Making justice to its nickname Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City), Rio is indeed a vibrant and lively place with tons of things to see and do. In this article I’m sharing with you my itinerary on how to spend one week in Rio de Janeiro. Beleza?
Rio de Janeiro seems to be all over the news in recent years.
Whether its because of the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics – which actually will be in Brazilian Winter – and the constant reports on safety and crime, the Cidade Maravilhosa is definitely a hyped place at the moment.
There are however some challenges in getting around so an efficient travel plan is key.
Hopefully the below guide for first-timers in Rio can help you have at least a great of a experience as mine!
One Week In Rio de Janeiro: Sections
The Most Popular Sights in Rio de Janeiro
Stay in the safest and nicest hotels of Rio
Other Sights in Rio de Janeiro
Tips & Advice
The Most Popular Sights in Rio
Let’s start big. These are the most popular sights in Rio. Do they live up to their hype? Find more about my experience in each one of these places below.
Cristo Redentor – Christ The Redeemer
Every time I have some kind of statue on my bucket list I get disappointed. It happened with the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, the Manneken Pis in Brussels and the same happened with the Christ.
I don’t know if it was due to all the GoPro photos and videos I’ve seen, but Cristo Redentor was not as impressive as I was expecting. On the other hand, the views over the city of Rio are breathtaking. This was enhanced by the beautiful clear day which made everything more bright and more alive.
Getting decent pictures here is a challenge. Navigating the crowds posing with arms wide open for photos was interesting at the beginning but it soon turned into a dreadful experience. Reaching the very end of the viewpoint for an open shot is a power struggle. Bring your A game!
If you are for the first time in Rio, the Christ can’t be missed. Even if the big man is not that big. It’s still the most iconic landmark of the city and has even been considered one of the New 7 Wonders of the world.
For some reason, I wasn’t that amazed with Cristo and the huge amounts of people in such a tiny space can be a bit of a turnoff. However I agree going up there is something you should have in your plan. The awe-inspiring views are definitely the highlight.
Pro tips for Christ The Redeemer
- Make sure you choose a clear day to meet&greet the Christ otherwise you will see nothing more than clouds. Peek through the window every morning and be patient to wait for the right day!
- Head to Largo do Machado as early as possible to get your ticket on the vans that will take you all the way up to Corcovado.
This has to be the first beach coming to your mind when you think of Rio de Janeiro. The 4km-long Copacabana was made famous by the luxurious hotels and the bohemian nightlife scene in the 50s That fame didn’t cease until today. It’s also the place where one of the most epic New Years Eve in the world takes place!
The combination of the palm trees, the many Cariocas running, biking along the wave-like cobblestone promenade and the views over Sugarloaf is truly a beautiful sight. I can see why this place is so popular. It’s definitely representative of the Rio lifestyle and culture.
Having that said, don’t expect much from the beach itself. I found the sand to be very shabby and the water had a very suspicious dark green tone. Vendors seemed unfriendly too – the only place where I felt this. In my opinion, even the nearby Ipanema is a much more pleasant beach experience.
Might be a controversial opinion, but for me Copacabana is hardly a “must-go”. It’s more of a “nice-to-have” instead. Might be worth to have a stroll around, but I’d lie my towel elsewhere as there are far better beach experiences in Rio.
Pro tips for Copacabana beach
- Copacabana is very popular with tourists and muggers know it. Keep an eye on your belongings at all times.
- While the beach is lit at night, avoid walking there after the sun sets.
- The waves in Copacabana are smaller than its neighbour Ipanema, which perhaps makes it more family-friendly
Pão de Açúcar – Sugarloaf Mountain
Pão de Açúcar or Sugarloaf is only one of the giant monolithic granite mountains rising up from the waters of Guanabara bay. What makes it so popular is the cable car system which has been taking visitors to the very top since 1912.
I was slightly nervous to hop into not-one-but-two cable cars to get to the top – which technically means four (!) trips. Unstable surfaces or vehicles at a very high height is EXACTLY what makes me afraid.
But surprisingly the rides were a charm. My guess is that I got too fascinated by the views. Hence I didn’t have enough brain RAM to process I was actually inside a glass-walled oscillating cable car at a height of 400 meters. Oh and with 70 more people inside. Really scary if I think about it now.
The views from both Sugarloaf and Morro da Urca – the intermediate cableway stop – is a unique combination of a vibrant city, long stretches of sand and forest-covered mountains, while surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Ah, and with the Christ overlooking it all. It’s a stunning scenery.
