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Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro

Buzzing Rio de Janeiro—the second largest in Brazil—is famous for its miles of stunning beaches, rich musical culture, and beautiful people. Experience it all at once by simply people-watching on one of the beaches, which Cariocas (Rio locals) consider their backyard. On legendary Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon beach, you’ll find residents and visitors alike socializing, relaxing, eating, drinking, dancing, and playing. Off the sands, see the best of Rio—while maximizing time and minimizing crowds and potential language barriers—on a guided city tour. A cog-train trip up Corcovado to the famous art-deco Christ the Redeemer statue or its twin peak, Sugar Loaf Mountain, rewards with stunning views of the urban sprawl, lined by white-sand beaches and the sparkling Guanabara Bay. Cruise that very bay for a different but equally epic perspective on the city, then feast on a Brazilian-style barbecue at a churrascaria. Stay up late to catch a samba show in Lapa, or wake up early to trek through the tropical Tijuca Forest or the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. Walking tours stroll through the streets of historic and bohemian Santa Teresa, or up into the hills for a look at favela life in Santa Marta or Rocinha. And for sports lovers, behind-the-scenes tours of Maracana Stadium showcase the country’s national obsession: futebol (soccer).
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Maracana Stadium (Estádio do Maracana)
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The gigantic Maracanã Stadium was built to open the 1950 World Cup. It holds the record for the largest attendance at a World cup final as 199,854 paying spectators crammed into the stadium and many more besides.

If you’re after the intense Brazilian football experience complete with the drums, flares, and chanting, then get to a game; otherwise the sports museum inside the stadium with photographs, cups, and Pele’s famous no. 10 jersey is a more sedate experience (enter at Gate 18).

Its official name is 'Mário Filho Stadium' but it's called 'Maracanã' after the small river that runs alongside. In the 1990s it was modified to become an all-seated stadium and now holds under 100,000.

The four main teams of the city play here and it will host the opening of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies. It is being renovated for these events (scheduled to reopen in 2012) and will finally hold around 103,000 spectators.

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Tijuca National Park (Parque Nacional da Tijuca)
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A lush Atlantic rainforest, Tijuca National Park is an absolute wonder it is the world’s largest urban forest which covers 12.4mi² (32km²) and was a result of incredible forward thinking by Emperor Dom Pedro II.

In 1861 he saw the deforestation of the land around Rio and ordered that Tijuca be replanted to secure the water supply for future citizens. It was replanted over ten years ago and still plays a key role in making sure Rio has fresh water.

The national park includes the Corcodova which offers stunning views from its summit where the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer is situated. It also offers fantastic picnic areas, many waterfalls and some great walks.

Wildlife in the park includes insects, ocelots and howler monkeys. The reintroduction of birdlife has been particularly successful and it is a birdwatchers heaven.

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Copacabana Beach (Praia de Copacabana)
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Copocabana Beach, or Praia de Copacabana, is the Rio de Janeiro of the tourist brochures and deservedly so. It’s a breath-taking 2.5mi (4.5 km) stretch of bright sand that’s filled with people luxuriating in the sun and soaking up the atmosphere.

As night descends the lights go on and football is played until the wee hours. Other groups start singing and dancing and still others are just there to check each other out. The busy sidewalks can get seedy at night so take care.

Behind it rise the Sugarloaf and Morro de Leme and in between is one of the world’s most densely populated residential areas.It is possible to visit Rio and never leave Copacabana, many hotels are situated here and there are plenty of restaurants and bars and some decent shopping.

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Ipanema Beach (Praia de Ipanema)
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Charming and chic, Ipanema Beach (Praia de Ipanema) is the richer and ritzier sister of the also infamous Copacabana beach. Ipanema backs onto a fancy neighbourhood and there are plenty of high-end hotels.

The stunning beach gets divided up depending on the interests of the beachgoers. There is the family section, the gay section, the ageing-intellectual section and so on; you’ll soon find where you feel comfortable.

At night the beach is lit up and families come to the beach with their barbeques and cook dinner while others come down to watch the sunset.

Ipanema means “bad, dangerous waters” in Indian and it is indeed a good idea to only swim in the designated areas where the locals are swimming as the waves can be big and the undertow strong.

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Christ the Redeemer Statue (Cristo Redentor)
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Keeping a watchful eye over the people of Rio de Janeiro, the Statue of Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor) sits atop Corcovado 2,300 feet (700 meters) above the city. It was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

The largest art deco statue in the world, it is 130 ft (39 m) tall and the arms measure 98 ft (30 m) across. Made of reinforced concrete and sandstone the statue was unveiled in 1931.

