What to Do in Rio de Janeiro

Surrounded by sea, mountains, and rain forest, Rio is blessed with some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world. Beyond the landscape, the city offers a host of museums, markets, and thriving neighborhoods, all just waiting to be explored.

Parque Nacional da Tijuca - Alto da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, Brazil
A symbol of Rio itself, it’s been called one of the seven wonders of the modern world, but it’s only when you visit that you really cop to its true dimensions. Designed in 1931 to crown Corcovado Peak, the monument is accessed by a cog railway. The statue and its pedestal, 98 feet tall, stands 2,340 feet above sea level, with the entire city at its feet. Cristo Redentor isn’t just a sculpture—it’s also Rio’s most famous postcard view. Go weekdays and early, with the sun to your back and reduced tourist hordes.
Sugarloaf Mountain - Urca, Rio de Janeiro - State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Among all the odd-shaped mountains that adorn the Rio horizon, Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar in Portuguese) stands apart for its majesty and fortuitous placement. Sugarloaf is part of a single landmark along with sister peak Urca, to which it connects via a now-century-old cable car locals call the bondinho. When you reach the top of the rounded outcropping, 1,300 feet up, it’s hard to decide what to look at: You’ve got 360 degrees of Rio from on high. The recommended (and most sought-after) visiting hour is sunset. Yet there’s no hurry to descend before night falls. Seeing the lights come up in the cidade maravilhosa is well worth a tarry.
Dois Irmãos (the “two brothers”) is what they call the bookend mountains framing Ipanema and Leblon beaches. For some years now, these peaks have been a hit with hikers, on an adventure that begins even before trekking, because to get to the trailhead you first ascend to the favela called Vidigal—one of Rio’s most peaceful, by the way—either on foot or by moto-taxi. The way is rough but accessible, steep but doable for those in reasonable shape, and the 45-minute walkabout offers several stops at scenic overlooks, each as spectacular as the next. To the left lies the Pedra da Gávea and Rocinha, another sprawling favela; the Atlantic extends to the right. When you get to the top, the views take your breath away—just as soon as you catch it.
Av. Estado da Guanabara, S/N - Recreio dos Bandeirantes, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22790-852, Brazil
Only in Rio can you happen onto a tropical paradise without leaving city limits. About 22 miles west of Copacabana lies Prainha. The name calls up a small beach that’s in fact a sand formation in an ecological reserve surrounded by the Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica), with its complete variety of plant and animal life. Known as one of the city’s surfing meccas, it’s a gem for anyone keen on sun and waves. Eat fresh seafood right on the beach, and if you brought your board, take the surf-bus that connects to the city’s most popular tourist areas.
S/N Rua Lasar Segall
Between the São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca districts lies the exclusive quarter called Joá—Rio’s answer to Beverly Hills—amid whose mansions hides a secret next to zero visitors know: Joatinga Beach, a shoreline as incredible as it is hard to get to. For instance, you can find it only at low tide (yes, the beach is that small). And even though it’s officially public—as are all Brazilian beaches—you reach it by finding your way through the labyrinth of a built-up city neighborhood. There’s no cell service and barely any Internet. But the minute you tread the sand and wade into the turquoise waters, you forget all the rest, which is no easy trick in the middle of busy Rio.
One of the joys of Rio’s southern districts—this in a city of mountains and hills—is their flat topography and network of bike paths, plus shared bicycles at stations all over the map. It’s as easy as downloading the Bike Rio app, grabbing one of the two-wheelers they call laranjinhas, and heading out to Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Less than a half-mile from Ipanema beach, the lagoon is an idyllic postcard featuring the Tijuca jungles plus Corcovado in the background. All told, it’s five miles around, with views that change at every curve—and don’t forget the city’s spectacular sunsets.
R. Jardim Botânico, 1008 - Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22460-030, Brazil
Imagine an entire jungle, summarized in a park. That’s the essence of the city’s incredible botanical garden, a 345-acre marvel (136 acres have been gardened and manicured to a fault) where visitors brush up against 10,000 plants of 1,500 separate species. Since 1908, it has served Rio as a sort of tropical guardian where the city’s greatest treasure—its nature—is gathered, studied, and even reproduced. It’s a must-do, rain or shine, and at certain seasons, sections like the orchidarium or the Queen Victoria water-lily pond really come into their own. Near the entrance, a stately alley of imperial palms has become the garden’s emblematic signature.
