What to Know Before Visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

View of Rio de Janeiro from Sugar Loaf Mountain, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro. There's no other city in the world quite like it. It's colorful, lively, hot, humid, and most of all, extremely beautiful. When we first told people we were heading to Rio, we got a lot of negative responses. A lot of comments like, "Isn't Rio unsafe?" and "Why Rio?" Our answer, "Why not?" But truthfully, Rio has been on our wishlist of destinations for years because of it's beautiful, tropical location. Images of mountains jutting up right out of the ocean next to worldclass beaches drew us in, but when we got to Brazil, we fell in love with the country even harder than we could have expected. The people, culture, beauty, and food all captured our hearts in their own way.

As Americans, we rarely hear of other Americans venturing down to Brazil. Maybe because Hawaii, Florida, and even Costa Rica are much more accessible, but still, the lack on interest Americans have in Brazil is surprising. In fact, the only other Americans we encountered the whole time we were there for 5 weeks were Americans who had married Brazilians. We encountered lots of Germans, Australians, and Dutch, but very few Americans or even Canadians. I hope this changes soon, because Brazil truly has so much to offer!

Are you gearing up for your first trip to Rio de Janeiro? This vibrant city is definitely a must-see destination! To help you make the most of your visit, we've put together a comprehensive travel guide. From top attractions to where to eat and sleep, we've got you covered. So read on and start planning your perfect Rio vacation!

Looking for a little Rio de Janeiro inspiration? Checkout our travel vlogs from Rio!

Where is Rio de Janeiro?

Rio de Janeiro is located in southeastern Brazil, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It is Brazil's second largest city, after Sao Paulo, and the third largest metropolitan area in South America, with a population of over 6 million.

Find Rio de Janeiro on a map HERE!

Fast facts

Primary language: Portuguese

Currency: Brazilian Real (BRL)

Climate: Rio de Janeiro has a tropical climate, with warm weather year-round

Time zone:  UTC-3 (this is two hours ahead of the USA’s EST)

Historic city center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Best time of year to visit

The best time of year to visit Rio de Janeiro is November through April. Because Rio is in the southern hemisphere, this is their summer so you should expect very hot and very humid weather.

Important note: Carnival is Brazil's biggest event of the year. If you plan to travel during these peak months, be sure to check the calendar and either avoid those days or plan accordingly. During Carnival you can expect very large crowds and higher hotel rates.

Is Rio de Janeiro safe?

Short answer: yes and no. The stories you see on the news are real, but that's definitely only one side of Rio. Brazil did a lot of work to clean up Rio de Janeiro prior to hosting the 2016 summer olympics, and they've continued to improve the city since. The water is cleaner, the crime is down, the streets are cleaner, and the city as a whole is now better equipped to welcoming tourists from around the world.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't be alert and cautious at all times though. Petty theft and crime is unfortunately very common, and tourists often find themselves in situations such as pickpocketing.

How to stay safe in Rio de Janeiro

The best advice is to simply use common sense and take basic safety precautions. As with any large city, there are areas that are best to avoid, especially at night. But overall, we felt safe walking around during the day.

Some safety tips for traveling in Rio de Janeiro:

  • Don't wander into favelas. Even when people offer tours of these neighborhoods, locals recommend avoiding them altogether because crime and violence within the neighborhoods can occur at any given time.
  • Don't carry all your valuables with you when exploring the city. Leave anything you don't need in your hotel room safe.
  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times and trust your gut instinct. If something feels off, it probably is.
  • Avoid wearing expensive jewelry or watches when out and about.
  • Only take taxis or Uber from reputable companies.
  • Avoid renting a car and driving yourself unless you have a strong grasp on where the dangerous areas in the city are.
Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

How to get to Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is served by two international airports: Galeao International Airport (GIG) and Santos Dumont Airport (SDU). Galeao is the larger of the two and is located about 20 km from downtown Rio. Santos Dumont is much smaller and is located closer to downtown, about 2km from the city center.

If you are coming from outside Brazil, expect to fly into the airport further outside of the city, Galeao International Airport (GIG). While it is 20 km away from the city center, taxis and Ubers are easy to snag in Rio, so don’t worry about finding reliable transportation.

