Rio de Janeiro has evolved a lot throughout the years and its ‘rough around the edge’ type of exotic beauty is getting more and more polished – something that opens the door to more mainstream tourism. Still, looking away from the areas of Copacabana and Ipanema there are a lot of gems ‘off the beaten track’ waiting to be discovered and neighbourhoods that have been untouched and still retain their original charms. If you are lucky enough to find yourselves in this amazing city, soak the local colour and culture, do the tourist highlights but explore, discover and experience ‘off the tourist trails’, blend with the locals and live a day like a real Carioca.
At Ipanema or Copacabana for their proximity to key locations. Would recommend the following: Augustos Copacabana (lower price end), Golden Tulip Ipanema Plaza (mid range, right on posto 9). For those seeking more luxury Fasano (Ipanema) and Copacabana Palace (Copacabana) are the best options in Rio but in my opinion – although you can’t beat the views Fasano offers from the roof top pool terrace (and if you are lucky the ocean front rooms) – Copacabana is a classier and more ‘grande’ (as well as historical) option, much better value for money, offering an attitude-free customer service experience and definitely much more room space! Santa Teresa (Rio’s boho neighbourhood) offers accommodation options with a lot of character and amazing views over Rio. In terms of location is a 15 minutes taxi ride (or a much longer bus ride) to Copacabana. If you choose to stay in Santa Teresa, boutique hotel Santa Teresa Hotel is an excellent option.
Sunday at Ipanema – My favourite hang out beach is Ipanema not Copacabana. Not only because it has a better quality to it but also because the views over Dois Irmãos (especially at sunset) are breathtaking. Rio’s Copacabana/Ipanema beach line is divided into ‘posts’ (postos) and locals (Cariocas) have their favourite ones. For trendy and fabulous crowds opt between Posto 9 or 10. During recent years also Posto 11/12 (at Leblon) are becoming more popular with the young and trendy but they are still heavily family oriented. Try to visit Ipanema early at sunrise for a morning run, the peace and quiet are truly meditating. Or grab a caipirinha from one of the beach stands and enjoy the sunset. Don’t forget to visit the Ipanema Hippie Fair (Feira Hipe) held in the Praça General Osório only on Sundays.
Gringo* tip: as soon as you land in Rio, invest in a canga (sarong used in lieu of a towel at the beach), as without one you will be screaming ‘tourist’ from miles. These are sold everywhere along Copacabana and Ipanema, in amazing colours and patterns, it’s certain you will find one of your own style!
Beach snacking – try matte leão (a type of ice herbal tea), Globo biscuits (go for the sweet flavour ‘doce’), agua de coco (fresh coconut water) from the beach huts (once finished ask the vendor to break the coconut for you to enjoy the coconut’s interior, vendors are always happy to do so). Beach vendors also offer the highly delicious and nutricious açaí (frozen superfood berry smoothie usually topped with granola). Açaí at the beach is usually not very good, try it at one of the countless independent juice bars.
Ipanema is a beautiful, upscale neighbourhood and worth wandering at the main streets (above post 9) to enjoy the plenty café, restaurant and boutique options. My favourite coffee stop while in Rio is Cafeina (Rua Farme de Amoedo), one of the few proper coffee shops (it still astonishes me as to how a major coffee production country hasn’t adopted the coffee shop trend yet) offering nice fresh salads, sandwiches and desserts – and of course really good coffee. Porcão (Rua Barão da Torre, 218) is an excellent churrascaria for the meat lovers or Via Sete (Rua Garcia d’Ávila, 125) for a relaxed dinner in beautiful surroundings.
* gringo = a foreigner in Latin America
Copacabana late evening lounging – Although not my favourite option for a beach day I came to appreciate Copacabana more during my last Rio stay as the beach has definitely been ‘upgraded’ in anticipation of the World Cup. A great number of beach huts have been developed and although Ipanema has also its fair share, Copacabana’s are rather proper little cafe/restaurants by the beach rather than ‘huts’. They offer a great choice for lunch (definitely recommend the fresh fish) and comfy lounge deck chairs to enjoy sunset caipirinhas.
