Best Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro

10 Best Things to See and Do in the City of Rio

Whether you want to dance all night, sunbathe all day, surf crashing waves, climb mountain peaks or just check the boxes on your 'world's iconic sights' checklist, Rio de Janeiro is your place. 

Rio is home to some of the world's most instantly-recognisable postcard images, including the Christ statue - one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World - towering Sugar Loaf mountain, and the beautiful beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. 

Sports fans flock to the Maracana soccer stadium - formerly the largest in the world and now truly world class following an enormous revamp for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. 

Adventurous souls are spoiled for choice -  the rugged mountains and thick swathes of Atlantic rainforest provide ample opportunity for climbing, hiking, abseiling and even hanggliding, while the crashing ocean waves will keep surfers happy. 

On the other hand, if you just want to relax, the tranquil gardens of Jardim Botanico and Parque Lage provide a welcome respite from the city swelter.

When it comes to celebrations, Rio knows how to party like no other place on Earth, and four-day frenzy of Carnival should not be missed by any partier worth their salt. 


Be sure to set aside time in your schedule to visit this unique, grand-scale artwork in downtown. Named after the Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who dedicated the last decades of his life to tirelessly working on this 'tribute to the Brazilian people', the Escadaria Selaron (often referred to as the 'Lapa Steps') is a long, steep stairwell linking the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, covered in brightly-hued and intricately-patterned tiles from across the world. These tiles are interspersed with distinctive artworks from Selaron himself - look out for the pregnant woman motif that appears in almost all his works - and was an ongoing, ever-evolving labour of love for the artist until he was killed at his home by the stairs, in early 2013. The stairwell makes a great photo opportunity, and has appeared in music videos from Snoop Dogg and Pharell, as well as the Black Eyed Peas.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: This is a truly unique artwork, and makes for great photo opportunities.

Lucy's expert tip: This is best visited by day, in a group, as the surrounding area is a little seedy. It is a lively place to enjoy a caipirinha on weekend evenings, but be sure to go with a local.

Read more about Escadaria Selaron (Lapa Steps) →

Along with the beaches, the Christ statue and Sugar Loaf mountain, another postcard-perfect image of Rio are the mammoth white arches that stand in city's historic center. At night, revelers gather below the arches as a huge street party unfurls - head here on a Friday night to see Rio's party spirit at its liveliest. The area around the arches is taken over by hundreds of stalls selling all manner of tempting treats to eat and drink, from fresh-baked pizzas and beers to Northeastern acaraje and fruity-but-potent cocktails. Surrounded by bars and clubs pumping out everything from hip hop and favela funk to samba and pagode, the Arcos da Lapa are the starting point for many a memorable night out in Rio.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Re-painted a glistening white ahead of the 2014 World Cup, the Lapa Arches are back to their attention-grabbing best.

Lucy's expert tip: Keep valuables well hidden and snap pictures quickly - while safety in Lapa has improved in recent years, it is still a favorite spot for petty thieves.

Read more about Arcos da Lapa →

Tijuca National Park
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

The largest stretch of urban jungle in the world, Tijuca National Park is home to Corcovado mountain and the Christ statue as well as being the setting for some serious outdoor pursuits. It isn't advisable to enter the jungle without a knowledgeable guide - not least because getting lost would be all too easy - but visitors can take their pick pick from a vast range of guides and tour operators running everything from hop-on, hop-off sightseeing drives to mountain-climbing adventures. Natural pools and waterfalls provide an opportunity to cool down, but be sure to bring plenty of drinking water.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: This is the world's largest swathe of urban jungle, and features crashing natural waterfalls and pools.

Lucy's expert tip: Slather on the insect repellent, and wear loose, comfortable clothes that cover the body as much as possible - there are lots of biting insects here.

Read more about Tijuca National Park →

Santa Teresa
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

There's more to Rio de Janeiro than its beaches, and the artistic heart of the city can be found up in the jungle-clad hills of Santa Teresa. Here, pastel-colored colonial mansions have been converted into bucolic bars, friendly guest houses, artists' studios and some of the best restaurants in Rio, and the lofty location makes for some terrific views over the city. Start your visit to Santa Teresa at Largo do Guimaraes, the busy square at the start of the city, and follow the steep cobbled streets to discover vintage clothes stores, bustling drinking dens and some of the friendliest locals in the city.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: This breezy hilltop neighborhood has a small village feel and is home to some of the finest colonial buildings in Rio.

Lucy's expert tip: Head to Santa Teresa on a sunny Sunday afternoon to catch craft fairs, street samba and a welcome change from the packed beaches of the Zona Sul.

Read more about Santa Teresa →

Botanical Gardens
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

The informal restaurant inside the leafy gardens that give Jardim Botanico its name is one of the most pleasant spots in the city to enjoy a sandwich, salad and a coffee or glass of wine. This shady botanical garden is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in the fascinating flora and fauna of Rio as well as those just looking for a shady retreat from the sticky heat of the city streets. Colorful butterflies flutter through some 6,500 species of vegetation, while chattering marmoset monkeys play overhead. The sprawling gardens are spread over some 55 acres, with trails leading from one point of interest to another. It is perfectly possible to spend an entire day in this scenic park, so head here early in the morning to make the most of all there is to see here.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: These beautiful gardens are packed with colorful native flora and fauna and provide welcome shade on sticky days.