On a clear day the views from the base of the statue are fantastic. At night the statue is lit up and seemingly hovers over the city as the mountain it stands on is dark. If it is cloudy the clouds light up and the effect can be quite spectacular and ethereal.

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Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Açúcar)
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You’ll see stunning views of Rio from atop Sugar Loaf Mountain (or Pão de Acúcar) which rises at the point where Guanabara Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Whichever way you look the city is a delight of sweeping beaches, sparkling water and green peaks. If you make the trip up in the late afternoon you can watch Rio as the light disappears and the fairy show of night lights begins. Looking west you’ll have an incredible view of Corcovado with the statue of Christ the Redeemer all lit up. At the summit there are some clearly marked wooded trails where you can view some wildlife and get away from the crowds. The crowds are densest mid-morning and mid-afternoon when the tourist buses arrive.
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Leblon Beach (Praia do Leblon)
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Fronting one of Rio’s wealthiest and most exclusive neighborhoods, Leblon Beach is a slightly quieter alternative to its neighbor Ipanema. Separated from Ipanema by a canal, the beach is popular with families with young children, as it offers a play area equipped with beach toys and playground equipment, collectively called Baixo Baby.

While calmer and less crowded than Copacabana and even Ipanema, the sandy stretch still offers beautiful views of the mountains, a string of beach bars serving caiparinhas and all the usual amenities, like chairs, umbrellas, showers and food stalls. While it’s also one of Rio’s safest and cleanest beaches, it’s still a good idea to leave valuables at the hotel and keep an eye on your belongings.

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Rio de Janeiro Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao)
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Far from a typical church, the Rio de Janeiro Cathedral is a tall, cone-shaped building that’s distinctive to the downtown Rio skyline. The unusual design was inspired by the Mayan pyramids and was built in the ‘60s and ‘70s by architect Edgar Fonseca. One of the most important contemporary religious structures in Rio, the cathedral is dedicated to St Sebastian, the patron saint of the city, and has received three papal visits.

Standing at 315 feet (96 meters), the hollow interior is undeniably the most impressive part of the building. Massive bronze doors give way to the circular nave, nearly 350 feet (106 meters) in diameter, fit to accommodate 20,000 churchgoers on foot. Four panels of floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows surround the structure, and a skylight in the shape of a cross at the top allows for natural light to flood into the interior. This unique cathedral is a must-see for those interested in contemporary architecture.

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Selarón Steps (Escadaria Selarón)
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Decorated with over 2,000 brightly colored tiles in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the Selarón Staircase (Escadaria Selarón) is one of Rio’s most vibrant and striking landmarks, marking the boundary between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods. The brainchild of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, the iconic steps have become one of the world’s most famous pieces of street art, drawing millions of visitors and gaining exposure in international commercials, pop music videos and magazines all around the globe.

Selarón started work on the staircase in 1990 as a tribute to the Brazilian people and his beloved adopted city, covering the 250 steps with an elaborate mosaic of tiles and updating the artwork over the years to include newly inspired tiles donated by visiting artists. Operating a gallery from his home, the artist lived nearby for more than 20 years, but tragically, he was found dead on the steps in 2013, leaving his memory to live on through the unique landmark.

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Sambadrome (Sambadrome Marques de Sapucaí)
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At Carnival time the Sambadrome is the heartbeat of Rio de Janiero. A 3,000ft (700m) stretch of road designed as a 90,000 capacity parade area with stadium seating rising on each side of the road.

Samba schools have 80 minutes to parade through the center of the Sambadrome performing their samba school anthem impressing the crowd with their music, dancing and floats. it is an incredible spectacle; seven teams compete each night in a concert that lasts over ten hours.

During the rest of the year the Sambadrome hosts the occasional music concerts. Some of the more famous names to play include the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton and Coldplay. If its not Carnival and there's no concert then the Sambadrome can be very empty and quiet but it is still a fascinating piece of Rio’s culture and there is a small museum that showcases its history.

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More Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro

Morro da Urca

Morro da Urca

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Sitting in the shadow of big brother and Rio de Janeiro icon, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Morro da Urca is just as important if only because the cable car trip up to Sugar Loaf includes a stop atop this turtle shell-shaped rock. Not to be outdone by its better-known neighbor, the 720-foot hill, a little more than half Sugar Loaf’s height of 1,300 feet, still offers spectacular panoramic views of Christ the Redeemer and Corcovado, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Guanabara Bay, downtown Rio, and Sugar Loaf itself (something you can’t see when you’re actually on it).

At the top of the Morro da Urca, the visitors’ center provides elevators for special needs guests, restrooms, and souvenir and food concessions. Hiking trails skirt the Morro, starting at Praia Vermelho, but one of the most exhilarating options available, if not exactly popular or cheap, is a helicopter ride around Sugar Loaf and over nearby Copacabana.

