In this post we will go sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro, the colorful carnival city of Brazil. I will show you the top sights of Rio and a travel itinerary for your first days exploring the beautiful Brazilian city.
Rio de Janeiro is a city blessed with a very unique setting between the Atlantic shoreline and a row of sugar loaf looking mountains. Rio is both a busy Brazilian city and an international tropical resort with fine sandy beaches at its very center.
Sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro: tourists at the statue of Christ the Redeemer
About Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
View from the Sugar Loaf, Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is a city with a rich colonial past. The first Europeans discovered Rio in January 1502. At that time they thought the bay where Rio was located was a river mouth. For that reason they named the place they had found the river of January, Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro started to grow and was the capital of Brazil until the year 1960 when the capital was moved over to the purpose built city of Brasilia.
Today Rio is home to 6 million people and additional 8 million live in its suburbs. As you can imagine a concentration of 14 million people on this kind of a narrow strip of land between mountains and the ocean means a total chaos in the city.
But people down here don’t worry about the constant traffic jams, they just take it easy. Instead they love their beautiful city, the samba, the carnivals and the long beaches.
Sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro: Driving Map
Rio de Janeiro sightseeing itinerary on the map
The map above shows our sightseeing itinerary to explore the top sights of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
About the geography of Rio: coming from the airport you will drive through the North Zone of the city that has many favelas. They are residential areas for less wealthy people. Most tourists prefer accommodation in the South Zone that has the neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, and so did we. The easiest way to get to the city from Rio de Janeiro airport is by taxi.
Rio de Janeiro has covering and well developed bus and metro networks but buses can be problematic to understand. The metro system instead is very clear and you can use the metro to get to many places from where you are staying.
So let’s go sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro. We will begin southwest of Ipanema, Praia de Sao Conrado.
Praia de Sao Conrado
Rio de Janeiro: beach life and mountains
To see the main sights of Rio de Janeiro in a limited time we decided to trust a sightseeing tour. So we took a small-group minibus tour arranged by cariocas, the locals. The driver picked up the passengers from their hotels and together we had a great sightseeing day around Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!
To avoid the morning rush hour the tour started very early in the morning. The driver took small side streets to Praia da Sao Conrado which is the next beach after Ipanema and Leblon. I will show you some photos of Ipanema at the end of this post.
These photos are from Praia da Sao Conrado:
Rio de Janeiro coconuts and beach life
The Praia da Sao Conrado beach is a landing pad for hang gliders that take off from the nearby platform on the mountain of Pedra Bonita. Pedra Bonita looks like a sugar loaf but it’s not the “real” one. There were not many hang gliders around yet but much more delivery trucks bringing coconuts and other stuff to the beach cafes.
Praia de Sao Conrado beach buggies, Rio de Janeiro
From the Praia our sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro continued up the hill to a rainforest, Parque da Tijuca.
Parque National da Tijuca
Parque National da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro has a huge rainforest area, the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, right in the heart of the city. Tijuca Rainforest is the largest urban forest in the world. There are several separate areas you can explore, including nature trails, leisure and picnic areas, museums and restaurants, and some beautiful lookouts and waterfalls.
Click on the small photos to see them all in a slideshow.
Sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro: Tijuca Rainforest in photos
The Tijuca national park has 200 species of tropical birds, many of which are in danger. As the walking trails are not well marked you should go in a group. It’s easy to get lost in the thick tropical jungle.
As the park is easy to get to by car along many good roads you can see many parts of it on an organized tour. Normally there are crowds of locals visiting at weekends but we happened to be visiting on a weekday so it was very pleasant and almost silent. The only thing you could hear was the sounds of birds and waterfalls.
However the top sight in the Tijuca Rainforest that makes people flock here is the majestic statue of Jesus Christ, standing at the top of on Corcovado Mountain:
The statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corvocado, Rio de Janeiro
Christ the Redeemer
The 30 m high statue is the symbol of Rio de Janeiro
Christ the Redeemer proudly stands on the top of the 706 m Corcovado Mountain. The reason they built this monument for was celebrating Brazilian independence in 1931.
The statue is 30 m high in all. They first built it in Paris and then shipped it to Brazil in pieces. They had to haul it up the mountain by rail. Knowing what all was done it’s easy to understand why the whole process took years.
Christ the Redeemer and tourists visiting
You can reach the top where the statue is either by a funicular train or by a small bus along a small road. The journey up is spectacular and so is the panorama from the platform at the foot of the statue!
I have to say the view is just as breathtaking as you can imagine having seen this famous landmark in photos. You have the whole city right below you, and there are so many sugar loafs, the famous one and all the others that look equally beautiful.
Visiting Christ the Redeemer, the top sight of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro Favelas
Rio de Janeiro favelas on the steep hills
The road down from Corcovado offers great views of favelas built on the side of the steep hills. Unfortunately our tour didn’t include a visit to one.
There are approximately 800 favelas in Rio and 3 million people live in them, many of them originally coming from the poor areas of the countryside. The favelas were built illegally when worker families couldn’t afford living downtown. However, the standard in favelas is getting better in these days.
