14 best things to do in Rio de Janeiro when it’s not carnival
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Guys, THERE IS SO MUCH TO DO IN RIO DE JANEIRO. Use this guide to work out what you want to prioritise, and plan your days around the two biggest attractions. We’ll tell you the best time to visit Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar) and Christ the Redeemer, and how to get there, and what to do around them.
This guide on the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro may have been written in 2019, but the suggestions in it will be pretty timeless. To know where to find accommodation with your ideal vibe, have a read of our guide to the best neighbourhoods to stay in Rio de Janeiro.
A MUST. And unlike Christ the Redeemer, you don’t have to wake up at silly o’clock to enjoy it. Lozzy actually ended up going to the top of Pao de Acucar twice in 2 weeks as she went with her parents on their visit too – and it was just as good the second time.
Portuguese-speakers, please don’t be grossed out when you see us spell Pao de Acucar without the real letters/accents; it’s solely to help us English-speakers who have NO IDEA how to get those characters on their keyboard when they type the search into Google 😉
Best time to visit Pao de Acucar
Hands down the best time to visit Sugarloaf Mountain is at sunset. Get to the cable car about an hour before sunset so you have a bit of time to see all the different angles of Pao de Acucar’s viewing platforms and choose your best spot before sundown. Try to find yourself a clear evening, both in terms of cloud cover and haze from pollution.
Things get a little crowded on the top platform on Pao de Acucar itself as the sun comes down, but the first platform on the other mountain remains pretty spacious, and the view is just as breathtaking there.
In terms of your trip, the best time to visit Sugarloaf Mountain or Christ the Redeemer is right at the beginning, so that you can gauge just how vast and interesting the cityscape is. We picked out a few new places to explore from up there!
How to get up Pao de Acucar
There are two mountains that form part of this attraction, and three options to get up there. The first is to take two cable cars from mountain to mountain, which costs 99Rs (£20) in 2019 and takes just a few minutes depending on the queues. The cable car terminal is next to Praça General Tibúrcio.
The second option is to hike up Morro da Urca, the first mountain (20 mins if you’re fairly fit), and then get just the second cable car to Pao de Acucar itself. Start the hike at the end of Praia Vermelha, making sure you buy your ticket for the cable car up to the second mountain before you enter the trail. The entry is free and the path is open 6am-6pm. Once up there, you can find a few food & drinks options on each mountain, and also an over-priced Havaianas store.
The third and most adventurous of the options is to hike and climb Pao de Acucar itself, which requires rock climbing equipment and a guide. The climb is 15 metres and considered easy with the right safety measures in place. Book your guide here.
Before you go to Pao de Acucar
Before climbing the dizzying heights of Pao de Acucar, we highly recommend spending the afternoon at perhaps Rio de Janeiro’s most under-rated central beach, Praia Vermelha. It sits just under Pao de Acucar, so the views are incredible, you hardly get hassled by street vendors, unlike Copacabana, and it’s known for being a hotspot for wild turtles.
2. Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor)
Even if you’re non-religious heathens like us, you’ll still appreciate a bit of the Big Man on top of the tallest mountain in Rio. Christ the Redeemer has himself a 360-degree view over every inch of the city and incredible mountain ranges behind it. Obviously a clear day is best, but in our experience a bit of morning mist actually made this place more magical.
How to get to Christ the Redeemer
There are 4 ways to get to Christ the Redeemer; we took the first option of taking the bus to the top of the mountain, which worked very smoothly for us and didn’t break the bank. Here are the 4 ways to get to Christ the Redeemer:
Bus to Christ the Redeemer. Get yourself to Largo do Machado, and go to the white ticket desk on the edge of the square. The ticket costs 63Rs, which includes your transport all the way to the top of the mountain and back to the square, as well as the entrance ticket to Christ the Redeemer (which in 2019 would be 35Rs if bought separately). The buses are not timetabled, they’re colectivos, so they just leave when the driver feels they have enough people.
Halfway up, you have to disembark from the minibus, walk through the national park’s tourist centre, scan your ticket so they can account for you being up there, then get on another bus 20 feet from your first one (dafuq, right?!). The second bus then takes you the extra 7-8 minute drive up to Christ the Redeemer itself.
