travel to do list for rio de janeiro

I’m glad I did these 13 things in Rio de Janeiro

I never gave much thought to traveling south of the United States. In my travel-dreams, Europe was my one and only; if I wanted to be really adventurous, I thought of Australia, but never South America. I wound up in Brazil without much thought or planning, and I quickly fell in love. Perhaps it was my lack of consideration that allowed me to appreciate Brazil for what it was, and Rio was my first introduction to the raw beauty and loud culture.

1. lounged on the beaches of ipanema and copacabana

Let’s go ahead and get the obvious out of the way–Rio de Janeiro has world famous beaches, and I will not contend the reasons for their fame. Though crowded, there is really no comparison to how life seems to circulate around the neighboring beaches. We’d walk up and down Ave Atlântica, people-watching or stopping at one of the many alfresco cafes by the beach for a cafe con leche. The beautiful mosaic walkways in these areas were a special favorite of mine, so don’t forget to look down at your feet at least once.

For sunset, Ipanema is the beach to be.

For sunset, Ipanema is the beach to be. Photo credit: Kathleen McGing.

2. drank caipirinhas

Caipirinhas are the national cocktails of Brazil. It’s sugar, lime juice and cachaça, sugarcane hard liquor. These can be got on the beach, in restaurants and in bars. Caipirinha and I became very best friends during new years eve celebrations but haven’t spoken since I left the country.

3. celebrated the new year

The world famous New Year Eve’s celebrations at Copacabana was the motivation for going to Rio in the first place. The tradition insists that everyone wears white to the beach. You can bring your own food and drinks with you. We saw several groups–even families–pitch camp to enjoy the New Eve Year traditions during the day and the music and fireworks at night.

NYE fireworks near Copacabana beach in Rio.

NYE fireworks near Copacabana beach in Rio.Photo credit: Kathleen McGing.

Bonus: champaign is encouraged because it’s said to give you wealth and energy in the next year.

According to an Afro-Brazilian tradition, if you jump seven waves and give flowers to the goddess of the sea, she will grant  your wish for the new year. Throughout the neighborhood near Copacabana and Ipanema, people line the streets, selling flowers for the occasion.

When the clock strikes midnight, fireworks are shot from barges just off the beach for one of the longest firework shows in the world.

Be warned, a lot of restaurants are closed on New Year’s Eve, so have plans in place for your meal. And the next morning, whether you’re just hungry or contemplating whether or not Caipirinha is the kind of friend you want to have in your life, Gringo Cafe is a darling little place with American breakfast and walking distance to Ipanema beach.

For more tips to celebrate New Years Eve in Rio:

4. shopped at the copacabana night market

Every evening (except Sundays) from 6pm to midnight, Ave Atlântica hosts the Copacabana night market. They have a bit of food, souvenirs, local artists and fantastic people watching. I got some amazing prints from a local artist for myself and my family.

5. visited the “garota de ipanema”

I backed into this popular gem on my first day in Brazil. We had been so excited about arriving in Brazil and making it to Ipanema for sunset that we didn’t realize we were hungry until we were starving. After a few minutes on Google search for a place that fit our criteria of “good eats” and “5 minutes walk away,” we ended up at Garota de Ipanema. We later learned this translated to “Girl from Ipanema,” like the song; the song was written at this little cafe steps away from the Ipanema Beach. We felt quite smart in our stupidity as we grilled our own “picanha” at the table.

6. explored lapas

Lapas is a bit away from Copacabana, but it’s a fun area in Rio. Being one of my early trips, and my first South American trip, I didn’t brave Rio public transportation (which I regret). But taking an Uber was easy enough. There is great night life in the area; be sure to check out Lapas 40 and Rio Scenarium.

A fun/ not-so-fun tidbit about Rio bars: you are given a ticket when you walk in the bar and the bartender will mark your card for everything that you order. When you go to leave, you have to wait in crazy-long lines to submit your ticket and pay the balance.

feira do rio antigo street market

The Feira do Rio Antigo Street Market in Lapas. Photo credit: Kathleen McGing.

7. shopped at the feira do rio antigo street market

The Feira do Rio Antigo Street Market is a monthly market near Lapas. My travel companion and I were obsessed with everything there was to see, buy and eat around this market. We bullied through our afternoon exhaustion and spent well over 3 hours there.

8. start your day at confeitaria colombo

Located in Rio’s Centro neighborhood, the Confeitaria Colombo is a very popular place. We got there 30 minutes before it opened and waited in line; luckily we got a table in the first wave of patrons otherwise we would have had to chose between coffee and our tour. The building is popular for political reasons in Rio, and it is just beautiful besides.

Confeitaria Colombo in Rio

Documenting my coffee at Confeitaria Colombo. Photo credit: Kathleen McGing.