A worth-while experience while at Copacabana is to visit Forte de Copacabana (6 reais entry). Most of cariocas haven’t and after so many visits only at my last trip I managed to get there. There is an interesting museum, laying out the history of the Forte and and an opportunity for a beautiful walk across the fort where you get to see Copacabana beach and Arpoador from angles you’ve never seen them before. Stop for breakfast at Confeitaria Colombo located inside the Forte (best to go on a week day to avoid the weekend crowds).
Sunset at Arpoador – Posto 7 has traditionally been the ‘surfer’s post’ but now it is another up and coming spot for those tired of the post 9-10 crowds of Ipanema. Although famous as a sunset spot, I enjoyed Arpoador throughout the day, it has a good vide and on Sunday there are a variety of activities happening at the location including samba/zouk dance classes. Sunset is definitely its high point with beach goers gathering both at Arpoador rock and the beach enjoying nature’s show usually leading to loud chearings and clappings once the sun has set.
Beach snacking: try from the vendors populating Arpoador churros with dulce de leite and tapioca (starch flour) crepes or if you feel more of a sit down meal T.T. Burger (Rua Francisco Otaviano, 67, between Copacabana and Ipanema, Arpoador) has around 4 things on its menu (burger, chips, milkshakes, cold drinks) but does all four of them very well.
Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas for romantic dinner – Rio’s lake in the middle of the city. Opt to go at sunset where colours are at their best. A lot of lunch options around the lake but would recommend utter romantic Palaphita Kitch for dinner, specialising in cuisine from the area of Amazonia.
Clubbing – I much prefer the street ‘festa’ culture of Rio which, in my opinion, is more representative of the local colour but should you insist going clubbing here are my suggestions.
Melt – my favourite venue in upscale Leblon. Thursdays are the best day, with live music, the place is heaving. Bare in mind, ladies go in for free while gentlemen need to pay an entrance fee. In most of Rio’s clubs you get a card in the beginning of the evening that you swipe every time you order drinks at the bar, then settle your bill on your way out.
Nuth lounge – located in Rio’s Barra, a bit of a trek from Ipanema but a good option in upscale clubbing – although prepare to have an open minded view on what is considered ‘upscale’ in Rio.
Street parties – You can’t come all the way to Brazil and not experience a street party. Here are my favourite spots:
Roda de Samba, Pedra do Sal (Mondays and Fridays): Pedra do Sal is a historic neighbourhood in downtown Rio (at the time of slavery Pedra do Sal was the centre of the most important African community in Rio). Nowdays, is an area with distinctive architecture and on Mondays and Fridays hosts live samba groups at the steps of Pedra. The atmosphere is amazing.
Stay street wise: Pedra do Sal is located in downtown Rio which, outside office hours, is deserted. Take public transport only if you are with a local who knows the whereabouts, otherwise take a taxi there and back to your accommodation. There is a taxi rank near the venue.
Lapa on Saturdays: Lapa hosts a large flee market every Saturday afternoon so the crowds and ‘festive’ mood starts developing early on. The place is full of musicians, capoeira performers, dancers. Make sure you visit in the afternoon and stay until early evening while atmosphere is building up. Once the stalls are gone, 8 pm onwards the place is transferred to a packed street party. Street vendors offer cheap drink options and snacks should you not wish to separate from the party but Lapa’s cafés on Rua de Lavradio, such as beautiful Santo Scenarium offer a great escape for those wanting to get out of it all.
Stay street wise: even on busy Fridays and Saturdays, avoid wandering off quiet alleys. There is a taxi rank at the Arcs of Lapa and easy to get a taxi in the early hours.
