On my recent trip to Brazil, I fell in love with Rio de Janeiro. It's a city where you don't have to choose between the mountains and the beach or even between wildlife and culture. It's truly unique, in that you can find the flora and fauna of the jungle, vibrant nightlife, culture, mountains, stunning beaches and tons of adventure, all within a few square miles. My first trip to Rio, I packed a lot into a few days but you could easily spend much longer there. Here are my highlights from Rio:
Tijuca Forest National Park
The biggest urban park in the world, Tijuca National Park stretches across the mountains behind Rio de Janeiro, covering 3,953 hectares and offering visitors panoramic views of the city, miles of hiking trails and tons of tropical forest teeming with monkeys, sloths, and a variety of exotic birds. Nature lovers or birders could easily spend a few days here and still not see it all but if you only have a short time, stop at the Vista Chinesa to catch a stunning view of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, Guanabara Bay and Sugar Loaf. Corcovado Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue are also located within the park, as well as waterfalls, streams and bathing holes. As you climb up in elevation the air cools, making it a great escape from the sweltering heat and chaos of the city.
PRO TIP: Don't have time to explore the park? You can experience an impressive array of Brazil's flora in the city, at the Botanical Gardens located at the foot of Corcovado Mountain. There's also a variety of foreign flora, historical monuments and a research center which includes the most complete library in the country specializing in botany.
Sugar Loaf Mountain
The cable car ride up to Sugar Loaf Mountain is a two part journey, starting at the feet of Urca Hill where the city of Rio de Janeiro was founded in 1565 by Estácio de Sá. The first stop is at the top of Urca Hill (700 ft), a point from which one can see Corcovado, the Rio-Niterói bridge, Guanabara Bay and its islands with a majestic background of lush, emerald mountains that surround and protect the city. From Ucra Hill, you switch cable cars and continue on to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain (1,295 ft). From here you have a unique vista of Copacabana and the Santa Cruz Fortress and 360 views of Rio and the Atlantic Ocean. Besides the stunning views, it's also very helpful to get a feel for the layout of the city to get your baring.
PRO TIP: For the more adventurous or budget minded travelers, you can hike up Urca Hill via the "Caminho Bem Te Vi", which starts at the end of Praia vermelha beach and takes about 45 minutes. Skip the cable car lines and enjoy the views at the top of Urca Hill for free, or catch the cable car from the top of Urca up to Sugar Loaf. It's a short, but steep, climb up through the jungle, over many stairs and steps. Be on the lookout for marmosets and numerous birds on the way up, frolicking in the jungle canopy.
THE ULTIMATE EXPERIENCE: From the top of Urca Hill you can take a helicopter city tour of Rio de Janeiro for the most incredible views of the city, Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer statue!
Santa Theresa Neighborhood
The charming district of Santa Teresa, with its hilly cobble-stoned streets, antique homes, and boutique museums, is a great place to spend an afternoon or even a few nights. Located on Santa Theresa Hill, in the heart of Rio, you can take a trolley up its narrow winding streets and experience some stunning views of Rio. Watch for colorful murals and street art, visit an art museum and for a special experience, enjoy some contemporary Brazilian gastronomy or even stay at Hotel Santa Theresa, a historical coffee plantation mansion transformed into a boutique hotel, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro.
PRO TIP: Most travelers stay on Copacabana Beach in large hotels, but if you want a more intimate experience, there are some beautiful boutique hotels in the Santa Theresa district, which will shuttle you to the beach as needed.
Christ the Redeemer & Corcovado Mountain
Hop on a train to ride up the steep Corcovado Mountain to visit the most iconic statue in South America, Christ the Redeemer, one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. On the way up, the train makes a few stops to let locals off in different neighborhoods clinging to the side of the mountain. Once you reach the top, the views of Rio are incredible and the statue, at 125 ft high and 1,145 tons, towers overhead. Constructed from 1922 to 1931, the statue has become a cultural icon of Brazil and visitors flock from all over the world to see the massive art deco statue. Made out of concrete and soapstone, it was created by sculptor Paul Landowski and built by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, in collaboration with French engineer Albert Caquot.
Visiting a Carnival School
Nothing brings to mind the spirit of Brazil more than Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. A visit to a Samba school is a great way to learn about the grueling work that goes into Carnival floats, along with the history of Carnival and why it's such a huge celebration in Rio, the biggest in the world, in fact. At the Acadêmicos da Grande Rio, one of the major samba schools of the City, you'll get to go behinds the scenes and the proceeds from this tour even go to support a local project with the youth and children of Duque de Caxias, a low-income community on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro. The experience gave me a much deeper understanding of the city, it's history and Brazilian people. We also got a surprise performance and our group got to dress up (photo below) in authentic Carnival costumes.
ProTip: Visiting Rio de Janiero for Carnival must be planned far in advance as the city is stuffed to the brim with visitors and Brazilians. There are many options and ways to experience this once-in-a-lifetime celebration, just ask us!
Biking Copacabana and Ipanema Beach
The most famous beaches in Brazil are well known for their black and white tile "boardwalk", surfers, beach volleyball and bikinis. A stroll down them is a must-do while in Rio but as both beaches are fairly long, a morning or evening walk is best to beat the heat. An even better way to see them is to bike. On Sundays, the road closes along Copacabana and Impanema Beach, which makes it the perfect time for a bike ride to enjoy the surf and sand. If you're not there on a Sunday, there is always a bike lane next to the boardwalk you can use. Start at one end and ride to the other end, stopping along the way to enjoy a refreshing coconut water, straight from the coconut, or a caipirinha at one of the many cafes along the way. This was my absolute favorite morning in Rio! It was a surreal experience, riding down the road, free of cars, with the waves crashing and the beautiful emerald hills rising up in the distance.
The Lapa District for Nightlife
To experience the nightlight of Rio and sway to the Samba, head to the Lapa District, where Brazilians go for music and food late into the night. The area is famous for its restaurants, bars and nightlife, where all sorts of music can be found. I visited the Rio Scenarium, a large, quirky music venue that features live samba music every night. Even if you're not a big dancer, it's worth a visit, as all 3 stories display walls covered with antiques and film props, fascinating costumes, masks and other historical artifacts and the restaurant serves meals for those who just want to take in the show.