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Barra da Tijuca

Barra da Tijuca

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Barra da Tijuca, often referred to simply as Barra, is one of Rio’s newest neighborhoods — evident by its mega malls and glass-towered condominiums. As one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, it’s also among the safest. Brazilians often refer to the neighborhood as the Brazilian Miami for its wide, palm-lined roads and upscale shopping.

What brings visitors to Barra is the 10-mile (17-kilometer) long stretch of beach fronting the neighborhood. It’s the largest stretch of beach in a city famous for them and a popular place for surfing, kite surfing and body boarding. It’s also a shopping hotspot in the city, thanks to the BarraShopping and its 700 stores and restaurants and about a dozen other shopping malls.

Barra da Tijuca will host several of the venues for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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Pedra da Gavea

Pedra da Gavea

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When Portuguese sailors entered Guanabara Bay in January 1502, they spotted Pedra da Gavea and thought its shape resembled a topsail of a ship, giving the now famous mountain its name. The granite peak rises 2,769 feet (844 meters) above sea level and plummets almost directly down toward the sea.

Under the administration of Tijuca National Park, Pedra da Gavea has a challenging but well-marked hiking trail to the top, where the views rival those from Sugarloaf and Corcovado. The entire hike takes about six hours to complete.

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Vista Chinesa

Vista Chinesa

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With iconic landmarks like Sugar Loaf and Corcovado mountains, Rio de Janeiro has no shortage of famous lookouts, but if you’re looking for a unique view away from the masses, head to the Vista Chinesa. An oriental style pavilion perched at 380 meters on the Alto da Boa Vista, the Vista Chinesa (literally ‘the Chinese View’) is one of the most striking monuments of the Tijuca Forest, erected in 1903 to honor Rio’s Chinese immigrants.

Regarded as one of the grandest Chinese monuments in South America, the award-winning gazebo offers spectacular views over the city, spanning the coastal lagoons and mountaintops, including the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado, Ipanema and Copacabana beaches and Leblon. The easiest way to reach the Vista Chinesa is by taxi or tour bus, but adventurous types can also tackle the climb on foot or mountain bike - a steep yet scenic 6km trek that’s not for the faint hearted.

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Lapa Neighborhood

Lapa Neighborhood

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The most bohemian of Rio de Janeiro’s neighborhoods, vibrant Lapa is best known for its eclectic music scene, with an abundance of bars, clubs and venues hosting local samba and forró bands. After dark, the main streets of Rua da Lapa or Rua Joaquim Silva come alive, with dancers spilling onto the streets and top clubs like the Rio Scenarium, Arco Iris and Asa Branca teeming with locals and in-the-know tourists.

Even in the daylight hours, Lapa is a colorful district to explore, with the striking colonial buildings now home to a string of vintage shops and cafés frequented by Rio’s creative types. The area is also home to two of the city’s most iconic landmarks, most notably the Lapa Arches (Arcos da Lapa), an enormous 18th-century aqueduct that towers 64 meters over the central square. With the 42 grand arches dramatically lit at night, the arches make a popular meeting place for cariocas, as do the brightly painted steps of the Selaron Ladder, a short walk away.

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Rocinha

Rocinha

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A city within a city, Rocinha is Rio de Janeiro’s largest and most densely populated urban slum, or favela. Pouring down a hillside in the city’s South Zone, Rocinha is home to an estimated 180,000 residents, all crammed into its colorful maze of cement buildings and makeshift shanties.

In the past Rocinha has been difficult and often dangerous to navigate for outsiders, but nowadays local guides lead tours into this fascinating community, allowing visitors to catch a glimpse of daily life while experiencing the diversity and warmth of its residents.

While the thought of touring a favela makes some visitors uneasy, many residents of these neighborhoods have expressed pride in the fact that outsiders come to see their neighborhood — that Rocinha is just as much a part of Rio as is Copacabana or Ipanema.

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Grumari Beach (Praia de Grumari)

Grumari Beach (Praia de Grumari)

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While the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema offer a lot to see and there is always something going on, sometimes visitors find themselves in need of a break from the vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro. Grumari Beach is one of those beaches that is still a real insider tip and since it can only be reached by car, it is not very well known by tourists. Here, you can enjoy peace and tranquility surrounded by rolling hills and deep green Atlantic rainforest. The powdery sand along the 3 kilometer long beach is a bit darker, which, combined with the wild landscape, creates a stunning backdrop for this day trip.

