From the world-famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the magnificent summit of Corcovado topped with the legendary Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio combines big natural attractions with a sprawling metropolis that makes it one of the most visited destinations in the world.
Rio de Janeiro is popular with people backpacking the city, coming for Carnival, or just visiting here on vacation. It caters to every type of tourist.
Rio de Janeiro has a lot to offer travelers and is an exciting city. Don’t rush your visit. There’s too much to see, especially when you factor in all those lazy days at the beach.
Sadly, Rio de Janeiro has become very expensive in the last few years but this travel guide can help you plan your trip better, lower your costs, and still have the best time in the city.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Rio de Janeiro
1. Celebrate Rio Carnival
2. Go to 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, and it was designed in 1808 by order of the Prince Regent Dom João. Highlights here 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. This place gets super busy with families on the weekends, so come during the week. Admission is 15 BRL ($3.80 USD).
2. See the Rio City 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 2,000 species live here, in addition to a particularly impressive reptile house and open aviary with macaws, toucans, and tropical birds flying freely around. Admission costs 20 BRL ($5 USD). The zoo is open weekends and holidays (10AM-5PM).
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 80 BRL ($20 USD).
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. It’s 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 12.20 BRL ($3 USD) round-trip.
5. Ride the Santa Teresa tram
This tram has been running through the Santa Teresa neighborhood since 1859 and has followed the same route ever since, 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 as you cross them – it’s a dizzying view! A return ticket is 20 BRL ($5 USD).
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. The lead artist, Jorge Selarón, constructed this stairway by gathering contributions from artists in 60 different countries. He also visited antique shops and trash heaps to find pieces to add over time.
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. 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. These arches date back to the mid 18th century and were once used as aqueducts.
8. Visit Sitio Roberto Burle Marx
This 100-acre home belongs to one of Brazil’s most celebrated landscape designers, Roberto Burle Marx. Here you’ll find over 3,500 plant species and a huge collection of his personal artwork within the home, as well as a 17th-century Benedictine chapel. It costs 10 BRL ($2.50 USD). Tours are available by appointment only.
9. Visit the São Bento Monastery
Completed in 1641, this colonial baroque church was built between 1617-1641 on Morro de São Bentois. 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. Attend Sunday mass, and you’ll get to hear some traditional Gregorian chanting.
10. Hike in Tijuca National Park
Tijuca National Park is the largest urban rainforest in the world, stretching across 8,300 acres. While hiking, you’ll come across dozens of waterfalls and lots of wildlife, including 350 different species of mammals, birds, and reptiles (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’ll only take you about two hours to complete the full thing.
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 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 is 25 BRL ($6.30 USD).
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 will more than captivate you. Admission is 20 BRL ($5 USD). It’s free on Tuesdays.
For more information on specific cities in Brazil, check out these guides:
Rio de Janeiro Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Large dorm rooms with 10 or more beds start at about 33 BRL ($8 USD) per night. Dorm rooms with six to eight beds are about 30 BRL ($10 USD) per night, while a four-bed dorm can cost up to at 61 BRL ($15 USD) per night.
Standard twin or double private rooms cost between 75-180 BRL ($25-40 USD) per night for two people.
If you book your bed well ahead of time for Carnival (like six months), you’ll have more options. However, prices skyrocket — some of those dorms mentioned above increase to 203 BRL ($50 USD) per night or more during Carnival! Other dorms cost about 81 BRL ($20 USD), but again, book in advance.
Budget hotel prices – Prices for a double room in a two-star hotel are about 75 BRL ($25 USD) per night in the city center, but that price can nearly double in other places like Copacabana.
Airbnb is another affordable option, with shared accommodation (like a dorm) starting at 40 BRL ($10 USD) per night. For a private room, expect to pay about 81 BRL ($20 USD) per night, while you can find a comfortable home or apartment for about 346 BRL ($85 USD) per night.
During Carnival time, private rooms jump to about 406 BRL ($100 USD) per night, and they sell out fast. At the time of writing this, some dates are showing only three rooms available on Booking.com.
Average cost of food – Rio de Janeiro has lots of affordable food options, including street food like pastels and tapiocas for less than 7.50 BRL ($2 USD) each. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant will cost about 30 BRL ($8 USD), while a meal at McDonald’s is about 26 BRL ($6.50 USD).
A meal with two courses at a restaurant starts from 60 BRL ($15 USD), and if you want a beer to go with it, that’s about 8 BRL ($2 USD). Look for feijoada on the menu — Brazil’s national dish of meaty bean stew. 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!
Grocery shopping is very cheap, costing about 81-122 BRL ($20-30 USD) per week for bread, meat, veggies, and other basics.
Backpacking Rio de Janeiro Suggested Budgets
If you are backpacking Rio de Janeiro, my suggested budget is about 224 BRL ($55 USD) per day. This is assuming you’re staying in a hostel dorm, eating street food, cooking some of your meals, visiting a few attractions (including the cable car to Sugarloaf), and using local transportation.
A mid-range budget of about 386 BRL ($95 USD) will cover staying in a budget two-star hotel or a private hostel room, eating out for all your meals at mid-range restaurants, some guided tours and activities, and public transit.
For a luxury budget of about 915 BRL ($225 USD) per day, you will stay in a four-star hotel or resort on the beach, eat out for all your meals, enjoy lots of drinks, take taxis everywhere or rent a bicycle, and enjoy all the tours and activities you want.
