Whenever I think of Rio de Janeiro, the words to Barry Manilow’s Copacabana always play in my head. Showgirls, beaches, hot nightclubs and models playing volleyball on the beach. The city is full of contradictions and yet, it has the power to steal your heart. There are many things to do in Rio de Janeiro even if you don’t have a lot of time.
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What does Rio de Janeiro mean in English?
In English, the name Rio de Janeiro sounds pretty exotic and exciting. In Portuguese, it literally means “the river of January.” I felt a bit deflated when I found this out. After all, that doesn’t sound very exciting or exotic. Does it sound weird to people speaking Portuguese to say they’re going to “the river of January?” Or is it “January River?” Maybe that is why they commonly shorten it to Rio? It would still be like saying that they are going to the river, although people probably aren’t likely to say that these days. I digress.
Portuguese explorers arrived on the shores of Guanabara Bay on January 1, 1502. Not knowing what to name this new place, they opted for the significance of the date and called it Rio de Janeiro – January River. Very practical fellows when you think about it.
Explore Brazil’s Portuguese connection
As Europe’s political situation became more unsettling, Portugal’s royal court moved from Lisbon to Rio in 1807. They stayed there until tensions between Portugal and Brazil led to the country’s independence. In 1822, the Empire of Brazil was established, and Prince Pedro became its emperor, Dom Pedro I.
The royal palace in Rio is quite an interesting place. It stands quietly in this bustling city, proud like the royals that lived there. Sometimes I wonder if they saw it as a sanctuary or a self-imposed prison. After all, they were only there for their safety. t definitely is not as glamorous as its European counterparts are, but it still is an impressive building.
Things to do in Rio de Janeiro
There are many things to do in Rio de Janeiro. You can spend days here, discovering all the city has to offer. However, this handy guide will give you some ideas to fill out your itinerary. It will give you a taste of what makes this city such a wonderful mix of flavours, sounds, and cultures.
Visit the Copacabana Beach
Probably one of the most popular things to do in Rio de Janeiro is a visit to the Copacabana beach. It is a popular destination for locals and visitors. Take a stroll on the beach or along the mosaic-tiled promenade for a taste of this lively neighbourhood. Overlooking the beaches are many fashionable hotels and high rises with sidewalk cafes and bars.
You might also want to stop by the Copacabana Fort, home to a military museum. Here you can tour a number of exhibits dedicated to different periods and events in the Brazilian army’s history.
Grab a drink at the Copacabana Palace
Built in an Art Deco style, on what was once the outskirts of Rio, the Copacabana Palace hotel overlooks the beach that is its namesake. Like many similar hotels, this was once a playground for the rich and famous. From big-name movie stars, famous rock stars and artists to politicians and royals, many have graced these walls with their presence.
If the walls could speak, I’m sure they’d have many deliciously scandalous stories to tell. Although the hotel’s glory days were in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s still a snazzy place today. It’s definitely worth adding to your list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro. Walking inside is like taking a step into a world that’s straight out of a movie. The shiny marble, the chandeliers and the uniformed staff all play their part to perfection.
The hotel is not exactly a budget accommodation, but if you’re able to stay here – I’m jealous! Actually, you don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to enjoy a drink by the pool, and I highly recommend that you do so.
The pool area is where the people-watching is at its best. I’m sure the rooms have even better views, but you gotta make do with what you have. The pool area has a lovely sitting area where you can enjoy a beverage and a snack in an enjoyable setting. Bon s if the weather is good. I didn’t think you can actually get in the pool unless you’re a guest, but it certainly looks inviting.
Check out Christ the Redeemer statue
You can’t go to Rio and not visit its most famous landmark. The statue of Christ the Redeemer is worth adding to your list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro. With arms wide open, it overlooks the city atop the Corcovado Mountain. You can’t really imagine the magnitude of the statue until you actually are standing underneath it. Plus, the views alone will take your breath away.
The statue is another example of the art deco style found in Rio. It is 30 metres (98 ft) tall with an 8 metre (26 ft) pedestal base and was sculpted by a French-Polish sculptor Paul Landowski. The whole project took nine years to complete and is now recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and the Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal and the Colosseum.
It’s best to visit the statue first thing in the morning before the crowds. You can book a tour to take you there and to the top. Getting tickets yourself is also an option, but you have to book them ahead of time, and that seemed a lot more difficult, so I opted for an early tour. The tour bus gets you to the entrance, and from there, you have to climb over 200 steps to the base of the statue. There are elevators that make some of the journey easier. It was really worth getting up at 6 a.m. as the views were spectacular.
Admire the Escadaria Selarón
The world-famous steps, also known as the Selaron Steps, are part of the must-see on your things to do in Rio de Janeiro list. The stairs with over 2,000 pieces of tile, ceramics and mirrors are a creation by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón as a tribute to his adopted city.
Selarón started to work on the steps back in 1990, using tiles from over 60 countries. His project completely changed the rundown neighbourhood into a creative hub and a tourist spot. It’s located between Rua Joaquim Silva in Lapa and Rua Pinto Martins in Santa Teresa.
Stroll along the Ipanema beach
Much like its sexy neighbour the Copacabana, the Ipanema beach has its own claim to fame. I wasn’t quite aware of the Girl from Ipanema song until I came to Rio, but apparently, it’s quite famous. Much of this neighbourhood once belonged to José Antonio Moreira Filho, the Baron of Ipanema. This s where the name derives from.
