Happy summer, guys! It’s August 5th on this side of the world, and I just finished watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics. What better way of kicking off these huge, month-long games than with a post about the host city?
Originally I wasn’t planning on traveling anywhere for this summer since most of my trips are scheduled for the Fall, but an amazing deal came up on Kayak and I went for it. As you can probably tell from the title, it was a week-long adventure in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!
Sure, it’s famous for the Christ the Redeemer statue, but did you know that there’s so much more than that? Rio blew me away with its beautiful architecture, culture, and food. The best part is that you can see all of the attractions in Rio de Janeiro in one day! On our second day in Rio, we went all out and managed to see most of the touristy (and nontouristy) attractions – which is what this post will highlight.
Think I’m a gartoa louca? Let me show you the way… :P
Before You Begin
Before you set out on your actual adventure (woo hoo!), it’s helpful to know a couple of things so you can maximize your day in Rio de Janeiro – these things include transportation, what to pack, how much money to bring, and so on. I’ve listed each of these points below:
We went in June 2016, when the exchange rate was roughly $1USD to 3.30 Brazilian Real. Rio de Janeiro was one of the cheapest places that I’ve traveled to, and the exchange rate really worked in our favor (thanks, USD) :)
An average meal for two people would cost us around $15 to $25, and we would often have leftovers to take to our hotel room. Juice shops, which are found on almost every street corner, would run us around $1.5 to $3 – if you have a few moments, definitely stop by and try them out! For souvenirs, this is the average of what we paid: magnets were around $3, shirts between $10 to $15, and keychains were around $2. Since we went two months before the Olympics, the price was a little higher than it normally was.
If you’re wondering how much money you should take for one day, I would recommend $100USD / 330 Real per person. Some of the attractions that you’ll be visiting have an entrance fee (ahem, Sugarloaf), and others will be totally free. Here’s how I broke it down (all prices in Real):
56 for Christ the Redentor entrance + 76 for Sugarloaf entrance + 20 for breakfast + 40 for lunch + 40 for dinner = 232 Real
You’ll notice that I didn’t factor in transportation, and that’s because this is totally up to you – check out the next section to learn more. Our total Uber trips were around 80 Real for the entire day, for a grand total of 312 Real. Also, the 330 Real budget is on the higher end, since the prices for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are those of a sit-down restaurant. Most places in Rio take credit cards, and I recommend using your travel card as much as possible to get those points!
Rio has a ton of options in terms of transportation: bus, taxi, metro, Uber, and more. If you’re a budget traveler, taking the bus is a good option. It costs a little less than $1 for a non-air conditioned bus, and a couple of cents more for one with AC. If you have the budget, definitely go for the one with air conditioning – we were in Rio in their winter (June), and it was around 90F/30C most days!
The metro is another popular method of transportation, although it’s a bit limited. There are only 2 lines – Orange and Green – but it’s great when you need to go from downtown to the beach zone in a short amount of time. One ticket costs about $1.20, and you can use it to get from any station. Prepaid cards are also available.
Since we were impatient, we used Uber for the majority of our day. All of our drivers were super friendly and got us there quickly. An average trip during our day would cost around 12 Real (or around $4USD). As you’ll see below, our first trip from our hotel in Copacabana beach to Corcovado (where Christ the Redeemer is) was around 22 Real / $7USD for 14km / 8.6miles. If you want to spend less time on the road and more time exploring, then I would definitely recommend an Uber or taxi!
*If you want to save $20 on your first ride, you can also use my Uber code by clicking here :)
What to Bring
Since you’ll be out of your hotel room/Airbnb all day, make sure to pack everything you need before going outside. This includes wearing comfortable walking shoes and layering your clothes. In your backpack, bring a couple of snacks, water or juice, an extra pack of battery, camera/GoPro accessories, and anything else that might be useful. One of my favorite supermarkets (also, the only one that I remember right now lol) was Pao de Acucar- they have a ton of healthy and delicious snacks to stock up on.
