Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro

Statue of Christ the RedeemerThis fabulous Brazilian city is gaining popularity among American tourists. The city prides its famous venues, landmarks, and events, some of which are included in this list.

Get into the beach, with caution – Rio’s beaches are undoubtedly one of the main reasons why travelers visit the city. Copacabana and Ipanema are by far the most famous, but the city also has other beaches, each with a distinct character. However, please do remember that most beaches are polluted, and bathing is not advisable in any of the non-oceanic beaches. The beaches that are often proper for swimming are Ipanema, Leblon, Recreio dos Bandeirantes, and Grumari. Copacabana, although famous worldwide, is usually dirty.

Do not misinterpret their beach culture – Residents in Rio (called “cariocas”) follow a code of customs that outsiders (including Brazilians from other cities) can misconstrue easily. For one, going topless in the beaches-which foreigners think is commonplace in the city-is illegal. Also, just because the women like wear the skimpiest of string bikinis (that they like to call “fio dental”) doesn’t mean they are exhibitionists. Staring at their bodies, in most of the case, is highly offensive. Meanwhile, men and boys wear “speedos,” but wearing bermudas or boardshorts has become more usual.

Surf with a board, or without – Waves in Rio vary from tiny and calm in Guanabara Bay beaches (such as Paqueta, Ramos, Flamengo, Botafogo, and Urca) to high, surf-ideal waves in Recreio. Meanwhile, in Leme, Copacabana, Arpoador, Ipanema, and Leblon, a popular way of riding the wave is called “pegar jacare” (literally, “to grab an alligator”). This is done by waiting for the wave to come behind you, then swim on top of it until it crumbles next to the sand.

Swimsuits are so common – Because of the city’s plentiful beaches, it is not surprising that the residents would wear their swimwear underneath their shorts, t-shirts, and even business suits. Do not be surprised with people wearing swimsuits even on the street or while riding a bus.

Be prepared with your swimwear – There are no “cabins” nor lockers for changing clothes on the beach. If you go to the beach with your swimsuit on, use a towel to cover yourself while changing. Women are advised not to take off their bra, even for a moment, or they might be in trouble with the police. Remember that going topless is illegal.

Tan only as far as your skin can tolerate – Fair-skinned Westerners should get a strong sunblock to protect themselves against the harsh UV rays, also to avoid sunburn. Locals are used to get a tan easily, but don’t try to mimic them or you just might end up at a hospital. If your skin tends to go red (instead of tan) under sun exposure, then avoid soaking yourself under the sun. Red-burnt skin is considered “lame” and people can make fun of it.

Eat at the beach – Thousands of vendors go around the beaches selling everything from sun glasses to fried shrimp to cooling beverages. For good food, try out their “empada” (baked flour pastry filled with meat or cheese) and “sanduíche natural” (cold sandwich with vegetables and mayonnaise). Gulp it down with a cold glass of “mate com limão” (a local iced tea mixed with lemonade). Vendors usually shout out loud what they are selling, but they won’t usually bother you unless you call them.

Each beach has its “character” – Despite the beaches being democratic space, there are still some informal “social area” divisions that create the beach’s character. For instance, Copacabana attracts mainly tourists (both foreign and national) as well as lower-classes bathers. Prostitution is also widespread there, even in daylight. Ipanema is the major beach for the middle-class, especially the Posto 9 Station (Watchtower #9), which is preferred by the left-wing, intellectuals, artists, journalists, and similar beach-goers. You can easily walk into a politician or someone famous there. Meanwhile, the beaches in Barra and Recreio were used to be favored by surfers and hang-gliders until the middle-class, the nouveau riche, and the favela residents took over.

Go up the mountain – Climb the Corcovado Mountain through a tram ride costing R$36 for a roundtrip ticket. The famed statue of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), one of the newest seven wonders of the world, is situated at the top. The mountain also offers an amazing view of the city. Another famous landmark are the Sugar Loaf mountains (Pão de Açúcar), a pair of bread-shaped mounds that also offers a great bird’s eye view through its aerial tramway leading to the top. A ticket costs around R$35.

Watch a soccer match – Americans call it soccer, but to the rest of the world the sport is called “football”. Brazil is a football-crazy nation. It’s national team has won the sport’s World Cup several times. Rio is the home of Maracanã, the city’s largest football stadium.

Visit its parks – Aside from the beaches, Rio has ample open spaces where you can skate, jog, or simply watch other people pass by. Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas is a large lagoon that offers great views of Corcovado, Ipanema, and Leblon beaches. Jardim Botanico, meanwhile, is also a scientific laboratory.

Marvel at the architecture – Rio has several structures that exemplify both Colonial and Modern Architecture. Among them are Paço Imperial (an old palace in downtown), Mosteiro de São Bento (a monastery located downtown), Arcos da Lapa (an aqueduct), Catedral Metropolitana (a cone-shaped cathedral), and Palácio Guanabara (governor’s office).

Visit the museums – The city has a lot of museums featuring different aspects of Brazilian culture, art, and even their quest to send their own astronauts to space.

Watch the Carnaval – This event is the highlight of Rio de Janeiro and is considered one of the greatest reasons for visiting the city. This highly-advertised party lasts for almost two weeks, culminating with a parade featuring different samba schools outdoing each other with scantily-clad dancers, over-the-top floats, heart-thumping drum beats.

Join a block party – The Carnaval is more than just a parade at the Sambadrome. Most samba schools parade in their own neighborhoods as their form of pep rallies and fund raisers.

Get into the samba spirit ahead of time – In order to really feel how it feels to “samba your heart out,” visit a night practice session held by the various samba schools in the months leading up to Carnaval. Not only you will find a small number of tourists, you would also be served with the best caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail). The rehearsals go on into the wee hours of the morning, with the fun only escalating at around 1 to 2 am. Salgueiro and Mangueira are good choices, as they are two of the larger samba schools and are located in relatively safe areas.

Avoid “samba shows” – The rest of the year, samba shows performed in theaters are popular with tourists. Although this could be a great treat for tourists who missed Carnaval, these are expensive and not really representative of Brazilian culture (much like a tourist trap).

Samba City – One recent project the local government developed is the “Cidade do Samba” or Samba City, a Carnaval-inspired cultural theme park. It opened in 2004, offering dance table galleries, samba dance shows, and a Brazil Carnival fantasy fest. Fourteen of the best samba schools are housed here and tourists can get to see how they prepare for the big dance competition in March.

Feel the Brazilian rhythms – Rio was the cradle of three of Brazil’s most important music genres: samba, choro, and bossa nova. A lot of traditional samba and choro venues are located in the downtown district of Lapa. These are good and cheap nightlife options, and you get to hear some of the best musicians in the country.

Dress white for the New Year – The city hosts the country’s largest and most popular New Year’s Even celebrations. Over 2 million people would flock to Copacabana every year to witness a huge fireworks display and music performances. People dress in white for good luck and toast the arrival of the new year.

Take hang gliding – Hang gliding and paragliding is perfectly suited for this city because of its steep mountains encountering the Atlantic Ocean, providing excellent take off locations and great landing zones on the beach.

Never go to the favela on your own – Rio has vast shantytowns called “favelas,” where violent crime and drugs are frequent. Some operators offer tours of the Rocinha favela, but it is advisable not to go on you own.

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