With its unrivaled beach scene, stunning mountain landscape, funk and samba sounds, diverse nightlife, and amazing cultural offerings, you might think there's little reason to leave Rio de Janeiro. And while the city itself could easily take up a week of time (or more), there's a lot more to explore within a relatively quick jaunt of Rio. The surrounding region is packed with everything from almost-deserted beaches to sub-tropical islands to historic colonial towns. The best part? All of these destinations can be handled on a day trip or weekend getaway, giving you an even wider lens into southern Brazil's fascinating culture and stunning natural scenery.
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Rio is one of the largest cities in Latin America and the second-largest in Brazil, meaning that it can be a crowded, frenetic place. For a complete change of pace from that environment, Ilha Grande is a godsend. While many of the beaches on Brazil’s mainland have been packed with towering developments and all manner of vendors slinging food, souvenirs, and everything in between, the beaches of Ilha Grande remain blissfully free of — well — anything. Ferries from the mainland disembark in Vila do Abraao, which is a rustic, carless paradise and the island’s admittedly understated commercial hub. Insanely fresh seafood abounds at the island’s casual eateries, and most of its beaches require a boat to reach. Those include Praia Lopes Mendes (often included on lists of the world’s most beautiful beaches) as well as Praia Santo Antonio and Praia Parnaioca. There are also plenty of trails for hiking through the island’s rainforests and jungles. For those that want to stay overnight, camping and low-key hotels are available. Ferries to the island depart from multiple spots, though the earliest and easiest to access from Rio is at Mangaratiba.
Situated across Guanabara Bay from the city of Rio, Niteroi is, in many ways, part of the urban fabric of the Rio de Janeiro region. While Niteroi is accessible by bus and car over one of the longest bridges in Brazil, most tourists will make their way here by ferry from Rio’s Centro throughout the day. It’s a quick 10-minute trip if you hop on the fast boat, and the views of Guanabara Bay and the surrounding mountains are hard to beat. Once you’ve docked in Niteroi, the star of the show is its architecture — it’s home to two of Brazilian modernist master Oscar Niemeyer’s most celebrated works. It’s also the easiest way to see his work without flying to Brasilia, the nation’s capital. The most iconic of his Niteroi creations is the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum, which is housed in a stunning flying saucer-like building. The views from here are hard to beat, particularly as the sun is setting. Niteroi also has historic forts, a clutch of beaches ranging from secluded to bustling, and lots of upmarket shopping and dining. Head to the streets just behind the beach in Icarai for a taste of the latter.
Paraty is one of the most stunningly preserved historic towns in all of Brazil. While Rio’s historic center is packed with crumbling relics of the past and traffic, Paraty is pretty as a picture. The region here feels light years away from busy Rio, with steep green mountains, gorgeous beaches, and a lot of intimate charm. The crown jewel, however, is the colonial town center of Paraty. The cobblestone streets are closed to traffic, making it perfect for romantic strolls or low-key exploring. There are a number of cafes and restaurants throughout the town, as well as plenty of art galleries, though keep in mind that Paraty’s charms aren’t a secret. It’s firmly on the tourist radar, but that mix of local Brazilian flavor, stunning colonial architecture, and expats from around the world are what help make this tiny place a dynamic spot to visit. It’s a little over four hours from Rio by car.
You don’t technically have to leave Rio de Janeiro’s city limits to find a beach that feels decidedly away from it all. Prainha Beach happens to be within Rio’s official boundaries, but looks nothing like the bustling beaches of the Zona Sul. To be fair, it can get crowded on the weekends, but during the week, you’ll likely feel as though you have the sand to yourself. As part of a protected environmental area, the surrounding jungle-clad hills remain free of towering skyscrapers or any other development. There are some kiosks set up for food and drinks, but otherwise it’s a much more low-key scene and is especially popular with surfers. Like most beaches in Rio’s southern regions, the undertow here can be treacherous, so exercise caution when swimming. There’s also a pleasant hike up the hill behind the beach with great views of the area. A car or taxi is the easiest way to get here (the trip from Copacabana takes about an hour, depending on traffic). Consider yourself warned, though, as you’ll need to arrive early to secure a parking spot.
Just 90 minutes north of Rio de Janeiro by car, Petropolis is another quick escape that can have you wondering if you’re even still in Brazil at all. The town sits alongside the Serra dos Orgaos National Park, providing a stunning natural backdrop of sheer cliffs and green mountains. There are a number of historic treasures to explore here, including the Imperial Museum and the striking Cathedral of Saint Peter of Alcantara. However, the town is also a great jumping-off point for exploring the hills and mountains all around, which are packed with trails, waterfalls, and all manner of wildlife. Petropolis is a favorite mountain escape for Cariocas (the residents of Rio), and in the summer, its comparatively cooler climate provides much-needed relief from the steamy heat of Rio. As such, it can be visited on a day trip or a long weekend.
For Cariocas who don’t find the tony streets of Leblon and Ipanema enough to satisfy their needs, Buzios has been offering a glam escape to the east of the city. However, Buzios is not a quiet and calm retreat. Instead, you’ll find breezy beachfront promenades, upmarket shopping, high-end restaurants, and loads of nightlife, particularly in Armacao dos Buzios (the main town of the Buzios region). This resort area was once the vacation destination of Hollywood stars, and the vibe is still fairly upscale. There are almost countless beaches, all of which are tucked into pretty little coves. No matter which town you officially bed down in, there likely won’t be too much of a walk between you and the sand. Just keep in mind that high season (November until March) sees a huge influx of Cariocas, Brazilians, and international tourists, so it will be crowded. Buzios is more of a long-weekend destination, as it’s nearly a four-hour drive from Rio.
Arraial do Cabo and Ilha do Farol
If the boozy party scene of Buzios isn’t your cup of tea, Arraial do Cabo could be a better option. Here, bright blue seas and white sands are the name of the game, and on most days, the beaches are markedly less crowded than those found in Buzios and Rio. Spend your day wading in the waters that flank the east and west sides of the town (the east side has more tranquil surf and those signature tropically-hued waters), or hit up what are locally known as the Small Beaches — As Prainhas do Pontal do Atalaia.
Alternatively, jump on one of the many boats that depart from town headed for Ilha do Farol, a beautiful island that has pristine beaches and is prime for exploring on foot. Snorkeling and diving in the area are also spectacular, partially due to the number of shipwrecks in the waters offshore. Again, this area is best reserved for overnight trips or weekend getaways.
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most visited cities in the world, so if you’re planning a vacation here, you’ll have a huge variety of accommodations from which to choose. The bulk of the tourist action takes place in the Zona Sul, which consists of what are arguably Rio’s three most famous beachside neighborhoods: Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. For a prime spot right between Copacabana and Ipanema, opt for the Arena Ipanema Hotel, which has a fantastic rooftop terrace and pool, a great free breakfast, and fresh interiors. If you’d prefer a boutique hotel with its own casual party scene, Casa Mosquito, which is technically in the favela between Ipanema and Copacabana, can be a trendy option. And if you’d rather be in high-end Leblon, check out the Marina All Suites, which has great sea views.
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