If you want to make your 50th birthday an experience you’ll never forget, I highly recommend our latest trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We were fortunate to have a local, my friend and Brazilian “sister” of 30 years, Aline, show us her favorite places. It was one thing to see the beautiful scenes of Rio shown in the 2016 Olympic Games. It was quite another to be able to see everything in person. Some places were so beautiful, they looked photoshopped. I mean really, could anyplace be that gorgeous? Well, I’m here to attest, that those place can exist.
Transportation Taxis are the most popular way to get around Rio de Janeiro. For more information read How to Get Around Rio de Janeiro.
Need a Visa If you’re daydreaming or thinking about a trip to Rio, here are just a few tips. First you will need to apply for a visa. This isn’t anything new. When I traveled to Brazil thirty years ago, a visa was required.
Currency Brazil uses the real (R$, plural reais). 1 real = about .32 dollars. Not every place takes credit cards, and the ATM machines we tried did not like our debit cards. Not having enough currency became a bit of an issue for us.
Language Brazilians speak Portuguese. Since I know a bit of Spanish, I was able to read some signs and menus. A lot of the big tourist areas have English speaking employees. At the mom-and-pop shops you just do the best you can. Brazilians are about the nicest and friendliest people you will ever meet, so I didn’t have anyone get aggravated with me for not knowing the language.
Climate Being in the southern hemisphere means that winter is in June & July and summer is in December & January (rainy season). If you watched the Olympic games last August, you noticed the athletes wearing light jackets at night. We were there in March and the highs were in the 90s F (32+ C). Yes, it was hot!
Electricity Rio is 110 volts. We always bring our handy, dandy Bestek international power converter adaptor with four USB ports and three plug in ports. It extends the range to charge our phones or electronic devices from a single outlet at the airport or hotel.
Safety Just like any big tourist city, the most common crime tourists experience is theft. Being alert to your surrounding and using common sense is a must. For more details read How to Be Safe in Rio De Janeiro.
8 Must Sees in Rio
1. Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer)- Commemorated in 1931 to celebrated a century of Brazil’s independence, this 2,316 ft. (706 m) statue sits in the middle of the tropical jungle of Parque Nacional de Tijuca. It is Brazil’s most recognized landmark and can be seen from almost every part of Rio. Because it is so popular, it is advised to buy your tickets at least a day in advance. Also watch the weather. You don’t want to get to the top and not be able to see anything but clouds!
The most popular way to reach the Christ is by red cog train. It leaves the station every thirty minutes and takes about twenty minutes to reach the top. You can also ride a Parque da Tijuca-authorized van. It gets very crowded, so just know, you’ll probably not get a selfie of just you and the Christ. Regardless, the views of Rio from this iconic landmark are stunning!
Cog Train: Adult/child R$62/40- Hold onto your ticket. You’ll need it for the ride back down.
Local’s Tip- For the best views on the cog train, sit on the side with two seats. If you tend to get motion sickness, then sit on the side with three seats going up and two seats going down.
2. Beaches- With 31 miles (50 km) of shoreline, part of Rio’s beauty lies in its combination of mountains and beaches (read Everything About Rio’s Beaches). People in Rio love the beach, and I don’t blame them at all! There is a beach within walking distance of most major hotels, and you can find people enjoying the beach from dawn, when the surfers find the best waves, until way after dark. The major beaches, Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon, and Leme shine bright lights for those who enjoy late night swims. On weekends, the prominent beaches get very crowded.
Bring plenty of sunscreen, a tiny swimsuit, and beach towel. Almost everything else can bought/rented at the beach. Take only what cash you need for the day. Leave all valuables at the hotel unless you plan on taking turns staying with your things. The water temperature and current can change daily, so “test the waters” and take note of warning flags before getting out too deep.
3. Sugar Loaf Mountain- Going to see Sugar Loaf actually involves riding a cable car to two different mountains, first to Morro do Urca and then finally to Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf). The Sugar Loaf is a granite monolith and rises 1,300 ft (396 m) in what early explorers thought was the mouth a great river (how the city got its name). Although the mountains can be scaled during organized weekend climbs, most get to the top via the cable cars. Just like the Cristo, this attraction can become very crowded so avoid the weekend. Some of the best sunset views can come from the top of the Sugar Loaf.
