Visiting Rio de Janeiro for the First Time

By Erica Ryan — June 1, 2015 —

For the first time visitor, Rio is one of those destinations about which you just don’t know what to expect. The popular image, of course, is of beaches and bikinis, an endless party. There is the amazing scenery, too, with the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue spreading his arms wide as if signaling to the world that Rio de Janeiro is the place to be. In a word, Brazil promises something exotic.

I spent almost a week in Rio on a UIUC College of Business trip, and I would go back in a heartbeat. It truly is a place for great fun. Still, there are some dangerous areas in the city, and the sheer size can be hard to navigate. With this in mind, here are some tips and a suggested itinerary for anyone who is thinking about visiting Rio de Janeiro for the first time.

Let’s imagine that you are arriving on a Friday. Here is what I recommend for a full, action-packed weekend.

Ipanema — Bar Veloso & Ipanema Beach

Staying in Ipanema is a good bet. This is a nice area, and you can count on it to be safe. Plus, the beaches here are less crowded than those in Copacabana. Once you check in to your hotel, walk over to Bar Veloso for lunch. This place has a lot of history. As legend has it, in the late 1960s two young songwriters named Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes used to sit at Bar Veloso and watch a beautiful girl walk back and forth to the beach every day. The song The Girl from Ipanema was composed in her honor. If you don’t recognize the name, go look it up. Chances are you will know the tune. It is one of the most recorded songs in history. Anyway, Bar Veloso is still open today and has great food (along with good people watching too).

After lunch, walk down the street to the beach and take in the views of Inpanema beach. Make a pit stop at one of the many Brahma kiosks and find a spot to sit and relax on the beach while you crack open a cold beer. Whether you want to sunbathe, swim, have a few beers or all of the above, Ipanema is the perfect place. There are always guys who walk around trying to sell merchandise such as swimsuits, sunglasses, and soccer jerseys. To get them to walk away, say “No obrigado” if you are a guy and “No obrigada” if you are female (this means “no thank you”).

Approaching Ipanema Beach

Approaching Ipanema Beach

Even on a cloudy day, the beach is crowded and fun

Even on a cloudy day, the beach is crowded and fun

BUT, if someone comes offering something that looks like dark purple ice cream, do not say no!  This is frozen acai, and it is huge in Brazil! As you might know, acai is a berry. In Brazil they crush the berries, freeze them and eat it like ice cream. It is delicious and not too bad for you. In my opinion, while in Rio you should get acai twice a day because you won’t find it anywhere in the US or Europe. The closest you’ll get is acai juice, which doesn’t even come close.

Frozen ice cream with acai is AMAZING!!

Frozen acai is AMAZING!!

Christ the Redeemer

Later in the day, after chilling at the beach, take a trip up to Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf Mountain. Both of these are peaks that you can reach by gondola or trolley. The nice part about Sugar Loaf is that you get an amazing view of both the city and Christ the Redeemer. The cool part of going up to Christ the Redeemer is being able to see how truly immense it is. You won’t be disappointed with either visit, but make sure the weather is relatively clear because you wont be able see much if it’s cloudy or raining. When we got up to Christ the Redeemer, for example, it was so foggy that you could see the base of the statue, and that was it. We were just finishing the “Wow, I wish the weather was better” sentence when all of a sudden the statue emerged and Christ stood 125 feet high in front of us. As it turned out, a cloud was passing through right in front of our eyes. That is something I will never forget.

Christ the Redeemer -- before and after the cloud rolled by

Christ the Redeemer — before and after the cloud rolled by

Later in the evening, take a taxi or public transport to Copacabana Beach to have dinner across the street from the ocean. The views of the water and Christ the Redeemer are stunning from this vantage point, and it will be more reasonably priced than dinner on Inpanema Beach.

After dinner, Rio Scenarium is your next stop. This place was voted one of the top 10 bars in the world by the Guardian. You might want to go to a smaller bar or pregame beforehand, however, because you’ll pay a cover charge and the drinks are not cheap. But once you do arrive, you won’t be disappointed. This bar will show you what Brazilians are all about. There is a stage on the bottom floor with live samba music going all night long. Order a caipirinha from the bar. It’s Brazilian rum with lime and sugar — and strong enough to kill you if you have too many. Our tour guide told us “I need one to be tipsy, two to be drunk, and three to forget I was ever drunk.”

The Hippie Fair in Ipanema

It will be difficult to wake up the next morning, but you must make it out to the Hippie Fair in Inpanema. The world’s largest outdoor arts and crafts gallery, it is open every Sunday from 7am-7pm. Here you can buy handmade jewelry, leather goods, and art right from the original designer (be sure to bargain). You can spend hours browsing.

I’d recommend getting lunch at a local café, trying some sweet and savory pastries, and drinking an amazing cup of Brazilian coffee. From there you have a few different options on how to spend the day. You could walk through Inpanema and shop at all the boutiques and high end stores. If you want more views of the city, take the trip up to Sugar Loaf or Christ the Redeemer, whichever you didn’t see the day earlier. If you’re a sports fan, try to catch Neymar playing on the Brazilian National Team and see the Maracanã stadium where the 2014 World Cup took place. The opening and closing of the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held there as well. Another option is to see the botanical gardens.

For dinner, try to find a good steakhouse. For those who don’t know, traditional Brazilian steakhouses have a set price and offer all you can eat. At night, try to hit up Pedra do Sal for live outdoor samba music in the exact square that samba was born. Spend your night there or head out to a club in Copacabana. When the DJ plays a remix to the Barry Manilow Copacabana song, I don’t think you will ever want to leave this city.

If you’re staying longer than just a few days, then go hiking or head up to the upscale beach town of Buzios. Whatever you decide, be sure to spend more time on the beach soaking in the view with acai in one hand and a beer in the other!

Does anyone have any other fun recommendations for Rio?  Please share!


Cover image courtesy of Ramon Llorensi/Flickr


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