This place is so spacious and peaceful I spent almost an entire afternoon just wandering and taking in everything. When the sun begins to set, the light refracts on the hills and the sky becomes a mix of golden and orange. It was like watching a live painting come to life. Definitely one of my most whimsical and magical travel moments EVER!
Sugarloaf: The verdict
Worth every cent. The cable-car journey is just as enjoyable as the views up there. This was BY FAR the highlight of my trip to Rio.
Pro tips for the Sugarloaf Mountain
- Get there early, in time for sunset. I’ve actually tried to go up on my first day at 5pm, sunset hour. Huge mistake. The queue to the cable car (Bondinho) was GI-NOR-MOUS and we ended up giving up after an half-an-hour wait.
- Don’t rush. You will probably spend more time in Sugarloaf than you think.
- If you look carefully, you will find many adorable little monkeys – micos – jumping from tree to tree.
- You can charter an helicopter (!) here. There’s an helipad in Morro da Urca and rides start from 75USD.
- The nearby beach – Praia Vermelha – has a stunning scenery and it’s not as crowded as you may think.
Other sights in Rio
Centro – Rio’s Downtown
There are many ways you can explore the heart of Rio, but I decided to join a Free Walking Tour. I always think it’s a good idea to make one of these right at the beginning of the trip. It helps to have a grasp of the culture, history and overall vibe of the place you’re visiting and somehow sets the tone for the rest of your trip.
The first “wow moment” was Confeitaria Colombo. With luxurious marble counters and brocaded mirrors, stepping inside this fine coffeeshop feels like going back in time to the late 1800s. Skip any diet you might possible have and indulge in a brigadeiro – an intense combination of condensed milk and chocolate.
The second highlight was Escadaria Selarón. The Chilean artist Jorge Selarón started covering this staircase with small tiles representing places he’d been to. This personal project gained popularity and for many years, travelers visiting Rio helped him finish the steps by bringing tiles from their home countries. Today with more than 200 tiled steps, it’s the largest piece of art made by a single person in the world. Truly an inspiration for all wanderlusters!
The city center is a surprisingly rich mix of modern and classic architecture. During the three (!) hours the tour lasted, we covered other places such as the Carmen Miranda’s house, the gorgeous Municipal Theater and the City Council. It was way better than I anticipated and my guide Natalia did a great job of balancing historical information, fun facts and jokes so it wasn’t boring at all. We ended up all having a traditional Brazilian lunch of Feijoada in a local restaurant. Highly recommended!
Centro: The verdict
If you have a full week in Rio, it’s worth to allow yourself at least some hours to get to know its urban and historical side.
Pro tips for Rio de Janeiro’s downtown
- You don’t need to book the free walking tour. Just show up at 10h30 in Largo do Carioca, at any day of the week except Sundays. While the tour is free, you’re expected to tip.
- It’s not advisable to walk around the downtown at night or even during weekends by yourself.
Santa Teresa neighborhood
In the end of the 19th century, aristocrats and wealthy settlers of Rio chose Santa Teresa‘s location on the hills above Lapa to build their huge mansions. Today, this neighborhood is known as the more bohemian and artistic district of Rio, with the displays of colonial architecture intertwined with the best examples of street art in the city.
I got there taking the bonde – a traditional banana-yellow tram – you have to try. On its way, it goes over Arcos da Lapa, an old Roman aqueduct and it will leave you right the heart of Santa Teresa – Largo do Guimarães. This 15-min romantic ride was free. What’s there not to like?
With such an exciting start, I was pumped to explore Santa Teresa. And walking around the winding cobblestoned streets of Santa Teresa revealed some colorful buildings and quaint little shops and restaurants.
However looking back I can’t say Santa Teresa was memorable. Many places were closed and most of the buildings seemed too scruffy and neglected, which took away some of the charm. Though Parque das Ruinas – a ruined mansion – came with terrific 360-degree views of Rio from the top floor.
Santa Teresa: The verdict
Santa Teresa sure has the potential could be a very charming place as it is a nice alternative contrast to the beaches and to the buzz of the downtown. But it’s quite not there yet.
Pro tips for Santa Teresa
- The bonde is only operating between Carioca and Largo do Guimarães which represents only 10% of the total tram line. It’s a trial period after the refurbishment works on the tracks, hence the free tickets. It’s expected that after 2017, the bonde will cover more of the neighborhood.