Estrada Dona Castorina
Rio newcomers have a hard time believing you can swim beneath a jungle waterfall without leaving the city. But it’s a thing, and the ones who love it most are the Cariocas themselves, who know just how and when to hit the swimming holes called cachoeiras in Horto, itself a marvelous little neighborhood. Nestled between the Jardim Botânico and the Tijuca woods, a lane whose contours offer glimpses of brightly painted houses leads to a larger road and the Estrada Dona Castorina exit. The first of several falls is there, and you can successively reach the rest as you move deeper into the rain forest. Smart swimmers go at midday; since the area lies in shadow, temperatures are pleasant even in summer.
Estr. da Cascatinha, 850 - Alto da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20531-590, Brazil
If you look at a map of Rio, you’ll see a giant green spot: the Tijuca rain forest, one of the largest urban jungles in the world. This park includes more than 9,900 acres where visitors climb rocks, hang-glide, bike, or even take a drive (this last the easiest and fastest). The foliage—typical of Brazil’s huge rain forest, the Mata Atlântica—was nearly wiped out by coffee production in the 17th century. Thankfully, in the 19th century Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II encouraged reforestation here, and this national park displays the lush results.
Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, s/n Parque do Flamengo - Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22210-030, Brazil
A park stretches the entire coastline of Guanabara Bay, through districts like Glória, Flamengo, and Botafogo, and its lands reclaimed from the sea have become an open-air rec center open to all Cariocas. In a more than 250-acre green space, the area called Aterro do Flamengo, or Flamingo Park, features playing fields, bike trails, and, naturally, beaches (though pollution, sadly, makes them unsuitable for swimming). There’s also lots of parkland for picnicking and, since 2016, the Marina da Glória, a pleasure port with smart bars and restaurants.
R. Luís de Camões, 30 - Centro, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20051-020, Brazil
The Real Gabinete is a public library—but not the kind you find every day. This neo-Gothic pile, erected by Rio’s dynamic 19th-century Portuguese community, holds 350,000 valuable volumes, impressively shelved in immense floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The rich, evocative interior calls up faraway times and places; the reading room’s iron chandelier and multicolored clerestory enchant visitors who are welcome to sit down and read as well. Only when you’re back on Rio’s bustling downtown streets will you realize just what an oasis the Gabinete is.
R. Lélio Gama, s/n - Centro, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20031-080, Brazil
The sight of the little yellow streetcar rumbling across the top of the Lapa aqueduct’s arches, making its way uphill to the neighborhood known as Santa Teresa, is a city classic. An accident had it shut down for five years, and the new bondinho may lack some of its former authenticity (for one thing, there used to be more locals aboard); yet the tropicalized Lisbon flavor of the neighborhood’s streets is still in place. Visitors can access points of interest such as the Parque das Ruínas aboard the trolley, then wander the district’s streets on foot till they reach the famed Selarón stairs that go back down to Lapa.
R. Marquês de São Vicente, 476 - Gávea, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22451-040, Brazil
Those in search of sublime culture in an exuberant natural setting will find an ideal refuge in the Instituto Moreira Salles, a modernist residence hidden on a lane above the Gávea quarter that’s home to a cultural center. The delights on offer at this off-the-beaten-path spot—visual-arts and photography exhibits, literary salons, film series, and a stunning garden by famed landscape designer Burle Marx—are made all the more amenable by a restaurant as well as petite art– and Rio-focused bookstore. The IMS also happens to be the city’s most extensive photographic archive. If you’re looking to learn Rio history, a visit to this rare gem—nestled into the Carioca jungle—is a must.
R. Tavares Bastos, 414 - casa 66 - Catete, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22221-030, Brazil
One can’t help noticing Brazil’s stark social contrasts, especially visible in Rio thanks to rich neighborhoods that often sit cheek by jowl next to some of its poorest, the city’s famous favelas. High up in the favela called Tavares Bastos, visitors can take in an evening that includes some of the city’s best jazz, yet in a setting like few others: a boîte called The Maze. The owner, a British artist and longtime Rio resident, first decided to mount a First Fridays show in 2005, and those monthly events have become a citywide musical tradition. Those who journey up—aboard a minibus or in a taxi—will get breathtaking vistas to go with the great entertainment.
