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Rio de Janeiro is a city of contrasts, where you can’t help but move from one extreme to another. From stunning coastlines to edgy underground nightlife haunts, from splendid monuments to favela societies, the city constantly leads travellers on a dynamic trajectory. Here are the 10 things to do and see that should be on everyone’s list when they come to Rio.
The most popular tourist attraction in Rio de Janeiro has become synonymous with Brazil. Known throughout the world, the Christ the Redeemer monument regally overlooks the city from the summit of the Corcovado mountain, a 700-metre tall jungle-covered peak. Reach the top by hiking, train, or van, and enjoy one of the most heavenly viewpoints in the city.
Located in the Urca neighbourhood, Sugarloaf Mountain sits surrounded by ocean and is only accessible by cable car, or by rock climbing for the brave and experienced. Visitors take the cable car from the beach Praia Vermelha up to Morro da Urca, and then take a further cable car over to the famous Sugarloaf. Alternatively, visitors can make the pleasant hike up Morro da Urca through the forest with its monkey inhabitants, before taking the cable car for the second leg of the journey. The views are sensational – a panoramic lookout over the city and the ocean. The most rewarding time to go is just before sunset.
Known as the birthplace of samba, Pedra do Sal is home to one of Rio’s most traditional improvised samba nights, and is the best way to experience the city’s music and nightlife culture like a local. Every Monday night, groups of samba bands join together to sing and dance the night away at this historical and religious spot in the neighborhood of Saúde. This area used to be the main point of the slave trade, so is also considered a cultural heritage site. Locals get together and sip on chilled caipirinhas made at makeshift street stalls and chat, mingle, and enjoy the city’s rawest and best samba.
In Rio de Janeiro there are no shortage of amazing hikes and even more spectacular views. If you’re pressed for time though, the best one to do is Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Peak). The hike begins at the top of the Vidigal favela, one of Rio’s safest communities. To get there, take a moto taxi or van at the entrance of Vidigal to drive you through the twisting, busy favela roads up to the top. From there, it’s about one hour of hiking through forest and vegetation. The top opens out onto a flat, rocky platform and overlooks the ocean to the right, Lagoa and the Atlantic forest to the left, and the breathtaking strip of coastline dividing the two.
The famous Lapa steps are the multi-coloured mosaic that was handmade by Chilean-born Jorge Selaron who fell in love with Brazil and dedicated his life to producing this landmark in Rio’s honour. The steps begin in Lapa, with each one carefully decorated with vibrant patterns, and lead up to Santa Teresa. Eagle-eyed visitors may remember these steps as featuring in the Snoop Dogg and Pharell Williams video, ‘Beautiful‘.
Some love it, others are not so keen, yet visiting Lapa during a trip to Rio de Janeiro is a must. The once rundown region of the city centre has become a thriving nightlife spot in Rio whilst still maintaining its edgy vibe. Walk through the Arches of Lapa and enter the main street flanked either side with heaving clubs and bars, while street parties and party-goers mingle in between. For authentic Brazilian music, head to Carioca da Gema or Rio Scenarium, the latter being one of the most famous clubs in the city.
The south zone of the city is the most touristic, and is where some of Rio’s most beautiful beaches are found. Arguably Copacabana is the most iconic, yet it’s Ipanema where the laid-back, younger crowd hang flock to for the beautiful scenery and clean, clear waters. Stay in Ipanema until the evening comes to watch the sun set over the ocean next to the Dois Irmãos peaks. For a more off-the-beaten-track day trip, head to Prainha near Recreio to enjoy a secluded getaway retreat.
Brazil’s passionate reputation for football is unlike any other. To experience football like a Brazilian, head to Maracanã, Brazil’s largest football stadium. Maracanã was the host of the final game of 2014 FIFA World Cup and also was the main stage for several of the 2016 Olympics games. Tours around the stadium are currently not operating, but there is a better way to experience it – head there on match day and check out a game between Rio’s rival football teams. One of the best games to watch is between Flamengo and Fluminense, when the dynamic crowd drives the electric energy in the stadium.
While it’s not advisable to visit a favela alone, going with a favela tour offers a safe and eye-opening experience into favela life. The aim of the tours is to promote a cross-cultural exchange between locals and tourists, and to break down often misguided stereotypes surrounding the lifestyle there. The best favela tours are found in Rocinha or Vidigal. Favela Phoenix offers a great tour around Rocinha with part of the profits going to a non-profit English school in the community.
Carnival is one of the biggest attractions in Rio de Janeiro, yet if you’re not in the city for the celebrations, then there are still ways of getting a glimpse into what it’s like. Head to a samba school to watch samba dancers practise new routines and prepare months in advance for the carnival in the upcoming year. On the weekends, many samba schools have samba nights where visitors can join in the dancing with locals, drink chilled beers, and eat feijoada.