Rio de Janeiro’s setting between the mountains and the sea is so spectacular that UNESCO cited “the staggeringly beautiful location for one of the world’s biggest cities” in naming Rio a World Heritage Site. Rio de Janeiro is the second major city in Brazil and was its capital from 1763 to 1960, when Brasília was created. Rio has seemed aware of its physical assets – the soaring mountains behind it, Sugar Loaf towering above its harbor, and its long crescent beaches that are its prime tourist attractions – and has enhanced that landscape with distinguished buildings from each era of its history and with a generous supply of urban parks and open spaces.
Best Time to Visit
If you are planning a Travel to Brazil then the best time to visit Rio is between December and March, when the weather is warm and sunny enough to hit the beaches. The city’s seductive samba beat and incredible panoramic views last year-round, but arrive in February to experience Carnival.
Top Places to Visit in Rio de Janeiro
1. Sugar Loaf
Rio de Janeiro’s best-known landmark is the rock peak of Sugar Loaf, towering 394 meters above the harbor. It sits on a point of land that projects out into the bay and wraps around its harbor, and is connected to the city by a low strip of land. You can take a cable car from Praça General Tibúrcio to the top of the Morro da Urca, a lower peak from which a second cableway runs to the summit of the Sugar Loaf. From here, you can see the entire mountainous coast that rings the bay and its islands. Below, the 100-meter Praia da Urca beach is near the location of Rio’s original nucleus.
2. Cristo Redentor
The giant statue of Christ overlooking the city from the 709-meter summit of Corcovado is almost as widely recognized a symbol of Rio as the distinctive shape of Sugar Loaf. The world-famous landmark was erected between 1922 and 1931, financed almost entirely by contributions from Brazilian Catholics.
Few cities are blessed with a beautiful sand beach at its heart, let alone one that stretches four kilometers along one entire side of its downtown. A few steps from its golden sands are Avenida Atlântica, Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, and the neighboring smaller streets where you’ll find appealing century-old buildings, fine hotels, and popular restaurants and cafés. The unquestioned monarch of the area, and of Rio hotels, is the renowned Copacabana Palace, built in the 1920s and now protected as a national monument.
4. Tijuca National Park
Tijuca National Park protects the Tijuca Forest and several viewpoints overlooking the city, and surrounds Cristo Redentor, the giant-sized statue of Christ on Corcovado. To explore the park, you can leave the train up to Corcovado at a midpoint and follow the road through the forest. The 3,300-hectare Tijuca Forest, one of the world’s largest forests within a city, was planted in the late 1850s on land that had been destroyed by coffee plantations, to safeguard the springs that supplied Rio de Janeiro’s water. Most of the trees are native species and provide habitat for Capuchin monkeys, quatis (Brazilian raccoon), colorful toucans, hawks, brilliant blue butterflies, and many other species of wildlife, which you may spot while exploring its trails and roads. Near the station of the Corcovado railway is Largo do Boticário, one of Rio’s most picturesque squares, surrounded by colonial-style houses.
5. Ipanema and Leblon
Continuing on from Copacabana’s four-kilometer strand, the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon are separated by the Jardim de Alá Canal, which drains the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Along the seafront promenade are large hotels, sidewalk cafés, and restaurants. These two districts, although best known for their beaches (one of which was made world-famous by the song Girl from Ipanema) have a lively cultural life, with art galleries, cinemas, and an avant-garde theater. Praça de Quental in Leblon is the scene of an antiques market every Sunday, and Praca General Osorio hosts the Sunday Feira de Artesanato de Ipanema featuring crafts, music, art, and local foods.
6. Nossa Senhora do Carmo and Monte do Carmo
The parish church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo was the Capela Real (Royal Chapel) from 1808 to 1889 and the cathedral until the modern one replaced it in 1976. Connected to it by a passage is a second Carmelite church, Monte do Carmo, begun in 1755. Highlights are its Baroque façade, stone doorway, and the white and gold carving by Mestre Valentim in the Chapel of the Novitiate. The 1761 former cathedral is richly decorated with carving and has a silver high altar. In a side street is the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Cabo da Boa Esperança (Our Lady of the Cape of Good Hope), the last surviving street oratory in the city.
On the hill just above the harbor are the church and monastery of São Bento, one of the finest Benedictine complexes in Brazil. The original 1617 church was without aisles until it was enlarged in the second half of the 17th century by the addition of eight side chapels. The finest artists of the Benedictine order were involved in decorating the interior. The exuberant carving that covers the walls and ceiling was mainly the work of a monk named Domingos da Conceição, who was also responsible for the figures of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica on the high altar. The choir chapel has silver work by Mestre Valentim and 14 paintings by Ricardo do Pilar, a monk who was the foremost Benedictine painter of colonial Brazil. His masterpiece, Senhor dos Martírios (Christ of the Passion), is in the sacristy of the monastery.
8. São Francisco da Penitência
The Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência is divided into three sections with separate entrances, and the simple façade of this church belies the riches within. The interior, which was begun in 1657 and completed in 1773, is a riot of gilded wood carving. Among those who contributed to the decoration of the interior were Manuel and Francisco Xavier de Brito, two leading Portuguese sculptors and woodcarvers. They had very similar styles, known as Brito, using decorative forms that influenced Aleijadinho and other masters of Brazilian Baroque. The ceiling of the choir has the earliest trompe-l’oeil painting in Brazil, completed in 1736, the work of Caetano da Costa Coelho, who later painted the ceiling of the nave in the same style.
One of the world’s most famous pre-Lenten celebrations – as well-known as those in Venice and New Orleans – takes place each winter in Rio de Janeiro. The celebrations begin shortly after New Year, but the splendor and extravagance reaches its spectacular climax in the four days before Ash Wednesday, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators to its street parades, samba parties, and shows. Other Brazilian cities celebrate Carnaval; it is also a major tourist event in Bahia and Recife, but Rio’s is the most lavish. The most spectacular events are the parades of the samba schools, which are held in a unique venue designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The Sambódromo is a long parade route lined by stadium-style boxes designed so that up to 50,000 spectators can watch the parades of brilliantly costumed dancers as they compete. The parade route is 700 meters long and 13 meters wide.