Tickets can be bought online, but we didn’t have a problem buying our tickets at the ticket booth. Once in the cable car, stand on the lefthand side for a breathtaking bay view, or on the righthand side for more open ocean view. I preferred the bay view. Once at the top, you can buy souvenirs or a snack and soak in one of the best city views in the world.
Adult/child R$62/31- Hold onto your ticket. You’ll need it for the ride back down.
Local’s Tip: On the bay side of Urca, you’ll find a lovely neighborhood with small cafes and bars. Get some finger foods and sit on the bay wall to watch the boats come and go. Perfect at sunset! On the other side is the small Vermelha Beach and Pista Claudio Coutinho, a smooth trail that goes around the base of the two mountains. More great views!
4. Museu do Amanhã (The Museum of Tomorrow)
Built in in 2015, the museum takes visitors through five main areas: Cosmos, Earth, Anthropocene, Tomorrow and Now through interactive exhibits. When you buy your ticket, you’re given a card (credit card size) that allows each exhibit to know what language you speak. This museum shows visitors how small changes in lifestyle can lead to more sustainable cities. After a long day in the hot sun, this attraction was a welcomed inside relief!
Local’s Tip: Walk on down to Av. Rodrigues Alves to see the largest street mural in the world and sample from an array of food trucks.
5. Parque Nacional Da Tijuca- Home of the Christ is the world’s largest urban forest. This tropical rainforest is 15 square miles (39 sq km) and contains more than 200 species of birds and small animals. There are over 150 trails, some originally made by Brazil’s indigenous people. Within the park are waterfalls, picnic areas, caves, and some of the best views you’ll find of Rio. Most of this park is dense forest, so if you want to go trekking through more unpopular parts a guide is recommended. You don’t want to be lost in the forest at night, it isn’t policed during that time.
On the weekends, locals fill the park with running and cycling. If you’re driving through the national park you will need to drive with caution and be on the lookout for people hiking and bicycling.
We came to the park twice for some marvelous views. At Pedra Bonita (Pretty Rock), hang gliders depart then float slowly down to land on Sao Conrado Beach. We weren’t about to go hang gliding, especially with my fear of heights, but sitting and watching the gliders take off and fly made for a memorable experience.
At the Vista Chinesa (Chinese View), you can see for miles and miles. It was my favorite view of Rio! At this lookout is a gazebo built in the early 1900s to honor the Chinese who brought tea for cultivation in Brazil.
6. Feira de Arte de Ipanema (Hippie Fair)
The hippie fair is an open air market in Ipanema every Sunday, starting around 10 am. Started by hippies in 1968, it has grown to over 700 stalls. From cheap souvenir trinkets to high quality arts, the fair has it all. You can even sample some authentic Bahia food, a spicy food from the north. The fair runs every week, rain or shine, and stays full of tourists and locals. Don’t expect to be able to barter. Credit cards are excepted by most vendors, but cash discounts are routinely given, usually around 10%.
If you can’t make it to the Hippie Fair, many of the merchants set up in front of the Othon Hotel at Copacabana Beach at night.
7. Downtown Tour- If you’re a history lover like me, no trip is complete without an in depth look at the area’s historic downtown. We devoted one day of our trip to a 6-hour walking tour of the architecture and historical landmarks in the Rio city center.
We were given an English speaking private guide for the day, a surprise birthday present from our Brazilian hosts. It is probably one of the best birthday gifts I have ever been given (not counting this amazing trip, a present from my sweet Island Boy husband)!
The history of Rio is such an interesting mix of African, European, American, and Indigenous cultures. In one city block, you can find architectural influences from across the globe.
8. Jardim Botanico (Botanical Gardens)- Rio’s botanical gardens were established in 1808 by the Prince Regent, Dom Joao VI to acclimatize plants coming from Asia. Later the grounds were turned into the royal gardens then opened to the public in 1822.
The garden is home to variety of plant species. I especially enjoyed the orchid greenhouse. However, the showstoppers of the park are the 200 imperial palm trees that line the many broad walkways.
We loved the quiet shade that the gardens gave us after a previous busy day touring in the sunny Rio de Janeiro heat. We toured the gardens on a Saturday, and it was pretty quiet. There were several pregnant mothers and brides getting their portraits taken. In the children’s play area tourists and locals’ children were playing together.
R$15 (cash only)
So have you been to Rio or want to visit? Please share by commenting below! Any questions we can try to answer, or we can ask Aline!
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