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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Southeast Brazil

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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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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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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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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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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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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
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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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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 Southeast Brazil

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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Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (Jardim Botanico)

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (Jardim Botanico)

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Idyllic and serene among the bustle of Rio the Botanic Gardens - or Jardim Botanico - are a delightful place to soak up the beauty of both Amazonian and imported plants.

There are over 5,500 species of plant and this is where you will find the first tea, cloves and cinnamon that were brought to Brazil to acclimatize. Highlights include the lake containing massive water lilies, the orchids and the Japanese Garden.

The gardens were founded in 1808 by the Prince Regent Dom João and is used as a research center as well as recreation. From the entrance you walk down the Avenue of Royal Palms lined with 134 majestic palms and into the gardens.

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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 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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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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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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Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas)

Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas)

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Situated at the heart of Zona Sul and all but completely separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the upscale district of Ipanema, Rodrigo de Freitas Lake has been among Rio’s most distinguishing natural landmarks since the city was first established in the 16th century. In the shadow of Corcovado and covering nearly a square mile in surface area, the lagoon lends its name to the adjacent garden district of Lagoa and serves as a recreational area and beauty spot for local residents, with nearly 3 miles of bike and jogging trails, boathouses for rowing, and several exclusive social clubs located along the edge of the lagoon.

Named for a young Portuguese army official who lived in the area in the early 1700s, the history behind the glassy lagoon wasn’t always placid. The first Portuguese settler in the area, Rio governor Antonio Salema, slaughtered the indigenous Temoio Indians with smallpox-infected clothing when he arrived on the scene in 1575 to build a sugar mill.

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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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Rocinha

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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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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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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Liberdade (Bairro da Liberdade)

Liberdade (Bairro da Liberdade)

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Home to the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan, the Sao Paulo district of 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.

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Pedra da Gavea

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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