Rio de Janeiro has one of the most beautiful urban settings globally, surrounded by green mountains along the crashing blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean and dotted with bright white buildings. Is it any surprise that the locals refer to this town as “Marvelous City“? When you’re not staring at the scenery, explore the city’s famous neighbourhoods and feel Rio’s distinct–and passionate–pulse.
You’re not alone if you find yourself humming “The Girl From Ipanema” as you walk through this small but iconic neighbourhood. Lovely, tree-lined streets border the primarily residential area next to one of Rio’s most spectacular beaches. In the inland, visit trendy boutiques selling one-of-a-kind fashions on Rua Visconde de Pirajá and Rua Garcia D’vila.
Make your way to the beach during the day. Its photogenic mountain backdrop and long promenade are impressive. Try to go on a weekend when Avenida Vieira Souto’s waterfront is closed to vehicles. Locals and tourists will walk, bike, and skate down this scenic stretch. After dark, you can dine at some of Rio’s hippest restaurants and enjoy the city’s raucous nightlife.
Copacabana is one of Rio’s most diverse and exciting neighbourhoods, nestled between the ocean and the mountains. Even though many tourists only visit the famed black-and-white stone promenade and a 2.5-mile stretch of beautiful beach, Copacabana is vast. It is home to nearly 200,000 people, which means plenty of shops, restaurants, and an exciting nightlife scene.
Of course, donning an itty-bitty bikini and heading to the beach to sunbathe, surf, swim, or simply people-watch should be your priority. Wannabe athletes can try their hand at beach volleyball, but be warned: you’ll be up against severe competitors on Copacabana’s beach. If you get hungry, go to one of the waterfront food stands and order a snack and a freshly made caipirinha.
Rio’s Centro lacks beach appeal; it makes up for the number of attractions that line its streets. Get your culture fix at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, which hosts art exhibitions, and the Teatro Municipal, which hosts ballet and opera performances. Visit Praça XV, the area’s most important square, and look for the palace, Paço Imperial, and the Arco do Teles.
Religious enthusiasts will enjoy visiting the numerous churches in Centro, such as Ordem Terceiro do Carmo, Santa Cruz dos Militares, and Nossa Senhora de Candelária. Travessa do Comércio, a stretch that fills up with revelers and pub-goers after dark, is a must-see at night.
4. Lapa District
The edgy Lapa District is a haven for Rio’s creatives and has been dubbed the “Montmartre of the Tropics” in homage to Paris’ famed neighbourhood. Before entering the heart of Lapa, you’ll arrive at the Largo de Lapa, where the Arcos de Lapa — a system of aqueducts — will unfold in front of you. Wander the neighbourhood’s winding streets, take selfies on the tiled staircase, and admire the faded romance of the buildings’ crumbling colonial architecture. Visit Lapa in the evening, when the neighbourhood transforms into a hotspot for nightlife. On weekends, the Arcos neighbourhood transforms into a massive street party.
One of Rio’s most affluent neighbourhoods, Leblon is known for its mile-long beach and famous residents such as local television personalities and movie stars. The see-and-be-seen vibe persists inland, and the restaurants and bars are among the most sophisticated — and expensive — in Rio.
Do you want to catch a wave? Head to the southern end of Leblon’s beach, where sound waves attract many surfers. Leblon’s bookstores, boutiques, and cafes allow shoppers to stretch their budgets. Take a seat at an outdoor table, order a coffee and a sweet dessert, and gaze out the window at the beautiful people passing by.
6. Santa Teresa
Do you want to go to Portugal but only get as far as Brazil? Don’t be concerned. Santa Teresa is a Portuguese city that is transported into the hills and jungles that define Rio de Janeiro’s landscape, with European-colonial style buildings and streetcars reminiscent of Lisbon. Go to the Santa Teresa Hotel’s rooftop for a great view of Santa Teresa (and the rest of the city)—which is also a great place to stay if you can afford it. Santa Teresa’s general elevation also makes it a great place to watch the sunset, especially if you’re drinking a caipirinha or a Brahma beer.
You will almost certainly take the cable car up to the Po de Açucar precipice if you visit Rio, and you might explore the area around the mountain’s base, which is a shame. To be sure, Urca isn’t as glitzy and glamorous as Ipanema, nor is it as photogenic as Santa Teresa. The laid-back waterfront bars and restaurants here, on the other hand, offer some of the most scenic dinings in Rio. Because its waterfront faces eastward, Urca is also a great place to watch the sunrise if you happen to wake up early and are in the area.
Flamengo, located on Guanabara Bay, is a residential neighbourhood with a beautiful setting, and it is closer to the city centre than Copacabana or Leblon. This Rio neighbourhood is an excellent option if you’re looking for an Airbnb apartment to use as a base in Rio. Flamengo also has plenty of green space and exercise trails, making it an ideal location for getting beach-ready. Furthermore, the Oi Futuro Cultural Center is a well-known meeting and event venue.
Lagoa is a residential neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro centred on the massive Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, north of Ipanema. Get tired of running laps around the lagoon to get in shape for romps on Ipanema’s nearby beaches, stop by one of the lagoon’s numerous bars or eateries. The lagoon also offers a breathtaking view of Rio’s towering topography, with mountains such as Corcovado, the Sugar Loaf, and Pedra da Gávea visible from the water.
Botafogo is just south of Flamengo, and the two neighbourhoods have a similar vibe (their enviable location on Guanabara Bay is just the beginning). If you get tired of admiring nearby Sugar Loaf Mountain—unlikely, but anything is possible in Rio—pay a visit to the Indian Museum, which has fascinating permanent and rotating exhibitions on Brazil’s large and diverse indigenous communities. Botafogo is the border of Urca so that you could squeeze it in between that Rio neighbourhood and Flamenco on your way around the city.
11. Barra de Tijuca
Until the 2016 Rio Olympics, few tourists ventured to Barra de Tijuca, located on the other side of the Pedra da Gávea mountain from Rio de Janeiro’s central districts and beaches, beneath the sprawling Tijuca National Forest. Although the Olympic Village that once existed here has since been repurposed, this exciting and authentic neighbourhood is still worth a visit, if only for its sprawling beach, which is broader and more prolonged than Copacabana and Ipanema, as well as significantly less touristic.
12. Jardim Botânico
As the name implies, the Jardim Botânico is home to Rio’s Botanical Gardens, a lush oasis of greenery in the western part of the city centre, less than 20 minutes by foot from Ipanema and Leblon. Apart from the garden, this is primarily a residential area. With one exception: from Jardim Botânico, you can begin a hike up to Christ the Redeemer (though this requires you to enter through Parque Lage, one of the most stunning examples of architecture in Rio).