Just like the adjoining Prainha Beach, Grumari Beach is part of a nature reserve and still very off the beaten track. Accordingly, visitors are predominantly locals and the signs of mass tourism have not yet manifested. The bay is very clean and pristine and can often be found completely deserted during the week.

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Sao Bento Monastery (Mosteiro de Sao Bento)

Sao Bento Monastery (Mosteiro de Sao Bento)

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From the outside, the Sao Bento Monastery and the Church of Nossa Senhora de Montserrat appear to be unassuming and even a bit austere, a nod to 16th century Roman Catholic chastity. Once inside, however, visitors can see how the elaborate nave, filigreed altar, and rococo wooden carvings speak to 16th century Roman Catholic fabulousness. Founded by a group of Benedictine monks—Sao Bento means Saint Benedict—that relocated from Salvador da Bahia in 1590, the current monastery and church complex was constructed by slaves over several decades, and who completed the work in 1671. Several of the sculptors and painters who worked on the intricate details of the church’s interior were monks as well.

Despite the overall architecture of the church and monastery being finished at the end of the 17th century, the monks continued to touch up the interior of the complex, most notably with the addition of enormous silver chandeliers weighing over 200 pounds each.

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Sao Conrado Beach (Praia de Sao Conrado)

Sao Conrado Beach (Praia de Sao Conrado)

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Whether you’re here for the surf, the golden sands, or to soar in the skies above, visiting Sao Conrado Beach is a highlight of Rio de Janeiro. Here in this affluent, oceanfront neighborhood that’s sometimes called Praia Pepino, visitors will find an eclectic combo of surfers, paragliders, wealthy elite, and the poorest residents in Rio. Just up the hill from Sao Conrado is the infamous Rocinha favela, which is one of the city’s poorest areas and also its largest slum. The juxtaposition of social classes is evident out on the streets—yet everyone seems to equally enjoy the combo of sunshine and surf. When strolling the sands of Sao Conrado, be sure to look up and scan the skies for hangliders circling above. The beach is a popular landing spot for groups of paragliders and hangliders, most of whom have launched from the slopes of neighboring Pedra Bonita.

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Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas)

Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas)

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Situated at the heart of Zona Sul and all but completely separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the upscale district of Ipanema, Rodrigo de Freitas Lake has been among Rio’s most distinguishing natural landmarks since the city was first established in the 16th century. In the shadow of Corcovado and covering nearly a square mile in surface area, the lagoon lends its name to the adjacent garden district of Lagoa and serves as a recreational area and beauty spot for local residents, with nearly 3 miles of bike and jogging trails, boathouses for rowing, and several exclusive social clubs located along the edge of the lagoon.

Named for a young Portuguese army official who lived in the area in the early 1700s, the history behind the glassy lagoon wasn’t always placid. The first Portuguese settler in the area, Rio governor Antonio Salema, slaughtered the indigenous Temoio Indians with smallpox-infected clothing when he arrived on the scene in 1575 to build a sugar mill.

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Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (Jardim Botanico)

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (Jardim Botanico)

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Idyllic and serene among the bustle of Rio the Botanic Gardens - or Jardim Botanico - are a delightful place to soak up the beauty of both Amazonian and imported plants.

There are over 5,500 species of plant and this is where you will find the first tea, cloves and cinnamon that were brought to Brazil to acclimatize. Highlights include the lake containing massive water lilies, the orchids and the Japanese Garden.

The gardens were founded in 1808 by the Prince Regent Dom João and is used as a research center as well as recreation. From the entrance you walk down the Avenue of Royal Palms lined with 134 majestic palms and into the gardens.

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Mirante Dona Marta

Mirante Dona Marta

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The Mirante Dona Marta literally translates to ‘lookout,’ and visitors to the site will get just that — an incredible view of some of Rio de Janeiro’s best sights, often without the crowds. Standing there one can see the long stretches of lush forest and white sand beach below, and even take in the famous sights of the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain.

The area functions as a helipad and observation point, with panoramic views of Guanabara Bay and Copacabana. At 1,200 feet (364 meters) high, it provides excellent sunrise and sunset vistas and photo opportunities of the natural surroundings and the city below. Many who know Rio well cite it as their favorite viewpoint.

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Urca

Urca

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Squeezed on a curved slice of land at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain and its shorter, wider companion at the other end of the cable car, tiny Urca remains one of Rio’s most unique neighborhoods in that it has retained its intimate feel and close-knit character for decades, despite rapid and unrestrained development in other sections of the city. Facing west across an inlet of Guanabara Bay and overlooking the stately districts of Botafogo and Flamengo, Urca is home to several restaurants and bars that make the trip from other parts of town worthwhile if only for the ambiance.

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