Ok, that was a huge wall of text and should cover most of the logistics – let’s get to the fun part and start our day!
Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) Statue
Did you know that Rio de Janeiro hosts one of the new Seven Wonders of the World? In fact, Christ the Redeemer is the youngest wonder and was built less than a century ago! It was built between 1922 and 1931, and was officially “opened” in October of 1931. You know the phrase “save the best for last”? We’re totally going to ignore it, and visit Cristo Redentor as the first stop on our list!
Before we visited Rio, one of my tour guide friends mentioned that we should visit Christ the Redeemer first. Why? Because of two things: fewer people (who usually gets up at 7AM on vacation?) and better weather/view of the city below. It’s also possible to go in the afternoon, but you’re going to be competing with hundreds of other people for a spot in front of the statue. Before we went, I had no idea that we would need to take a mountain trolley to get up to the very top, and then an elevator to get to Cristo’s base. A ticket costs 56 Real per person (+20 Real more in high season), and you can purchase them from the official site. On the way up, try getting a seat on the right side of the trolley – you’ll have amazing views of Rio :)
Pro Tip: Angle your camera up – you might get a double chin, but at least there won’t be tourists photobombing you and/or getting smacked by selfie sticks :(
Once you get to the base of Christ the Redeemer, you’ll notice how huge the statue really is. It’s almost 40 meters (130 ft) tall with the base – you’ll have to wiggle around a bit to find the perfect angle for your photos. While you’re up there, take a little bit of time to walk around the whole complex. If you go to the very front of the statue, you’ll see the entire bay of Rio de Janeiro (if the weather doesn’t get there before you!)
Sugarloaf and Urca
After Christ the Redeemer, what’s the second most famous Rio attraction that pops into your head? If you answered Sugarloaf, here’s a brigadeiro
To get up here, most people take the bondi (cable car) across Rio de Janeiro’s bay. The trip is divided into two parts: First, you arrive at the base and take a short cable car up to Morro da Urca, and then another cable car up to Pão de Açúcar. It’s aptly named “loaf of sugar” because of the sugar trade that went on during the 16/17 centuries, and (fun fact) it’s a pretty popular place to do some rock climbing!
When you get to the first hill (Morro da Urca), don’t rush all the way to the next cable car. Take some time to walk around the base and check out some of the cable cars that were used over 100 years ago, when Rio just started sending people up the mountain.
Would you want to be dangling 1,000+ feet in this thing back in 1912?
Across the vintage cable cars is a functioning helipad, where you can book a ride (flight?) and see Rio by helicopter. We were lucky enough to see one taking off just as we were walking past. I also recommend stopping here and checking out the views of the bay.
If you keep walking straight, you’ll get to a set of stairs that go down. This is another good spot to stop and look around, especially on a clear day. Here’s a GIF from that exact spot – you can see the second mountain (Sugar Loaf) in the distance, the national park/forest down below, and Guanabara bay + skyline of Rio de Janeiro! I think there’s even a little restaurant to the right of the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs is the second cable car terminal, where you’ll board and take another ride up to the second mountain – Pao de Acucar (Woo hoo!)
Pro tip: Try to be either the first or last person when boarding the cable car so you can be near the glass window and have a better view of Rio. You’ll be one of 35+ million people who have ridden the cable car since it began over 100 years ago :)
At the top of Pao de Acucar / Sugarloaf mountain, there’s a little area where you can relax and look around. If you keep walking and go down the stairs towards the end, there’s a paved pathway that takes you through an amazing mini-forest covered with lush vegetation and flowers. Keep your eyes open and you might see a few small monkeys running around and jumping from tree to tree!
Downtown Rio de Janeiro
After being so high up in the mountains, it’s time to come back down and get to the heart of the city – in downtown Rio! Like most cities, Rio’s downtown is also the business district and a perfect place to stop and grab lunch. To get here, the quickest option would be to take an Uber for about $6 and takes approx. 20 minutes. You can also take the bus/metro, but it will take longer (about 1 to 1.5 hours).