Favelas exist in every Brazilian city and they are the creative centers of the country. The Carnival of Rio wouldn’t exist without the input of Rio’s many favelas. All different samba schools competing in the carnival are the schools from different favelas.
Sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro: Santa Teresa
The next destination on our Rio sightseeing tour was the suburb of Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa a pretty hilltop neighborhood with charming architecture and fine views to the city.
Our tour stopped here for a while and we strolled the narrow sloping cobblestone streets of Santa Teresa.
Santa Teresa, the artist suburb of Rio de Janeiro
Santa Teresa has a lot of artist shops, museums, cafes and restaurants. It’s a really nice-looking area I’d love to learn more about if I ever return to Rio.
There is a great way to get to Santa Teresa from the city center: a historic tram takes you directly to Santa Teresa from the city.
Steps of Lapa
Sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro: painted tiles of the steps of Lapa
The bohemian area of Lapa is a short stroll from Santa Teresa and THE PLACE for Brazilian music in Rio de Janeiro. There are music clubs all over so you should definitely come to this place for Friday and Saturday nights.
As we were here at daytime it was not the best music time – but there was something else: the huge 18th century aqueduct Arcos da Lapa built to take drinking water from Santa Teresa down to the city. And Escadaria Selaron, the famous Lapa Steps:
Lapa Steps, Rio de Janeiro
The Lapa steps are an artwork created by the Chilean artist Jorge Selaron. He decorated the 215 steps between Lapa and Santa Teresa with colorful tiles. Since 1990 when he started he surfaced the stairs using over 2000 tiles from 60 countries in the world.
He mainly used red-colored tiles but as so many people brought their own tiles he added them as well to his artwork. Selaron continued creating his artwork until 2013 when he died.
Lapa Steps tiles from different countries
Sugar Loaf Mountain
Sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro: Sugar Loaf Mountain cable car
The Sugar Loaf Mountain of Rio de Janeiro is in fact two mountains, a lower and a higher one. They exist at the end of Urca Bay down in the city. The two loafs are accessible by a cable car that first takes you to the first loaf which is 200 m, and then to the second peak that rises 400 m above the Atlantic.
The name comes from the mountain’s shape that looks like what it’s called. In Brazil sugar cane is one of the most common agricultural plants.
Photos of the two Sugar Loaf mountains:
Sugar Loaf Mountain in photos
There are trails running around the summit where you can see wildlife like birds and marmosets (a small monkey), yet the main attraction here are the sweeping views in all four directions.
Christ the Redeemer from the top of Sugar Loaf
As there are bars and cafes on the top we decided to leave the tour at this point and stay on the Sugar Loaf for a while.
It was late afternoon and more and more clouds were gathering around the famous loaf. At times we could only see the white mist around us, and then in a minute the weather was all clear again.
Rio de Janeiro’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, cable car and clouds
Then we took a taxi back to Copacabana. We did what our driver had told us to do. Instead of taking a cab at the cable car entrance we took one at the cafe across the street. He said the taxi from the cafe would be way cheaper which it was.
Copacabana, the most famous beach of Rio de Janeiro
To understand Brazil and Rio de Janeiro you have to spend some time on the beach. The beaches are where all Brazilians meet, and both rich and poor come to the beach.
The locals that are called cariocas are very relaxed and love to go out, and the beach is the first place where everybody goes. In fact this is a very practical habit in the tropical heat Brazil has. The days we spent in Rio the temperature was something round 37 centigrade. It was almost too hot for us if we were in the city but very good on the beach.
Copacabana, Brazil in photos
Even the tanned Brazilians of course need UV protection, depending on your skin type. There was a sign that told how strong protection sunbathers belonging to different racial groups need in today’s conditions.
We sat in the shade and shared a coconut. It’s a very hygienic drink, you drink the milk with a straw.
Drinking coconut milk at a Copacabana cafe
As 5 km long Copacabana is a huge, long beach and there is a wave-patterned beachfront promenade all the way along it. Most hotels are here but our hotel was on the next beach, Ipanema.
Rio de Janeiro sunset at Ipanema
Ipanema is a far more residential area than Copacabana. It and the next area Leblon are the most desirable areas to live in Rio de Janeiro. And what we liked a lot was that Ipanema is more quiet and safe than Copacabana. Yet the beach is equally beautiful as the more famous Copacabana. Ipanema Beach is amazing, and not least at night!
Ipanema evening in photos:
Locals spending time on Ipanema Beach, Brazil
We found a lot of cozy restaurants in the side streets behind Ipanema Beach and enjoyed a tasty dinner together with local cariocas. Soft samba rhythms helped us climb to our hotel room and fall asleep after this full day of Rio de Janeiro sightseeing.
We really felt tired now. The day before we had traveled all the way from New Zealand first crossing the Pacific Ocean and afterwards half of South America. For this reason we still felt a little bit like being in the New Zealand time zone. And as we were on a round the world trip, we had to travel on. The next day we were already going to our next destination in Brazil, Recife. We were going to see the carnival of Olinda and Recife.
Learning about Olinda Carnival, Brazil
But what about you? Have you been to Rio, what else would you recommend to travelers visiting this amazing city?
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