Rio de Janeiro. What more can I say? I was completely captivated by the vivacity of this crazy city. Built upon lush tropical mountains, the Guanabara Harbour, the banks of the Carioca River and golden sandy shores with islands speckled in the distance - its natural beauty is unrivalled by any other.
I've just come back from spending two weeks in Rio, visiting my cousin Rachel who's currently living there. She showed me around her new home and introduced me to the character-filled neighbourhoods it's made up of.
Rio is broken up into four different zones - Zona Sul (the South Zone), Zona Norte (the North Zone), Zona Central (the Central Zone) and Zona Oeste (the West Zone). I didn't get a chance to explore the north, but here some of the places I did explore:
This 38 metre tall statue of Jesus looks over the ‘City of God’ with arms stretched wide. Rio's most recognisable icon stands proudly on top of Corcovado Mountain. You can get up there by hiking, catching a mini-bus or enjoying a picturesque train ride. I went around midday. The crowds were big and the lighting was average but it was the only time I could squeeze it in on my last day in town. A visit to Christ the Redeemer is one of those “you have to do it” things in Rio.
PÃO DE AÇUCAR
Perched at the southern end of Botafogo Beach, “Sugarloaf Mountain" is named after its unique shape. There's a cable car that dangles between the lower mountain, Morro da Urca, and the 396 metre high summit of Pão de Açucar. There are panoramic views from the stations and the cable cars themselves. My favourite spot was the Clássico Beach Club Urca at the Pão de Açucar station. Here, you can sink caipirinhas as you watch the sun sink below the mountainous horizon. There are hiking options, which take you up Sugarloaf but if you’re going up for the sunset, like I did, I wouldn’t recommend hiking down in the dark.
A trip to Rio de Janeiro wouldn’t be complete without swinging by Copacabana - one of the most famous beaches in the world. This 4 km stretch of white sand is speckled with sun umbrellas, street vendors and tanned, skimpily-clad bodies. Yes, people here show a bit more skin than some of us are used to - but hey, welcome to Rio! Copacabana radiates energy and excitement - from the volleyball courts to the booming bars and restaurants, to the iconic black-and-white wave-patterned promenade. It’s the most touristy of Rio’s beaches, which makes it a great place to shop for trinkets, knick-knacks and souvenirs.
IPANEMA & LEBLON
Grab your canga (sarong), your bikini and your favourite pair of Havaianas and head down to these trendy urban beaches!
Ipanema and Leblon have similar vibes to Copacabana, but they’re less touristy and more fashionable and upmarket. Here, you can play a friendly game of volleyball, frolic in the waves or watch Rio’s “it-crowd” parade across the sand. With beach vendors selling all kinds of things including snacks, sunglasses, souvenirs and swimwear, there’s no need to worry about packing a beach bag either!
Tucked behind the beachfront, you’ll find Rio’s wealthiest neighbourhoods - Leblon and Ipanema. They boast boutique shopping, beautiful eateries and accommodation options to suit a range of budgets. For the majority of my trip, I stayed in a hostel in Ipanema. I personally prefer these neighbourhoods to Copacabana and I feel relatively safe in them. Check out the Garota de Ipanema restaurant, which inspired the song of the same name by Tom Jobim. And if the song doesn’t phase you, it’s pretty hard to go past their churrasco de picanha!
This rocky headland between Copacabana and Ipanema is, supposedly, the best sunset spot in Rio. And I wouldn’t argue with that either! If a sunset over the ocean isn’t glorious enough, try adding in the silhouetted Dois Irmãos, or “two brothers” mountains, which make the picture-perfect bookend to the south-facing beachfront. On a clear evening, hundreds of people will gather to watch the sunset. As it drops below the horizon, those who have gathered to watch it put their hands together in applause. Now, what makes for a better sunset than that?
This neighbourhood sits between Centro and the southern beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, but it's forging an identity of its own. This up-and-coming suburb, lined with trendy restaurants, cafes and bars, is emerging as a hip hangout spot for young Cariocas (Rio natives). I had the pleasure of staying at the Dezenove Guesthouse in Botafogo. This cosy, friendly and well-kept hostel was a great retreat from the chaos of Rio’s Carnaval celebrations - I’d highly recommend it.
SANTA MARTA FAVELA
Favelas are the real Rio. These communities of houses piled high up hillsides have been associated with drug dealing and gang warfare but they are slowly being pacified. There are favelas that are still at war and unsafe to visit, but some welcome tourists. I visited Santa Marta favela with a local guide, Gilson Fumaça - a good friend of my cousin. He showed me through Santa Marta, where he was born and raised and is still actively involved in community projects.
