Five years after the World Cup and three years after the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is still the place to be.
Rio de Janeiro, or the Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City) as it is affectionately known by in Brazil, is one of the most breathtaking cities you will ever visit. It is one of the most visited cities in the world with picturesque beaches, stunning mountains all within minutes of each other, and a party-like atmosphere.
Rio de Janeiro has a little bit of everything for all types of tourists. For the adventure seeker, there are spectacular hikes, surfing, rock-climbing and kite-boarding all within minutes of each other. For those looking for parties and nightlife, the city of Rio has you covered with festivities and dancing everyday of the week. Crowded botecos (small bars) line most streets if you are looking for a cold beer or a Caparinha, Brazil’s national cocktail made with cachaça (distilled sugar cane juice), sugar and lime. Looking for a relaxing and chill vacation? Rio’s world renowned beaches and Bossa Nova vibes will fit perfectly for you. From Copacabana to Ipanema and Leblon to Barra da Tijuca, a beach chair awaits you so that you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.
Despite its natural beauty, year-round pleasant weather, and party-like atmosphere, Rio is not without its challenges, many of which were highlighted during the 2016 Summer Olympics and 2014 World Cup. Safety, violence, and corruption have plagued Rio de Janeiro and Brazil as a whole in recent times. Economically, the country has fallen into a recession, with high unemployment and devaluation of the local currency after numerous years of expansion and growth. The lack of sewage infrastructure and treatment facilities has led to massive runoffs into the ocean, contaminating and polluting the local water supply.
As someone who lived and worked in Rio for six years, I’ve seen firsthand both the promise and potential that this beautiful city has to offer along with the frustrations that come along with civic inefficiency and governmental corruption. Ultimately, I loved my time in Rio and would recommend a visit by anyone with a thirst for culture, adventure, and nature.
Getting To & From Rio
There are two airports in Rio de Janeiro: Galeão International Airport (GIG) and Airport RJ Santos Dumont (SDU). Galeão International Airport is the second busiest airport in Brazil; São Paulo’s airport is the busiest. Galeão, also referred to as Tom Jobim, was renovated ahead of the Olympics and offers plenty of international flights, but the prices aren’t cheap when compared to flying into other countries. For travelers arriving to Rio from a destination within Brazil, the smaller Santo Dumont may be a better option. Although the airport is somewhat dated, it provides easier access to the city, so check to see if this is an option prior to purchasing.
Regardless of which airport you fly in and out of, be sure to budget for at least three hours to get to the airport. Traffic to and from both airports can be horrendous, and the congestion and lack of quality road infrastructure can sometimes mean that it will take up to an hour to drive as little as 15 kilometers. Unfortunately, mass transit options to both airports are limited, as the metro and subway do not service the airports. The wait is worth it, though: pack a camera for takeoff or landing as you’ll be treated to fantastic views.
Getting Around Rio
According to a study by Dutch transport technology company TomTom, Rio de Janeiro has the third worst traffic in the world (Rio Times Online, 2015), but that doesn’t mean that getting around the city needs to be similarly painful. With some smart planning, you’ll be able to navigate the city with a minimum of stress and visit a multitude of sites and destinations.
Mass transit options such as the metro, BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), or bus system are affordable options for travelers that not only are cost effective but help avoid the most congested roads at peak times. Rio’s metro system is comprised of three main lines that run regularly, which are air-conditioned, clean and efficient. You can purchase a prepaid card or recharge an existing card from a kiosk in any metro station using cash (no change given) for a minimum of R$5. Subway maps are displayed in every metro station, and the metro’s hours are Monday through Saturday from 5 a.m. to midnight and 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays and holidays.
The BRT is a bus line that was created for the Olympics in 2016 to help people to get to more isolated places in the West Zone and North Zone of the city. The BRT is a great option for getting to more remote beaches, like Recreio. This bus system is easy to manage and connects with the Metro system at many stops.