We’re going to start with the farthest point first, and then work out way outside of the center. From Sugarloaf Mountain, take your chosen method of transportation to Confeitaria Colombo (Colombo Candy Store). This historic French cafe was founded in the late 1800’s and is still a popular place for both locals and travelers. It’s located on a busy shopping street, but there’s plenty of seating inside if you want to grab something to eat (there’s even a second floor!)
If you’re not hungry and want to skip Confeitaria Colombo, then you can start at a square called Cinelândia. It’s technically named Praça Floriano Peixoto, but everybody refers to it as Cinelândia (“Cinema land”) because there were a ton of movie theaters (over 13!) in that area. This is one of the best places in downtown Rio de Janeiro because you can see three famous buildings that intersect at the plaza:
The Theatro Municipal (Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro) – My personal favorite of the three, the Theatro Municipal was originally inspired by the Palais Garnier in Paris and mostly plays ballet and classical music nowadays. If you cross the street and look closely on the outside walls of the theater, you can see some the scribbled names of famous Brazilian artists. It also houses the Brazilian Symphonic Orchestra!
Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (National Library of Brazil) – Did you know that every Brazilian author has to send one copy of their book to the National Library of Brazil, which is located in Rio? The law was passed in the early 1900’s to preserve the culture of the country, and now the Library holds over 9 million books in its possession (the largest in Latin Amerca)! The Fundação Biblioteca Nacional is open to the public, so you’re welcome to pop in and check out their collection.
Palácio Pedro Ernesto / Câmara Municipal do Rio de Janeiro (Municipal Chamber of Rio de Janeiro) – Back when Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil, this building served as the central parliament for the entire country. Now it’s only used as the city hall for the city of Rio de Janeiro and comes with its fair share of scandals. The nickname for this building is the Golden Cage because it cost the city over 23,000,000 Real (about $7 million USD) to restore the architecture, which was more than twice the cost of its neighbor – the Teatro Municipal!
Pro tip: You can actually travel without leaving your couch. Google Maps has an awesome feature where you can explore the inside of the Teatro Municipal! Just click here and poke around – don’t break anything,though ;)
When you’re done at Cinelândia, go down R. Evaristo da Veiga until you reach the next destination – the Aqueduto da Carioca (Carioca Aqueduct), sometimes also known as the Lapa Arches.
Back in the 1800’s it was used to transport water from the Carioca River to the city, but now it’s used for decoration. If you notice at the top of the arches, there are train tracks that move Rio’s only existing tram known as the Bondinho de Santa Teresa. A cheerful yellow tram carries locals and tourists across the hilly neighborhood of Santa Theresa – if you have time, hop on and check out the views from the top.
Escadaria Selaron (Selaron Steps)
Five minutes away from the Aqueduct is another superstar Rio de Janeiro attraction – the colorful, curious, and eclectic Selaron Steps! This was the highlight of my trip, and I could have spent hours looking through all of the wonderful tiles that lined the stairs. In fact – we came back here another 2 times. It’s that good
Although plenty of people admire the steps, not many know of it troubled history. The Escadaria Selaron began as a side project in the 1950’s to a Chilean artist called Jorge Selaron. He saw that the stairs in front of his house had become worn out, and wanted to do something about it. Selaron began by sourcing blue, green, and yellow tiles — the colors of the Brazilian flag — from whatever he could find, and gluing it to the steps. He would often run out of money and would sell his paintings in order to get more tiles. Even though the 215 steps have over 2,000 tiles, Selaron said that his creation would never be complete. He would constantly keep picking out and adding more tiles. As the steps became known more and more as a tourist destination (after it was featured in an ad for Fanta), visitors would bring a tile from their own country and gift it to Selaron. The Steps have over 60 countries represented!
