A huge tropical city in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is a vibrant and colorful place known for its famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the Christ the Redeemer statue on top of Mount Corcovado, the beautiful Sugarloaf Mountain, sprawling favelas, the Carnival festival, and a variety of charming places to visit and things to do.
The city is a fascinating urban center, with unique architecture, history and lifestyles giving it a captivating charm. During the annual Carnival festival, the city is flooded with flamboyant costumes, lively samba dances, and festivities by the beaches all night, making it a must-see experience once in the lifetime.
I did this trip with a friend during Carnival and it was such a fun and exciting time to be in Rio!
Some General Travel Tips
- Rio is generally very safe. Before my trip, I was very paranoid for no reason because people (who’s never been there) would tell me about how unsafe the city is. You should definitely exercise normal caution as you would anywhere, but I never once felt unsafe during the trip
- While you should always have cash in local currency, most places take major credit cards so you you actually won’t really need too much cash except for local vendors or quick purchases
- If possible, definitely consider visiting during Carnaval as it is a truly unique experience. The downside however, is that a lot of shops, sites and museums are closed during Carnaval which can be a little disappointing
- Ubers are very affordable and was our main transport method. We also took the subway downtown which is also very convenient
- Most locals don’t speak English so language barriers can be challenging (but it’s fun to learn some Portuguese!)
A Note on Staying in Rio de Janeiro
There are plenty of options for stay in Rio de Janeiro, and I recommend breaking up the trip by staying at two different places so you can be near different attractions.
One thing I’m glad we did was to stay at an Airbnb in the Lagoa neighborhood first. It was a beautiful, modern house in the mountains, which allowed us to spot some monkeys (which was really cool!) and talk to the local hosts. Later in the trip, we switched over to the Sheraton Grand Rio in the trendy Leblon neighborhood, which gave the more luxury resort experience with delicious dining and access to a pool and private beach.
The 7 Day Itinerary for Rio de Janeiro
Rio is a vibrant city, and this trip plan captures a good balance of activities spread over 7 days, including the famous Christ the Redeemer statue; beautiful mountains like Sugarloaf and Corcovado; gardens like Jardim Botânico and Parque Lague; unique explorations like Carnival and Favela tours; in and around the city like downtown areas (Centro & Santa Teresa) and outskirts (Petropolis); local experiences like cooking and samba classes; other activities like beach time, fine dining and shopping.
If you are looking for a trip filled with activities and variety, this is the guide for you. Below is a map outlining some of the sites included in this itinerary, which is spread out all over the city.
- Day 1: Arrival, Copacabana Beach (and Carnival Sambadrome)
- Day 2: Jardim Botânico and Sugarloaf Mountain
- Day 3: Brunch, Parque Lage and Cooking Experience
- Day 4: Favela Tour, Christ the Redeemer, Samba Dance Class
- Day 5: Santa Teresa and Centro
- Day 6: Day Trip to Petrópolis
- Day 7: Instituto Moreira Salles, Ipanema and Leblon
Day 1: Arrival, Copacabana Beach (and Carnival Sambadrome)
Fly into Rio de Janeiro during the day and once settled in, head right over to the world-famous Copacabana Beach for a firsthand experience of this beautiful coast. This beach stretches over 5km (2.2 miles) with lots of kiosks, hotels and shops along the way.
Notice the beach pavement with wavy patterns – it is a Portugal-style design created by famous landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Explore the Copacabana Palace Hotel, an Art Deco crown jewel on the beach where numerous celebrities stayed at throughout its history.
Enjoy dinner at one of the many restaurants by Copacabana Beach. We dined at Barrata da Chiquita, a local Brazilian restaurant with live music and an extensive cocktail menu.
If you are in town for Carnival, be sure to pick up your Sambadrome tickets. Every year, samba schools parade competitively during Carnival, drawing thousands of Brazilian and foreign tourists in each year with spectacular costumes and performances not to be missed.
The tickets we purchased were around $20USD and were available for pick up at Copacabana beach beforehand. It was suggested that we get to the Sambadrome at 9pm, but the parade really doesn’t begin until at least 10:45pm. We left after the first school finished its parade at around 11:30pm, but the parade itself lasted overnight and well into the morning until 6am.
Day 2: Jardim Botânico and Sugarloaf Mountain
Start the day by taking a relaxing stroll in Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, a lively botanical garden exhibiting exuberant plants from around the world, along with monuments, buildings and artworks. The entrance fee costs around R$15, and you can find a very scenic walk among beautiful palm trees, fountains and arches, making the garden the perfect spot for scenic photos.
Brunch at Sud
For lunch, walk to the nearby restaurant Sud, o pássaro verde Café, a beautiful small house where you can enjoy the authentic cooking by chef Roberta Sudbrack, who has reinvented herself with a new cuisine philosophy that goes in search of her roots.
Taste the fresh, farm to table dishes and delicious local cheeses while quietly enjoying the rustic yet elegant ambiance of the room. Sud has been featured in the Michelin guide and is well worth a visit.
In the afternoon, visit the famous Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugarloaf Mountain is known for its cableway and panoramic views of the city and beyond.
