After the beaches of Ilha Grande, we were excited to get back to a city, and Rio served as the perfect landing point for our final stop in Brazil. Rio is beautiful, energetic and fun. Set amongst mountains, jungles and beaches, it’s an oasis for tourists looking for nature, adventure, relaxation or excitement. At the end of January, the city was alive and crowded with pre-Carnaval festivities.
Given Rio’s popularity, it attracts more English speakers than the rest of our Brazilian destinations (seemingly combined) and we relished the opportunity to make some English-speaking friends. For our first two nights, we stayed in a popular and social hostel and joined groups for trips around the city. For our final three nights, we once again reveled in the unbelievable hospitality of Lina and Rafa, and enjoyed a few days of living more like locals. Over our 5 days in Rio, we:
- Toured Brazil’s downtown neighborhoods of Centro and Lapa. Highlights of the tour included eating a brigadier (a deliciously thick chocolate ball) at the 19th century European tea-house Confeitaria Colombo and visiting the colorful Seralon Steps, a decades-long project in which a Chilean artist covered the stairs up to Santa Teresa with tiles from more than 2,000 locations around the world (we found tiles from New York and London, one depicting a spicy chili and another a chocolate bar, and several put together in the shape of Africa).
- Hiked up the Two Brothers mountains at the end of Ipanema beach. After cursing Lina and Rafa for recommending the hike as we struggled up the exhausting, steep hike in 92 degree heat, we thanked them once we reached the top to find an unrivaled view of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, Christ the Redeemer, the Lagoon, the largest slum in South America and other vast stretches of Rio.
- Ate, ate… and ate. The feasting started during a food tour in Santa Teresa, continued at the countless delicious Rio restaurants, and reached a climax when we ventured to an all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ lunch (and dinner) with Lina and Rafa.
- Beached at Ipanema, sipping on the Brazilian version of an Arnold Palmer (matte tea mixed with lemonade), eating the Brazilian version of popcorn (tapioca crackers) and viewing the Brazilian version of beach dwellers (many women in thongs).
- Attended the final rehearsal for last year’s Carnaval samba champions, Beija-Flor. The rehearsal took place in the Sambadrome, a gigantic stadium that consists of 5 sets of massive stands lining each side of a landing strip that’s more than a football field in length. Upon arriving, we joined the throngs of viewers packing the stadium, mostly from the Nilópolis favela, and joined them in learning this year’s Carnaval song. As a massive wave of samba dancers marched down the stadium’s strip, we cheered and sang, and Alie recalled the samba dance she had learned back during our night out in Salvador.
Rio proved to be an excellent send off from Brazil. We partied samba-style, took in gorgeous sites high above the city, relaxed on beaches and lived like locals. The city impressed us with its livability (despite the blocos parading on many streets) and we certainly hope and plan to return soon!
Things To Do:
- There are many breathtaking viewpoints across the city. Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf are the most famous, but also the most expensive and the most crowded. As an alternative, we highly recommend the Two Brothers hike (take a thrilling/terrifying moto from Vigidal to “Campo de Futbal” and start the trail behind the fields) as well as Parque dos Ruinos at the top of Santa Teresa. You can soak in the city, the mountains, the beach and the water for free from both sites.
- Free Walker Tour has a great (and free) walking tour of Centro. Although the area doesn’t have many “exciting” sites, the tour provided a great backdrop to learn about Brazil’s colonial history and ultimate independence, including Carioça Square where Rio was founded and the Imperial Palace where the Portuguese monarchy presided over the only European capital in the New World.
- Free Walker Tour also has a Santa Teresa food tour (which is not actually free – yes, confusing) which we highly recommend. The tour offers a great, and safe, way to visit the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa in a group while enjoying delicious Brazilian treats.
- Many companies offer a favela tour which we heard was an awesome and eye-opening opportunity to really learn about the Brazilian slum neighborhoods and speak with people living there.
- If you are in Rio ahead of Carnaval, definitely visit a samba school rehearsal. Schools can be far from the Copacabana/Ipanema area, but some type of rehearsal viewing is a must (especially if you aren’t sticking around for Carnaval). It’s incredible to see the energy and enthusiasm of the participants and the crowd, and we’re still trying to figure out how Brazilians can move their bodies at such a high velocity and thrust.
Accommodations: We recommend staying in Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon. Lemon Spirit Hostel in Leblon attracted an awesome crowd of travelers. If you are extraordinarily lucky, Lina and Rafa also have a drop dead gorgeous apartment in the heart of Leblon with an extra bedroom (“Alie’s Room”), delicious breakfast, fast wifi and laundry. 5 stars!
Days Stayed / Recommended: We stayed in Rio for 5 days and felt that we had sufficient time to see everything that we wanted but could have stayed much longer. There are at least 3 days of touring and exploring to do, but many people we met were staying 2 weeks… or longer!
Local Food: Various forms of tapioca continue to be found everywhere (from crepes to cheese balls and cakes to crackers). Pao de Queijo (literally cheese bread) is insanely irresistible – Cultivar Brasil in Santa Teresa served the best doughy cheese ball we’ve ever had (and the best acai). A local hole-in-the-wall in Leblon called Bar do Bacana, served an awesome traditional Brazilian feijado, or bean stew (although still unsure about the actual contents of the bean stew, we think we enjoyed the thick black bean and meat entree…). All-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ is a must do and Fogo de Chão is a Brazilian classic, with an amazing salad bar, unending cuts of meat (the Picanha was Michael and Rafa’s favorite), and an endless number of sides such as crazy rice, grilled bananas and fried onions. Other highly recommended restaurants and bars include Sushi Leblon, Aprazivel, Bar de Laje and Jobi.