Rio de Janeiro City Guide

Cariocas, as Rio's residents are known, will tell you that while God made the world in six days, and on the seventh, he made Rio De Janeiro,the home of samba, soccer, and carnival. Also known as 'the marvelous city', Rio is spread around Guanabara Bay, and is packed with some of the most iconic sites in the world.

Rio de Janeiro City Guide

Cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known, will tell you that while God made the world in six days, and on the seventh, he made Rio De Janeiro,the home of samba, soccer, and carnival. Also known as ‘the marvelous city’, Rio is spread around Guanabara Bay, and is packed with some of the most iconic sites in the world.

Copacabana and Ipanema are the best beaches in the city, packed most days of the week with surfers, posers and fitness freaks walking the black and white tiled promenade. If you can tear yourself away from the white sand beaches where some of the world’s most beautiful people congregate, panoramic views can be had of Rio from the Cristo Redentor statue, built in 1931. Sugarloaf’s cable car ride also offers spectacular panorama of Rio’s bays and beaches.

Santa Tereza‘s colonial architecture and antique tram make an interesting trip away from the sweltering lowlands, and the area’s bohemian shops have great crafts for sale. The Tijuaca Rainforest Reserve in central Rio has hiking trails and waterfalls far away from Rio’s traffic and urban tangle.

For a more adventurous trip, hang gliding and para-sailing enthusiasts can meet at Pepino Beach where flyboys can be hired for tandem rides over the southern beaches. Surfies can enjoy some of the best beaches in the world here and renting a board is easy and cheap.
So much is packed into Rio De Janeiro that the city resembles a tourist minister’s dream and whether it’s water sports, shopping or just plain people watching, Rio has it all.


Brazil’s currency is the Real (pronounced ‘Hey-Ow’). For years the Real was pegged 1:1 to the US dollar making the country extremely expensive for budget travellers. Since devaluation in the late 1990’s, travelling in Brazil has become a bargain, though the country’s tourist capital, Rio, will quickly drain you reserves.For up to date currency information, check the Currency Converter.

There are numerous banks all over Rio; those located in Centro will have better rates than those found in the tourist areas of Copacabana and Ipanema. Euros, Pounds and Dollars are the most commonly accepted currencies in Brazil. Bringing a reasonable amount of your money in cash is a good idea but the majority of your funds should be in traveller’s cheques and credit cards (photocopy these, bringing one copy with you and leaving one at home with family). It’s wise to be very careful when leaving with large amounts of cash from banks as pickpockets often frequent the streets outside. The same goes for cash machines, which can be easily found throughout the city.

Accommodation will take up most of a traveller’s budget while staying in Rio. Low end rooms are priced between $15 and $30 per night. The high season runs between December and February with Carnival pushing all hotel prices up the most; travellers on a very tight budget should carefully consider whether to visit at this time. There are plenty of mid and upper level hotels available, especially in Ipanema and Copacabana, costing between $50 and $100 per night, though some five star hotels can cost much more.

Simple meals cost a few dollars per person with plenty of snacks available at all hours of the day; cheap supermarkets also are a way to save money on food.  Entrance fees to the main sights like Cristo Redentor and Sugarloaf are pricey but not outrageous. There are many expensive activities in Rio ranging from helicopter rides to hang gliding over the city’s southern beaches, costing from around $100 per person.

Getting around

Most visitors stay in Rio’s southern zones, where the beaches are just a few blocks away. If staying further away, several modes of transport make it easy to get around:


A subway system operates in Rio, with a line extending all the way to within three blocks of Copacabana beach (though not all the way to Ipanema). It’s cheap to travel, easy to navigate, and air conditioned all year round. It’s also a good way to get to the neighbourhoods of Flamengo and Botofogo without having to navigate the buses.


Nine out of ten buses going south from Centro will take you to Copacabana Beach. If staying in Ipanema and you want to get to Copacabana or v.v., frequent buses cruise by clearly marked with signs in the front right hand side of the windshield. Passengers board from the rear, and pay the fare before slipping through turnstiles into the cabin. Rush hours should be avoided for serious traffic jams and the elevated risk of razor artists cutting into bags.