Live samba and bar hopping – You can’t beat Lapa on this. Fridays are the best day for a night out in Lapa although the area is busy Thursday onwards and live music is present in every corner. Below are my favourite live samba bars offering live samba all days of the week.
Carioca da Gema Avenida Mem de Sá, 79 – Centro, Rio de Janeiro|Have a look! Very good music and tourist-free! My go-to live samba venue in Lapa.
Rio Scenarium Rua do Lavradio, 20 – Centro, Rio de Janeiro|Have a look! I won’t lie, this is the number one gringo destination for live samba in Lapa. But the venue is stunning (expanding over 2 floors with a live samba music area and a club on the floor above). Worth popping in.
Clube dos Democráticos Rua do Riachuelo, 91/93 Lapa, Rio de Janeiro. A very traditional place for live samba very popular with locals. Gringo-free too!
Saturday afternoon at Santa Teresa – There is always a celebration at Santa Teresa. Maybe not always obvious in the form of a festa but a celebration of life for sure. This is a really special neighbourhood full of bohemian colour. There are plenty of local craft shops and interesting boutiques. Worth taking the time to explore its narrow picturesque streets. Would recommend stopping for a meal at Bar do Mineiro – my favourite little bodega in Rio – specialising in delicacies from the area of Minas Gerais. It is always packed, chance is that you will need to wait at the bar a bit for a table but make the most of your visit and while on the waiting list order caipirinhas and pasteis misto (mixed pastries). The place has the best feijoada (various meat bean stew accompanied with rice, greens and farofa) I have ever tried in Brazil. Make sure you finish off your meal with a shot of ginger cachaça.
I always enjoy walking around the little streets – this area has beautiful architecture often met with equally artful graffiti but it is a real shame the iconic tram has now been suspended for safety reasons. Armazém São Thiago (Bar do Gomez) is a very good late evening destination. For a bit more upscale dining and amazing views try Aprazivel.
Football match at Maracanã – It is not difficult to get into the passionate football atmosphere while at the stadium even if you are not a football fan. If you decide to go, would recommend going when Flamengo is playing – vibe is rather…passionate!
Visit a Samba School – Most of Rio’s samba schools hold samba rehearsals on Saturday nights and some on Fridays. For most a samba school is just associated with carnival but it is so much more than that. It is a community project, a place of meeting and socialising and a place of creativity. If you find yourself in Rio in November/December it is a very interesting time for samba schools as they accelerate their carnival rehearsing. At one of my trips, I visited Mangueira and happened to be on the evening the song that would represent the school at the Sambodromo parade was to be chosen; the atmosphere was full of celebration. Whether you ask your hotel concierge or any travel agency in Rio they can arrange a visit for you and give you specific information on what is happening at the school on the Saturday/Friday chosen.
Stay street wise: Samba schools are almost always located at the entrance of a favela. Never, ever wander there on your own at night, there are organised tours that can take you with a local guide usually a resident from the local favela the School is located in.
Travel to the beaches beyond Barra da Tijuca – For most Barra da Tijuca is the furthest they would get while in Rio. I would personally just skip Barra da Tijuca overall – I think it is nothing more than a cemented outskirt trying hard to imitate Miami – and head straight for the full of natural beauty beaches of Prainha, Grumari. You can easily reach those from Ipanema within 1 hour and make a day trip out of it. Stop at one of Guaratiba’s fish taverns for the freshest seafood in Rio.
Beyond Barra da Tijuca
Hike to the top of Dois Irmãos – Depending on your hiking levels, effort will be different. For serious hikers this is a relatively easy trail. It took me around 40 minutes to do the steep 2km hike to the top and around 30 mins to descend. I won’t lie it was easy, but the final views rewarded me for every sweat and tear I shed along the way. One of the best activities I have done in Rio. Because it is a relatively newly discovered trail it still hasn’t got many crowds. I got the top almost to myself. It felt special. On your way down stop for a well deserved cold drink at any of Vidigal’s bodegas.
