Known as the Marvellous City, Rio de Janeiro is a dream destination like no other. With endless sandy beaches, a rich colonial history and a privileged location between the sea and the tropical rainforest, this beautiful but convoluted city has become a top international destinations in South America. Here is the 4 day itinerary that I followed during my last visit!
Day 1: Corcovado & Pão de Açúcar
Morning: Corcovado Mountain
I wanted to start my trip in Rio with what is the landmark not only of the city, but almost the whole of Brazil: the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain. It was also recently elected as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. I took the public bus from my accommodation in Ipanema Beach, and after a tense drive in the crazy Brazilian traffic, it left me just at the foot of the mountain.
I reserved my tickets online in advance and it was a smart decision. The queue to buy the tickets on the spot was considerably long, while tickets bought online have a specific entry time and give you direct access. This saved me at least one hour wait. Even though you still need to exchange your online voucher for the actual tickets, this shouldn't take you more than a few minutes.
There are a couple different options to go to the top: you can either go by train or van. I decided to take the train as the ride only takes 20 minutes and it offers wonderful views while going up the mountain in the middle of the jungle. Even though it's slightly more expensive than the van, I still recommended it.
What surprised me the most during the ride is that this train is actually used as public transport by many people that live on the slope of the mountain. Quite a bit of a climb to reach your house but they definitely have privileged views.
The views from the top are absolutely wonderful, I can't think of any other place in the world in a similar location. The viewpoint is quite small and always crowded by tourists, which can be irritating at times. However, that didn't stop me from taking in the views and enjoying my time there, looking open-mouthed at the surroundings.
The Corcovado Mountain (meaning 'hunchback') rises over 700m high, giving you a panoramic view of Rio. The statue is a 30m tall representation of Christ, opening his arms to embrace the city of Rio. It was constructed 1921 and 1931 by a French sculptor to commemorate Brazil's 100th anniversary of independence.
Afternoon: Pão de Açúcar
After spending a good few hours on the Corcovado, we headed down and grabbed a quick lunch in one of the restaurants just outside the train station. Our second destination was Pão de Açúcar, or the Sugarloaf Mountain.
There's quite a bit of a distance between Corcovado and the Sugarloaf, around 7km in total with a very bad connection by public transport, so we decided to take a taxi. The ride was less than €10 (including the forced tip for the driver as "he didn't have any change"), which still was a lot better than getting lost trying to figure out the buses or ending up in some dodgy slam.
Tickets are quite pricey, just like in the Corcovado Mountain: almost €20 per adult, with discounts if you're a citizen of Brazilian or a Mercosur country. The ascent is made by cable car and divided into two sections: first to the Morro da Urca, from where you can see the Baía de Guanabara (Guanabara Bay) as well as the coastline. Then, you need to take a second cable car to Pão de Açúcar. The summit reaches the 396m, and the views are even more striking than before: you will see the whole city of Rio and Christ the Redeemer unfold beneath your feet.
However, my favourite part of the Pão de Açúcar was the Saguis. These friendly, hand sized little monkeys are usually found in the rain forest, and are everywhere in the Pão de Açúcar. They'll be more than happy to pose for your photos; they can be a tourist attraction on their own.
I particularly enjoyed more the Pão de Açúcar than the Corcovado. First of all; it's not as crowded. You'll still find lots of tourists, but the viewpoint is much bigger so everyone is more dispersed. The views are very different and liked both of them, I honestly couldn't choose one if I had to. They offer you very different sides of Rio and both are a must during your visit.
Morning & afternoon: Ipanema Beach
After a full day of intensive sightseeing, there's nothing better for a second day in Rio than enjoying one of its many beaches. Ipanema was my favourite beach in Rio, a lot cleaner and less busy than Copacabana.
This beach was made famous worldwide by the bossa nova 'Girl From Ipanema', a tune praising the local beauty of a local woman.
Ipanema is an upper-class neighbourhood, which is especially evident due to its high security and police patrolling compared to other areas of Rio. The beach is split into different sections or postos (posts): Posto 8 is located further east and frequented mainly by kids from the favelas nearby, while in Posto 9 you'll find young people and the gay community.
