10 Fun Facts You Probably Didn't Know About Rio de Janeiro

Guanabara Bay from the Sugarloaf Mountain
Guanabara Bay from the Sugarloaf Mountain | © Rodrigosilvestri/Wikimedia Commons
Sarah Brown

Thanks to its golden beaches, samba-fuelled nightlife and pulsating energy, Rio de Janeiro is the most popular and well-known city in Brazil. We’ve gathered ten secret facts about Rio that you probably didn’t know the city had up its sleeve.

Rio de Janeiro translates to ‘River of January’

If you translate the exotic-sounding ‘Rio de Janeiro’ into English, the city is actually called River of January. Where does this name come from? Surprisingly, not from any of the 200 rivers that connect to the city. When Gaspar de Lemos, a Portuguese explorer, arrived in Rio de Janeiro in January 1502, he thought Guanabara Bay was the mouth of a large river and, as a result, named the area ‘River of January’. Though this legend is disputed by some historians, it remains the strongest theory for the origin of Rio’s name.

Guanabara Bay from the Sugarloaf Mountain

Rio is home to the world’s largest urban forest

Rio’s wonderful mix of nature and urban life can be seen in the Tijuca Forest, the world’s largest forest to coexist with a city. Though it was once destroyed by local coffee plantations, its 32 square kilometres (12 square miles) were repopulated with millions of seedlings at the end of the 1800s and it eventually grew into an enormous forest teeming with wildlife. Tijuca Forest is home to several tourist attractions such as the Christ the Redeemer statue, the Vista Chinesa and Parque Lage.

Street art is legal in Rio de Janeiro

Stroll through the streets of Rio and it won’t take long to see how much street art decorates the city’s buildings. As long as artists have permission from a building’s owner and it is not an historic building, they can paint it with any designs they want. Some of Rio’s best street artists include Marcelo Ment, whose interview with Culture Trip you can read here.

Street art by Marcelo Ment in Rio

Rio has hosted the world’s largest concert

In 2006, the Rolling Stones performed a free concert on Copacabana Beach to an audience of 1.5 million people during their ‘A Bigger Bang’ tour. However, it is Rod Stewart’s 1994 concert on the same beach that is recorded as the largest ever in the world when he performed to a crowd of 3.5 million people.

Samba schools are more than just Carnival parades

Brazil’s samba schools are mostly famed for their vibrant appearances during Rio’s Carnival parades. However, they have a much deeper involvement in their local community. Often based near favelas, the samba schools spend all year preparing for the following year’s parades and provide free education, such as English classes and sports activities, to favela residents who aren’t able to afford those resources. The schools hold weekend events with samba dancing and feijoada, a type of Brazilian bean stew. As a result, people are passionately loyal to samba schools the same way they are to football teams.

The samba school parades

Rio has the biggest Carnival party in the world

Rio de Janeiro has the largest Carnival party in the world. In 2004, over 400,000 foreign tourists flocked to the city for the celebrations to join the 5 million locals who already participate in the famous parades and street parties.

Rio holds the record for the largest football match attendance

The Rio de Janeiro World Cup final in 1950 was the most-attended football match in the world. The match between Uruguay and Brazil was held at the Maracanã stadium which housed nearly 200,000 people—a total of 173,850 paying attendees (and 20,000 fans who snuck in for free) came to watch the game. Despite high expectations for a Brazil win, it was Uruguay who won the match much to the immense disappointment of the Brazilian fans who to this day consider it one of the worst days in Brazilian football history.

The Maracaña stadium

Christ the Redeemer is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World

The most symbolic and iconic of Rio’s attractions is the Christ the Redeemer, a huge statue of Jesus Christ that overlooks the city from its perch on top of the Corcovado mountain. In 2007, it was elected as one of the World’s New Seven Wonders, joining the exclusive list that includes the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu in Peru.

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio

Rio de Janeiro used to be the capital of Brazil

Contrary to popular belief, Brasilia is the capital of Brazil, not Rio de Janeiro. But before Brasilia became the capital, the country had two other capital cities—Salvador was the first between 1549 and 1763 and then Rio de Janeiro from 1763 until 1960.

Locals of Rio de Janeiro are known as Cariocas

People born in Rio de Janeiro are known as Cariocas. The word carioca comes from an indigenous language, Tupi-Guarani, that was spoken by the indigenous tribes who lived in the area before Portuguese settlers came. When the European colonisers arrived, they started to build a city on the indigenous tribes’ land which the Indians called Kario’Oka, meaning ‘white man’s house’.

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