most scenic. Tucked inside a protective cove that keeps the waves at bay, the beach is covered in coarse sand with a slightly reddish hue. Flanked by the spires of Morro da Urca and Morro da Babilonia, Vermelha Beach offers ground level views looking up at Sugarloaf Mountain. To reach the top of the iconic peak, ride the cable car from Vermelha Beach to the top of Morro da Urca, before transferring over to a second car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Or, to combine a hike with the ride to the top, a steep trail ascends Morro da Urca from the sands of Praia Vermelha, which is accessed by walking the paved walking trail that leads away from the beach.

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Pedra da Gavea
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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.

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Rocinha
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A city within a city, Rocinha is Rio de Janeiro’s largest and most densely populated urban slum, or favela. Pouring down a hillside in the city’s South Zone, Rocinha is home to an estimated 180,000 residents, all crammed into its colorful maze of cement buildings and makeshift shanties.

In the past Rocinha has been difficult and often dangerous to navigate for outsiders, but nowadays local guides lead tours into this fascinating community, allowing visitors to catch a glimpse of daily life while experiencing the diversity and warmth of its residents.

While the thought of touring a favela makes some visitors uneasy, many residents of these neighborhoods have expressed pride in the fact that outsiders come to see their neighborhood — that Rocinha is just as much a part of Rio as is Copacabana or Ipanema.

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Pepino Beach (Praia do Pepino)
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Located on the southwest end of Sao Conrado Beach, Pepino Beach rounds into a picturesque cove, with lush vegetation and the granite mountains of Pedra da Gavea and Pedra Bonita rising behind it.

But besides being a lovely strip of sand, Pepino Beach is most commonly known as the landing spot for Rio’s hang-gliders and paragliders. Adrenaline-seekers jump from a platform atop Pedra Bonita before gracefully landing at Pepino Beach, and those interested in watching these daredevils in flight can get a perfect view on the water.

Wedged between Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca, Sao Conrado and Pepino beaches are usually less crowded alternatives to the famous shores of Copacabana and Ipanema. With plenty of white sand, gorgeous views and crashing waves sometimes suitable for surfing and boogie boarding, Pepino Beach is a great place to kick back and enjoy a day on the shore.

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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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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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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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More Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro

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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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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Barra da Tijuca

Barra da Tijuca

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Barra da Tijuca, often referred to simply as Barra, is one of Rio’s newest neighborhoods — evident by its mega malls and glass-towered condominiums. As one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, it’s also among the safest. Brazilians often refer to the neighborhood as the Brazilian Miami for its wide, palm-lined roads and upscale shopping.

What brings visitors to Barra is the 10-mile (17-kilometer) long stretch of beach fronting the neighborhood. It’s the largest stretch of beach in a city famous for them and a popular place for surfing, kite surfing and body boarding. It’s also a shopping hotspot in the city, thanks to the BarraShopping and its 700 stores and restaurants and about a dozen other shopping malls.

Barra da Tijuca will host several of the venues for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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Tijuca National Park (Parque Nacional da Tijuca)

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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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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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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Pedra Bonita

Pedra Bonita

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Many of the colorful hang gliders soaring over the city of Rio de Janeiro launch from the top of Pedra Bonita, a granite peak located within Tijuca National Park. From an elevation of 2,283 feet (696 meters), the views are stellar even for visitors who choose to forgo the hang gliding. Unlike some of Rio’s other peaks, Pedra Bonita has an easy trail to the top.

A mile-long (1.5-kilometer) trail climbs steadily toward the peak, and while there’s a significant elevation change along the way, there are steps on the steeper parts, so it’s no more difficult than climbing a staircase. Barra da Tijuca, Sugarloaf Mountain, Rocinha favela and Christ the Redeemer are all visible from the top.

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Sao Conrado Beach (Praia de Sao Conrado)

Sao Conrado Beach (Praia de Sao Conrado)

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Whether you’re here for the surf, the golden sands, or to soar in the skies above, visiting Sao Conrado Beach 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 surfers, paragliders, wealthy elite, and the poorest residents in Rio. Just up the hill from Sao Conrado is the infamous Rocinha favela, which is one of the city’s poorest areas and also its largest slum. 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.

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Morro Dois Irmaos

Morro Dois Irmaos

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Named for its double peaks, Rio de Janeiro’s Morro Dois Irmaos translates to the “Hill of Two Brothers.” The city is famous for its views, especially from above, and from the top of the two peaks it is possible to see Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, Arpoador, São Conrado and the Tijuca Forest. Sweeping vistas provide a near 360-degree view of the scenic surroundings. With the Vidigal favela located just below, it is also a fascinating place to view the expansive communities of the city from above. The hills have become a symbol of Rio and are great at any time of day, but most recommended in the golden light of sunset.

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Grumari Beach (Praia de Grumari)

Grumari Beach (Praia de Grumari)

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While the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema offer a lot to see and there is always something going on, sometimes visitors find themselves in need of a break from the vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro. Grumari Beach is one of those beaches that is still a real insider tip and since it can only be reached by car, it is not very well known by tourists. Here, you can enjoy peace and tranquility surrounded by rolling hills and deep green Atlantic rainforest. The powdery sand along the 3 kilometer long beach is a bit darker, which, combined with the wild landscape, creates a stunning backdrop for this day trip.

Just like the adjoining Prainha Beach, Grumari Beach is part of a nature reserve and still very off the beaten track. Accordingly, visitors are predominantly locals and the signs of mass tourism have not yet manifested. The bay is very clean and pristine and can often be found completely deserted during the week.

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Prainha Beach

Prainha Beach

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Prainha Beach, one of Rio’s best kept secrets, consists of a secluded bay, forested hills and beach restaurants with fresh fish and seafood on the menu. Located on the westernmost tip of the Barra da Tijuca district, Prainha Beach is part of a protected rain forest area and boasts 700 meters of sandy white beach. But despite being a lot less crowded than the more famous stretches of sand within the city and having a reputation for being almost deserted on weekdays, Prainha Beach can get busy on weekends as well.

The crescent shaped beach is framed on both sides by steep cliffs that create strong currents with high waves. Accordingly, Prainha Beach is popular with professional surfers, who flock here to elegantly ride the three meter high waves. Along the shores, locals play Frescobol, a combination of beach volleyball and table tennis, and sip refreshing açai and fruit juices.

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Recreio dos Bandeirantes Beach

Recreio dos Bandeirantes Beach

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Located in the far west of Rio, Recreio dos Bandeirantes is a beach seldom visited by tourists. The waterfront area houses a quiet, upper-middle class neighborhood that bears the same name and is most commonly referred to as just ‘Recreio.’ Although the 12+-mile (20-km) stretch of sand from Barra da Tijuca to Reserva Beach to Recreio Beach is uninterrupted, the part that is officially considered Recreio Beach begins just southwest of Reserva and northeast of Pontal Rock (Pedra do Pontal), a recognizable granite rock that rises high out of the ocean at the shoreline.

Less busy and crowded than the South Zone beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, Recreio embodies Rio’s laidback, active, surfer lifestyle. Locals love the area for the wealth of outdoor and water activities, from waterfront running paths and beach volleyball to paddle-boarding and surfing. Recreio Beach is one of few places on Rio’s massive beachfront where the waves are consistently small and gentle.

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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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