To visit, take the cable car up the lower mountain to see a breathtaking view of the city and ocean. Next, take the second cable car up to the upper mountain to get an even more panoramic view. Sugarloaf Mountain’s name is said to refer to its resemblance to the traditional shape of concentrated refined loaf sugar, and the resemblance is very apparent!
There is also a lot of vendors and restaurants up in the mountain, making it a nice spot to enjoy a snack or early dinner as the sun begins to set.
Day 3: Brunch, Parque Lage and Cooking Experience
Start the day by enjoying brunch at one of the many restaurants in Rio. We enjoyed a meal at Tragga Humaitá, a solid Argentinian restaurant in Botafogo, with a great ambiance and empanadas criollos that are not to be missed.
Spend the afternoon exploring Parque Lage, a public (free entry) park situated near Jardim Botânico. Parque Lage was formerly the residence of industrialist Henrique Lage and his wife, singer Gabriella Besanzoni, and in 1957, became a historical and cultural heritage site for the city of Rio de Janeiro.
From here you can get a spectacular view of Corcovado mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue. There are lots of fun walking trails through the subtropical forests, as well as elaborate European style gardens with stone paths and alleys.
Be sure to stop and admire the grand mansion remodeled by Italian architect Mario Vodret, and the Aquário pool where you can see the reflection of arches upon it against the backdrop of the mountain. There’s also a cafe here for visitors to sip on coffee and relax in the atmosphere.
Local Cooking Experience
For dinner, try a local cooking class experience! We booked the experience via Airbnb, hosted by a lovely lady, Patricia, in her beautiful home. At around sunset, we made lemon caipirinhas (a staple Brazilian cocktail), and had a chance to get a wonderful view of the city lights up on the terrace. For dinner, we made a moqueca de peixe (Brazilian fish) in Bahia style, farofa, and delicious dessert, which we all enjoyed together at the dinner table. It was a great way to meet other travelers and have a intimate conversation over wine with Patricia about life in Brazil.
Day 4: Favela Tour, Christ the Redeemer, Samba Dance Class
A Favela is a type of slum in Brazil that has experienced historical governmental neglect. While there are conflicting views on whether or not favela tourism is an ethical practice, the Brazilian federal government views favela tourism with high regard, and in general tourism in the Favelas has been rising in popularity.
The professional guided tours do focus on socio-geographic differentiation, the social and economic implications of government policy, and the needs of the underprivileged population living in the favelas, which are all very educational. Depending on the tour, photographs can be strictly prohibited to respect privacy of the local residents.
Start the day early and meet up with your local guide for the Favela Tour. While Favelas generally aren’t the safest for tourists, Rocinha and Vidigal are the two very tourist friendly neighborhoods. We booked a tour via Airbnb to visit Rocinha, in which a van drove the group up the favela, and then with the local guide, we explored the community’s hillside by foot. The guide led us around while highlighting the history and living conditions of Rocinha. One ironic point she highlighted was that Rocinha is located directly next to Gavea, a rich neighborhood in Rio. Overall, the whole tour was very safe and educational, and for lunch the group was able to eat at a local buffet in Rocinha ($5R for really amazing food!)
Corcovado Mountain and Christ the Redeemer
In the afternoon, head to Corcovado mountain to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue, erected at the the peak of the 700-metre (2,300 ft) mountain and voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. As touristy as it gets, this is still an obligatory site to visit in person.
From the foot of the mountain, purchase an entrance ticket (~ R$86). The ticket counter assigns you a time to board the red train that goes up the mountain. Although there’s an assigned time, many people just line up for the train anyway before their allotted time to get a ride, provided that there is space. The train ride up lasts about 20 minutes and is very scenic.
Once the train drops you off, there is another elevator that will take you straight up to the statue. The view from the top is truly amazing as you can see the world beneath your feet while feeling the overwhelming grandeur of the statue.
The only downside here is the crowds, but it’s hard to avoid them. One alternative is to come early in the morning, though you risk having a foggy view. After touring the site, be mindful that there is also a long line to ride back down the mountain, so be sure to leave the area as early as you can to avoid the closing time rush hour.
Back in the city, with any free time you have, get a first-hand taste of Samba dancing by taking a local Samba class. We also booked the experience via Airbnb, and the class somehow ended up being in French but was fun nonetheless (language isn’t a barrier when you are dancing!) The class also lets us dress up in the elaborate Samba headpieces and costumes for photos, which was delightful.
Fine Dining at NOSSO
To finish the day, enjoy a fine dinner at NOSSO, a well designed restaurant near Ipanema beach serving creative and contemporary fare. If you sit by the counter, you can directly converse with the chef and watch the cooking process live. Dessert here is also definitely the highlight.
Day 5: Santa Teresa and Centro
Spend the day in the Santa Teresa and Centro areas of Rio. Santa Teresa is famous for its winding, narrow streets and its reputation as a fashionable hotspot. It is home to several artists and art studios. Centro, on the other hand, is the financial district of Rio with many historical sites of interest worth exploring. The two areas are somewhat located next to each other, so it makes sense to explore them on the same day.
