From the world-famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the magnificent summit of Corcovado, topped with the legendary Wonder of the World Christ the Redeemer, Rio combines big natural attractions with a sprawling metropolis. Home to over 12 million people, it should come as no surprise that it’s one of the most popular destinations in the world.
Founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, Rio de Janeiro caters to every type of tourist and budget, popular with backpackers, Carnival revelers, and luxury vacationers alike. It’s an exciting city that has a lot to offer — so don’t rush your visit. There’s too much to see, especially when you factor in all those lazy days at the beach!
While petty theft and crime are a big concern here (you’ll want to avoid walking around alone at night), with a little vigilance you’ll be able to enjoy your time in this vibrant city without too much worry.
This travel guide to Rio de Janeiro can help you save money, stay safe, and ensure you have a wonderful visit.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Rio de Janeiro
1. Celebrate Carnival
2. Climb Sugarloaf Mountain
3. See Christ the Redeemer
4. Hit the beaches
5. Watch a fútbol game
Other Things to See and Do in Rio de Janeiro
1. Visit the Botanical Gardens
For a moment of calm, head to the city’s botanical gardens. Walk along the meandering paths and trails or take a free guided tour of the gardens. This place is home to over 8,000 plant species, designed in 1808 by order of the Prince Regent Dom João. Highlights include a lake filled with enormous Vitória Régia water lilies, an enclosed area with over 600 species of orchids, and a carnivorous greenhouse filled with Venus flytraps and pitcher plants. The gardens get super busy with families on the weekends, so come during the week. Admission is 60 BRL.
2. Wander the Rio de Janeiro Zoo
If your travels don’t include a trip to the Amazon, you can still experience Brazil’s indigenous animals at the Rio City Zoo. Over 1,300 animals from 350 species live here, including many rare and endangered native species such as harpy eagles, maned wolves, golden-headed lion tamarins, anteaters, and more. There’s also a particularly impressive reptile house and open aviary with macaws, toucans, and tropical birds flying freely around. Admission costs 40 BRL.
3. Learn the samba
You’ll hear samba music playing endlessly around Rio, especially during Carnival. Rio de Janeiro is one of the best places in Brazil to learn how to dance. Rio Samba Dancer is my favorite for its all-levels group classes, especially for the classes combined with social outings to samba clubs. Classes start from about 105 BRL.
4. Go to Paquetá Island
Paquetá Island in Guanabara Bay is a favorite with locals for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city center on weekends. The island is an hour-long ferry ride from Rio, and it’s made up of mainly beaches and quaint colonial towns. Transportation around the island is only by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carts. There’s not a lot to do here, but that’s kind of the point. The ferry costs 15.40 BRL round-trip.
5. Ride the Santa Teresa tram
This tram has been running through the Santa Teresa neighborhood since 1877, making it the oldest electric railway in Latin America. It has always followed the same route from the city center, across the Lapa Arches, and passing by Ruinas Park overlooking Rio. The tram is open-sided, meaning you can lean out over the arches (a narrow former aqueduct) as you cross them – it’s a dizzying view! A return ticket on the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) route is 20 BRL.
6. Visit the Selaron Stairway
Located in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, this stairway has hundreds of steps all painted with more than 2,000 pieces of colorful tiles, mosaics, and mirrors. Starting in the early 1990s, artist Jorge Selarón began gathering contributions from artists in 60 different countries. He also visited antique shops and trash heaps to find pieces to add over time, working on the staircase’s construction for over 20 years until his death in 2013. It’s one of the most photogenic and popular sights in the city (you’ve probably seen it on Instagram) so don’t miss it!
7. Explore the Arcos da Lapa district
For those of you who love the nightlife, this is an awesome district to head out to on a Friday night. Bars, clubs, and food stalls dominate the area, and street parties run from the famous arches up Avenida Mem de Sá. For live music, go to Circo Voador, an open-air concert venue primarily featuring Brazilian bands and artists. If you want to experience the club scene, check out the three-story Rio Scenarium. If you’re not into partying at all, admire the photogenic Arcos de Lapa (Lapa Arches). These arches date back to the mid-18th century and were once used as aqueducts.
