Ultimate Guide for First Time Travel to Rio de Janeiro!
Rio de Janeiro is a bright, energetic, and vibrant city, full of culture, beauty, and a lively atmosphere. Take, for example, it’s best-known festival, Carnival, which is probably one of the biggest festival celebrations in the world. There is also so much natural beauty to be experienced in Rio. The beaches in Brazil and Rio are some of the best in the world. With other popular tourist destinations like Copacabana, Ipanema, and of course, the magnificent statue of Christ the Redeemer, Rio is a destination that should be high on your bucket list. It had been on mine for years, and now, with visa’s being cheap and easy online, I took full advantage. Now before you get packing, there a few things you need to know.
Flights from LAX or JFK to Rio International are going to set you back around USD 1,000 depending on when you plan to travel and whether or not you fly direct. If you’re an American citizen, you’ll need your passport as well as a tourist visa to enter the country. This will cost you an extra USD 40 and is valid for 5 years. Most other countries only need a valid passport and return ticket to enter Brazil, but make sure to get the official guidelines before traveling. The E-visa they have now makes it so quick and easy, just remember to print it off and carry it with you in your passport when you enter.
Things to Know Before You Go;
Brazil can get pretty expensive compared to other South American countries, so it’s a good idea to try and save as much as possible before you go. The Brazilian Real (BRL) is equal is $0.24 USD, so keep that in mind when looking to exchange.
Most places around Rio accept credit cards, but you have to watch out for international charges from your bank. I also like to carry a bit of cash with me just in case my card is ever declined. This can be tricky in Rio because most banks don’t recognize any American banks, even major ones. The easiest way to get cash is to exchange currency at the airport. Bear in mind that exchange rates at airports are usually inflated, so take some time to decide what option is best for you. I just went to ATMs in major hotels there and was fine.
Another bit of information to know is that service tips of 10% are almost always added to your bill. This is because wait staff in Brazil aren’t paid very much, and tipping is a cultural expectation.
Rio de Janeiro is way bigger than you think; it’s nearly 500 square miles. To drive from one side to the other would take 10 hours. Most of the city is made up of neighborhoods and suburbs. My guess is that you’ll spend most of your time in the city center and on the beaches. But no matter what, make sure to factor in extra time to get around. Traffic can be really busy and annoying and things that seem close take longer to get to because of it. Trust me, I got stuck in traffic a lot, so allow extra time.
Transportation in Rio is fairly simple and pretty cheap. A ride on the buses or metro is less than USD 1. If you are using the metro, be aware that some carriages are women only during peak hours (6-9 am and 5-8 pm Monday-Friday). This is really great for solo or groups of female travelers, but if you’re a man, make sure to pay attention because you could be facing hefty fines for entering during the wrong times.
I would absolutely recommend using Uber here as it’s safe and very cheap. I used it the entire time I was in Rio. Don’t expect the Uber drivers to speak much English so use your phone translator to show them where you need or show them the name and address of the destination. Sometimes you must show them the name and address in Portuguese as they can’t all read it in English.
There are also taxi services in the city. Legal taxis are yellow with a blue stripe but aren’t as quick, cheap, or reliable as Uber.
Don’t expect English to do you much good. The national language of Brazil is Portuguese, not Spanish, as a lot of people believe. Some locals do learn Spanish as well, so you might be able to get by a bit with Spanish. Your best bet is to learn some Portuguese phrases before you go and maybe buy a book on Portuguese to take with you. At least learn the basic phrases as it will go a long way. I say this with every language. You should always learn “please”, “thank you”, “hello”, and “Help” in every language of the country you’re visiting. It makes things much easier.
Brazilian indoor plumbing isn’t the greatest; you can’t flush toilet paper. Not as in a “you shouldn’t flush paper” type way. More like a “do not flush paper because you will block the toilet and then you’ll have to explain why to whoever’s bathroom you’re using”. You might find it a bit gross, but please just throw your toilet paper away and thoroughly wash your hands.
On another sanitary type note, don’t drink the tap water. Rio has come pretty far in the way of development, but their tap water isn’t safe just yet. You’ll have to buy bottled water to stay hydrated. It’s super cheap. Also, opt out of ice cubes in your drinks as typically it’s not made from filtered water unless you are at a nice hotel or restaurant.