This particular favela is special because it is where Michael Jackson filmed his ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ music video. As well as getting the song stuck in my heads for days, I also got a great look into life in this colourful and progressing favela. Gilson Fumaça took us up the cable car to the top of the hill and we walked down through the community. We saw their art initiatives and wide open squares - one of them even has a statue and a mural dedicated to MJ himself! As well as seeing the touristy bits and pieces, we also got a glimpse of what real life is in Santa Marta.
On the slopes of Corcovado Mountain, you'll find colourful neo-colonial architecture and lush secret gardens of this traditional neighbourhood.
On my first day in town, my cousins and I visited Cosme Velho's Largo do Boticário. In this square on the banks of the Carioca River, you'll find charming buildings shaded by native greenery - it was the perfect hideaway from the humid heat.
Built around a lagoon that empties into the ocean, this has to be one of the most picturesque spots in the city. With such natural beauty, it's no wonder this is one of the most expensive areas in South America.
As you head into the CBD, the beach culture fades into the flurry of fast-paced urban life. Amidst the skyscrapers, the city streets are still very much full of charm. There are countless cathedrals, marvellous museums and awe-inspiring art galleries around every twist and turn. Rachel and I spent a day church-hopping, exploring the likes of Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião, Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária and Catedral Presbiteriana.
We also visited the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet, which has got to be one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. I know you're meant to keep quiet, but I couldn't help letting out a couple of sighs of adoration.
And after sweet day, we couldn’t resist stopping at the even sweeter Confeteria Colombo for a treat.
This bohemian community perched on top of Santa Teresa Hill combines character and panoramic views of the city. The winding cobblestone streets are home to some charming buildings and bohemian inhabitants.
From samba to reggae to funk - you’ll find it all in Rio’s vibrant nightlife district. By day, there's still plenty to see in this diverse area: from the street art to the distinct Lapa Arches. Not to mention, the colourful Escadaria Selarón - a 215-step staircase, ascending from Lapa to Santa Teresa, that is covered in a mosaic of eclectic tiles from all over the world. The stairs were decorated over many years by Chilean artist as declaration of love for Rio de Janeiro.
All though this city isn’t technically considered a part of Rio de Janeiro, it’s connected to it by a bridge across the Guanabara Bay. Rachel, Daniel and I took the ferry over Centro and made a day of exploring “Cidade Sorriso” - The Smile City. We stopped by pretty little beaches and bays and the Plaza shopping centre but the main purpose of our visit was to see the iconic saucer-shaped Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, designed by legendary architect, Oscar Niemeyer.
This Oscar Niemeyer building is home to house the annual Carnaval samba competition. I visited this 700 metre parade strip during the samba competition, but it’s still open to visitors outside of Carnaval time too.
This central neighbourhood is full of colonial buildings from the days when it reigned as Brazil's centre of power, before Brasília was capital. Rach and I did a samba class at Casa do Jimmy and then practiced the moves we'd learned down the streets and past the small stores of this now humble neighbourhood.
BARRA DA TIJUCA
In the West Zone, you’ll find this expansive modern neighbourhood, which is home to some fabulous shopping malls and one of the cleanest beaches in Rio. The 18 km Barra da Tijuca beach is a popular destination for surfers, swimmers and fishing enthusiasts alike. It sure is a beautiful area, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t feel as “authentically Rio” as some of the seaside suburbs in the South Zone. In fact, I thought it had pretty similar vibes to Australia’s Gold Coast.
I fell head-over-heels in love with Rio de Janeiro and I know for certain that I’ll be back one day. When I do return, here are some more things I want to check out:
- A football game at the legendary Maracanã Stadium
- Parque Lage: a pretty public park with a beautiful old mansion and a poolside cafe.
- Jardim Botânico: The Botanical Gardens, which includes exotic Amazonian plants.
- Parque Nacional da Tijuca: a National Park with walks and hiking trails through the Carioca Mountains.
- Vidigal: A favela at the end of Leblon beach. I'd love to see the view from the top
- Rocinha: Brazil's largest favela
TIPS FOR VISITING RIO:
- Rio is not a safe city so you need to be vigilant. By unsafe, I'm talking kids that pick your pockets, favela drug wars, tear gas and armed robberies (all of which happened during my time there).
- Don’t be stupid with your phone.
- Keep it casual - it’s a beach city. If you dress pretentiously you're more likely to be robbed.
- Only stay where lots of people are after dark.
- The metro feels safer than the busses.
- Yellow fever vaccinations are necessary to get into the country. Check what other injections you may need to visit Rio.
- Rio shootings app
- Don’t do corporate favela tours - do ones that benefit the local communities.
- Leave valuables at home when you go to the beach so you don’t need to worry about them and are free to swim.
- You’ll stand out if you try to be modest - people of all body types flaunt it in Rio, but ultimately it’s up to you!
- Cariocas don’t bring towels to the beach, so you’ll stick out as a “gringo” (foreigner) if you do - sit on a canga instead!
- Havaianas are appropriate footwear pretty much everywhere!