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Rio De Janeiro, Brazil Travel Guide

Rio de Janeiro Summary

Pros

  • Something for everyone, with natural beauty alongside urban adventures
  • Hedonistic food culture that favors fresh, local ingredients
  • Beaches are bustling year round thanks to temperate climate  
  • Alluring historic landmarks, with an emphasis on the arts 
  • Live music galore that will get even the most guarded moving  
  • Variety of reliable options to get around, from subway to taxi to bikes
  • Breathtaking views from almost any beachfront hotel
  • LGBT-friendly Ipanema Beach is the stuff of legends
  • Vibrant nightlife as locals settle for nothing less than a good party 
  • Neighborhoods range from posh and exclusive to funky and bohemian
  • The city for soccer fans to watch some of the best players in the world in action 
  • Affordable hub for airfare across South America

Cons

  • English isn’t widely spoken, even in the tourism industry   
  • Whether standing in line at the grocery store or walking on the sidewalk, crowds are mostly unavoidable
  • Sewage overflows create polluted water at times 
  • Zika virus-carrying mosquitoes continue to be a health concern
  • Street harassment for women is an issue
  • Robberies and violent crime are common

What It's Like

Rio de Janeiro has it all: sparkling beaches, majestic mountains, lush forests, and an urban center that pulses at all times. In fact, moving the body is imperative when traveling to Rio. Whether shuffling to samba, hiking up waterfalls, or kicking a soccer ball, it’s hard to sit still -- even on the beach. It’s no secret that beach culture reigns supreme here, and you'll likely spot a carioca (as Rio’s residents are called) in a business suit one minute and a sunga -- their version of a Speedo -- the next. But as much as the locally-made Havaiana sandals are the norm, Rio is still very much a concrete jungle. Yes, crime is an ongoing concern here, but the combination of luxurious shopping, raucous soccer matches, sweaty late-night dance-fests, and gritty street culture all make Rio one of the most enchanting places to visit in South America.

Portuguese invaders first stumbled upon this region in January 1502. Mistaking Guanabara Bay for a river, they christened the settlement “River of January” after violently driving out the indigenous Tamaio people. These days, the city is a mix of many cultures and races, and still has its spectacular scenery mostly intact. The relaxed neighborhood of Urca, which sits on Guanabara Bay's now-polluted waters, is home to some of the best sweeping views of the city and the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain is a sweet way to scope out everything Rio has to offer. Going west across the city, the instantly recognizable Christ the Redeemer statue greets Brazilians and tourists alike with open arms on Corcovado Mountain, inside of Tijuca Forest National Park. The forest is also blessed with waterfalls, butterflies, and monkeys who won’t think twice about stealing bananas from a backpack. After a hike here, a stop at one of the numerous churrascarias is a must. While these all-you-can-eat-steakhouses are definitely not vegan, they're still surprisingly vegetarian friendly.

The beaches have an entirely separate culture of their own, as everything from fresh acai bowls to barely-there bathing suits, footvolley games, and peladas (informal soccer matches) are the norm. The promenades along each beach are tiled in different patterns to guide visitors. Ipanema, although crowded, remains one of Rio’s most infamous seaside neighborhoods -- and for good reason. An ultra-chic LGBT hotspot, it’s the place to see and be seen, and is packed with numerous trendy bars, high-end shopping along Visconde de Pirajá, eclectic restaurants, and modern art galleries. Ipanema’s older sibling, Copacabana, had its heyday in decades past but is still vibrant, with live bossa nova music, animated street performers, and fresh beachfront caipirinhas to sip well into the night. 

Celebration is another prime pastime in Rio. Whether it’s honoring the Afro-Brazilian ocean goddess at Copacabana Beach on New Year’s Eve or shaking a costumed tail feather during Carnival, Brazilians are always up for a good time. Even so, the party goes on year-round in Rio. The gritty neighborhood of Lapa, located in the historic downtown district of Centro, has the sounds of samba spilling out of bars all night long. Connecting Lapa and Santa Teresa is the Selarón staircase covered in uniquely crafted tiles, mirrors, and ceramics (you're also likely to run into a celebrity or two here). Once up the hill, lively parties on cobblestone streets, bohemian vibes, and breathtaking views from a quaint tram all make hipster-heavy Santa Teresa one of the more appealing neighborhoods in the city. Of course, no visit to Rio would be complete without being surrounded by the deafening cheers at one of the numerous soccer stadiums, from the iconic Maracanã Stadium to smaller local venues. 

For all of its beauty and sunshine, the city has a dark side when dealing with its poor. The distribution of wealth in Rio is highly imbalanced and on stark display all around, with nearly 600 favelas (or slums), existing in Rio today. Drug trafficking and gangs are common, and other major issues range from street harassment of women, concerns for LGBT citizens in certain parts of town, and ongoing issues with petty and violent crime. However, despite the danger, a controversial market of favela tourism is emerging, where tourists have the opportunity to take guided tours to the more well-known favelas, such as Rocinha. Some say it’s a chance for outsiders to see the inequality up close, and hopefully lend their support to the NGOs and organizations working in the community to improve conditions. Others view favela tours as voyeuristic poverty gawking. If you're adding this to your itinerary, it's worth doing a bit of research ahead of time.

Rio is an equally wild and refined place, for sure, but you need to look no further than the local lingo for proof of the city's magic. Saudade is an oft-used, essentially untranslatable Brazilian phrase that points to a deep nostalgia and longing for something that may not happen again. And it's true: After just one trip here, you’ll be pining to go back. 

Where To Stay

For travelers who want to be within walking distance of both the beach and the subway, Ipanema and nearby Leblon are the best options, although both can be on the pricier side. In Ipanema, Hotel Emiliano is a luxury favorite, while Vermont Hotel is a more budget-friendly option.  Leblon is Ipanema’s laid-back neighbor but still has plenty of fine dining, sophisticated bars, and boutique hotels to keep travelers happy. Both are safe to walk around at night.

Lapa, although not close to the subway, is best for travelers who don’t mind going to sleep with samba spilling through their window. There are a sprinkling of budget hotels along the main drag, Avenida Mem de Sá. Nearby, Santa Teresa has a similar vibe, although it's even more removed from quick transportation choices.

For a quieter environment, accommodations in residential neighborhoods are increasingly becoming the norm. The leafy streets of Botafogo are close to popular tourist sights such as Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Barra de Tijuca, home to both mega-malls and a spot of secluded beach, also has some of the city's newest and most modern hotels.

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