For the best Rio de Janeiro flight options, we always recommend using Google Flights and booking directly through the airline. We never recommend booking through a third party site such as Booking.com or Expendia. Buying directly through the airline will give your more flexibility if and when you want or need to change something on your itinerary.

Getting around Rio de Janeiro

As a tourist, the safest and most reliable way to get around the city is by Uber or taxi. We had excellent experiences with every Uber we took while there and we recommend this option. Public transit is another great option, but you will need to be extra careful when navigating the public transit systems to be sure you don't end up in unsafe areas of the city. Also note: public transit is more unsafe at night and it’s recommended that tourists do not take public transit after dark.

Public transit is a more authentic way to experience a city to be in the hustle and bustle with the locals, but if you're in a hurry, Uber is your best bet. Rates are much cheaper than in the USA and a 15 minute right typically cost us $3-8 USD.

Boats anchored in harbor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Where to stay in Rio de Janeiro

Rio is a very large city, so where you stay will depend on what you want to do and see while you're there. We would recommend staying in Copacabana or Ipanema if you're looking for a beach vacation. If you're interested in seeing more of the city and doing some sightseeing, then Leblon or Botafogo would be a better option. All of these neighborhoods are located close to the city center and beaches, so you really can’t go wrong with any of them. 

It should be noted that Copacabana has a reputation for being very lively. If the party scene isn’t your thing but you still want to be near a wonderful beach, definitely opt for Ipanema or Leblon. Our personal favorite was Leblon because the beach was very lowkey and relaxed.

Hotels

When we’re in vacation mode, we typically gravitate towards a hotel for the ease of it all. We don’t necessarily gravitate towards American hotel chains, but when planning our first trip to Rio de Janeiro it was recommended to us to stay with an American chain because it would be in a good area and offer more modern luxuries and securities. Obviously this isn’t a necessity, but if you’re wanting to relax and not worry about anything, a familiar hotel chain might be a good choice.

Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel and Resort

For a few reasons, this is the hotel we opted to stay at while in Rio. At the time they were running a special for extended stays for guests who were looking to work remotely. Stays 2+ weeks received a 30% discount plus free breakfast each morning. I doubt that deal is still going on, but it never hurts to ask about specials! The Sheraton is also dog friendly which was essential for us since we were traveling with our dog, Kramer. One other thing that set this hotel apart was its own beach. While the beach wasn’t huge or fancy, it was much quieter than nearby Copacabana. We also loved the way it placed us halfway between Ipanema and Leblon. We’d definitely recommend this hotel if you’re planning a trip to Rio.

Sheraton Grand Rio: Av. Niemeyer, 121 - Leblon, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22450-220, Brazil | Google Maps

Hyatt Grand Rio de Janeiro

When we stay in hotels, we typically try to make it a Hyatt because their loyalty program is (in our opinion) superior to other hotel chains. However, the rates for the Hyatt Grand were double the Sheraton when we visited so we couldn’t justify staying there. One thing that’s nice about the Hyatt Grand in Rio is that it’s Barra da Tijuca area so it’s a bit removed from the chaos that is Copacabana, but still a short Uber ride away from all the fun restaurants and bars in that area.

Hyatt Grand Rio: Av. Lúcio Costa, 9600 - Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22795-007, Brazil | Google Maps

Hilton Rio de Janeiro Copacabana

If you want to be in the middle of the party, the Hilton’s location can’t be beat! It’s right on Copacabana beach just minutes from Sugarloaf Mountain, Ipanema, and Botafogo. This is a five star hotel which comes with a price tag, but if you’re traveling for vacation, it might be worth the splurge! 

Hilton Rio de Janeiro Copacabana: Av. Atlântica, 1020 - Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 22010-000, Brazil | Google Maps

Airbnbs

When we’re traveling for extended periods of time and doing a combination of work and adventuring, we typically prefer staying at an Airbnb (which is what we did for the other 3 weeks we were in Brazil). While we didn’t stay in an Airbnb in Rio de Janeiro, we do know that there are lots of options. Use the information above regarding neighborhoods to guide your choice and if you’re uneasy traveling to Rio, be sure to use the filters on your Airbnb search to include places that have 24/7 doorman security, private entry, etc. to meet your specific needs.