Lucy's expert tip: Bring a picnic if you're on a budget - there are several cafes within the park, but they are predictably pricey.

Read more about Botanical Gardens →

Copacabana Beach
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

Copacabana beach is famous the world over, and while it's 1950s glamorous heyday is over, it is still a spectacular stretch of sand. The crashing waves, scantically-clad beachgoers and skilled beach soccer players all call the eye, while the vision of Sugar Loaf mountain in the background frames the scene perfectly. This is one of the best places in Rio to shop for keepsakes and gifts for friends and family back home - and you can do it all from the comfort of a beachfront bar. Vendors stroll along the beachfront, selling all manner of goods from replica christ statues (scaled down, of course) to hats, t-shirts and sarongs.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Rio de Janeiro is arguable the world's most famous beach, and is worth a visit for the people-watching alone.

Lucy's expert tip: Give a polite but firm shake of the head to the many beach vendors if you don't want to buy their wares - some can be pushy if they think there's a chance of a sale.

Read more about Copacabana Beach →

While Copacabana wins out as the most picture-perfect city beach in Rio, Ipanema is easily the more chic of the two neighboring stretches of sand. Less flanked by high rise hotels than its neighbor, Ipanema is the ideal place to while away the hours just working on that tan and watching the beautiful people glide by. There are scores of kiosks selling tempting food and drink, too. The towering twin peaks of the Dois Irmaos (two brothers) mountains frames the beach scene in spectacular fashion, and visitors will find the beach informally divided into social groups. Head to Posto Nove (Lifeguard post 9) for a young, hip crowd, or look for the giant rainbow flag if you're looking for gay-friendly sunbathing and socializing.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: If you're imagining spectacularly beautiful people lounging on an equally spectacular Rio beach, you're probably thinking of Ipanema.

Lucy's expert tip: Rio's beaches are its social spaces - don't be afraid to try out your Portuguese if somebody catches your eye on the beach, just make sure they're not already accompanied before you try out your lines!

Read more about Ipanema Beach →

Maracana Stadium
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

The mighty Maracana is arguably the world's most famous soccer stadium and, while it is no longer the largest in the world, its 78,000 capacity means it is still a giant among sports arenas. The stadium, whose official title is Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho, is known by the Maracana neighborhood in which it is located, and the drama on the pitch is matched by the dramatic backdrop of towering mountains. While new safety regulations have called for an end to the firecrackers that were once a part of the Brazilian soccer game experience, spectators can still expect frenetic drumming, chanting and general exuberance. For those lucky enough to be in Rio for the FIFA World Cup 2014 games here will doubtless be unforgettable.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Maracana is a legendary soccer stadium, and received a huge revamp ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Lucy's expert tip: Don't wear club colors here on match days, the rivalry between Brazilian teams is fierce to say the least.

Read more about Maracana Stadium →

Sugar Loaf (Pao de Acucar)
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

One of the most famous mountain peaks in the world, Sugar Loaf (Pao de Acucar in Portuguese) scarcely needs an introduction. But while you may be familiar with the tourist board images of the cable car making its dizzying ascent up to the top of the mountain, nothing can prepare you for the spectacular views and the true splendor of Rio's cityscape as it unfurls below. The cable car makes two stops - calling first at Morro da Urca, Sugar Loaf's smaller sister mountain, before continuing its journey to the lofty vantage point. Sugar Loaf juts right out of the Atlantic Ocean, and the sweeping vistas of white sand beaches, jungle-clad mountains and crashing waves will take your breath away.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The cable car ride up to Sugar Loaf's peak takes in jaw-dropping views over Rio's curving beaches, rugged mountains and thick jungle.

Lucy's expert tip: Try to time your visit to catch sunset from the top of the mountain. Sipping a caipirinha while the pumpkin sun descends over the city is an unforgettable experience.

Read more about Sugar Loaf (Pao de Acucar) →

No trip to Rio would be complete without a trip to see 'the Big Guy', and the views from the feet of this most iconic of statues are truly breathtaking. One of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, the 'Christo Redentor' stands tall atop Corcovado, or 'hunchback' mountain - the highest peak in this city of rugged mountains. While minibus trips run up to the statue, the best way to make the ascent is to ride the funicular railway. As the little red train climbs through the jungle-clad hills, leaving sweeping vistas in its wake, it's not uncommon for live samba bands to entertain passengers onboard.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Rio's Christ statue is officially one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and the views from its base are magnificent.

Lucy's expert tip: While there are walking trails up to the Christ Statue, it is not safe to walk up unless you are with a group and an experienced guide

Read more about Christ the Redeemer and Corcovado Mountain →


Meet Lucy Bryson

Lucy is a British freelance writer living in Rio de Janeiro since 2007. While there are some things she misses about her home country, the lure of year-round sunshine has proved too powerful to resist.