Posto 10 is the westernmost point and belongs to Leblon Beach, so technically it isn't Ipanema anymore. This area is perfect for sport lovers, with multiple games of volleyball and football, and is usually frequented by local families.
The word Ipanema comes from an indigenous word meaning 'bad, dangerous waters', and clearly the strength of the sea current won't let you have a relaxed swim. While the ocean is perfect to practice extreme sports such as surf or windsurf, I wouldn't recommend going beyond the shore.
The streets just behind the beach promenade are full of restaurants and cafes, so there will be plenty of options to grab something to eat. Most places here will be quite pricy, so sometimes it's better to walk just for a few minutes and leave behind the tourist traps.
In Ipanema you also need to try água de coco (coconut water) and a handmade Caipirinha, it couldn't get any better while you enjoy the sun!
Evening: Farme de Amoedo
Farme de Amoedo is known to be one the main LGBT streets in Rio, similar to Soho in London or New York, full of bars and nightclubs. This has made it one of the most famous streets for tourists and partygoers from all around the world. The truth is pretty much all the bars are for all publics, and Farme de Amoedo is one of the best spots to enjoy a few drinks at night in a friendly environment.
We continued our visit in Rio with the Centro or downtown. This part of Rio is mainly commercial, with high skyscrapers and businesses. This area is also where most of the historical buildings of the city are located.
Our first stop where the Arcos da Lapa, a series of 42 monumental arches that used to be an aqueduct bringing water from the Carioca River to the city centre. Nowadays it is crossed by the bondinho (tramway) that connects the neighbourhoods of Santa Tereza and Centro.
Just behind Arcos da Lapa you'll find the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), a modern cone-shaped cathedral constructed at the end of the 70s.
A few minutes from here you can also reach the Escadaria Selarón, 215 steps leading up from Rua Joaquim Silva and covered with colourful mosaics by a Chilean artist. It has become one of the symbols of Rio.
In Centro you can't miss the Theatro Municipal, built in the style of the Paris Opera. Today it's home to Rio's opera, and you can also enjoy ballet and classical music concerts. They offer 45 minutes guided visits inside from Tuesday to Friday at 12PM, 2PM and 4PM, as well as Saturdays at 12PM.
Compared to other areas of Rio, such as Ipanema or Copacabana, downtown Rio can be a crazy place. The traffic and rush of people heading to work can be intimidating, as well as the fact that the whole area looks a bit dodgy. I was travelling with locals so I didn't feel insecure at all during my time in Rio, but particularly in the downtown, I wouldn't recommend going beyond the main tourist attractions.
For the rest of the day, we decided to cross over to Niterói, located just across the Guanabara Bay and a few minutes by ferry from downtown Rio. Both cities are connected by the Ponte Rio-Niterói, a 15.5km long bridge that holds the record of being the longest in Brazil.
The main reason we went to Niterói was to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. I really enjoyed the whole complex, both the inside and the outside with a very cool reflecting pool. Even if you're not especially interested in contemporary art (I'm not the biggest fan myself), it's still a recommended visit. Moreover, the views of Rio at the other side of the bay are just gorgeous.
Day 4: Copacabana
We left Copacabana Beach for our last day in Rio. This 4km long beach is one of the landmarks of Rio, packed with both locals and tourists. Copacabana is a great beach to spend a relaxing day, even though I enjoyed Ipanema more: the water was much cleaner and the currents can be even stronger.
We walked along the seaside all the way to Copacabana Palace, Rio's most famous hotel that has hosted from rock stars such as the Rolling Stones to other personalities such as Madonna, Marilyn Monroe or even Queen Elizabeth.
Next to the Posto 6 you will also find the statue of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, considered the greatest Portuguese language poet.
You also have to stop by one of the stalls selling tapioca, a fried starch that resembles a grainy pancake. You can find them both sweet and savoury, but my favourite one was with condensed milk and banana, just delicious!
We ended our day enjoying the sunset in Pedra do Arpoador, located right in between Copacabana and Ipanema Beach. The views of the beach and Dois Irmãos Mountain are just wonderful and the perfect way to say goodbye to the Cidade Maravilhosa, a truly 'Marvelous City'.
All opinions are my own.
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