To visit the Cristo Redentor, or Sugarloaf mountain, it’s advisable to take a cab arranged by your hotel to avoid the pickpockets that prowl the bus lines. Taxis are cheap and can be flagged down from anywhere on major streets and intersections. Drivers sometimes only speak Portuguese so it helps to learn some phrases to get around. Taxis are also the best way to get to Rio’s two airports, Santos Dumont, where most of the shuttle flights to Sao Paulo operate, and Galeao (Antonio Carlos Jobim) International Airport where all transcontinental domestic and long haul international flights depart.

On foot

Although Rio isn’t really a walking city, the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are fronted by excellent pathways paved with distinctive black and white wave patterned tiles. They make excellent places to grab a fruit drink and people watch, but at night they can be dangerous along with many of the quieter streets around the major hotels.

By tram

Rio’s last remaining tram – or gondino – runs from the centre of town and takes you back in time to the colonial district of Santa Tereza. If you sit, its cheap, but if you hang off the sides, like a lot of the local kids, its free. The tram can be boarded in Centro.

By funicular train

While the ride is expensive, the train offers fantastic views on the way up to the two thousand three hundred feet Corcovado Mountain, topped with the world famous Christ statue that overlooks the city.


The people of Rio are a microcosm of Brazil’s ethnically diverse population. The city’s streets and beaches are packed with the vibrant mixture of African and European ethnicity that make Cariocas among the world’s most beautiful people. While most people profess to be Roman Catholic, Rio’s society is an open and tolerant in the country with large artsy, bohemian scenes in music, design and fashion.


Brazilian food is as diverse and as varied as the ethnic groups that have settled there; dishes are often a fusion of ingredients reflecting the African, Asian and southern European homelands of her people. Churrascerias (barbecue meat restaurants) are popular, with fixed prices for as much as you can eat it pays to arrive hungry. Waiters will arrive every few moments with more and more meat and can be added to a large salad bar. Buffet restaurants are popular in Brazil with Rio’s middle class, and numerous restaurants in the city serve these meals that are sold by weight: just pick up a plate, fill it as high as you want and the scale by the cashier will print your bill.

Sweet cool and refreshing squeezed fruit shakes are commonly available at Rio’s beaches and along the avenues a few blocks back from the sea. A popular local ‘energy’ drink is Acai, a rainforest bean that is ground up filtered and drunk ice cold. While it looks like coffee grinds it has a delicious taste and can give you a boost of energy for you to tackle those waves at Arpeador or to get back to your hotel on the crowded bus system.


Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, although English is widely understood in the major tourist areas and business areas in Rio. Learning some phrases in Portuguese is a good idea, especially to break the ice with locals when going out at night, and to help in bargaining in the city’s many outdoor craft markets and navigating the city with buses or taxis.


The weather in Rio De Janeiro is warm all year round. Situated in the tropical South Atlantic, the seasons here are reversed from the northern hemisphere; winters tend to be cool and dry, but not cold, with some rain and storms, lasting from June to September. In the summer heat from November to March the humidity is fierce and during this time every Carioca heads for the beach for relief, especially at weekends. Drinking plenty of fluids is essential to avoid dehydration and slapping on sunscreen to avoid getting burned by the strong sun.


Carioca’s are extremely casual when it comes to dressing, and they love to wear as little as possible, especially in the summer and when hitting the beaches. To be comfortable in the humid climate and to avoid sticking out as a tourist, t-shirts, shorts, and sandals are perfect for the beach and walking around. Few places have dress codes, except for the city’s churches where short clothing is frowned upon, so practically anything goes.

Thefts and safety

Safety in Rio is an issue most travellers are aware about before they get to Brazil; in fact, many arrive with money hidden in their shoes and an elaborate system of hiding valuables to ensure they don’t get mugged the minute they step through customs.