9. tried (and mostly failed) to be patient for sunset at sugarloaf

The lines at Sugarloaf gave me a severe anxiety attack (sorry to my friend for having to put up with my temper). When you go, be prepared to wait in a line, then wait in another line, then wait in line again. Once you’ve made it to the top… wait in line to go up higher. Then wait in line to come back down.

Lines. Sugarloaf = a bunch of lines.

Ignore me: Sugarloaf is definitely worth a visit. The iconic mountain/ rock has a gorgeous view of Rio and sunset is stunning. If you aim to go for sunset, go much earlier than you think you’d need to and hang out up top.

sunset from sugarloaf in rio

Sunset from atop Sugarloaf. Do you see Christ the Redeemer?

10. went early to escadaria selarón

My first visit to Escadaria Selarón included about 400 other people. Escadaria Selarón are beautiful mosaic steps that Chilian artist Jorge Selarón built for the Brazilian people. Even with the crowds, I got the general idea of his mastery… but not really. One morning, a few days later, my travel companion and I enjoyed sunrise at the beach with stale coffee and then rushed on to Escadaria Selarón. Our early-morning efforts were rewarded; the stairs were completely empty!! We walked up and down the stairs, pausing for amateur photoshoots for about 30 minutes before we saw another person.

Escadaria Selarón in rio

Left, mid-afternoon during a walking tour. Right, me at 6am celebrating a travel-win. Photo credit: Kathleen McGing.

11. ogled the royal portuguese reading cabinet

Sadly, this prime example of “Library Porn” was under construction during our visit. We still snuck in for a peak, but was disappointed by the scaffolding. The pictures are amazing, and until I can return to take in its full glory… at least I can say I’ve been there.

Photo compliment of Atlas Obscura Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet

Photo of the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet, compliments of Atlas Obscura

12. praised christ the redeemer

Whenever a movie or a TV shows wants to show the audience that they are in Rio de Janeiro, they show an aerial shot of Christ the Redeemer looking down at the city below. Aside from its status as an icon for the city–and being a World Wonder–it doesn’t have a huge significance. It was built in the 20s and 30s with private funds. It’s reason for being built–as far as I can gather–is Rio wanting to build something on top of its highest point that would draw tourist.

Build they did and the tourist came.

I don’t remember the exact details of our visit in order to make recommendations; we bought our tickets ahead of time, went early and took the train. Wearing our aggressive tourist faces, we were on the first train and scurried up the mount to Christ before a lot of the other tourist, earning us time with the Jesus and the view without a lot of people. The crowd quickly swarmed, so it is debated how much worth our extra strain got us.

For more about Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue:

christ the redeemer in rio de janeiro

Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

13. braved a favela

In 1888, slavery was finally abolished in Brazil. The country had 30% more slaves carried to it than the US, amplifying the effects that slavery had on the country. It was also the last country in the Western World to abolish the sin, nearly 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

I’m including these sordid details of Brazil’s history because it’s the beginning of the favelas in existence today. Freed slaves became the homeless, uneducated and poor citizens of Rio; without any other options available to them, they moved into shack-like residences in the mountains that surrounded the city. 6% of Brazil’s population is believed to live in favelas.

Favela is Portuguese for slum.

Drugs, poor sanitation and gangs plague these urban areas. They are dangerous places, and most people will warn you against them.

Kathleen and I braved the scary favela stories to visit a little bar-restaurant we found online: Estrelas da Babilônia. The Internet convinced us it was safe, so we navigated the concrete maze of stairs, dead-ends and ramshackle homes as best we could. People gathered on the streets in front of their homes, talking, hanging up laundry and cooking; children chasing each other. When we passed them, everyone seemed to stop and stare.

Estrelas da Babilônia

McGing and I at Estrelas da Babilônia in Rio.

I knew people said favela’s were dangerous, but I urged on by my own stubbornness and the quite confidence of Kathleen who wordlessly followed my steps to dead-ends and turn arounds. And we successfully made it to Estrelas da Babilônia. We talked to the Belgium-born owner who insisted favelas were safe, met a man from Norway, chatted with some locals, and made it back to our AirBNB feeling like brave little travelers.

When I recount this excursion, I am often met with horror.

But, for what it’s worth, I’m glad we ventured into a favela during our time in Rio de Janeiro (gladder, still, that we made out of the favela). The favelas are famously scary and bad things happen there, but people also live there; people who have children and their own aspirations for life. Violent people and desperate people live there, but kind, hardworking people live there, too. I walked there one time with my best friend for a drink with a view and then left a few hours later, but others walk there every day; others live there.

The thesis of my ramble is this: I don’t think travel is supposed to be predictable, easy nor safe. It’s supposed to challenge us, surprise us and–sometimes–scare the shit out of us.

More about favelas:

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