- Santa Teresa is a great place for foodies. There are many local restaurants to pick, all serving delicious brazilian food. Or just do it like me and join a food tour.
Jardim Botânico & Parque Lage
Given these are relatively close to each other on the map, I’m putting these together. You won’t want to waste time by coming back twice to this area of the city.
Let’s start with the Jardim Botânico (Bothanical Gardens). Founded in 1808 by King John VI of Portugal, it’s a huge 140-hectare park containing more than 6,000 different tropical plants and trees. The main attraction is a 750-meter avenue of huge lined-up palms, all originated from the same single tree. Amazing and a huge photo opportunity!
Just a bit over 1km away, Parque Lage is a former private residence converted to a public park with many walking trails going up the hills. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect of this place. It was recommended to me by a friend and it was probably the biggest surprise of the trip. I actually liked this park better than Jardim Botânico as it felt more like an hidden gem and with far more forest cover.
The setting for the cafe in the Visual Arts School is glorious, I could literally sit there all day. Plus, the entrance to the park is free!
Jardim Botânico and Parque Lage: The verdict
These two spots are a great way to be more in contact with the nature and escape the heat of the beaches and of the downtown. I was most impressed with Parque Lage, even though you could easily walk around for hours in Jardim Botânico.
Pro tips for Jardim Botânico and Parque Lage
- Cafe du Lage, the cafe within a huge mansion in the park has one of the most popular breakfasts in the city.
- If you’re feeling adventurous, Parque Lage is the starting point of a hiking trail going all the way up to Cristo Redentor.
Vidigal favela & Dois Irmãos hike
You can get to the top of Vidigal either by van or moto-taxi, both driven by locals. The latter is way more fun. I just hopped on the back of a motorbike and accelerated through the winding roads of the favela. Whether was the sidewalk was way too narrow for us to pass (and we did it anyway) or doing the curves at high speed, I thought I was going to die. I don’t even like motos but in the end the adrenaline rush was totally worth it!
The main road of Vidigal was enough to get a grasp of the ambiance and lifestyle of a favela. To be honest, it was not nearly as bad as I thought. In fact, I was very surprised to find out the worldwide trend of sushi restaurants trend has already got to Brazilian favelas. Talk about globalization, hun?
The hiking trail to Dois Irmãos starts at the top of Vidigal, next to a football field (fun fact: financed by Adidas). It’s a medium-level hike, but the heat makes it a total bitch. By the time I got up there I was completely soaked, but the view makes it a rewarding experience.
On a clear day, you can see the whole strand of sand of Ipanema beach, the heart-shaped Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the Tijuca Forest and even Pedra Bonita and Pedra Gávea mountain peaks. I wasn’t that lucky and could only see silhouettes of these places through the fog.
Vidigal favela & Dois Irmãos: The verdict
Dois Irmãos is one of the most accessible hikes to do in Rio, which makes it a great opportunity for staying active while traveling. Combine it with a visit to a nearby favela – either Rocinha or Vidigal – and you have already a promise of a great day.
Pro tips for Vidigal favela & Dois Irmãos
- While Vidigal is now considered a safe area, with many hostels and tourists, it’s safer to book a tour. At the very least, it will prevent you from being scammed. I booked a tour with Marcos from Rio Active Tours. He is a very smart and knowledgeable guy, speaking perfect English and enriching our biking and hiking experience with interesting fun facts.
- Avoid taking pictures in the favelas. Firstly, you’re showing off equipment that is probably worth a monthly income for most of the locals, which is never a good idea. Then, they are not particularly crazy about it. There’s some controversial in Brazil around tourism in favelas because they tend to be marketed as “human zoos”. Taking pictures just enhances that behaviour.
The world-famous beach of Ipanema is another very popular sight in Rio de Janeiro. Tourism and private investment has turned this area into a hotspot for classy restaurants, shops, and nightlife and also into one of the most expensive places to live.
I’m starting to repeat myself but yet again, the setting here is gorgeous. Two mountains – Morro dos Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Peak) – rise at the western end of the beach creating this beautiful backdrop. It’s the complete brazilian beach experience. You can rent sunbeds or chairs for as little as 5 reais for a day. The same people can bring whatever drink right to you. Beer and caipirinhas are particularly popular.
But there’s more. Every 60 seconds – I’m not joking – someone will pass right next to you selling something. This something can be anything from local cookies to bikinis, sandwiches to incense, as well as beach towels, açaí, sunscreens, sausages and fried shrimps, etc. Basically everything you need for a memorable sunbathing day!