Praça Mauá, 5 - Centro, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20081-240, Brazil
A mixed-use space for art, education, and history—inside a restored early-20th-century palace—the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) is a landmark in the city’s harbor zone. Walk from the top floor down, fifth to first, following an exhibition itinerary that touches on different elements that have left their mark on Rio’s rich history. At the end of the visit, go back upstairs for some refreshment at the excellent terrace restaurant that offers boffo views of Guanabara Bay. On the plaza out front, the Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow), a science museum housed in a stunning building designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, can provide a visit that nicely pairs with your MAR expedition.
Ipanema—streets as well as beaches—might well be Rio’s most influential runway, a showcase for the signature looks both casual and elegant that turn up later in neighborhood boutiques. Some shops that started out small are big deals now and still maintain that Carioca touch, including Farm and its styles for young women; Osklen and Redley, for beachier looks; Melissa’s plastic sandals and other footwear; and, of course, Havaianas, Rio’s most recognizable brand. In Ipanema it’s all still there; Garcia D’Ávila Street is ground zero.
Av. Barão de Tefé, s/n - Saúde, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20220-460, Brazil
These ruins, rediscovered in 2011, reveal a fundamental part of Rio and Brazil history (and indeed that of humankind itself). On the unearthed stones, slavery left its mark; this site was South America’s largest slave port at which, between 1811 and 1831, it’s estimated that between a half-million to a million captured Africans were unloaded from ships and sold as slaves. Buried in 1843 to make way for a different wharf, this blot on history was hidden (at least for a time) but came to light once more as the neighborhood was being fixed up for the Olympics. It was named a World Heritage Site in 2017 and merits a visit, if only to recognize and atone for the tragedy it represents.
R. dos Arcos, s/n - Lapa, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20230-015, Brazil
Close by the Lapa arches there’s a round tent that everyone in Rio knows and loves. Beyond being just a concert venue, it’s a cultural (and countercultural) icon with its own fascinating backstory. It all started in 1982 in Arpoador, an Ipanema beach hot spot, when a group of artists pitched a circus tent to display their work. After several ups and downs, the city government granted them the land where the arena now stands. Its amazing program includes performances by major international acts, but above all it’s a venue every local musician dreams of playing.
Mirante da Boa Viagem, s/nº - Boa Viagem, Niterói - RJ, 24210-390, Brazil
MAC is a Rio icon—even if, in fact, it’s in the city of Niterói, on the opposite side of Guanabara Bay. To get there, catch the ferry from Praça XV, downtown, and then take a bus when you reach the other side. As you approach, the museum’s silhouette looks like a sort of flying saucer in the middle of the bay. In this remarkable building, designed by genius architect Oscar Niemeyer, you’ll find a collection of contemporary art. Your visit to Niterói includes the extraordinary view of the Rio skyline, across the shimmering liquid mirror of Guanabara Bay.
Campo de São Cristóvão - São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20291-440, Brazil
What began as a recreation area for immigrants from Brazil’s northeast is now a destination for visitors looking to get off the beaten tourist path. The densely populated São Cristóvão quarter is home to this enormous complex, open seven days a week, to which visitors may arrive at a reasonable hour and not get out before dawn. Afternoons are for shopping and noshing; but after dark, the volume goes up, and the marketplace becomes a scene for partying, pop-up karaokes, and live-music performances that are 100-proof Brazil. Authentic northeastern music known as forró plays until sunup.
R. do Lavradio, S/n - Centro, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20230-070, Brazil
During the day on the first Saturday of the month, Rio’s nightlife nexus, Lapa, hosts the Feira do Lavradio. Wander the long aisles of flea-market and artisanal craft stalls, and with time and patience, you’re sure to find real treasures in the form of decorative items, accessories, and antiques. What’s more, Lavradio maintains Rio’s classic street-market vibe, complete with strolling musicians, banter from merchants, and maybe even a capoeira ring. Enjoy a great afternoon right in the midst of Rio’s buzziest restaurants and bars.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure