With only five full days to tackle everything we wanted to do in Rio, Mo had meticulously planned our whole trip. And what a good job he did! We made the most of literally every minute we had and took away some amazing memories.
Here’s a collection of my favourite experiences (with a couple of tips thrown in) that I think everyone should try:
Being first in line for Christ the Redeemer
We got up at the crack of dawn and headed straight to Corcovado to start our day of sightseeing with Cristo Redentor. There are a few ways to get to the top, the most popular is by train. But to beat the crowds, we drove up with our guide who also managed to buy us the fast track entry tickets.
Racing up that final escalator and walking out onto the platform with not a single person in sight, the view was breathtaking. All we could see were clouds and mountain tops. It’s what I imagined being on top of the world must feel like. By the time we were ready to leave the whole place had filled up with tourists and both Mo and I felt so blessed that we were able to enjoy one of the most famous landmarks all to ourselves. If only for a few minutes.
Tip: Trains don’t start until 8am so driving is a bonus if you can do it, as it means you beat the first rush of tourists. Entrance gates actually open at half 7.
Explore the craft markets of Ipanema
Inspired by the art-covered walls of the Hotel Negresco, one of my favourite things to buy on holiday is a piece of art that captures the atmosphere of our trip. So, it was inevitable that Sunday-beach-day would involve a stroll over to find a painting at one of the cities most famous markets. The Feira de Arte de Ipanema, aka the hippie fair, takes place every Sunday at the Praca General Osorio, a mere 10 minute walk from Ipanema. All sorts of styles, handicrafts and artwork are on show here, a perfect outdoor gallery.
Tip: Be sure to do a bit of haggling, we had a specific budget and had to barter the price down to get the painting we wanted for the price we could afford (it was SO worth it).
Go Dancing in Lapa
Saturday night and as you walk up to the famous Lapa arches the roads are packed full of young and old all wanting to go out and have a good time. People warned us to be diligent with our belongings and be extra careful, which we were, but I never felt unsafe walking around and there were literally people pouring out of buildings, setting up their own parties right there on the streets.
We had pre-booked to have dinner and stay on at the tourist hotspot of Lapa, Rio Scenarium. We both expected somewhere full of travellers and a bit gimmicky, but it was a great place for a party. There are three floors to explore, and explore you should as each one has its own character and is filled full of weird and wonderful antiques. The live music and bands we saw that night were sensational, the Samba beats echoed through each room. The crowd was pretty much full of cariocas, all proudly showing off their moves (the standard was pretty high) and singing along – the fun atmosphere was infectious!
Tip: If you’re planning on going on a Saturday night and having some dinner like we did, its worth booking in advance. The queue was huge when we arrived but we were able to walk straight in at the time we had booked for.
Also don’t forget your passport/id as they take down your details at the front desk to set up a control card tab. This way you only need to settle your bill at the end. It makes ordering food and drink throughout the night so much easier and is quite common in Rio.
Try out the local food
Here’s where it could have got quite tricky as a Muslim. Famous for their barbecued meats, churrasco, we had accepted that we may not be able to taste a lot of the local dishes. However on our first night we ate at a restaurant in Niteroi and our guide Ederson actually recommended a few local fish dishes that we simply had to try. I forgot that being a coastal city, fish would always play a big part on most menus, so luckily we didn’t struggle at all finding meals.
A few local dishes to try:
- Moqueca – a fish stew, usually cooked to perfection in a clay pot. Make sure you take a good sniff when the lid is lifted, the steam gives off such a wonderful fragrance. Ours was made with coconut milk and served with rice.
- Pao de queijo – cheesey bread, what more is their to say about such a great combination. Tiny little buns filled with a cheesy surprise commonly served at breakfast as well as a snack. They are usually made with tapioca flour – making them gluten free too!!!
- I’ve never seen a place where shrimp is so readily available either, it graces near enough every menu and the fried shrimp meaipe is basically a mountain of it on a plate. This isn’t to everyones taste, as Brazilians fry the usually large prawns with their shell suits on, in a pan with seasoning and garlic and simply munch on them unpeeled. Simple.
- The last thing you just have to try is that power berry we hear so much about, Acai. This juice is available pretty much everywhere (like everywhere) and is most popular as a kind of sorbet drink. Perfect for a hot stroll beachside.
Experience sunset from the sea
Another surprise my thoughtful husband had planned for me was an afternoon sailing around Guanabara Bay. I LOVE being on a boat so this was without a doubt the best surprise ever. We spent just over four hours cruising the waters, just us and of course our skipper Cassio. It was blissful. Cassio was amazing company, it was like sailing with an old friend. He taught Mo a few sailing tricks and let him take the wheel whilst I stretched out and enjoyed the warm sunshine, cool breeze and the fantastic views. Piece de resistance: staying out on the water to watch the sun set behind the famous Carioca landscape of Rio.
Tip: Pack light. Cassio can sort out any refreshments you might want (obviously this is sorted beforehand) but other than a camera, there really is nothing more you need.
Spend an afternoon in Niteroi
I recently wrote a post about our wonderful afternoon in Niteroi. It was something that never came up on any of the ‘must-do’ lists when we were looking online, but I would’ve loved to spend longer exploring this region.
Aside from the famous Niemeyer buildings, Niteroi also boasts some of the most beautiful beaches all known for their own special traits. Itacoatiara is well known for being surfers paradise and Prainha is there perfect spot for cliff diving (or cliff-diving-watching). Downtown Niteroi also has some good shopping spots that cater to all tastes.
Tip: Try and make a stop at the Parque da Cidade. The viewpoint from the summit is popular with locals as well as tourists for the spectacular scenery that lies below.
Coffee break at one of the oldest cafes in town
After an early morning stop at the Escadaria Selarón, we decided to pass by the Confeitaria Colombo on the walk back to try and sneak in a quick breakfast. Founded in 1894 by two adventurous Portuguese men, this cafe is firmly set in Rio’s history books.
The belle-epoque interiors show the charm of old Rio, it’s a place so grand its even attracted the likes of Queen Elizabeth and King Albert. Seriously huge Belgian mirrors, Italian marble counter-tops, lots of local jacaranda wood and intricate stained glass windows, the whole place really is an art nouveau masterpiece. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, it’s definitely worth popping in for a quick coffee.
Tip: Aside from its interiors, Confeitaria Colombo is famous for its desserts. The first half of the cafe is actually made up of counters with them all on display, you will be absolutely spoilt for choice!
Last but not least… reserve a day for beach play
You cannot go to Rio de Janeiro and not spend at least one day at one of the many beaches. We chose to have ours on a Sunday, a day where the roads alongside the beach close for cars and instead are populated by those looking for a healthier alternative. Joggers, cyclists, roller bladers… everyone and their dog (literally) came out to play. And that was just the road, the beaches themselves were packed too. Beach volleyballers, sunbathers, kiosks, surfers, kids, boats… a hive of activity stretched out over the sands.
Most people advised to avoid Copacabana due to its popularity, however Mo and I found Ipanema to be a lot busier the day we went. All down to personal choice though. Once you’ve found a spot, there’ll be a barrack (stall) nearby and for 5 reias you can nab yourself a beach chair and brolly to set up a people watching station.
Tip: There are plenty of fruit and drink vendors dotted across the beach so bring some cash and support them whilst lazing around. Nothing can beat an ice cold drink or fresh coconut whilst soaking up the rays right?
These are just some of my favourites, but Mo and I both agreed we will definitely return to Brazil again in the near future to explore more of the country. Any other must do experiences we should plan for?