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Ten Top Attractions for Happy Holidays in Rio de Janeiro



With many major holidays falling during the height of Brazilian summer, visitors  to Rio will often be able to spend Christmas and New Year's basking in tropical heat rather than shivering in the clutches of winter. Brazilians celebrate Christmas on the night of the 24th, and cariocas (Rio natives) typically spend the 25th relaxing on the beach. Lagoa, the city's lake, is one of the biggest attractions during the holiday season, when an enormous floating tree, decked with millions of sparkling lights, twinkles away at its center.

Rio Carnival needs virtually no introduction - and the whole city takes practically a whole week off in February (or occasionally March, depending on the date of Easter) to take part in the biggest party on the planet.  

New Year's is celebrated in grand form, with the biggest and best firework displays held on Copacabana beach, and the party hub of Lapa throngs with a mix of locals and visitors right through the party season. 

When given a few days off, many locals escape the city and head for the beach destinations to the east and west of the city - the Costa Verde, a stretch of beautiful green coast dotted with beaches and islands, is home to many of the state's best attractions and is well worth a few days' exploring.

Those looking to escape the holiday crowds can find shade and spectacular flora and fauna at the impressive Botanical Gardens, and there's some good last-minute Christmas shopping at Ipanema's Hippy Fair and Centro's Feira do Rio Antigo.


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Botanical Gardens
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson

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.




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.


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.


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Feira do Rio Antigo
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson


The historic center of Lapa is the setting for a lively street market, held on the first Saturday of each month (and every Saturday in the weeks before Christmas). Browse for everything from antiques and folk art to handmade fashions and vintage accessories. The sound of live samba music fills the air, the streets throng with shoppers and sightseers, and the many pavement cafes and bars occupying converted colonial buildings do a brisk trade as groups of friends linger over a reviving coffee, refreshing beer or energy-replenishing meal. The market is a great place to pick up Chris gifts and keepsakes as well as vintage clothes, accessories and vinyl records. Local designers also sell their creations here - often at surprisingly accessible prices.


Costa Verde


Rio de Janeiro's city beaches are famous the world over, and with good reason. But if you´ve been partying hard during your Rio vacation and are feeling the need for a little rest and relaxation in more tranquil surrounds, the Costa Verde (Green Coast) of Rio de Janeiro State beckons. This paradisiacal stretch of coastline takes in innumerous beaches and more islands than one could count - the Costa Verde town of Ilha Grande is in itself surrouned by 365 islands. The largest of these is the vast nature reserve of Ilha Grande, whose history as a prison for dangerous criminals and, before that, a leper colony, have not stopped visitors from flocking here in the search for isolated beaches surrounded by wild palms and chattering monkeys, as opposed to the high rise hotels of Copacabana. Of the beaches on Ilha Grande, Lopes Mendes is the most dramatically beautiful with its white sands and lapping waves. Take a boat if you don´t fancy the two-hour jungle trek to get here from Ilha Grande´s one real town.




No visit 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.


New Year's at Copacabana
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson


There's no better place in Rio to ring in the New Year than Copacabana beach. Millions of happy revelers, magnificent fireworks displays, live bands and music and a sparkling of Rio magic make for a truly memorable night. Tradition dictates that those who head to Copacabana beach do so wearing all white, and with some three-million people descending on the beach each December 31, the sea of white is a sight to behold. The festivities begin with big-name bands taking to the stage on the beach, and when the clock strikes 12 a seriously impressive fireworks display lights up the skies over the beach. Bring a bottle of your favorite tipple, put on your best white clothes, and prepare to ring in the new year in style.


Designed by famed modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, this enormous purpose-built stadium is where Rio's carnival magic happens. Located close to Centro, the Sambódromo, as it is known in Portuguese, stretches for 700 metres and has capacity for some 90,000 onlookers in the bleachers. Samba schools shake and shimmy their way along a wide 'runway' to the delight of the gathered carnival crowds. Tickets for the big carnival show vary according to which schools are performing, comfort levels and proximity to the parades, and for a (rather steep) fee samba fans can even hire a costume and dance alongside the school of their choice. In the months leading up to carnival, Sunday night technical rehearsals provide an opportunity to catch a little of the carnival fever - albeit without the full floats and costumes - for free.


Ipanema Hippie Fair
Photo courtesy of Janice Waltzer/Flickr

The name 'hippie fair' may conjure up images of flowing kaftans and incense sticks, but this colorful market, held in Ipanema each Sunday for some 60-plus years, is in fact a great place to pick up everything from local arts and crafts to fashion finds. Set aside a good few hours to browse all the stalls and don't be afraid to bargain with sellers - you can often bag a bargain if you buy more than one item from the same stall. Eagle-eyed shoppers will be able to find everything from vintage designer shades to hand-made dresses in funky fabrics.


Lagoa
Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson


Lagao Rodrigues de Freitas, or Lagoa as it is popularly known, is Rio's beautiful city lake and yet another postcard perfect scene in this city of so many natural wonders. The vast stretch of water is flanked by jungle-clad, cloud-swathed mountains, and ringed by a seven-kilometer walking, running and cycling track that is a major draw for health-conscious locals. Tourists flock to take swan pedal boats out into the water, and this is a great place for a family day out. Cafes, bars and restaurants around the lake make pleasant places of a cooling drink and a revitalising bite to eat, and are often filled with the sound of live music after dark.


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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.

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