Ipanema beach: The verdict
Far superior than Copacabana in my opinion. Somehow the pulse of the city was more evident here. If you haven’t got time to explore the beaches outside Rio, go for this one.
Pro tips for Ipanema
- The beach itself is divided into segments marked by postos (lifeguard towers), who are also sub-cultures on their own. Posto 7 is for surfers and local communities. Posto 8 is a real-life Grindr, where the hip gay crowds hang out. Posto 9 is the busiest section, attracting younger and eclectic crowds perfect for families. Posto 10, like all of Leblon district, is for the wealthier fit crowds.
- Arpoador on the extreme east end of the beach, is a very popular spot for watching the sunset. Do it like the locals and don’t forget to clap once the sun is gone behind the mountains!
Daytrips in Rio de Janeiro
I had thought on booking a boat trip to Angra dos Reis and Ilha Grande during my week in Rio. However, the night before the forecast was of a very rainy day. We didn’t want to risk paying such an expensive tour (for Brazilian standards anyway). This decision came back to bite us in the ass as the next day I was sunbathing in Ipanema like a mad man.
Two lessons here. First, don’t trust forecasts in Rio. And secondly, don’t be as lazy as me! I should have gone somewhere. Here are some of suggestions of things you can do outside the city of Rio:
- Boat tour in Angra dos Reis & Ilha Grande
- Sunbathing at Barra da Tijuca
- Boat trip to Búzios
- Hike Floresta da Tijuca
- Hike Pedra Bonita (and maybe parasailing?)
One Week Itinerary of Rio
The exercise of tiding up all the above places in one logical, time-efficient and not too busy itinerary, turned out to be a challenge. In Rio, the options for getting around are still far from efficient and I quickly realized places are MUCH farther apart from what they seem on the map.
To make your life easier, I am publishing exactly my one-week itinerary of Rio:
Rio One Week Itinerary
|Day||Where to go|
|Day #1||- Rio's Downtown (Centro)
- Selarón Steps
- Colombo Bakery
- Santa Teresa
|Day #2||- Copacabana Beach
- Jardim Botânico
- Parque Lage
|Day #3||- Vidigal Favela (you can also replace it by Rocinha)
- Dois Irmãos Hike
- Beach (Ipanema, Leblon)
|Day #4||- Cristo Redentor
- Pão de Açúcar
- Praia Vermelha
|Day #5||- Ipanema Beach
- Sunset at Arpoador
|Day #6||- Day trip|
|Day #7||- Museu do Amanhã
- Shopping time!
Weather will play a big role in this plan. It’s important that you are flexible enough to change your plans when facing a rainy or an extremely hot day.
Where to stay in Rio de Janeiro
I highly recommend you stay in the Zona Sul (the Southern Zone) of Rio. Not only is the safest and with larger police presence, it’s also the best communicated to get around to several sights. Zona Sul includes the areas of Copacabana, Ipanema, Botafogo and Flamengo.
Find your hotel in this area:
Safety in Rio
OK, let’s get real. Yes, you’ll need to be careful in Rio, crime do exist and unfortunately muggers don’t waste an opportunity.
Having that said, I felt a lot safer than what I’ve read and seen on the news. Media had definitely exaggerated my concerns before going there. If you follow these standard tips for staying safe in Rio, you have already increased dramatically your chances to have a crimeless trip.
Don’t let negative news ruin or cancel your plans. Stereotypes shouldn’t stop you from doing anything in life and certainly shouldn’t stop you from exploring this wonderful city.
Tips for Visiting Rio de Janeiro
- Travel insurance is key.
No joke. Get a quote with these guys.
- Bring sunscreen and a bottle of water everywhere you go.
You don’t mess around with the heat here.
- Sky-check every morning.
Weather is so unpredictable in Rio that the vast majority of the forecasts I checked were wrong. Wait until waking up to look up to the sky to assign the clearest days for places like Christ and the Sugarloaf. Save the cloudy and rainy days for walking around the center or even for the beach.
- Don’t plan too much.
Rio is not a walkable city nor it’s easy to get around. Getting from point A to point B will take you more than you think. Have this in mind and slow your pace when ticking things off your list.
Now I want to hear from YOU. What is your favorite place in Rio? What is missing from this itinerary for one week in Rio?
I need tips to when I come back!