Striking coastlines and exotic forests, thriving nightlife and mesmerizing samba schools – these are just some of the unique elements of Rio de Janeiro, a city with a startling identity unlike any other in the world. If you want to experience its giddy blend of bustling metropolis and tropical landscapes, read on for our list of the city’s 20 must-visit attractions.
Arcos da Lapa
The famous white arches span the entrance to Rio’s buzzing nightlife spot, Lapa. What was once an active aqueduct supplying fresh water to the city in the 18th century is now the track for the famous bonde (the street tram) that leads up to Santa Teresa, and also a key meeting spot before diving into Lapa’s party scene.
The former mansion of Enrique Lage and his Italian singer wife, Gabriella Besanzoni, Parque Lage is now a visual arts school and restaurant open to the public. Surrounded by the Atlantic Forest and regularly visited by jungle inhabitants such as monkeys and exotic birds, the mansion makes a serene setting in which to enjoy a hearty lunch.
The skeleton of a former mansion makes an impressive host for this public park and cultural center. Its location in Santa Teresa allows visitors to enjoy the low-key restaurants and bars in this bohemian area of Rio, before heading to Parque das Ruinas to enjoy the various temporary art exhibitions and the stunning views over Guanabara Bay.
Copacabana and Ipanema are Brazil’s most visited tourist beaches, and the ones that feature in the majority of travel photos of Rio, yet just a bus ride away are two other sensational beaches that avoid the tourist hordes. Prainha is known for its excellent surf and less crowded beach, while Joatinga, with its surrounding forest and white sandy shores, is the ultimate retreat.
A natural lake in the south zone of the city, Lagoa is known for its tranquil setting, stunning natural scenery, and breathtaking sunsets. The 7km (4.3mi) cycle path that follows the perimeter of the lake is popular among the city’s workout enthusiasts. Settle on a patch of grass to enjoy a picnic, or head to one of the lakeside bars to make the most of Rio’s outdoor lifestyle.
This idyllic retreat is just a short boat trip away from the city center and is known for its tranquil setting. The island of Ilha Paqueta is fringed with quiet beaches and traditional bars that cater to visitors who stop by to enjoy a city getaway minutes from Rio. With a strict no-motor rule, transport around the island is simply on foot, by bike or on horseback.
The striking postmodern architecture of MAM stands out against its peaceful surroundings in Flamengo Park. The museum contains an impressive collection of modern art from significant Brazilian artists such as Bruno Giorgi and Maria Martins, as well as exhibitions of important international artists.
Vidigal represents the most successful outcome of Rio’s 2011 favela pacification projects. Nowadays, it is home to upcoming bars, musicians, artists, and fashion designers, while its creative and artistic vibe define the community as Rio’s current hotspot. From Vidigal, you can reach the summit of the Dois Irmaos peaks and enjoy the superb views over the city before heading to Alto Vidigal at the top of the favela for some of Rio’s best music and parties.
Whereas Lapa hogs the spotlight for nightlife, for parties Baixo Gavea is where it’s at. The square here is filled with thriving bars and hordes of people spilling out onto the pavements to form spontaneous street parties – a cheaper drinking option that attracts the city’s students, both Brazilian and international. Later on in the night, those with stamina head to popular nightclub Zero Zero.
Forte de Copacabana
Rio’s military base is also home to a fascinating museum that explores the history of the Brazilian military and its involvement in world affairs throughout the years. It’s also home to Confeitaria Colombo, an elegant café with exceptional food options and delicious coffees. Take a seat outside to enjoy the pleasant views of Copacabana Beach and the ocean.
From Mirante Dona Marta, you can enjoy phenomenal panoramic views across the city. It’s the best place to see Rio’s most significant landmarks, Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain. Head to the parking spot by taxi and walk the rest of the way to the top. You’ll be well rewarded if you go at sunset.
One of the most important historical points in Rio, the lesser-known Institute of Research and New Black Memory (Cemitério dos Pretos Novos) depicts the history of the slave trade in the city, providing an eye-opening glimpse into the past that is largely kept under wraps. The venue is also the final burial ground for thousands of enslaved Africans who died on the way over to Rio.
This large Chinese-style gazebo sits next to the Estrada da Vista Chinesa that winds through the Tijuca Forest. The gazebo can be accessed by car or by walking up the steep road. The views overlooking Lagoa, the striking coastline and the twinkling sea are glorious.
Tucked away in the heart of the Tijuca Forest, this breathtaking waterfall can be accessed by intrepid travelers who veer off the main Estrada da Vista Chinesa road to take the short hike through exotic vegetation. Small enough to stand under, the waterfall sees many a visitor take a shower under the bracingly cold waters before lazing in the pool in front with views over the forest canopies.
Rio de Janeiro is blessed with dozens of incredible hikes, each one with stunning views that show the sheer size and complexity of the city. A great hike is Pedra da Gávea, one of the highest mountains in the world that ends directly by the ocean. The hike includes a tricky climb, so do it in a group, though the rewards of this three-hour adventure are sensational views of the ocean, the forest and the city.
Pedra do Sal
To experience a samba-fueled night like a local, head to Pedra do Sal on a Monday evening. Groups of samba bands come together to perform improvised jamming sessions (known as roda de samba) to a buzzing crowd that mingle, sip on caipirinhas, and dance until the early hours of the morning. The casual event takes place in the main former square of the slave trade, now considered a cultural heritage site.
The striking futurist architecture of the Museum of Tomorrow is a startling contrast to the scenic port surroundings, making it one of the most photographed places in Rio. The museum takes a fascinating walk through ideas and concepts of sustainability and explores future possibilities of our planet using interactive displays and colorful imagery.
Accessible (Wheelchair), Family Friendly, Kid Friendly
This colorful mosaic is the work of Chilean-born Jorge Selarón who dedicated his life to decorating the stairway in honor of the city that he considered his home. The vibrant Escadaria Selarón is one of Rio’s most beloved and visited attractions, and starts in Lapa before leading up to Santa Teresa.
One of the most famous attractions in Rio, Sugarloaf Mountain is accessible by cable car and offers extraordinary views over Rio and the seemingly endless ocean. During the day, the views can stretch for miles, yet the real joy is witnessing this scene at sunset.
A symbol not just of Rio de Janeiro but of Brazil itself, Christ the Redeemer is one of the most iconic monuments in the city. The statue itself is an incredible feat of engineering, and the panoramic views are sensational. You can get there by train, hike or van.