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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gloria Marina, 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 Gloria Marina truly worth the trip.
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.
While the official name of Flamengo Park is Parque Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, Rio residents know it only as Aterro—a name that translates as “landfill.” Lest you think this beautiful park is built on a festering trash heap, the name is derived from land that was used to fill a portion of the bay. Today, that fill is home to the largest park in Rio de Janeiro, encompassing nearly 300 acres of outdoor urban green space. This is where Rio comes to play as well as work up a sweat. Morning joggers and walkers line the park’s promenade at sunrise, and the action continues throughout the day with soccer, basketball, tennis, and volleyball on the park’s modern facilities. This is also home to the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art, as well as a sculpture that honors the soldiers who died in WWII. Visit on a weekend and you might find marathoners finishing a race at the park, or cyclists preparing for a long ride through the city’s Zona Sul.
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.
An enduring symbol of São Paulo’s 20th century race to modernity, the Edifício Altino Arantes—more commonly known as the Banespa Tower or Banespão—remains one of the most notable landmarks on the city’s exhaustive skyline. Originally built as the headquarters of the State Bank of São Paulo (Banespa) and named for one of the bank’s first presidents, the tower rose over an eight-year period, crowning the city as its tallest building in 1947, a title held for the next 18 years. At completion, the 528-foot tower also held the title of tallest reinforced concrete structure and tallest building outside of the United States. Inspired by New York City’s Empire State Building, the tower exhibits Art Deco styling both inside and out.
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.
The Cosme Velho neighborhood is best known as the jumping-off point to ascend Corcovado Mountain to Christ the Redeemer. Most visitors to Rio will set foot in this small, historic area on their way to the city’s most iconic attraction, but it’s worth it to explore beyond that. From shady plazas overgrown with jungle to colonial architecture, Cosme Velho offers a taste of Rio’s old-time charm. The neighborhood’s principal street, Rua Cosme Velho, snakes up into the hilly area and to ‘Estação de Ferro do Corcovado,’ where visitors catch the funicular to the Christ Statue. Beyond the station, the neighborhood becomes mostly residential and continues way up the hill into the rain forest. While in Cosme Velho, before or after seeing the Christ, allot some time to roam the winding, leafy avenues with quaint shops, or grab something to eat in one of the many open-air cafes. Just across the street and a few yards up from the funicular station lies Boticário Square (Largo do Boticário).
Standing in the center of Praca Quinze is a way to literally and symbolically stand at the center of Brazilian history. It was here that Brazil declared itself a republic in 1822, and here that Pedro and Pedro II were coronated as emperors. It’s where slavery was abolished in modern Brazil, and where Carmelite convents and churches were erected as far back as 1590. It’s the heart of the city’s historic district, and when the city was only accessible by boat, was the first place that travelers would see the moment they stepped foot in Rio. Today, while much of Rio’s more popular sights have moved to the southern beaches, the Praca Quinze continues to exude a classic, colonial charm. Stroll past the former city cathedral and famous Arco dos Teles, and admire the Corinthian columns rising in front of Tiradentes Palace.
This former governor’s home was built in 1743 and later served as the residence of the famed Dom Joao. And while this famed Portuguese palace is renowned for its important place in both national and colonial history (the Freedom from Slavery Act was introduced on Paco Imperial’s steps), today it is better known for hosting concerts, movies and other cultural events.
Paco Imperial is registered as an architectural treasure by the National Artistic and Historical Heritage Institute. This designation has made it a destination for travelers looking to get in touch with both Brazilian history and experience the royal architecture typical of Rio. In addition to temporary art exhibits and musical performances, the palace is home to the Paulo Santos Library—a collection that includes rare books dating back to the 16th century and volumes on topics related to engineering, art and architecture.
Telles Arch, or Arco de Teles, is a colonial gateway and quasi time portal to 19th century Rio. Leading from open Praca Quinze to narrow Travessa do Comércio, the arch is a funnel from modern day Rio to the charm of its old town past. While arches were originally common in Rio, all have either succumbed to decay or have been replaced by modern development. Telles Arch is all that remains of the city’s colonial arches, and the pedestrian alleyway it frames today is lined with bars, restaurants and cafés that make you question if you’re still in Brazil or wandering down European cobbles. Stop in for happy hour after a day of touring the city’s historical district, and stay for an evening of revelry, merriment, and the arch illuminated at night. Though the arch itself only requires a couple of minutes for viewing, it’s the way the colonial past is fused with modern city charm that makes this a favorite photo op and stop when touring downtown.