How to get there: Take a taxi to Favela Vidigal. Taxis cannot enter Vidigal so from the entrance, where you will be dropped off, you have three options to reach the top of the favela where you will be starting your hike: 1. walk it – but it is a very steep walk up the hill and it will take a good 45 mins 2. take a mototaxi (5 reais) – we went for this option. I found it an equally exhilarating and scary experience and one I won’t be repeating any time soon! Make sure you wear the helmet 3. Take a van to the top (just 2.5 reais), make sure you tell the driver that you want to get off at the top for the hike – I took the van on my way down and it is definitely the safest and preferred option.
Take with you: the absolute necessary (water, phone, money, maybe a small camera) as it is a long walk and you want to be as comfortable as possible.
Stay street wise: although Vidigal is pacified, you will notice the Pacification Unit as soon as you enter, it is still a favela and entry is at your own peril. I found it quiet and people very friendly but of course noone can guarantee anyone’s safety. There are organised tours for this hike but I am not sure they will add any more safety than organising the hike with a group of friends. The tour will only add a quite considerable fee to an activity that can cost you only a few reais. Make sure you allow plenty of time to descend before dark and don’t set off to do the hike alone.
Take a walk at historic Centro – often overseen by tourists, Rio’s downtown district has a number of architectural jewels such as the Candelaria Church, Paço Imperial, Theatro Municipal and the National Historical Museum.
Stay street wise: this is also the business district, go during the day on weekdays when it is buzzing and avoid evenings and the weekends as it is almost deserted.
Go to a Funk Party – This is a great local experience. Always go with a local or with an organised tour like Be a Local or through the Favela Tour a company run by local residents of Favela Rocinha.
Stay street wise: I mentioned above but repeating. Go with a local connection or with an organised tour, don’t go by yourself even if you have a big group of other tourists with you.
Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf)/Cristo Retendor – I am sure these are already on your list. All I can advise is the following: try to go during the week as in the weekend the crowds are quite bad. At Pão de Açúcar there are two levels the cable car takes you. Stop at the first peak, where a cafe is located, and order a caipirinha, take the time to soak in the views and peace from the top. Once you finish your visit, stop at charming waterfront Bar Urca for a cold beer and pasteis (brazilian traditional pastries) and to enjoy the sunset (best time of the day to be there).
Views from the first peak at Sugar Loaf (the one you need to stop and have that caipirinha we talked about)
Getting out of Rio for a break is just as exciting, you can actually take a ‘holiday from your holiday’. If you are one of those people who want the busiest, partier side of Rio then opt to travel out between Monday – Thursday when the city is at its quietest.
I am sure you heard the story of the Buzios genesis, a quiet fishing village brought into the limelight by Brigitte Bardot (dating a Brazilian beau at the time) in the 60s and the rest is history. These days, a bronze statue of Bardot gazing the bay of Buzios is at a prominent position at the promenade. Buzios is a very beautiful, upscale, beach town more Mediterranean in style than Brazilian. It is more peaceful during the week (unless a cruise ship is visiting) while in the weekends is the ultimate party town. Been only a 2.5 hrs drive from Rio, Buzios is the perfect get away.
How to get there: take one of the frequent buses departing from Rodoviária Bus Station at Downtown Rio and then is a 2.5 hrs trip to Buzios. There are buses from Copacabana/Ipanema to Rodoviária but as it is a rather ‘shady’ area if you are not familiar and you are likely to wander around just take a taxi to and back.
What to do: 1.party 2. relax. There is not much here in terms of cultural activities, but plenty for the other two options.
Party: Rua das Pedras/Orla Bardot is the epicentre of the key nightlife options with a great variety of bars, elegant restaurants and big clubs. Here you will find the key clubs Pacha and Privilege. For more chilled out drinks try Anexo Bar.