Despite the negative reputation, Rio is actually a fairly safe place for tourists, but it still hosts more threats than other places I’ve written about. If you stick to areas with lots of people, then you’re all good. Like traveling to any other foreign country, just trust your instincts, don’t go out alone at night, and keep your valuables close to your body. Don’t dress like a gringo. They sometimes assume American tourists are all rich. I never wore jewelry in Rio, even cheap stuff. I say this because, it’s not like people know if something is cheap or not, so if you’re going to get robbed they will take it either way and just having it makes you more of a target. Also, be smart ladies, and don’t carry designer handbags or sunglasses, again, it just brings attention to you and while I had no incident, I have had friends have designer things taken right off of them in broad daylight. It’s a poor country and people can be desperate, so just be smart. Same with smartphones and fancy cameras. I wouldn’t have them out while walking around much. I walked all over town and again had no incident, but this doesn’t mean that there is no crime. You can expect some catcalling but just ignore it and don’t yell back. Some men do this annoyingly, but typically it’s just that, and nothing more.
The one thing you do need to worry about a little is the mosquitos. The average temperature in Brazil is around 80℉ with 60-80% humidity. This is the perfect climate for all sorts of bugs, and Rio is no exception. Mosquitos are just as annoying as anywhere else, except in Brazil, they usually carry diseases like Zika virus. So make sure you pack your bug spray with deet and wear it day and night. I always say, better safe than sorry. I used bug spray and had no issues. Also, it’s a good idea to bring a good SPF, as the sun is much stronger than the USA and it will burn you if you don’t wear any.
The beaches are amazing and so beautiful. There are people selling food, drinks, and beach loungers. Make sure to have a little cash for tips and payment. I hung out at Ipanema mostly and loved it. It’s crowded, but not as crazy and touristy as Copacabana beach. I heard Copacabana also is where more pickpocketing and petty crime happens, so keep an eye on your things at the beach, especially if you walk around there. I had some amazing Caipirinhas on the beach, just make sure you don’t get into the water after too many drinks. It’s dangerous and just not smart. Rio has very strong currents and occasionally riptides so strong swimmer or not just be careful in the water, especially after cocktails.
In regards to food;
I would not recommend eating anywhere near Copacabana, as any touristy area is going to have serious inflation prices on food and the quality is typically not as good. There are some really amazing restaurants in Ipanema and more inland from the beach. We had two incredible dinners at two of the best restaurants in Rio which were Sushi Leblon for amazing sushi with a super trendy feel similar to a Nobu or Koi, and Ct Boucherie which was more meats and French cuisine. It was amazing, as was the red wine selection. This is also one of the more trendy places in Rio. For Lunch, you must go to Plage Café. It was one of the most picturesque cafés I’ve ever been to. The food is just okay, but the cocktails and views are out of this world. It’s inside a pretty and lush park with greenery all around. This was a perfect stop for brunch after visiting Christ the Redeemer. Another good spot for lunch that’s on the pricier side, but still great, is The Belmond Copacabana Palace. It’s a famous luxury hotel right in Copacabana. We didn’t stay here but wanted to stop by to visit.
Places to stay;
Gabby and I chose Hotel Yoo2 Rio. It is right on the main drag, right across from The Sugarloaf, with amazing views. Our room had the perfect view of The Sugarloaf. The upstairs rooftop bar and pool had views of Christ the Redeemer, The Sugar Loaf, and the city with a smaller church next door. It was all of the best views of Rio from the rooftop. Hotel Yoo2 Rio is boutique, artsy, hip, and cool. It reminded me of Soho House in LA, or The Shoreditch House in London. It was the place to stay, especially as a younger person. I loved this hotel. The décor was so cute and the staff were really helpful and spoke really good English. I have zero complaints about Hotel Yoo2 Rio, as it was literally the perfect place to stay! There were so many great photo ops in the hotel alone! I wish I could have stayed longer. This is one hip place, you just don’t want to leave! The breakfast was also amazing!
The main tourist sites, to make a priority are;
1. Obviously The Christ the Redeemer statue. This is the most iconic site in Rio and is as overwhelming as one would think. I suggest getting there as early as possible as it gets really hot and humid and very busy with tourists. We got there later than I would have liked, and it was packed. Also, think outside of the box for photos. I saw people lying flat on the ground to snap the perfect picture of their friend or loved one. I had a very nice guy come up and offer to get a good snap of me by laying down. It was strange but nice of him. To get here take an Uber all the way up to the bus stop. There is a train stop but don’t do this as it takes ages. Also make sure you have cash to go up here, as various things only take cash, such as the buses up top. There is some cool lookout spots on the way up to Cristo so check those out for amazing views of Rio. You won’t need more than 45 minutes once you get to the statue, but give yourself a good hour to get up to the bus stop and get tickets, etc. as there will typically be lines for the buses up. Have patience. Corcovado is the mountain range in which the statue sits that boasts amazing views from so many different lookout points. Take time to enjoy it all.