8. Visit Sitio Roberto Burle Marx
This home and World Heritage Site belongs to one of Brazil’s most celebrated landscape designers, Roberto Burle Marx. Begun in 1949 and developed over the course of over 40 years, this 100-acre property features over 3,500 tropical and subtropical plant species. Inside the Burle Marx House Museum is a huge collection of his personal artwork as well as a 17th-century Benedictine chapel. Tours cost 10 BRL and are available by appointment only.
9. Visit the São Bento Monastery
Built between 1617-1641, this colonial Baroque church is located on Morro de São Bentois (St. Benedict Hill) in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Although the exterior is simple, the inside is covered in gold decoration, wood carvings from Frei Domingos da Conceição and Alexandre Machado, and paintings from José de Oliveira Rosa. The monastery is still in operation today, and if you attend Sunday mass, you’ll get to hear some traditional Gregorian chanting. Just be sure to dress respectfully as it is a place of worship.
10. Hike in Tijuca National Park
Tijuca National Park is the largest urban rainforest in the world, stretching across 8,300 acres. Over 350 different species of mammals, birds, and reptiles make their home here, including howler monkeys, which only came back to the park recently after a 100-year hiatus. The Corcovado (Christo) hike through Parque Lage and to the top of Corcovado is a steep climb, but it’s shaded and only takes about three hours. Another scenic hike is to Tijuca Peak, starting in Rio’s North Zone and past waterfalls and dense rainforest. You’ll get views over Niteroi and Guanabara Bay, and it only takes about two hours to complete. Entrance to the park is free.
11. Go to the Ilha Fiscal
A little outside Rio’s city center is Ilha Fiscal, a Neo-Gothic castle on a secluded island in Guanabara Bay. It used to be a location for the Brazilian Custom Service but is now a work of architectural art, with mosaic floors, stained glass, and a traditional Ceremonial Room used by the Navy. You can only access the island by schooner and bus from the Naval Museum. Admission to the Naval Museum is free, while a return ticket to Ilha Fiscal is 42 BRL.
12. Visit the Museum of Tomorrow
The Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã) is a science museum that focuses on ecology, sustainability, and the future of our planet. Ultra-sleek and modern, the Museum of Tomorrow has high-tech visuals and simulators that let you consider the world’s past, present, and future. Although it might sound depressing, it’s incredibly well-curated, and the whole experience is captivating. Admission is 30 BRL.
For more information on other cities in Brazil, check out these guides:
Rio de Janeiro Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Large dorm rooms with 10 or more beds start around 33 BRL per night. Dorm rooms with 6-8 beds are around 70 BRL per night while a 4-bed dorm costs 85-95 BRL per night. Standard twin or double private rooms cost 225-280 BRL per night for two people.
Free Wi-Fi is standard, and most hostels have a bar and outdoor patio with a BBQ. Some hostels have a pool, coworking spaces, and bikes for rent. Free breakfast is not usually included at hostels in Rio de Janeiro, and kitchen facilities aren’t common either.
If you book your bed well ahead of time for Carnival (at least six months), you’ll have more options. However, prices skyrocket — some of those dorms mentioned above increase to 200-300 BRL per night — during Carnival!
Budget hotel prices – A double room in a basic two-star hotel is around 140 BRL per night in the city center, including a private bathroom and balcony as well as free Wi-Fi. That price can nearly double in other places like Copacabana.
A budget hotel with more amenities (free breakfast, a swimming pool, bar/restaurant) starts around 190 BRL per night for a double room.
Airbnb is another affordable option here. For a private room, expect to pay about 75-100 BRL per night, while you can find a comfortable home or apartment for about 125-175 BRL per night.
During Carnival time, private and hotel rooms can double in price and sell out fast.
Average cost of food – Brazilian cuisine – like the country itself – is a mix of many cultures, with European, Amerindian, African, and (more recently) Japanese influences. As such a large country, food varies per region, with seafood plentiful on the coastlines and Brazilian barbecue dominating plates in the south. Rice and beans are a staple throughout the country.
Common vegetables include tubers like cassava and yams, tomatoes, red peppers, okra, and more. Being a subtropical country, there’s a huge variety of fruits, with the most famous being the superfood açaí. Cupuaçu, mango, papaya, guava, orange, passion fruit, pineapple, are all commonly found in smoothies and fresh juices across the country.
Look for feijoada on the menu. It’s Brazil’s national dish, a meaty bean stew, traditionally eaten for Wednesday or Saturday lunch. Other popular dishes include moqueca (fish stew), polenta, vatapá (a stew of bread, shrimp, coconut milk, and peanuts), and (bacon fried with cassava flour and served with rice and beans), among countless others.
Some popular street food snacks include pão de queijo (cheese bread rolls), acarajé (black-eyed pea and shrimp fritters), coxinha (chicken croquettes), and pastéis (savory fried pies with assorted fillings). In Rio, bolinhos de bacalhau (fried cod fritters) are especially popular due to the city’s coastal location.
Rio de Janeiro has lots of affordable food options, with street food like pastels and tapiocas costing 8-10 BRL each. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant serving typical Brazilian dishes costs about 25-32 BRL.
For fast food, a combo meal at McDonald’s also costs about 30 BRL, while a takeaway meal from a Chinese restaurant is around 15-20 BRL.
A meal with two courses at a restaurant starts from 60 BRL, though prices at restaurants along the beach can go much higher, starting around 80 BRL for a dish.
If you want a beer or glass of wine to go with your meal it’s around 8 BRL. A cocktail is 10-15 BRL. In terms of non-alcoholic drinks, a cappuccino or fresh juice is 8 BRL.
One of the best ways to eat in Rio is to find a restaurant por kilo, which lets you pay for your meal by weight (so skip the super-thick steak). Restaurante Temperarte near Copacabana is a great option for trying this. It generally costs 5-7 BRL per 100 grams.
Grocery shopping is very cheap, costing about 100-145 BRL per week for bread, meat, veggies, and other basics. You’ll just need to make sure you book accommodation with a kitchen.
Backpacking Rio de Janeiro Suggested Budgets
If you are backpacking Rio de Janeiro, expect to spend about 210 BRL per day. This covers staying in a hostel dorm, eating street food, cooking some of your meals, limiting your drinking, using public transportation to get around, and doing mostly free activities like enjoying the beach.
On a mid-range budget of about 420 BRL per day, you can stay in a private hostel or Airbnb room, eat out for all your meals at cheap local restaurants, take the occasional taxi to get around, enjoy a few drinks, and do more paid activities like visiting the zoo and attending a soccer game.
On a “luxury” budget of about 675 BRL per day or more, you can stay in a hotel, eat out for all your meals, enjoy more drinks, take taxis everywhere, and enjoy all the tours and activities you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
If you’re coming during Carnival time, expect prices for accommodations and activities to increase significantly (sometimes quadruple) — especially if you’re booking last minute.
You can use the chart below to get an idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in BRL.
Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Rio has lots of free activities and attractions to enjoy, like beaches and hiking trails. While food and accommodation aren’t cheap, there are ways to keep your costs down. Here are some ways to save money in Rio de Janeiro:
- Eat por kilo – As with elsewhere in Brazil, restaurants that have you pay by the kilo for your food is a good deal. Look out for these cheap options.
- Visit the market – If you’re staying at a hostel with kitchen facilities, it’s a good idea to stock up on food at the market and eat like the locals.
- Snack on street food – There’s a thriving street food culture in Brazil, meaning lots of cheap and delicious food to fill up on.
- Stay with a local – Couchsurfing connects you with locals who can give you a free place to stay and share their insider tips and advice. It’s the best way to meet locals and save money.
- Go to free museum days – Almost all the museums in Rio have a free day to visit each week. Check their website for details!
- Take a free walking tour – There are many excellent free walking tours in Rio, including Free Walker Tours, Rio By Foot, and Strawberry Tours. They’re the best way to see the main sights on a budget. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end!
- Avoid Carnival time – As exciting as Carnival is, visiting Rio any other time of the year is just as magical and saves you lots of money.