Relax: I actually much prefer Buzios for its relaxing scene and there are plenty of options too. Buzios has the following good beach choices starting from the centre and moving further away: Azeda (a picturesque small bay, close to the centre with calm, crystal clear waters, not very crowded), Joao Fernandes (the popular beach, with a couple of beach huts options, a lot of people and loud music, a bit commercial), Ferradura (calm waters and beach huts for chilling), Geriba (my favourite option). Geriba is a great beach option, it is the longest beach with stretches of fine white sand and turquoise water and in my opinion the most ‘tropical’ out of the local beaches. It is the surfer’s beach, you will understand why once there. If you want to swim the left side of the beach has calm, warmer waters and there are a few beach hut options right at the edge. The right side, where beach bar FishBone is located is quite windy but having tried both options I much preferred this side as it is more relaxed and FishBone is a chilled, lunch option offering good acai and fresh fish – although a bit on the expensive side.
Plenty of options for bar and cafe chilling at the centre of Buzios but I adore Maria Maria Cafe on Rua das Pedras, a magic little place with views over the sea, friendly hosts and super delicious artisan cakes, freshly prepared every day (I should know, I paid a visit all 5 days of my stay). Great coffee too.
Stay: Depending what your priority is (beach relaxing or partying) opt for a traditional pousada in the centre of Buzios or Geriba to be close to this gorgeous beach. I stayed at Wasi Geriba and would definitely recommend this small, pretty and friendly bed and breakfast. It has gorgeous views over Geriba Lake and it is a 10 mins walk to Geriba beach and a 5 mins drive to the centre of Buzios. For more central and upscale accommodation Villa Balthazar is a dreamy option.
Ilha Grande is a tropical paradise, very close to Rio de Janeiro. It offers an exotic escape from the city buzz. On the island, a protected nature reserve, there are no roads and cars, no ATMS and most of the times no proper phone reception or internet access. You are truly remote, disconnected from the world’s noise; which hopefully it is a good thing and can help charge your energy back.
I arrived on rainy, foggy day after a rather adventurous boat trip on choppy sea. The island was hidden behind the rain fog and I could only see the top of Pico do Papagaio (Ilha’s mountain). It was truly beautiful to fall asleep only listening to the various sounds of the rainforest in which Vila do Abraão is literally surrounded with. On the morning of my second day, with sun on its full glory Ilha Grande was a colourful paradise, I could not believe this was the same island I set foot on the previous night.
This is a very special place, you are already lucky to be here. It is not a party island so if this is your goal it won’t happen, although if you are with a good group of people you can always create your own.
How to get there: from Rodoviária Bus station in Rio take a bus to Angra dos Reis (2.5 hrs trip) and then a boat to Isla Grande (1 hr). When we got at Angra dos Reis, having just missed the mainstream option (the public ferry that is) we paid a local fisherman to make the cross to Ilha Grande. Do not do that. Apart from the obvious lack of safety, when the sea is rocky as it was on the day I travelled it is really a very bad choice.
What to do: Relax. There are gorgeous beaches to visit. Lopes Mendes is the most beautiful beach on the island (and has also been voted by Vogue one of the most beautiful beaches in the world). A boat will take you from Vila to another beach (located on the other side of the island from where Lopes Mendes is) and from there is a 20 mins hike to Lopes Mendes beach which will make you appreciate your dive once you get there even more. Parnaioca, Praia do Aventureiro are other beach options while on the island.
This is the place to have amazing, fresh sea food. Make sure you try the moqueca (fish stew originated from Bahia) at one of the sea side restaurants like Lua e Mar.
Cafe do Mar on the beach is a great option for relaxing cocktails at sunset. If you definitely want to party then head to hostel Che Lagarto – which we randomly came across while we were there and enjoyed a lively party full of reggaeton music. The hostel enjoys one of the most beautiful locations I have ever seen, right on the beach with a beautiful veranda overlooking the water. There are regular parties been organised not limited to the hostel guests should you pay a small entry fee.
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