With a harbor punctuated by granite monoliths, a laid-back cosmopolitan lifestyle, and famous black-and-white-tiled sidewalks, Rio de Janeiro attracts more than two million visitors each year. The perfect day here starts on the beaches of Leblon; includes a trip up to Christ the Redeemer, one of the seven new wonders of the world; and ends in the early morning at the samba clubs of Lapa. Along the way, eat your weight in grilled meat and Amazonian fruits, taste drinks made from sugarcane liquor, and shake hands with some of the most beautiful and friendly people on the planet.
Hugging the sea, cradled by mountains, and neighbored by rain forest, Rio is blessed with some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world. For the best views of the dramatic landscape, head to the Mirante Dona Marta lookout point, where you can see Christ the Redeemer guarding the city, and the prehistoric spine of Sugarloaf Mountain. Keep an eye out for monkeys in the trees around you and lizards as long as laptops. To get better acquainted with the local environment, explore the 300-plus acres of Amazonian and tropical plants at the Jardim Botânico, or take a 30-minute drive to Tijuca National Park.
No visit to Rio is complete without trying feijoada, a stew of black beans, meat, and garlic accompanied by rice, kale, and orange slices. Heavily influenced by Brazil’s African and Portuguese roots, feijoada is a Saturday lunch staple. Piping hot pão de queijo (cheese bread) and bolinhos de bacalhau (fried codfish balls) are snacking standbys. Wash everything down with a glass or three of chope, Rio’s ubiquitous draft beer. A more potent potable is the caipirinha, a cocktail made from muddled lime, sugar, and a cane liquor called cachaça. If you drink one too many, a cold plate of açaí from any of the city’s juice stands is a popular—and effective—hangover cure.
Cariocas, as residents of Rio are called, know that a good life is one spent outdoors. They eat their breakfast at sidewalk tables, drink their beer in open-air bars, and hold impromptu dance parties on moonlit cobbled streets. Spending time on Rio’s beaches is the best way to appreciate the spirit of acceptance and expression that birthed the hip-shaking moves of samba and the skin-baring costumes of Carnival. The body is celebrated here, and the come-as-you-are vibe of the beaches spills onto the city’s sidewalks, where you’re just as likely to encounter board shorts as you are business suits.
There’s more to Rio than epic views. To experience the city like a local, hit the streets. Grab a suco (fruit juice) from your choice of juice bars then pop into a restaurant to cheer during a football game and down a few glasses of chope, Rio’s light draft beer. Take a walking tour of the city’s favelas, or shanty towns, with a Rio-based group like Favela Adventures. For dinner, follow the locals to Bar Do Mineiro in the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood. Don't worry about trying to translate the menu; just close your eyes and point. After dinner, grab a street-side table at the Bar Veloso boteco in Leblon for more chope and people-watching.
The high season in Rio runs from December through March. May through September brings thinner crowds and lower prices. Most visitors arrive at the Galeão-Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport, which has several transfer options into the city. People of many nationalities must obtain a visa before entering Brazil. Rio is huge and thus best explored via metro, bus, and taxi. Brazilian Portuguese is spoken here, and locals appreciate a few greetings and pleasantries spoken in the native language. English menus are available at the more popular restaurants, and tips are usually included in the bill. The Brazilian real is the only currency accepted, though many businesses take credit cards.