All in all, it takes around 45 minutes from square to Christ if there are no queues. Whenever you’re done, just get back to the bus area and hop in whichever one is filling up. Pick up your last bus from just next to the outdoor café of the tourist centre.
Tram to Christ the Redeemer. You have to buy tickets for this the day before, either at the little red office next to the bus ticket office on Largo do Machado, or online at www.tremdocorcovado.rio. The tram is the slower option, but no doubt more exciting than the minibus. It’ll take you the scenic route up to the tourist centre, from which you’ll need to scan your ticket and get on a minibus to the top. It costs 65Rs in low season, 79Rs in high, which includes your return trip and entry to the monument.
Private car or taxi to Christ the Redeemer. Doable? Yes. Efficient? Maybe not. If you’re with an organised tour, your tour will probably have access to the road all the way to the top of the mountain, but if you’re in an Uber or taxi you can only go part way. From there, you’ll have to walk the rest of the way up to Christ the Redeemer. You’ll need to pay the park entry fee of 35 Rs (£7) when you get to the tourist centre.
If you’re calling an Uber to get back down, be aware that phone service is a no up there – come on Jesus, help us out here – but luckily there is some free wifi you can jump on at the tourist centre.
Hike to Christ the Redeemer. Yes, you can hike the mountain up the big man in the sky, but it’s not hugely recommended. The rates of being robbed at gunpoint, or even held hostage from this hike (even in big groups of hikers) are ridiculous, and not really worth chancing in our opinion. Plus, it’s hiking. Ew no.
Get there as early as humanly possible. Ok, so the park opens at 8am, so if you can make it for then, that would be the best time to visit Christ the Redeemer. The viewing platform tends to start to fill up at around 9am, and by 10am you’ll be needing to elbow old ladies taking pictures with their iPads to get to the front of the balcony. This Christ the Redeemer tour will give you the early bird access before tourists start arriving en masse.
Since the best time to visit Sugarloaf Mountain is at sunset, you have plenty of time to scuttle around both in one day, with space in the middle for some beaching. Which takes us to our next point…
3. Beach it up
What’s the point of stocking up on all those £3 Havaianas if you’re not going to flaunt them on one of the many beaches of Rio de Janeiro? Below are our top beaches in Rio de Janeiro; if you want to see them in style, sign yourself up to a 3-hour speedboat tour that also includes a trip to the Cagarras Islands.
– Praia Copacabana
The most famous beach in Rio de Janeiro is of course Copacabana, which stretches as far as the eye can see and is lined with small beach bars and swanky restaurants. Expect to be bombarded by beach vendors selling everything from grilled cheese on sticks to bikinis – you get used to it after a while!
We sort of found it a little over-rated, but worth checking off the list anyway as the views are pretty stunning either side. Theft is rife on Copacabana, attracted by all the sitting-duck tourists, so really watch your stuff.
– Praia Vermelha
As previously mentioned above, this little beach is tucked away under the view of Pão de Azucar. And since the best time to visit Sugarloaf Mountain is at sunset, that means a whole day of beaching is available for the clean, tranquil sands Praia Vermelha.
The waves are strong on this beach, so it’s perhaps not the best place to bring kids to swim, but it’s a perfect place to relax with a good book in one hand and caipirinha in the other. It’s a common place to spot wild turtles close to the shore, so bring your goggles!
– Praia Ipanema
Known as the more upper class version of Copacabana, Ipanema is situated in a bay just a little further away from the city centre, but with equally beautiful surroundings. The people you’ll find on the beach nowadays are mixed, from favela kids to Brazil’s elite to the LGBT community. This is a popular area for travellers to stay in.
– Praia Leblon
One of the safest beaches in Rio de Janeiro, the soft white sand is lined with volleyball courts, bike lanes and outdoor gyms. Leblon beach is definitely the place of choice for wealthy locals to go and exercise!
4. Fly high on a helicopter ride
For as little as 350Rs per person, you can take a helicopter ride from the first mountain in the Pao de Acucar attraction. I mean, it lasts 7 minutes, but that’s still longer than the UK national average 😉 If you’d like something a little more substantial, check out Rio2Fly, who currently offer 30mins helicopter ride over Rio for 499Rs per person.