2. Go to Sugar Loaf mountain at sunset. You will get stunning views of the city in many different angles, and you can ride the cable car up to see views of Christ the Redeemer. I would give yourself ample time before sunset to get up, as it gets crowded, as so people get to their spots early. There also are so many photo opts on the way up to the very top, so again, it’s important to have ample time. 2 hours before sunset is perfect, as you will have plenty of time to explore and then once you get to the top if time permits, you can have a nice cocktail or coffee at the café. Sometimes there are even cute monkeys up there causing trouble. Sugar Loaf is one of the coolest things to do in Rio, as well and one of my favorites. Remember, it gets really hot so pack on the SPF and also wear your bug spray as the bugs do come out at sunset. Take plenty of photos as this is one of the best views of Rio and beyond and because the sunset is extra magical. Nothing beats a good view during the golden hour.
3. I already mentioned this a bit, but hang out on Ipanema beach for the day for a good suntan and great cocktails. This beach has gorgeous views, beautiful Brazilians, and nonstop flowing Piña Coladas and Caipirinha. Also, enjoy a fresh coconut. They’re so good! It’s the beach to see and be seen. Of all the beaches, this is the one I think you want to be at. You can also get yummy shrimp on skewers for cheap, just have cash. There are cute shops in Ipanema as well if you want to do a shop after the beach.
4. You have to at least take a stroll down the boulevard of one of the most famous beaches in the world “Copacabana” beach. It is filled with tourists and great for people watching. Here you can get amazing drinks and the sun as well. This one has a little more crime, but just be smart with your belongings. Near the beach, there is a peninsula with the Historical Museum of the Army and Copacabana Fort. These are two things you can visit while at the beach that doesn’t require much time.
5. Visit the Lapa Steps aka Escadaria Selarón, which are a famous set of colorfully decorated outdoor steps in the Lapa neighborhood near to the also colorful and hip Santa Teresa neighborhood. Chilean Artist Escadaria Selarón starting laying tiles on the steps in front of his house and just didn’t stop until his death in 2013. There are over 2,000 tiles on the steps now and show the true passion of art through one artist. The stairs are so colorful and again, they get very busy so I would advise going early in the morning for the best experience and photos. There are so many areas to get photos of the steps, so walk all the way up. It is so impressive that it was started by one man.
6. Walk around downtown Rio. There are charming little streets and cool cafes along the way. Gabby and I decided to just take a walk down there and we found so many cute places just by getting lost. Make sure to go inside the churches you come across. They are free and so beautiful inside. There are also a lot of cool old buildings that seem to be abandoned and also random cool statues. In certain areas there is also walls with graffiti and art that is cool to check out. In a strange way, certain parts of Rio reminded me of how Miami would be in the early 90’s.
7. Make sure to take a trip into the Royal Portuguese Reading room. It is a library in Rio that is the king of all libraries, and upon walking in, you’ll think you have walked into Hogwarts in Harry Potter, or the library of the beast’s in Beauty and The Beast. It is stunning and a full floor and ceiling with books. There are over 4,000 books in this venue. Aside from all the books, the architecture alone is just stunning. This really is a place in Rio that isn’t on many lists but was a hit for sure. I highly recommend it.
8. Walk around the Botanical Gardens. There are over 8,000 different species of plants in the park and it’s a good place to go for a relaxing stroll and to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s also great if you’re hungover to go and walkabout. It is very pretty and picturesque. There are also cool birds in here. This is something, in my opinion, isn’t a huge priority, but if you have time then surely check it out.
9. If you can visit Rio during Carnival then I would do it! I sadly missed it by two weeks and was so sad. The celebration is known worldwide and looks insane. I have heard so many amazing things and it’s definitely on my bucket list. Hotels get pricier during this time so it’s vital to book well in advance. I would also suggest booking flights in advance but again, from what I’ve heard, this is the most amazing time in Rio, crowded or not, it’s great.
10. In between Copacabana Beach and Ipanema, there is a small point called Arpoador. It’s so beautiful and great for photos. The sunset from here is incredible and you can get nice cold beers while sun tanning. The rocks make a stunning backdrop to any Rio beach photo. It’s a must-see when walking between the two beaches. You can’t miss Rio’s beaches while in a vibrant and stunning city.
Now you’re all set to experience the magic that awaits in sunny Rio de Janeiro!