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 some 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 USD.
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 of my ways to save money in Rio de Janeiro during your visit:
- 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.
- Couchsurf – Nothing’s cheaper than sleeping for free. Couchsurfing connects you with locals who will give you not only a free place to stay, but also a local tour guide who can introduce you to all the great places to see.
- Free museum days – Almost all of 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.
- Avoid Carnival time – As exciting as Carnival is, visiting Rio any other time of the year is just as magical and it will save you lots of money.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy here. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw ($49.99).
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 it’s being 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 favorite and suggested places to stay:
How to Get Around Rio de Janeiro
Bus – Rio’s BRS (Bus Rapid System) has quick and reliable routes in Copacabana, Barra, Ipanema, and Leblon. Fares cost from 3.50 BRL ($0.86 USD) 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. A single metro ride costs 4.30 BRL ($1.06 USD), including the bus and subway ride.
Subway – 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 ($1.23 USD). A single metro journey costs 4.30 BRL ($1.06 USD).
Tram – 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 turning around at Largo do Guimarães. A return ticket is 20 BRL ($5 USD).
Bicycle – Rio has tons of bike paths along its main beach areas, so take advantage of the public Bike Rio sharing scheme. You can rent bikes for about 20 BRL ($4.90 USD) per hour 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 start from 12.20 BRL ($3 USD) round-trip.
Taxis – Taxis start at about 5.50 BRL ($1.35 USD) and cost an additional 2.50 BRL ($0.65 USD) per kilometer. This rate increases to 3 BRL ($0.75 USD) per kilometer at night and on Sundays.
Use the 99Taxis or Easy Taxi apps to get a safe, metered taxi.
Uber – Uber is available in Rio de Janeiro. You can save $5 off your first Uber ride with this code: jlx6v.
When to Go to Rio de Janeiro
If you want to escape North America’s chilly winter temperatures, between December and March is when Rio is at its warmest and sunniest. There isn’t much rain during these months, and temperatures tend to be around 90°F (32°C) and higher each day.
Autumn (April and May) and spring (October and November) offer slightly cooler temperatures, usually in the low 80s°F (mid-20s°C). Although Rio is busy year-round, you’ll avoid a lot of peak tourism madness by visiting during these months.
During February’s Carnival time, prices skyrocket, and accommodations sell out very quickly. You should consider booking your travel for at least six months (up to a year) before Carnival time to snag the best deals and places to stay. It’s worth the experience!
How to Stay Safe in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro has a lot of crime and it’s not the safest city in the world. Your biggest concern here is petty crime, especially after nightfall around popular tourist destinations.
Don’t walk alone at night.
Take taxis at night.
Don’t keep a lot of valuables out.
Don’t accept drinks from strangers.
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.
If you’re worried about getting scammed, you can read about the 14 travel scams to avoid right here.
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.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it in Rio de Janeiro! Follow that rule, and you’ll avoid being the victim of a petty crime.
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 to Rio de Janeiro. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and 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 a group tour around Brazil, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
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, large 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
- 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:
Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Heliopolis, by James Scudamore
Ludo was born in a Sao Paulo shantytown, but is rescued and rasied by Zeno Generoso, a plutocrat. Suddenly, Ludo finds himself behind the gates of Brazil’s ultra-rich community. At 27-years-old, Ludo begins working for a company that sells unnecessary, overpriced goods to the poor lower-class he was born into. His involvement in a supermarket launch for the favela’s poorest population throws him into a world of violence, turning this rags-to-riches book into a series of surprising twists. This book will keep you on your toes.
Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer, by David Goldblatt
I promise that even if you’re not a soccer fan, you’ll enjoy this read. There’s no country in the world that feels as passionately about soccer as Brazil does. This book details the chronicles of a country that has won the World Cup five times and regularly churns out famous players Ronaldo and Zico. But Goldblatt also explores the dark side of “futebol nation” here, including the poverty that has created a pool of hungry players and the violence that moves from the stands into the streets. If you’re interested in economic and sociopolitical injustices, this book is for you.
Brazil, by John Updike
Brazil tells the fictional story of two young people in love. Tristão Raposo is a black 19-year-old from a favela in Rio, but that doesn’t stop him from falling helplessly head over heels for Isabel Leme, an 18-year-old upper-class white girl. He meets her on Copacabana Beach, and it doesn’t take long for them to escape their families to get married in the farthest reaches of western Brazil. The book covers 22 years of their relationship, with a little magic realism thrown in.
Ancient Tillage, by Raduan Nassar
Ancient Tillage offers some insight into the rural parts of Brazil, and what life is like for those farmers whose lives consist of “the earth, the wheat, the bread, our table, and our family.” André is one such farmer who loves the land but is afraid of his father who preaches daily from the head of the table. In this story you’ll follow André’s coming of age story as he grapples with his shameful feelings for his sister, Ana.
Rio de Janeiro, by Luiz Eduardo Soares
This book is a fantastic collection of stories about Rio de Janeiro through the lives of “everyday” people, including policemen, activists, gangsters, and migrants workers. Luiz Eduardo Soares takes us through the fascinating world of Rio’s favelas, beaches, and street scenes to offer fascinating insight into one of the world’s most incredible cities. You’ll learn about the more tedious parts of the city’s history of corruption and conflict in the process, but it’s an entirely gripping read.