5. Hang-glide over the bays
Whether you’re feeling more adventurous than a helicopter-rider, or if your purse-strings are just a little looser, you can see this breath-taking landscape from above by hang-gliding over Rio de Janeiro. Don’t worry if you’ve never done paragliding before, the tour will be in tandem with a guide. Paragliding in Rio is also available for roughly the same price. If you don’t fancy seeing more of Rio’s terrain, you can also do paragliding in Niterói, just across the bay (you can visit Niterói by land, too!).
6. Samba the night away
Rio de Janeiro is the birthplace of samba, and the city thrives on the stuff. You can find samba clubs dotted all around, some big operations with galleries of dancefloors, such as Rio Scenarium, others smaller, more local-feeling bars such as Botequim Vaca Atolada. You can almost guarantee live samba bands in these places, and there’s no doubt that Brazilians have no fear in getting up to dance!
And if you’re visiting outside of Carnaval but still want to see where the magic happens, you can pay a visit to the Sambadrome during the day and try on some of the outfits worn at Rio Carnival. Here’s Lozzy’s parents doing just that:
Try Rio Samba Dancer for some samba schooling ($25 USD), and you can add on a tour to a samba bar to show off your snazzy footwork after the hour-long dance class.
7. Maracaná Stadium
Football-lovers, this is for you. Macaraná is home to Brazil’s national team, and featured heavily in the Brazil World Cup 2016. You can visit the stadium to see exhibitions about the great game and even get a 360 degree photo taken. Nifty stuff!
8. Join a Rio de Janeiro street party
No trip to Rio de Janeiro is complete without a street party! Almost every day of the week, you can find a street party in Rio. We went to two; Laranjeiras and Lapa. Apparently Monday street parties in Pedro do Sal are also excellent.
We sort of expected carnival-style parades but in reality street parties in Rio de Janeiro are more like the sorts of gatherings we used to have as teenagers, drinking in the park and drunkenly chatting to as many people as we can. Just slightly more legal, this time.
– Laranjeiras street party on a Thursday
This street party buzzes around the fountain with live music and a very casual vibe. The Praça São Salvador square is lined with small bars and restaurants, while in the centre you can buy beers, caipirinhas and burgers from street vendors. Things ramp up at around 9-10pm and last into the small hours. The area feels really safe, but we didn’t venture too far from the square. Another alternative for Thursdays is the street party in Baixo Gávea.
The street party in Lapa is a pretty big deal on Fridays. Gathering below the giant white arches of the viaduct, the square becomes filled with lines and lines of street bars and food stalls, and later in the night (past midnight) people start to dance around speakers blasting Brazilian Funky in the street. Expect to see some moves!
— Safety at the Lapa street party
Let’s talk safety in Lapa. You need to be prepared that Lapa draws a dodgy crowd on the best of days, and having stayed there for 5 days it’s probably got the most shocking homelessness/addiction problem we’ve seen in all of South America.
Whereas in during our time living in Colombia, for example, we saw a lot of homelessness, it’s a different vibe when people are begging to be able to feed themselves, especially people displaced from Venezuela who are just trying to keep their heads above the water.
In Lapa, people are so spaced out they don’t even seem to notice people having to step over their body sprawled across the pavement. There is increased police presence on the weekend though, and all the revelling seems to deter lots of the area’s more distinct characters.
Just make sure you’re always in areas with sufficient numbers of people and keep on your guard. Never walk down an empty street, keep your valuables hidden away and don’t accept free things off people you’ve just met. Standard stuff, really! Don’t miss these 32 safety tips for travel in South America.
9. Train in dance-fighting
Capoeira, a mix of dance and martial arts, is a style borne of a need for African slaves to learn to defend themselves without revealing their combat training to their enslavers. Nowadays, it’s kept alive across dance schools in Brazil. Capoeira Rio de Janeiro in Botafogo provides tailor-made workshops for passing tourists who don’t have the time to commit to full courses in this dance, as well as shows by professionals.
10. Take the free walking tour
Free Walkers is a great company to do a walking tour with. Guides are knowledgeable and engaging. We did the Downtown & Lapa tour, which gave us a good run-down of the colonial history, but a tour that also sounded interesting was the African Heritage tour. Brazil was the last country to ban slavery, so the African communities that were brought to the country had a great impact on the history and culture that we know today.
If you’re looking for some more adventurous tours in and around Rio, check these out:
We did also take part in the 50Rs Free Walker Lapa bar crawl, but to be perfectly honest it was probably the worst bar crawl we’ve ever been on – and let’s be clear here, we’ve done a lot of bar crawls.
It lacked any atmosphere or engagement from the guide, the free shot in one of the bars was definitely lemon juice; one bar was sneakily adding phantom drinks onto several people’s tabs and the ‘drinking game’ – which was meant to get everyone mingling – was one of the last things on the itinerary, and was just to drink a shot from your flat palm without using your hand. Meh.
Exploring the area of Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro’s former home of the elite, is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. In this area, you’ll find artistic vibes nestled in the once-exclusive mansions of the era of Brazil’s coffee boom. Nowadays, most mansions have been turned into flats.
There’s a sizeable collection of food options available, from chowing down at a vegan restaurant to eating a cooked lunch at a table in the middle of a vintage clothes shop. We strongly recommend a meal and/or coffee at Mô Café, which is a little away from the main action. Santa Teresa doesn’t really have a centre, but if you ask the taxi to drop you off at Largo dos Guimarães, you’re all good.
You can also take the famous tourist tram over the viaduct to Santa Teresa. This costs 20Rs (£5) for a return from Carioca station. There is no option to just buy a single, unfortunately. The tram goes to several other stops, including the two brothers (Duis Irmãos) peak, check the route out here.
– Parque das Ruinas, Santa Teresa
When in Santa Teresa, don’t miss out on visiting Parque das Ruinas. It was once the home of a particularly artsy aristocrat, but when she died 60 or 70 years ago, the mansion was left to ruin. Now, the ruins of the mansion have been turned into a cultural and arts centre, with regular concerts. It’s a regular haunt for fashion & portrait photographers, for good reason!
Climbing to the top of the ruins’ stairwells, you’ll get to an incredible lookout point from which you can see over Lapa, downtown and the port across to Pao de Acucar behind some favelas. It’s completely free to visit Parque das Ruinas, unless there’s a special event on. It’s just a 10-15 minute walk from Largo dos Guimarães, or you can take the tram from that junction.
12. Visit the Jardim Botânico
We’re not usually ‘stroll around the garden’ types, but the botanical garden in Rio was an afternoon well spent. The ponds, monuments and – you guessed it – plants are all really well-kept, which makes this more than just a walk in the park. It is also home to some of the most freakishly-large pond fish we’ve ever seen. We actually thought they were cayman from a distance.
Entry to the botanical gardens is 15Rs per person. There are longer tours of the botanical gardens available, too, which would give you a greater knowledge of the flora around you, and take you on a trail through the Tijuca Forest.
13. Sneak some photos at Parque Lage
This place is pretty famous over on Instagram, and luckily it’s as beautiful in real life as it is in the pics. Just a 10 minute walk from the Jardim Botânico, Parque Lage is situated at the base of Corcovado, which is the mountain on which Christ the Redeemer sits.
Due to the architectural and botanical beauty, it does attract a large number of photographers shooting portraiture sessions, and for that reason they have actually banned all use of DSLRs inside the courtyard. Entry is free, and if you want a fancy lunch there is food available inside the main building. There are also plenty of mid-range restaurants between Parque Lage and the entrance to Jardim Botânico.
14. Sit on the Selarón steps
A Rio rite of passage, I guess. This area is an artistic feat, created by a Chilean resident who wished to brighten up his area’s steps and celebrate beauty from all around the world. In 2002, Snoop Dogg catapulted this stairway to international fame and glory when he shot his Beautiful music video sat upon it. Nowadays, it’s chockablock with tourists all throughout the day, but if you head further up to the top of the stairs the crowds do thankfully start to fizzle out. A little.
The Escadaria Selarón is tucked away in an alley between Lapa and Santa Teresa. Though perfectly safe during the day, it’s a little dodgy very early in the morning or later at night due to spillover of the Lapa crew we mentioned earlier, so we’d recommend either going at times that you can expect other tourists to be there or taking a substantial group with you.
How long to stay in Rio de Janeiro? 5-6 days
That’s all for now, folks! Make sure you use this guide to plan your days around the best time to visit Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer, and don’t miss out on the smaller attractions too!
Not sure where to go after Rio de Janeiro?
Here are some ideas for your onward travels within the beautiful country of Brazil: