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Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro
Photograph: Shutterstock

The 19 best things to do in Rio de Janeiro

Feel the pulse of this thrilling, culturally-rich city with our list of the very best things to do in Rio de Janeiro

Written by
Estella Shardlow

Rio de Janeiro lives up to its reputation, don’t you worry. The Miraculous City is a melting pot of football, samba, carnival, beaches, gigantic statues of Jesus Christ, and all the rest. The food is deliciou, and the parties go all night long. Rio isn’t for the half-hearted.

What are the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro? We’ve compiled the best of the best below, taking in everything from gorgeous hikes to rambunctious street antics, with plenty in between. The Miraculous City? That feels like something of an understatement to us.

Best things to do in Rio de Janeiro

Museum of Tomorrow

1. Museum of Tomorrow

What is it? One of the 2016 Olympics’ most successful legacies, this groundbreaking science museum poses the big questions about the future inside an extraordinary neo-futurist building.

Why go? Covering everything from geology to human nervous systems to smart cities, this is as far from a dusty, dry old museum as it gets. Immersive exhibits make powerful arguments for sustainability. Seemingly floating above the regenerated port zone, even the architecture is eco: it is powered by solar panels and cooled by water from the bay.

Christ the Redeemer
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/dany13

2. Christ the Redeemer

What is it? You’ll catch glimpses of this 98-feet-tall figure all around Rio, but don’t miss out on ascending Mount Corcovado to admire the iconic statue up close.

Why go? Standing at the base of this concrete colossus, it is hard to know what to gawp at first: the feat of engineering by French sculptor Paul Landowski and Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa or the bird’s eye view of the city sprawling below. Reach the site via a scenic tram ride from Cosme Velho.

Jardim Botânico
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rodrigo Soldon

3. Jardim Botânico

What is it? Not all of Rio’s natural wonders are at soaring heights – these 140-hectare gardens are a haven for over 9,000 different plant species, created by Brazil’s Prince Regent in 1808.

Why go? It’s the perfect paradise to chill out in after Rio’s more frenetic, hedonistic times. Among the soaring imperial palm trees, delicate orchids, and Amazonian lily ponds, resident marsupials provide entertainment. Keep your eyes peeled for toucans, tortoises, and sloths, too.

Feira Livre da Glória
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Iuri M.

4. Feira Livre da Glória

What is it? Gloria’s vibrant Sunday morning market is a magnet for diehard foodies.

Why go? Off the tourist trail, this is the place to sample fresh Brazilian produce, from exotic fruits (jabuticaba, anyone?) to fish to artisanal cachaça, the national spirit. Feeling worse for wear after Saturday night? The classic market breakfast of pastels – hot pastries stuffed with meat, cheese, or heart of palm – and a shot of pure sugarcane juice is like manna from heaven.

Copacabana Beach
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Alobos

5. Copacabana Beach

What is it? This world-famous, 2.5-mile stretch of golden sand is the place for fun in the sun.

Why go? You were hardly going to visit the home of Havaianas without hitting the beach at some point, were you? Sun-worshipping locals flock here to play beach volleyball or football, top up their enviable tans and catch some waves. Mobile vendors of everything from grilled cheese to sardines to caipirinhas provide sustenance while you’re a beach bum.

Sugarloaf Mountain
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rogier Want

6. Sugarloaf Mountain

What is it? Here’s the money shot: this tree-covered natural dome rising 1,299 ft above the harbor is one of Rio’s most recognizable symbols.

Why go? The ascent by cable car goes in two stages – first to neighboring Urca Hill, then another steep journey up to Sugarloaf – while the jaw-dropping panoramas of beaches, skyscrapers and hills unfold beneath you. Glorious at any time of day, there’s something extra magical about being there for sunset, as the city lights flicker into life.

Parque Lage
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Pedro Botton

7. Parque Lage

What is it? A rambling 19th-century estate turned public park at the foot of Corcovado mountain.

Why go? Music fans may recognize this opulent mansion, with its exotic jungle and mountain backdrop, from the Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams video for ‘Beautiful’. Caves, a hidden aquarium, free art exhibitions (the palace is now an art school), and palm-shaded pathways await discovery. Feeling adventurous? Follow the hiking trail all the way up to the Cristo.

Museum of Modern Art (MAM)
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rodrigo Soldon

8. Museum of Modern Art (MAM)

What is it? Poised on the edge of Guanabara Bay, MAM is a temple to art from the 20th and the 21st centuries.

Why go? Despite a devastating fire in 1978, the museum’s permanent collection still dazzles – you’ll come across paintings by international modern masters Pollock and Miró, as well as leading Brazilian artists Tarsila Amaral and Hélio Oiticica. The modernist gardens by Roberto Burle Marx and dynamic temporary exhibitions add to the edifying experience.

Bip Bip
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Sheila T.

9. Bip Bip

What is it? A tiny, eccentric Copacabana bar renowned for its live music.

Why go? If you want silver service and a polite babble of conversation, keep on walking. But to hear authentic bossa nova (Brazil’s ‘new wave’ music style, born in the 1950s) or samba among a carioca crowd, grab a beer from the self-serve fridge and jostle into a good spot for a memorable evening. A local band occupies the main table while photos of musical legends adorn the walls.

Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura (Royal Portuguese Reading Room)
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/.S

10. Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura (Royal Portuguese Reading Room)

What is it? This little-known library in Rio’s city center is a bookworm’s paradise, home to a vast array of Portuguese literature.

Why go? The collection is the biggest outside Portugal; even if you can’t read a word of it, the sight of three levels of rare manuscripts and leather-bound novels lining ornately-carved shelves is pretty spectacular. Constructed in the 1880s, its stained-glass skylight and dramatic chandelier would be at home in a cathedral – the library’s façade was even based on a Lisbon monastery.

Pedra do Sal
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Luiz Fernando Reis

11. Pedra do Sal

What is it? Historically known as 'Little Africa', this is the best area for immersing in Rio’s vibrant musical heritage.

Why go? You’re walking (or, most likely, swaying) through the birthplace of samba, created by the slave community that once lived here. Live bands draw crowds of music lovers from near and far – especially for the free Monday and Friday night street parties. Cheap caipirinha stalls and colorful street art add to the carnival vibe.

Casa das Canoas
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/René García

12. Casa das Canoas

What is it? The former home of iconic Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the building in 1951.

Why go? Resplendent after recent renovations, the building’s curvaceous white contours, slender steel columns, and glass walls are textbook Niemeyer – this is the man who said he “deliberately disregarded the right angle.” While he’s responsible for dozens of iconic public buildings around Brazil, there’s something special about seeing the place he created for his family.

Bar do Gomez
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Ani H.

13. Bar do Gomez

What is it? A quintessential neighborhood bar on the picturesque, cobbled streets of Santa Teresa.

Why go? Take your pick from over sixty types of cachaça or a cold draught beer as you settle down to soak up the laidback atmosphere of this former Spanish grocery. It’s now a century old but as charming as ever. Salt cod fritters drizzled with the house hot sauce, or heartier meat dishes, sustain through languid afternoon drinking sessions.

Mangueira’s Palacio de Samba
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Pedro Paulo B.

14. Mangueira’s Palacio de Samba

What is it? One of Rio’s oldest samba schools, with 19 parade prizes under its spangled belt.

Why go? Preparing for the world’s greatest party is a year-round operation, so get a taste of the carnival magic even when visiting Rio outside the annual Ash Wednesday celebrations. The school opens its doors for regular evening performances and runs behind-the-scenes tours of its practice halls and workshops, where the dance routines are drilled, and parade floats constructed.

Largo do Boticário
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/E o Rio Era Assim

15. Largo do Boticário

What is it? Tucked away in Cosme Velho, this square of colorful neocolonial houses is a photogenic, fascinating time-warp.

Why go? Visiting Largo do Boticário 100 years ago, you’d have found glittering parties for the city’s artistic and political elite; a scene in the 007 movie Moonraker was shot here. The square later fell on hard times, its grand buildings abandoned and reclaimed by rainforest foliage. Wander through what’s effectively an open-air museum and visit restored properties like number 32, now home to an art gallery.

Carretão Ipanema
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Victoria B.

16. Carretão Ipanema

What is it? A bustling, hugely popular barbecue restaurant for an all-you-can-eat feast.

Why go? Everyone (okay, maybe not vegans) should sample an authentic churrascaria, aka grilled meat restaurant, while in Rio – they’re a staple of the Carioca food scene. Let the skewer-wielding waiters carve you all manner of grilled meats, and dig into a buffet heaped with salads and sides.

Metropolitan Cathedral
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rodrigo Soldon

17. Metropolitan Cathedral

What is it? Designed by architect Edgar Fonseca and built through the 1960s-70s, this may well be the wackiest church you’ve ever laid eyes on.

Why go? If Mayans and aliens collaborated on a building, it would probably look something like Rio’s vast Metropolitan Cathedral. Step inside this angular, technicolor pyramid to admire the soaring stained-glass windows, honeycomb walls and bronze plaques. Visit for Sunday Mass at 10 a.m. to get the full experience.

Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Tianyu I.

18. Aprazível

What is it? Fine dining with a mesmerizing view, this family-run hilltop restaurant comes up trumps.

Why go? Dine in quirky thatched huts while the palms sway and city lights twinkle below. The food matches the setting, hopping around traditional recipes from Brazil’s regions and paired with fruity craft cocktails or house-brewed beer. Leave plenty of time to wander Santa Teresa’s steep cobblestone streets before diner – it’s one of Rio’s prettiest quarters.

Ilha Fiscal
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Kirilos

19. Ilha Fiscal

What is it? A neo-gothic palace perched on a tiny island out in Guanabara Bay.

Why go? Once upon a time, this was the managerial home of Rio’s port operations; fast-forward 100 years, and it has been repurposed as a cultural museum. Take a guided tour of the grand lounges and fairytale-like tower for a fascinating slice of city history and a fresh perspective of Rio’s dramatic bay, Sugarloaf, and Christ the Redeemer.

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