The bus system is more tricky to manage. Buses run regularly around the city, but due to traffic the times are inconsistent. Buses are a great way to go short distances between neighborhoods and beaches. Google Maps is one of the best ways to navigate the bus system, as the app tells you where to meet the bus and a predicted departure and arrival time of buses.
Ridesharing apps such as Uber are another option for getting around the city. In addition to the added security of a ridesharing app as it tracks your location and assigns you a verified driver and car in the system, these apps typically are more competitive economically than hailing a taxi off the street. Also, unlike many airports, Uber is allowed access to both airports in Rio. Santo Dumont Airport includes an Uber Lounge, which offers customer service, wifi and a waiting area. In addition to Uber, other ridesharing platforms that have local traction include 99Taxis and Easy Taxi.
Perhaps the most relaxing way to get around Rio is by bicycle. Dedicated bike paths run throughout the city, such as from Copacabana to Leblon, provide a unique and personal way to get to know the city. On Sundays, several streets close off to traffic, making this an ideal day of the week to explore Rio.
Rio's Must Destinations
The beauty of Rio is that the main attractions and activities are located within 30 kilometers of each other. Because Rio is Brazil's largest tourist attraction, the list of things to do and places to visit would be massive. Here are my favorite spots from years of living and visiting the city.
IPANEMA/LEBLON BEACH: Ipanema and Leblon Beach are essentially the same beach separated by a canal offering spectacular views of the famous Morro Dois Irmãos mountains. The beaches are lined with hundreds of barracas (pop-up tents that rent chairs and sell beer and snacks), so you don’t need to prepare for your day at the beach - just show up.
PIER MAUÁ: The world’s largest street mural is a can’t miss when visiting Rio. The mural was created by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra and depicts portraits of indigenous people from Ethiopia, Thailand, Europe, The Americas and Papua New Guinea. The mural measures 623 feet long and 51 feet high for a mammoth 32,300 square feet.
COMPLEXO LAGOON: A spectacular food court and movie theater located on the edge of the lake called Lagoa de Freitas (pictured). The outdoor seating area provides amazing views of the lake and Christ Statue. Complexo Lagoon is no ordinary food court.
BAR DA LAGE: Located on top of the hill in the Vidigal Favela, this bar has a beautiful deck with cold drinks and music. It’s the perfect place to catch a sunset and grab a beer, especially after the Dois Irmãos Hike.
PARQUE NATURAL MUNICIPAL DA CATACUMBA: Located on the other side of Lagoa de Freitas from Complexo Lagoon is a little sanctuary with sculptures and short but steep hikes that offer impressive views.
PARQUE LAGE: Parque Lage is a former mansion turned art school. The structure resembles a Buddhist Monastery with a cafe that offers breakfasts and light meals.
MUSEUM OF TOMORROW: Built on the waterfront at Pier Mauá ahead of the 2016 Olympics, this unique architectural structure is surrounded by pools, gardens and leisure areas. The museum offers free admission on Tuesdays.
MORRO DOIS IRMÃOS HIKE: This quintessential 3 hour round trip hike in Zona Sul is a moderate trek that offers everything from favelas to beautiful views of the city, ocean, Christ Statue and surrounding landscapes.
SUGARLOAF MOUNTAIN: Take a breath-taking cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf or hike from the beautiful idyllic beach, known as Praia Vermelho (the Red Beach). The views from the top offer breathtaking panoramic views over Botafogo Bay, Flamengo, and the surrounding city of Rio. Clássico Beach Club is located on the summit and offers drinks and food.
MURETA DA URCA: Enjoy classic appetizers and beverages on the Urca wall near Bar da Urca, a popular destination for locals taking in the sunset. Be sure to try the classic Brazilian appetizers: Casquinha de Siri (Sea Crab on the Shell) or Bolinho de Bacalhau (Codfish Balls). Show up early to secure your spot on the wall.
SALGUEIRO SAMBA SCHOOL: This famous and historical Samba school holds feijoada parties throughout the year as they get ready for Carnaval. These parties typically take place on a Saturday or Sunday and include Brazilian soul food and, of course, Samba music.