Since 1986 Bank of Brasil Cultural Center has been showcasing an impressive collection of artwork that’s made it one of the top 100 most-visited art museums in the world. With more than two million visitors annually, the Rio de Janeiro branch of this national treasure is without a doubt the most popular. Its art deco building, which was designed by Francisco Joaquim Bethencourt da Silva, includes a theater and cinema in addition to multiple art galleries.
In addition to a stunning permanent collection that includes cultural and historical exhibitions, travelers will find unique temporary shows as well. Regardless of what’s on displace, visitors and locals agree that Brank of Brasil Cultural Center is a must-see destination on any trip to Rio.
This architectural highlight was built in 1820 and once served as a customs house for the region. Today, Casa Franca Brasil is home to rotating exhibitions that showcase the nation’s political and cultural history.
Travelers say the building is worth a visit because it’s an impressive example of neo-colonial architecture that’s anything but typical of Rio de Janeiro. And while the on-site restaurant offers some pretty delicious local eats, the gallery shows can be hit or miss. For this reason visitors suggest checking out the calendar before planning to venture inside.
In a city as oversized and grandiose as Rio de Janeiro, it’s surprising that a small, historic church is one of its most mesmerizing sights. Located in the city’s pulsing downtown, this church is best known for a gold interior that will silence the staunchest of critics. Even travelers who aren’t into architecture can appreciate the intricate beauty, where every fold and interior detail is brilliantly covered in gold. This is also one of the oldest churches found anywhere in Brazil, and is a shining example of Baroque style in the middle of modern Rio. Critics say that the opulent church runs contrary to the beliefs of its namesake, since Saint Francis of Assisi would never have commissioned a church that’s drizzled in gold. Regardless of historical accuracy, however, the fact remains this historic church is a brilliant sight to behold—from the altar made of jacaranda, to stones specifically imported from Portugal that line the chapel vestibules.
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.
There was once a time when Botafogo Bay was the fortuitously placed conduit between downtown Rio and the glamorous southern beaches. Put another way, if travelers came to Botafogo it was solely as a break while traveling between two of Rio’s most popular zones. Today, however, with a recent infusion of shops, restaurants, infrastructure, and cafés, Botafogo has become a neighborhood that’s a Rio site in itself. By day, visit the colonial mansions where Portuguese royalty ruled from afar, and stroll the shores of Botafogo Bay while sailboats bob with the tide. As night falls on the middle class suburb, head to one of the trendy new restaurants popping up around town, where cheaper rents than Ipanema allow the chefs to spend more money on fresh, local ingredients. Finally, for one of the best views in all of Rio, take a taxi to Pasmado Overlook where a panoramic view looking down on the city is the type of scene you’d expect to see on the front of a Rio postcard.
Leme Beach is a natural extension of famous Copacabana, although unlike its popular, high profile neighbor, Leme Beach is a calm stretch of sand where fishermen, locals, and neighborhood residents enjoy the calming sound of the sea without the choking crowds. While technically located along the same stretch of sand as Copacabana Beach, Leme Beach is the final half mile of the northern stretch of the beach. Here, visitors will also find Leme Fort—an historic outpost used by the military that still houses collections of guns. For a view looking down on Copacabana Beach, make the climb up the forested hill on the northern end of the sand, where monkeys prance in the coastal treetops and a breeze rolls in off the sea. For another shot of the horseshoe shaped beach, follow the coastal walking trail around the rocky headland, where fishermen line the rocky shore and casually cast their lines. Looking south, the glitz and glamor of Copcabana is visible off in the distance.
In 1978, some 20 years after Rio’s Museum of Modern Art first opened its doors, a fire ripped through the galleries and destroyed hundreds of priceless works by Picasso, Miro and Salvador Dali. Since then, the museum has rebuilt its home—and its collection—to become the premier destination for modern art lovers traveling to South America.
Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art are met by a towering stone pillar façade that’s tucked between colorful, well-kept, modernist gardens. In addition to its impressive exterior, a stunning courtyard and quiet outdoor terrace connect the museum to its surrounding landscapes. Travelers will find an extensive collection of modernist art showcased in the museum’s extensive galleries, as well as a private theater and school which provides lecture and studio space for visiting artists.
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.