- Pack a water bottle – The tap water here isn’t safe to drink so bring a water bottle with a filter to save money and reduce your single-use plastic usage. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw as it has a built-in filter to ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is a sprawling city. When you’re researching your hostel, make sure you find a neighborhood that fits your needs, whether you want to stay in the city center or somewhere near the beach. Otherwise, you’ll be spending a lot of money on taxis and sitting in the city’s terrible traffic. Here are my suggested places to stay:
How to Get Around Rio de Janeiro
Public Transportation – Rio’s BRS (Bus Rapid System) has quick and reliable routes in Copacabana, Barra, Ipanema, and Leblon. Fares cost from 3.50 BRL per trip. You’ll have to flag down a bus by waving at the driver. Otherwise, the Metrô Na Superfície shuttle passengers between metro stations, but they’re often very crowded.
Rio de Janeiro has three very efficient subway lines. Line 1 runs between Ipanema to the North Zone, while Line 2 runs between Botafogo and Pavuna (with Maracanã football stadium on the way). Line 3 runs between Ipanema and the Barra de Tijuca. You can get a prepaid card at any kiosk and top it up with a minimum of 5 BRL. A single metro ride costs 5 BRL.
The only remaining tram line in Rio is the famous Santa Teresa line, which runs from the tram station in Centro and travels across the Lapa Arches, Ruinas Park, and then turns around at Largo do Guimarães. A return ticket is 20 BRL.
Bicycle – Rio has tons of bike paths along its main beach areas, so take advantage of the public Bike Rio sharing scheme. A single trip costs 3 BRL. You can also get a week-long plan for 13 BRL or a month-long plan for 30-40 BRL.
You can also rent bikes from a local shop for about 50 BRL per day to navigate the paths between Copacabana and Ipanema.
Ferry – You can take a ferry to visit several of Rio’s highlights, like Ilha Fiscal, Ilha de Paquetá, and Niterói. Ticket prices are generally 12-15 BRL round-trip.
Taxis – Taxis start at 6 BRL and cost an additional 2.65 BRL per kilometer. This rate increases to 3 BRL per kilometer at night and on Sundays. A ride around town generally costs 10-50 BRL.
Use the 99Taxis or Easy Taxi apps to get a safe, metered taxi.
Ridesharing – Uber is available in Rio de Janeiro and usually costs less than a taxi.
Car rental – Renting a car generally costs 80-120 BRL per day, though I don’t recommend renting a car here. It’s unnecessary, the traffic is terrible, drivers are aggressive, and parking is expensive. Break-ins and carjackings are common.
When to Go to Rio de Janeiro
December to March is when Rio is at its warmest and sunniest. There isn’t much rain during these months, and temperatures tend to be around 32°C (90°F) and higher each day.
Autumn (April-May) and spring (October-November) offer slightly cooler temperatures, usually in the mid-20s°C (low 80s°F). Although Rio is busy year-round, you’ll avoid a lot of peak tourism madness by visiting during these months.
During February’s Carnival, prices skyrocket, and accommodation sells out very quickly. You should consider booking your travel at least six months (and up to a year) before Carnival time to snag the best deals and places to stay.
How to Stay Safe in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro has a lot of crime and is not the safest city in the world. Violent attacks can occur, however, your biggest concern here is petty crime — especially after nightfall around popular tourist destinations.
Don’t walk alone at night. Instead, take taxis. Have your accommodation call one for you so you can be sure you get a reputable driver.
When withdrawing money, make sure you go inside a bank so that you can put your cash away without the risk of getting robbed.
Don’t flash your valuables and always make sure your possessions are secure and out of reach (especially your phone and wallet).
Never accept drinks from strangers and don’t leave anything unattended at the beach.
Unless you’re on a guided tour, avoid the favelas. The favelas are where the highest rate of crime occurs in the city, and you shouldn’t be exploring there on your own.
Carjacking and break-ins are common so avoid renting a car here.
Solo female travelers will want to exercise extreme caution here. Travel with groups where you can and avoid getting too far off the beaten path if you’re alone.
If you’re worried about getting scammed, you can read about common travel scams to avoid right here.
If you experience an emergency, dial 190 for assistance.
Always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do group tours, go with Intrepid. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts with them too!
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
Rio de Janeiro Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts: