Rio de Janeiro has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. In fact, it was my long-term obsession with this vibrant city in Brazil that inspired my month-long backpacking adventure around South America (what can I say, I don’t like to do things by halves!)
Rio de Janeiro has everything you could wish for in a travel destination. Beaches, mountains, nightlife, culture… It’s the sort of place where you could easily while away weeks in the blink of an eye. But if you only have a couple of days to explore, here are some of the best places to visit in Brazil’s ‘Marvellous City’.
Please note: This visit took place prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Please check all current travel advice before planning your visit and travel responsibly.
Where to stay in Rio de Janeiro:
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Rio de Janeiro that is central, safe, and won’t break the bank, then look no further than the Ritz Copacabana Boutique Hotel. We spent 3 nights here and couldn’t have wished for anything better. The rooms are stylish and comfortable, the staff are friendly, and there is even a rooftop pool and bar with some of the best views in the city! You’re also located slap-bang in the middle of Copacabana and Ipanema, just steps away from world-class restaurants, shops and nightlife.
Two days in Rio de Janeiro:
Sip caipirinhas at Copacabana beach
No visit to Rio de Janeiro is complete without a trip to Copacabana Beach. With two glorious miles of powdery white sand and crystal clear waters, it’s no wonder this ranks among the world’s most famous beaches. There’s no better way to experience Copacabana than to find yourself a beach bar and kick back with an ice-cold caipirinha – these cocktails are a staple in Rio and a delicious way to cool down in the Brazilian heat.
Relax in Ipanema
Beyond Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro is packed full of beautiful beaches. Prainha, Leblon and Leme are all popular choices… But just a short stroll from Copacabana Beach is one of Rio’s finest: Ipanema. Take to the waves with one of the local surf schools or simply sit back and chill out in this beach paradise. Once you’ve had enough sun for the day, Ipanema’s boutique stores and markets are well worth a browse.
Marvel at the views from Sugarloaf Mountain
There are few places in the wold that have impressed me more than Sugarloaf Mountain. The views from the top are simply indescribable – please just go and see for yourself, as no words can do it justice!
It’s a 20-minute Uber ride from Ipanema to the Sugarloaf cable car station in Urca. From here, it’s a two-stage journey to the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain. The first can be completed either by a 40 minute hike, or a quick cable car ride up to Morro da Urca, where you’ll find amazing viewpoints, a restaurant, and bar. You may even get to meet some of the locals – wild marmoset monkeys!
A second cable car ride will take you to the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain, where the most phenomenal views of Rio’s beaches and mountains await. Time your visit for late afternoon and watch in awe, as the sun sets over the mountains and the city lights up before your eyes.
Visit Christ the Redeemer
As if Rio de Janeiro doesn’t have enough going on, it is also home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World: Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor). The 100 foot statue of Christ keeps watch over the city from the summit of Corcovado Mountain. Spotting the iconic statue from the ground is a thrill in itself, but it’s well worth a trip up the mountain to appreciate this world wonder up-close.
There are hiking trails up the mountain and around Tijuca National Park, but these were closed to tourists when we visited, due to a number of attacks, so do check the latest safety information carefully.
Alternatively, the cog train offers a comfortable ride up with lovely mountain views the whole way. Christ the Redeemer is one of the most popular attractions in the world, so I’d recommend pre-booking your train tickets through the official Trem do Corcovado website to avoid long queues on the day.
The views from the mountain-top are out of this world and seeing the giant statue of Christ, with arms stretched wide, is something you will not forget in a hurry!
Spend the afternoon in Santa Teresa
Nestled up in the hills of Rio de Janeiro is a charming little neighbourhood called Santa Teresa. The vibe up here is very different to the tourist-filled beach neighbourhoods. There’s a much more authentic, bohemian feel and it’s a lovely place for a wander, with quirky art galleries, record stores, and coffee shops around every corner.
Be sure to make a stop at Centro Cultural Municipal Parque das Ruínas, while you’re in the Santa Teresa area. This cultural centre is located within the ruins of a beautiful old mansion and is free to visit. The views from up here are gorgeous (a running theme in Rio!) and there is even an outdoor stage, where you can often catch live art performances on evenings and weekends.
Experience lively Lapa
For your final stop of the day, head to neighbouring Lapa, famous for its buzzing bars and nightlife. The legendary Escadaria Selarón (Lapa Steps) connect Santa Teresa and Lapa and are an essential photo stop while you’re here. Especially if you’re a noughties hip-hop fan, like me, and recognise the colourful mosaic steps from Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams’ music video!
Stick around for sundown and you can catch live samba bands, sip cocktails in atmospheric jazz bars, or dance the night away in world-class nightclubs.
Now that you’ve explored some of the highlights of Rio de Janeiro, where will you head to next? Take a look at my Ultimate Guide to visiting Iguazu Falls or browse my South America travel guides for inspiration!