LAPA/CARIOCA AQUEDUCT: This bohemian neighborhood is well-known for its live music, bars, street food and iconic Carioca Aqueduct (pictured). If you go during the day be sure to check out the colorful staircase, Escadaria Selaron and the Catholic cathedral which resembles a pyramid.
CHRIST THE REDEEMER: Christ the Redeemer is considered to be one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and is Brazil’s most recognizable symbol. There are three ways to get to the iconic structure: cog train, van or hike. The hike takes a full day starting at Parque Lage.
PEDRA DA GÁVEA: A strenuous hike that offers the best views of Rio de Janeiro. This hike is not for the faint at heart. The summit is 2770 feet high, making it one of the highest mountains in the world that ends directly in the ocean. To reach the summit takes anywhere from 3-4 hours.
CT BOUCHERIE: This small, charming French restaurant located in Leblon offers savory cuisine. The restaurant serves classic Brazilian sides and does a great job by including a vareity of proteins. Be sure to make a reservation or show up early.
BOTECO BELMONTE: A perfect stop for a chope (cold draft beer) after the beach. It’s located a few blocks from Leblon beach and on the same road as CT Broucherie. The people-watching here is terrific.
THE PEDRA BONITA TRAIL: Pedra Bonita is a is an easy half-day hike with views of the city and the Tijuca Rainforest. The beginning of the trail leading to Pedra Bonita is located in the parking area of the hang-gliding ramp, where tourists and locals hang-glide and parasail to the nearby beach of São Conrado.
No visit to Rio is complete without experiencing Carnaval, a yearly event that begins the Friday afternoon before Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent. The official celebration lasts a week, but the festivities begin weeks before Carnaval as the Samba schools and everyone else prepares for the festival. Carnaval is one of the biggest parties in the world and although celebrated in different forms and locations throughout the world, Rio definitely lays claim to the biggest and most unique Carnaval celebration.
During the week of Carnaval, a variety of different events highlight the festivities. The different Samba schools compete against each other in elaborate parades with one school being crowned the winner. A large parade, filled with dancers and costumes, passes through the center of Rio at the Sambadrome. Blocos, or street parties, are everywhere. The blocos are free and lively with Samba music, drinking, dancing and costumes. And of course, the beaches are full of people looking to continue the party and enjoy the weeklong holiday.
Living in Rio de Janeiro
Most tourists and expats are drawn to the neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, or Barra da Tijuca due to their relative safety and proximity to the beaches. However, these areas are somewhat small geographically and therefore prices reflect the high demand of these areas. Two to three bedroom apartments in these sectors average around R$3,000 per month (approximately $794 USD), but be aware that apartments typically come unfurnished and any condominium fees are not included, which can add another R$1,000 - R$2,000 to your rent bill.
As of seven years ago, the exchange rate from U.S. dollars to Brazilian Reals was approximately 1 to 1.74. Unfortunately, due to recent economic challenges and the country’s recession, the current exchange rate is 1 to 3.78, meaning that the Brazilian Real has lost more than 100% of its value compared to seven years ago. Despite this devaluation, prices locally in Reals have remained relatively constant over the years, meaning that visitors or expats with access to U.S. dollars will find themselves in an advantageous financial situation.
Until recently, citizens of the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan were required to apply for a tourist visa to be granted access into the country. As of June 17, 2019 visitors from these countries are permitted to stay in Brazil for 90 days by simply presenting their passport upon arrival, with the possibility of extending their stay without exceeding 180 days.
To work in Brazil, you’ll need to make sure that you have a work permit or visa, which your employer should be able to apply for you on your behalf. Be wary if employers ask you to work under the table or to front the fees in advance for your visa costs.
Rio de Janeiro has recently received a fair amount of negative press due to certain safety issues and also because of the large corruption scandal known as the “Lava Jato.” But through these challenges, I am certain that the warmth and spirit of the Brazilian people will shine through to visitors of the country. With abundant natural beauty creating a tremendous backdrop for any vacation, Rio really does live up to its name of the Marvelous City.