Rio de Janeiro is one of the most researched and visited cities in the world by tourists. Add the 2016 Olympic games and as locals call it, the Cidade Maravilhosa or ‘Marvelous City’ is going to be abuzz with all kinds of people, festivals and parties this year.
Famous sites like the Sugar Loaf Mountain, Copacabana Beach and Christ the Redeemer statue are sure to be packed with eager tourists bent on checking the attraction of their list and getting photos to prove it.
However, for those of you who want to get to know the city for what it really is and experience the beauty and culture of the Cidade Maravilhosa, here is our top 10 list of unique experiences to do written by two ‘Cariocas’ (Rio locals).
1. Visit the Muséu do Amanhã – Museum of Tomorrow
Rio’s newest museum (opened in early 2016) is a revolution in Brazil, not just for its beautiful architecture but for the content and culture that it promotes.
Instead of displaying objects and artifacts the museum showcases reasons and ideas for living more sustainably in creative and captivating ways. You can’t help but fall in love with the Earth again after watching and interacting with the museum’s amazing displays. It is hoped that this, combined with the sustainable ideas the museum offers, will spark a cultural change towards less environmental impact in a developing country.
The Museum is still relatively unknown to locals and tourists alike due to its recent opening. This means less crowds and, if you visit on a Tuesday, you won’t pay a cent to enter. Definitely worth while!
2. Take a picnic and enjoy a different view to Christ the Redeemer from Parque Lage
A wonderland of natural Atlantic forrest and geometric parkland is brought together at Parque Lage by the majestic Lage mansion, built around a pool and adorned in Italian tile and marble. The amazing building was built in 1811 as a private residence for a local Colonel and is now home to an arts school with its grounds and parts of the mansion open to the public from 8am-5pm every day.
Take a morning to explore the park (don’t miss the aquarium caves displaying fish from all over the world – including piranhas), enjoy a picnic in the gardens and wash it all down with a coffee while looking up at the impressive Christ the Redeemer statue right above your head. (The view might remind you of Snoop Dogg’s hit song ‘Beautiful’, which was filmed here in 2003).
If you have some time left over, pop just next door to Rio’s Botanical Gardens to see more than 6,000 different species of tropical and subtropical flora and fauna.
3. Skip the queues and climb the Sugar Loaf yourself!
If you know where to look you can actually climb by yourself to the first cable car stop (Morro da Urca) of the Sugar Loaf mountain, using a jungle-clad path with an incredible view. If you’re adventurous enough to take the climb you’ll most likely bare witness to a variety of monkeys, birds and stunning butterflies along the way too.
The path, named Pista Cláudio Coutinho, starts at the very left end of Praia Vermelha as a cobbled pathway which slowly turns into a pounded dirt ascent. Keep following it up, you can’t get lost as there’s only one destination – ‘Pão de Açucar’ as the locals call it. You’ll be the only tourists taking the path so make sure you say ‘bom dia’ to anyone you pass – they’ll think you’re a pure Carioca! The climb shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes and the experience is well worth it!
Once you’re up on the first stop of the Sugar Loaf you can rest with an ice cold drink or ice-cream and take in the view. If you’re up for it you can then take the cable car to the very top of the Sugar Loaf.
4. Hire a bike and ride through Ipanema Beach and around Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon
One of our favourite things to do on a Sunday is to grab a bike from one of the Itaú bike hire stations and ride around the calm waters of the ‘Lagoa’, stopping for a cold drink along the way and ending up at Ipanema Beach where the main road is closed for bikes and a street market takes place every Sunday. The market, called the ‘Hippie Fair’ is the largest open air art gallery in the world with artists selling their paintings, jewellery and wares on the sidewalks of General Osório Park.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the shops and streets of Ipanema, have a splash at the beach and finally watch the famous sunset from Pedra do Arpoador (don’t forget to clap after the sun goes down – it’s a Carioca tradition).
Bike hire in rio: www.mobilicidade.com.br/bikerio.asp
5. Learn to dance Samba at a street party in Lapa
Lapa is the centre of Rio’s nightlife with a never ending selection of bars, nightclubs and concert halls dotting its streets. For a cheap night out grab a Caipirinha (Brazilian ‘Cachaça’ rum, lime and sugar cocktail) or a Melzinho (long tube of Cachaça mixed with honey and cinnamon) from a street vendor and join in the dancing at one of the Samba bands on the street. The locals will be more than happy to teach you some moves but make sure keep an eye out for any dodgy activity (tourists being pickpocketted here isn’t rare).
For those on a more decent budget, head to one of the famous nightclubs like Lapa 40 Graus or Rio Scenarium for a night of snooker, dancing, live music and good food and drink.
If you’re in Lapa during the day time don’t miss seeing the famous white arches of Lapa (where cable cars run from Rio’s CBD through Santa Teresa to Christ the Redeemer) and the Selarón Steps (an incredible ever expanding stairway that is hand-tiled by Chilean born Jorge Selarón in bright tiles from all over the world).
6. Learn about Rio’s maritime history and enjoy the best ice-cream sundae at Copacabana Fort
At the very right end of Copacabana Beach you’ll find the Copacabana Fort and Military Museum. Open Tuesday to Sunday to the public for a small entry fee, its well worth the visit for its stunning views towards Copacabana Beach and the Rio skyline and for its informative display of military equipment and history.
After spreading your arms wide to the sea standing on the concrete bunkers and touring the tunnels underneath don’t miss sitting down at the Cafetaria Colombo on the way out to try one of their famous ice-cream sundaes.
7. Buy all the cheap nick-nacks your heart could desire at the massive Saara street market
If you’re looking for souvenirs, Arabic sweets, cheap underwear, electronic bits and pieces or homewares and anything in between then Saara is the place for you! The massive market takes up an entire area of downtown Rio covering more than eight blocks in an incredible variety of shops, restaurants, food markets and street stalls.
Before you go take a deep breath and make sure your senses are ready to be overwhelmed with interesting smells, bright colours, loud music and sales pitches at every second shop, masses of people and some delicious new foods including a range of Arabic food, fresh fruit and street pastries.
8. Catch a wave in Barra de Tijuca, Rio’s surfing hotspot, and finish off with an ice cold Açai
Barra de Tijuca is the place to go in Rio if you’re wanting to catch a wave or two. This relatively new suburb will be home to the majority of the Olympic games sports (excluding soccer which will be held at Maracana Stadium and outdoor water events, held on Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon and Guanabara Bay). This means a brand new Metro line will take you most of the way to the beaches you’ll want to go to.
Although Australian and Brazilian surfers enjoy a somewhat friendly rivalry on professional waves, the locals in Barra will be more than happy to share their tips on the best breaks and conditions.
After you’ve sweated it up in the swell its a Carioca tradition to have an Açai on the beach to re-energise and socialise after the surf. Açai is normally blended with fresh Guarana fruit in Brazil (giving you a nice buzz). Try it blended with either strawberries or banana and granola ontop for a delicious breakfast or beaten with tapioca for an icy smoothie. Delish!
9. Take a local ferry for a cheap tour of the Guanabara Bay
The Ilha Fiscal Ferry is a great way to see Rio by water and learn about its history at a very decent price. The tour is approximately 1 hour and 20 mins in length and will take you to see Rio’s historical Fiscal Island (where ships would stop to pay tax before entering the city), the centre of Rio, the Sugar Loaf Mountain, and the 12km bridge that connects Rio to Niterói on the other side of the bay.
For only R$25 (or R$12.50 for kids under 12, students or over 60s) its a fantastic way to see the city from a different angle while giving you feet a rest!
10. Climb one of Rio’s famous peaks and then paraglide your way back to the beach
That famous scene in the cartoon movie Rio actually has some truth behind it. Locals and tourist alike take advantage of the incredibly high mountains so close to the ocean to paraglide or sail their way on the air currents down to the beach.
Famous spots to jump from are Parque da Cidade in Niteroi and Pedra Bonito in Sao Conrado that both boast ramps especially made for paragliders.
If you’re not brave enough to make the jump, the climb in itself is worth it if only for the amazing views and wildlife you’ll see along the way.
The incredible skyline, stunning beach, beautiful jungle and diverse wildlife of Rio de Janeiro make it (in our biased opinions) one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Add into the mix the friendly, lively and generous locals, some great food, fantastic drinks and a calendar of interesting events and Rio has got to be one of the best destinations in the world for an incredible holiday.