Unfortunately, Selaron was found dead on the stairs in 2013 – the cause of death was undetermined. Selaron said that “This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death” – although his legacy lives on – the Selaron Steps were recently featured on Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic bid video, The Passion Unites Us.
Bonus: Interested in seeing some of the cute, colorful, and sometimes kitschy tiles found on the Selaron Steps? Check out my Tiles of the Selaron Steps post!
Copacabana / Ipanema / Leblon Beach
Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanem— I think you know where I’m going with this… Let’s go to Rio’s famous beaches! Rio de Janeiro’s locals, called Cariocas, take their beaches so seriously that they say “Tenha uma boa praia” (Have a good beach) instead of Have a good day.
Copacabana is arguably the most popular of the three beaches, and since it’s the closest, it’ll also be our starting point. The quickest way to get here would be the metro: walk south from the Selaron Steps to the Gloria station, and take the orange line to the Cardeal Arcoverde station. Voila! Exit the station, and head down towards the beach. Then follow these simple steps:
When you see the ocean, look down. Got it? Ok great, then do you see the famous geometric wave pattern? That’s a good reason to smile… because you’re in Copacabana!
Seriously, how can you not love the playful and energetic atmosphere of Rio’s beaches? On our first evening here, everybody was extremely friendly and a few locals even struck up a conversation (bonus points for the grandma who gave us directions to her favorite Italian restaurant when we got lost ) .
Our first stop is the famous Copacabana Palace – it was built in the 1920’s, and was considered to be one of the most famous and grand hotels for visitors to stay in South America. Fun fact: Madonna, Walt Disney, Princess Diana, and Michael Jackson all stayed at the hotel!
As you keep walking along the shoreline* and admiring the view here’s another fun tidbit. The beaches of Rio de Janeiro are scattered with Postos, which are lifeguard stations. There are 12 total along the beaches, and each one has their own unique charm.
*You’re going to be here for a while, by the way. The shoreline between Copacabana to Leblon is over 5 miles (8.5km long). Enjoy the view ;)
Right after Posto 5, you’ll come across another famous landmark – the Copacabana Fort. It’s a military fort that was built in 1914 on the old Our Lady of Copacabana chapel and houses the Museum of the Army. You can go inside and check out the exhibitions for $6 Real.
Past the fort, you’ll see another the Pedra do Arpoador. It may be known as the Harpoon Thrower Rock, but it’s actually one of the best places to watch the sunset in Rio! Hundreds of locals and travelers gather here at twilight to sit on the rocks and cheer when the sunset goes down, and you’re welcome to join them. Just be careful when the tide comes – there’s a high chance of getting splashed by the waves!
After watching the sunset on the Arpoador, you’re officially on Ipanema beach. You might have heard of it from the song “Girl From Ipanema” – and if not, scroll back up to this section and click on the link! I’m not responsible if it gets stuck in your head, though…
The bossa nova song was based on a real girl, Helô Pinheiro. Every day she walked near the cafe where the two songwriters, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, drank coffee and wrote lyrics. In the winter of 1962 they noticed her and penned the song, and a few years later it topped the charts. If you watched the Olympic Opening ceremony, you’ll notice that it was used in one of the skits!
Finally, after passing Posto 11, you’ll get to the final (and fanciest) beach – Leblon Beach. The name comes from a fisherman named Charles Le Blon, who was the original “owner” of the land. Back in the day there wasn’t much in the area and it was difficult to access, until a streetcar line connected Leblon to the rest of the city. Now, Leblon is the most affluent neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro and the most expensive in Latin America!
If you want a lovely view of the bay, definitely check out Mirante do Leblon – where I took the above photo. There’s a wonderful little cafe nearby (hence the colorful yellow umbrellas) and a great place to end our day in Rio de Janeiro. If you’re wondering, “Should I visit Rio de Janeiro?” my answer would be a resounding YES! The Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) has so much to offer, whether you’re there for a 24 hour layover or an entire week.
Tenha uma boa praia e boa viagem!