21 Travel Tips: Insider’s Guide to Rio de Janeiro

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Rio de Janeiro is famous for its Beaches (Photo: Courtesy Trafalgar Tours)

This year’s Summer Olympics have put Brazil, and Rio de Janeiro in particular, in the spotlight, so why not bring you an insider’s guide? Here, 21 tips from the experts.

Whether you’re thinking of a last-minute trip to take in the sporting matches, or just thinking about travelling to this diverse South American country in the near future, take some advice from the experts who have been there. Guided tours, such as those offered by companies such as Trafalgar, Merit Travel, Globus, and Insight Vacations, are the best way to see any new destination, with country experts and local guides who speak the language and know where to find the hidden gems, or must-see spots, like Christ the Redeemer, below (photo: courtesy Trafalgar).


We asked travel insiders to give us their must-dos and must-sees. Start crossing off your Rio de Janeiro bucket list here, and then click through to get more insider secrets.

Insider: Merit Travel (www.merittravel.com; 1.866.341.1777)

Insider tip: Travelling with a pre-arranged small group tour is highly recommended. Rio is a huge city and travelling with a professional guide will allow you to hit all of the hot spots (often avoiding the lines!), get insider knowledge on the lesser-known local gems, and see all that you want to see within the safety of a group and the time limitations of your trip.

Rio must-sees:

  1. If you’re up for a steep climb, check out the Forte Duque de Caxias, a military base, which offers incredible views over to Pão de Açúcar  (Sugarloaf), Corcovado and the Cagarras Islands
  2. Don’t miss strolling through some of Rio’s great neighbourhoods and checking out the street art. One great example is the Escadaria Selarón, hand-laid mosaic tile steps that are beautiful, colourful, and tell great stories unique to Brazil
  3. Must-try foods include: Feijoadas, a hearty local stew; and some delicious grilled pineapple
  4. As with any big city, be open minded! Sample some of the street food, brush up on some basic phrases to engage with locals, and if an impromptu band starts playing, imagine you’re at Carnival and dance!

Next: Escorted tours

Sugarloaf, mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, South America, gondola, beach, city, ocean
Sugarloaf, mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, South America (courtesy, Globus)

Insider: Globus Escorted Tours (www.globusjourneys.ca; 1.800.268.3636)

Insider tip: We recommend spending at least 3 to 4 days in Rio hitting the must see sites. Rio is a year-round destination experiencing moderate climate all year. Of course, their seasons are opposite than ours in North America so the hottest months are December to March; this same time period is also the wetter time period with afternoon showers common. Their winter July – September is actually an ideal time for Rio, with its mild temps and sunny days.

Rio Must dos and Must sees:

  1. Sugar Loaf Mountain (above) for 360° panoramic views or Rio and its famous beaches.
  2. Tijuca National Park which is a rainforest in the middle of the city. The lush area takes up 7% of Rio and is home to monkeys, coatis, toucans, and many other species.
  3. See the Sambodromo where the famous Carnival parade takes place each year. You can even try on some carnival outfits here – great photo op!
  4. Dine at a typical churrascaria like Porcão, which serves up endless options of meat, chicken, seafood, salads, sushi, and more. You will be given a two-coloured button – one side is red and the other is green. If you have the green side up, the waiters will continuously deliver different types of meats from the grill. The red side means I need a minute to digest please.  You also have beautiful views of Guanabara Bay here too!
  5. Walk along the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. All along the walkway that lines these famous beaches, you will find small beach bars that serve up fresh agua de coco (coconut water) straight from the coconut. Or you can try a caipirinha, which is Brazil’s national drink made from cachaça (a distilled spirit from sugarcane), limes, and sugar.  Drinks are much less expensive at these beach bars especially when compared to the pricey hotels just across the street. And when you want another round, you ask for a “seidera.”
  6. On Sundays, Avenida Atlantica, which is the street that runs parallel with Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches, is closed to traffic and is a great place for a run or walk. You can also find vendors who set up here selling their crafts and souvenirs.
  7. Take a walk or streetcar ride through Santa Teresa neighborhood. Not only does this area offer magnificent views but it retains its colonial charm from yesteryear. See the famous convent of the same name built in the 18th Century, admire works of art in the many galleries found here, and dine and eat at some of the trendy local restaurants.
  8. Visit the most famous street fair called the “Hippie Fair” on Sundays in Ipanema (Praça General Osorio – Square). You can find souvenirs, crafts, painting, leather goods , clothing , jewellery, food and many other things.
  9. Shopping Rio Sul Mall (closest to the hotels in Copacabana: there is a free shuttle from Subway Station Cardeal Arcoverde directly to Rio Sul (round trip; Or Village Mall which is the newest mall in Rio, very sophisticated and located in Barra da Tijuca.
  10. Make sure and buy a pair of Havaiana flip-flops when in Rio and you will look like a native!

NEXT: More insider tips

Insider: Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com/ca; 1.888.725.5003)

Insider tip: On Sundays, attend church service at one of the finest colonial churches in Brazil – Mosteiro de Sao Bento. On Sunday the high mass at 10am includes a choir of Benedictine monks singing Gregorian chants.

More must dos and must Sees:

  1. Sunrise at Christ the Redeemer
  2. Visit a historic favela
  3. Eat at a churrascaria for Currasco, barbecue Brazilian-style
  4. Attend a Samba show
  5. Drink a caipirinha (Click through to the next page for the cocktail recipe so you can try it at home)
  6. Try an Acai (extremely popular) topped with banana, coconut flakes, wheat and granola.
  7. Explore local neighbourhood of Santa Teresa

NEXT: Recipe to toast the Olympics, Rio-Style

Toast the Olympics, Rio-Style

Pitú, who makes the Cachaça spirit, an essential ingredient for the Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil, shared their recipe for the classic, which they call the Piturinha. www.pitubrazil.com/en

½ of a lime, plus one slice for garnish

2 tablespoons sugar

50 mL or 1 ¾ oz Pitú Cachaça

crushed ice

Cut one-half of a lime into quarters and place in an old-fashioned or rocks glass. Muddle the lime and sugar, filled glass with ice and Pitú Cachaça. Stir ingredients until ice starts to melt. Garnish with lime wedges. (For a unique Canadian twist, substitute the white sugar with 1 tsp. of maple syrup.)