Rio has in recent years improved its reputation in regards to safety but crime does still exist here and careful attention should be paid on all the cities beaches; when travelling to Ipanema or Copacabana its smart to bring just a towel, a bottle of sunscreen and enough cash to get back to your hotel. Care must also be taken at all the cities tourist sites (including the buses and taxis that go to and from them) and everywhere on Sundays, when police presence in districts like Centro is limited. Thieves often call tourists ‘filet mignon’ for their easily swiped cash and cameras. The most important thing is to think carefully about bringing expensive cameras when sightseeing (disposable cameras make great alternatives) and dress down where ever you go; Brazilians wear shorts and t-shirts all year round and it pays to blend in.


Most nationalities require a visa before arrival; these rules generally apply to citizens of countries that don’t allow Brazilian nationals visa free entry. British passport holders don’t need a visa to Brazil while US and Australian passport holders do. All visitors must have at least six months validity left on their passports. Work visas are harder to get and an invitation letter is required to get one issued.


Places to visit:


As Rio’s business district, Centro offers little more than a place to change traveller’s cheques or as a jumping off point for the rickety tram to Santa Tereza. During business hours it’s worth a wander to see where most Carioca’s work, and to see the ornate Opera House, though its best avoided on Sunday when it’s an easy place to be relieved of your valuables.

Copacabana Beach

This is the centre of Rio, whether you live in a favela or a luxury condo in Ipanema; and on summer days and weekends, the beach is packed with people sunbathing, rollerblading, playing futvolley, or just posing in the white sand. The people watching afforded here puts most other world beach hotspots like Venice Beach in Los Angeles or Bondi Beach in Sydney to shame; the name of the game in Copacabana is to show as much flesh as you can with as little lycra as possible so ladies – be prepared to get waxing!

Ipanema Beach

Copacabana’s ritzier elder sister, Ipanema beach spawned one of the most iconic songs of the 1960’s written to immortalize the beautiful women who frequent it. The waves are stronger here than in Copacabana, the bodies are more perfectly tanned, buffed and primped, therefore its no wonder that this is the preferred beach to the super rich in Rio and the most beautiful ones at that.


As the world’s largest tropical rainforest set within a major city, Tijuaca is like the lungs of Rio, offering a cool green respite to the crowded hot concrete jungle surrounding the preserve. Hiking trails are so numerous that people can still get lost for days here and its unwise to hike in the park alone, especially in the early and late hours when theft can be a problem. Tijuaca is a fantastic place to experience the beauty of the South Atlantic rainforest that once stretched all along the coast south of Rio de Janeiro.

Santa Tereza

Originally settled in as a way for the city’s rich to escape a cholera epidemic gripping the coastal lowlands around Rio, Santa Tereza affords a sweeping view of the city, from the glinting roofs of the favelas to the gleaming skyscrapers of Centro to the out-stretched arms of Jesus the Redeemer in between. The colonial enclave was once the home of the great train robber Ronnie Biggs, and is now re emerging as one of the city’s trendier neighbourhoods.

Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor)

As one of the world’s top five iconic spots, Cristo Redentor is not to be missed by any visitor to Rio. During the day, the view of the city’s bays, mountains neighbourhoods and beaches seem to stretch forever, while at night, the tiny platform seems to float above the city like a spacecraft hovering above the city’s twinkling lights. No matter where you stay or visit in Rio, the statue and the trademark outstretched arms are always visible, through gaps in buildings and crowned on top of rain-forested hills.

Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar) 

The two stage cable car system that connects the smooth limestone monoliths was featured in a chase scene in the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker. The bubble glass tram cars afford magnificent views as you glide up to the top, so keep that camera handy. From the lower station helicopter flights take off for scenic views of Rio, as small jets rush past to land at Santos Dumont Airport. A full afternoon is well worth putting aside for visiting Sugarloaf, especially in late afternoon as the city glows in the rays of the setting sun.

The favellas

Almost one third of Rio’s inhabitants live in the nearly 500 slum favellas that surround the city. Immortalized for the drug-fuelled violence in films such as City of God, the favellas can be a dangerous and risky place to visit. But tours now exist for travellers who want to see how these people live, most of whom have immigrated to the city from Brazil’s impoverished northeast.

By Dave Lowe

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