The Ipanema neighbourhood is quite upscale with many restaurants, bars and shops frequented by locals and tourists alike. Here you’ll see many people ride their bikes and rollerblade along the beach, surf the waves or sunbathe on the beach. After all, you can’t visit Rio de Janeiro without a stop at the beach.
Indulge at the Parque Lage
As far as things to do in Rio de Janeiro go, you can’t go wrong with the Parque Lage. This charming spot at the foot of Corcovado Mountain is definitely worth adding to your list.
Nestled in the Tijuca National Park stands a grand palazzo with artistic gardens and magnificent views. It was built in the 19th century by Henrique Lage, a Brazilian entrepreneur, for his Italian opera singer wife, Gabriella Besanzoni. The estate is a feast for the senses and a glimpse into the life of Brazil’s rich and famous.
Once a sugar mill during the colonial days, the property is a public park with trails, gardens, and lakes. The house itself houses the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, an art school that hosts free art exhibitions and performances. The on-site restaurant is a perfect stop for breakfast or lunch, whether you’re planning to hike to the statue of Christ the Redeemer or escape the chaos of the city.
Admire Rio de Janeiro architecture
The architecture here was the first thing that surprised me about Rio. I did ‘t exactly know what to expect, but it wasn’t what we found. Architecture is definitely interesting, and you should add that to your list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro. It has a very European feel than anything in North America. When you think about it, countries like Canada and the U.S. were settled by people who were often escaping poverty, persecution and many other unpleasant things back home.
They wanted a new start and an opportunity to leave the old world behind. They wanted to model their new lives differently from what they came from, including how they built their cities. There was no need to preserve the old world as the new one offered a new start.
South America was mostly a conquest. Those that came here seeking riches did so in the name of their kingdoms. Their aim was to extend that old-world power and ways of life into their new colonies. Much like their Spanish counterparts, the Portuguese were in search of wealth and conquest. As a result, much of the architecture here in Rio is reminiscent of Portugal. Although Rio de Janeiro is over 500 years old, much of the old architecture hasn’t survived due to various redevelopments and politics. What has, is definitely worth checking out.
Take a cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain
A visit to Sugarloaf Mountain guarantees wonderful views of the city. Sugarloaf’s peak rises 296 meters above Guanabara Bay and overlooks the Atlantic ocean. This is definitely one of the most impressive things to do in Rio de Janeiro. While the views are always stunning, you can catch a very instagramable sunset there. Cable cars run the 1,400-metre journey every 20 min between the Pão de Açúcar and the Morro da Urca peaks. You can buy tickets at the station located on Praia Vermehla.
Theatro Municipal (Municipal Theatre)
Enjoy an evening out or join a guided tour in one of the city’s most imposing and beautiful buildings. The Theatro Municipal, inaugurated in 1909 and inspired by the Paris Opéra of Charles Garnier, is a Brazilian cultural institution. Here you can enjoy choir, symphony orchestra and ballet performances by renowned international and local artists. If cultural outings are your things, this is definitely the spot to add to your list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Real Gabinete Português de Leitura
The Real Gabinete is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Opened in 1837, it was founded by Portuguese immigrants and political refugees. Their vision was to promote culture among the Portuguese community in what was then the capital of the Empire of Brazil.
You can visit for free during the week, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Make sure to check out the impressive Portuguese Reading Room that is home to 350,000 works dating back to the 16th to 18th centuries. There is also a small collection of sculptures, paintings and coins.
The building is in the Portuguese Manueline style and definitely worth adding to your list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro.
Crime and safety: what you need to know
Rio de Janeiro is not exactly the safest city in the world. The crime stats alone can be enough to scare visitors away. While I m not discounting this issue, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. As a visitor, you have to exercise caution and common sense. Most Brazilians I’ve met were friendly and almost surprised that anyone would want to visit their country. However, just like in many other places, not everyone you meet will mean you well.
Unlike many other places I’ve been to, strolling around in the evening wasn’t advisable and definitely not something I was willing to do in Rio. Travelling with Uber was safe and easy, but it’s also good to know a local that can take you around. There are many favelas in Rio, as in other cities in Brazil. They are not safe places for tourists to wander into alone. I personally wouldn’t add that to my list of things to do in Rio de Janeiro or any other city.
Sometimes considered an element of dark tourism, favela tours are common and popular among tourists in Rio. Personally, I am not a fan of such activities, so this wasn’t of interest to me. If you decide to explore the favelas, make sure you do your research before heading off on tour with a stranger.
You might also like to read: Things to know before travelling to Brazil for practical tips and advice.
Thoughts on things to do in Rio de Janeiro
Rio has so many contradictions. Its past steeped in wealth, power and tradition, set up the modern way of life. Many people live in severe poverty while others live in extreme luxury. There are the rich and the poor, divided by class, race and income. The extremes are stark and can be disheartening.
It definitely isn’t a perfect system; Rio is full of energy with lots of tension under the surface. Despite it all, I felt very welcomed here and would encourage others to explore. The people I met in Brazil were friendly and helpful and many of them have become my friends.
This has definitely become one of my favourite places. The many things to do in Rio de Janeiro, and this post is just a small taste of what you can find in this colourful city. What are you waiting for?