In Santa Teresa and Centro, be sure to visit:
- The famous Selarón Staircase. These steps are the works of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón who claimed it as “my tribute to the Brazilian people.” The tiles are really cool to look at, each designed with a million beautiful details. There are also lots of cool graffiti walls leading up to the steps, making the area fun to explore.
- Arcos da Lapa. Located next to the Selarón steps, and also known as The Carioca Aqueduct, Arcos da Lapa is an aqueduct built in the middle of the 18th century, a prime example of colonial architecture and engineering.
- Cathedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião. This is a modern style Cathedral based on Mayan architectural style of pyramids. The exterior looks like an ancient pyramid, while the indoor very much resembles a contemporary Cathedral. Its architecture is so intricate and is a must see.
- The Royal Portugese Reading Room. This is massive and picturesque library that was elected as the fourth most beautiful library in the world by Time magazine. Unfortunately, the site is closed during Carnival so we were not able to go inside.
- Confeitaria Columbo. Columbo is a century old famous confectionary and coffee shop. It is a landmark in the Centro area, and named one of the 10 most beautiful cafés in the world.
- Ilha Fiscal. This is a historic island housing a magnificent palace, which is the site of the famous Fiscal Island Ball, the last royal ball of the Empire before the coup d’état that proclaimed the Republic in November 1889. I definitely recommend booking a tour for this site if you have time to visit.
- Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro. Built in the early twentieth century, this opera house is considered to be one of the most beautiful and important theaters in Brazil.
- Museum of Tomorrow. This is a science museum designed by Spanish neofuturistic architect, Santiago Calatrava, and explores the opportunities and challenges humanity will be forced to tackle in the coming decade.
- Museum of Modern Art. This is an architectural landmark containing more than 15 thousand works by international renowned artists that are well worth a visit.
Day 6: Day Trip to Petrópolis
Spend this day exploring an area outside of Rio de Janeiro. For our trip, we decided to visit Petrópolis, an imperial city to the north of Rio, and houses the former Crystal Palace of 19th-century emperor Dom Pedro II, as well as the Imperial Museum.
Through the Petrópolis day trip tour, you can tour the palace and see the grandeur of the furnishings that once belonged to the Brazilian imperial family. Learn all about the personalities of each family member, and hear some spicy dramas about their past existence. The stories are extremely well-told and entertaining, making the day trip worthwhile.
Day 7: Instituto Moreira Salles, Ipanema and Leblon
On the last day in Rio, take some time to visit any remaining spots on the travel list and relax in the city.
Instituto Moreira Salles
One of my favorite spots is Instituto Moreira Salles, a contemporary art museum high up in the Gávea neighborhood and surrounded by the lush Floresta da Tijuca. The modern house and garden is planned by Olavo Redig de Campos, with landscape design by Roberto Burle Marx, representative of 1950s modern architecture.
The museum space houses numerous photography collections and film screenings, with a relaxing corridors to wander around and explore in. The pool and garden, combined with intricate blue tiles, make the space a quiet modern oasis.
Ipanema and Leblon
In the afternoon, relax at the other world famous beach, Ipanema.
Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes he smiles
But she doesn’t see
You might have heard of these lyrics from the famous jazz & Bossa Nova song, The Girl From Ipanema. Ipanema is known as the trendy and fashionable part of Rio, with a beautiful beach and perfect views of the mountains. The neighborhood’s leafy streets have high-end fashion boutiques, fine-dining restaurants and relaxed bars.
This is a great place to spend the rest of the day, whether to relax at the beach, dine out, or of course, do some shopping. Besides Ipanema, there is also a lot of upscale bistros and shopping malls in the next neighborhood over, Leblon. Leblon also has its own beautiful beach and tranquil stretches of sand, and is worth exploring as well.
Here are several other places of interest to explore. We unfortunately ran out of time, but would love to come back some time to experience a few more of these things:
- Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon: a stunning natural lake in the south zone of the city surrounded with a cycle path, trees and other lush vegetation, making it a relaxing spot to walk, cycle, or simply sit and relax
- Restaurant Aprazível: a famous artisan restaurant located in Santa Teresa, featuring Brazilian cuisine & cachaça, in a garden setting with great views of the city
- Hang Gliding Tour: if you’re up for it, get an unforgettable and breathtaking view of Rio’s landscape by doing a hang gliding tour with one of the local operators
- ORO Leblon: another famous restaurant featured in the Michelin guide, serving cuisine that combines Brazilian roots with cutting-edge gastronomy
- Arraial do Cabo: a coastal town to the East of Rio, known for white-sand beaches, shipwreck dive sites, the ruins of Cabo Frio Lighthouse and 17th-century, Portuguese-built Fort St. Matthew. This is definitely worth a day trip to explore
This was a full 7 day trip to Rio de Janeiro, featuring all the famous sites, beaches, local tours, Carnival, activities and delicious foods. There are so many things to do in Rio and this guide is one way to break them up geographically, with some days more packed than others. Regardless of how you plan to visit Rio, I hope you have a great time exploring this wonderful, vibrant city.