Drinking caipirinhas at Sugar Loaf Mountain, Brazil

What to eat in Rio de Janeiro

Brazil is full of amazing foods! From açai to pão de queijo and brigadeiro to feijoada, Brazilians sure know how to eat. Instead of trying to give you a list of all the best dishes here, check out our other blogpost about the 13 best foods and drinks to try in Brazil. Do note that Brazil eats both a lot of meat and a lot of fruit since most of the country is in a tropical climate.

What to see and do in Rio de Janeiro

Beaches

Rio de Janeiro is world-famous for its beaches and there are plenty to choose from. Copacabana and Ipanema are two of the most popular, but there are many others to explore as well. Our personal favorite was Praia do Pepino for its hang gliders and paragliders that landed right on the beach. There were definitely a few days when all we did was play in the ocean and watch hang gliders while sipping on coconuts. No matter if you’re a beach person or not, be sure to take some time to relax on the beach for even an afternoon to get the full Brazilian experience. 

Hiking

If you're looking for something a little more active, Rio has some great hiking options. Corcovado Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in the city and offers stunning views of Rio de Janeiro. If you're up for a challenge, you can hike to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain instead of taking the cable car (like we did). Both of these hikes can be done in a day but you should plan accordingly by bringing plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and wearing the right footwear.

Note: While in Brazil we heard stories of people encountering crime on hikes so be very careful. Do not take valuable items with you on hikes, stay in a group if possible, and stick to well known trails. We've heard the Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer hikes are safe trails, but do be aware of your surroundings.

Sightseeing

There are plenty of sights to see in Rio de Janeiro, from the Christ the Redeemer statue to Sugarloaf Mountain. All of the best sightseeing adventures are close to the city center and are no more than a 30 minute drive from neighborhoods such as Ipanema and Copacabana.

We took the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset and highly recommend this experience. We also recommend taking the cog train to the top of Christ the Redeemer. In our opinion, those are the two musts when visiting Rio de Janeiro. Both experiences are roughly ~$25USD per person, and are well worth the money! 

Carnival

If you're lucky enough to be in Rio during Carnival, you're in for quite an experience. This is Brazil's biggest and most popular festival, so be prepared for large crowds and lots of partying. Carnival has a reputation in the USA for being pretty adult (lack of clothing, lots of drinking, etc.), and all of this is true. That being said, Carnival is one of those things that can be as wild or as tame as you’d prefer to make it. If you’re a partier, Brazilians will be on the beaches and in the streets dancing all hours of the night. If you’re like us and just want a very small, mild taste of Rio, consider going to a rehearsal to learn about the cultural significance of the tradition without all the partying.

I’d say if you have zero interest in experiencing Carnival, try to avoid visiting this time of year. Hotels and Airbnbs are far more expensive during Carnival, so save your money and visit a couple of weeks before or after.

Pro tip: If you’re in Rio the weeks leading up to Carnaval you can attend the Carnival rehearsals in the Sambadrome stadium for FREE! While the experience is free, we booked a private tour through our hotel to attend the event which we’re so thankful we did. We were some of the very few tourists there (most people were there to cheer on their family and friends) so having a guide navigate and translate for us was incredibly helpful. We paid ~$20USD per person for the tour guide and that included the pick up and drop off at our hotel, too.

The crazy party of Carnival isn’t necessarily our favorite kind of activity, but we enjoyed this tamer side of Carnival and the chance to experience a slightly toned down version of the real thing.

Girl walking between palm trees at Rio de Janeiro's botanical garden

Final thoughts

Rio is a city that offers something for everyone. Whether you’re looking to explore the history and culture, take in the natural beauty, or enjoy some of the world-famous nightlife, you won’t be disappointed. We hope our guide has helped you get excited about your upcoming trip and that you have a wonderful time when you finally make it to Brazil’s amazing coastline. Have you been to Rio before? What were your favorite things to do in the city? Let us know in the comments below – we love getting traveler feedback!

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Hi! We're Chris and Sara a husband and wife video making, storytelling, travel loving duo with a passion for sharing travel tips, tricks, and inspiration with others.
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