Brazil is the largest country in South America and the 5th largest in the world. This nation is known for Rio de Janeiro, Carnival, Samba music, the Amazon jungle, and Sao Paulo. One of the reasons we love Brazil is because of its diversity. There is more to this country than just samba music and beautiful women in bikinis!
So, maybe you’ve decided to take the plunge and travel to Brazil. It can be overwhelming once you understand how much there is to see and do. I know it was for us when we first moved here! It is paramount that your first step when making plans to travel to Brazil is to prioritize.
What type vacation you would like to have?
Do you like beaches? Urban life? Fine cuisine? Shopping? Learning about the local cultures? Nature? Brazil has all of these things and more. There is something for everyone, but it helps to know what you like so you can narrow things down a bit.
We’ve lived and traveled in Brazil now for some time and we have the perfect two week itinerary that will show you several different sides to this amazingly diverse country!
Visiting Salvador, Brasilia, the waterfalls of Foz do Iguaçu, and Rio de Janeiro will not leave you disappointed. This is a great trip that encompasses the colonial history of Brazil, urban life, natural wonders, amazing cuisine, beautiful beaches, and the incredible experience that is Rio de Janeiro.
It is no coincidence that your starting off point in Brazil on this itinerary is the first colonial capital, Salvador. What better place to start than the third largest city in Brazil which was also declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Salvador is located in the north of Brazil and it is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas. Salvador is also known for hosting the world’s largest Carnival. The people of Salvador love a good party!
We love the colonial architecture, African influence, rich history, unique music, and distinct regional cuisine. Another notable feature is that the city of Salvador is divided into two sections, the upper section or “Cidade Alta” and the lower section, “Cidade Baixa”. They are connected by Brazil’s first elevator, “Elevador Lacerda”.
The San Francisco Church is a must see in Salvador. This colonial church is probably the most opulent church in all of Brazil! Scenes made of unique tiles, painted ceilings, and gold are to be found throughout the church. You will feel as if you stepped back into Brazilian colonial times.
After visiting the church it is imperative that your tour the Pelourinho quarter where you can view some of the most amazing colonial architecture in all of Brazil! This bright and vibrant neighborhood is full of local artists and rich with the African-Brazilian history of Salvador. Be sure to wear good walking shoes, as spending the day walking the beautiful cobblestone roads can make for some tired feet!
Who wouldn’t be tired and famished after such an amazing city tour? Be sure to grab a bite to eat at the Uaua restaurant where you can sample the traditional food the Northeast Brazil is famous for. Elizabeth loves moqueca. It is a traditional dish of fish stew in coconut milk and Salvador is famous for this dish! Also we recommend trying Elizabeth’s favorite drink, the Caipirinha. Be warned though, this drink is strong and only tourists drink more than one! Want something with a little less punch, go with Dale’s suggestion and try a Brazilian beer.
Have some extra time in Salvador, try these activities and sites:
Mam Museu de Arte Moderna (Mam Museum of Modern Art). This is a great locale to watch the sunset at the end of the day, and if you are lucky enough to be there on a Saturday evening, you can catch a Jazz Jam session.
Olodum Drum Academy. These unique rhythms and their enthusiasm will have you dancing the night away, or if you are not at dancer, tapping your foot along to the beat!
Porto da Barra Beach. After a night out on the town listening to amazing music and maybe too many caipirinhas or beers, we recommend spending the day relaxing and sweating out the toxins at the beach. This beach was named as the 3rd best beach in the world by The Guardian Newspaper.
The Capital of Brazil was moved from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in 1960. This city was built in only 41 months! Lucio Costa was the main urban planner of the city. His close friend and famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer was the chief architect on most of the public buildings. Oscar Niemeyer is arguably one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. Roberto Burle Marx was the landscape designer. From the genius of these three men came the most well planned, futuristic city in Brazil.
On weekends this city is a ghost town. Most of the politicians and other government employees head home. Traffic is minimal. The only people around the Federal District are tourists and tour guides. Nightlife is almost non-existent. However there are many wonderful restaurants that offer international cuisine. That said, it is a good idea to book a hotel with a lot of amenities if you plan to stay more than a day.
We stayed at a hotel on the lake, Pontao do Lago Sul. The lake area is a nice place to relax, take a walk, go for a boat ride, or rent stand up paddle boards. Our hotel had several restaurants, a pool, stand up paddle board rentals, and an Irish pub. As you can tour all of the major highlights of Brasilia in about 3-4 hours, staying at a nice hotel with a lot to offer in terms of activities is nice. We spent our second day in Brasilia relaxing by the pool. This was the perfect way to end our weekend trip after all the walking we did!
It takes about 3 hours to tour the Federal District of the city if you use a tour guide. This is where Oscar Niemeyer’s greatest architectural works reside as well as the heart of the Brazilian political system. If you go it on your own and on foot like we did, it can take all day, at the expense of your feet! We learned a valuable lesson here and highly recommend that you take a guided tour. You can see more, relax later, and be capable of walking the next day!
Be sure to start your tour of Brasilia at the TV tower. You can take the elevator up to the top and it offers wonderful panoramic views of the city!
Some sites not to be missed include the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral). The outside of the cathedral is futuristic and inside it is very calm and relaxing. Also, not on may tour itineraries in Brasilia is the Santuario Dom Bosco. We walked far out of our way to see this cathedral and it turned out to be our favorite out of the two! The outside looks boring and is concrete, but inside it is awesome! The walls are covered with stained glass in 12 different shades of blue. Even those who are not particularly religious will find this Sanctuary to be a visual marvel.
Churches aside, another great building is the Banco do Brasil Cultural Centre. This building houses a lot of space for art exhibitions and was also designed by Niemeyer. They frequently host live music and other various art exhibits so be sure to check out the schedule while you are in Brasilia. We were able to see a photography exhibit.
Other architectural marvels of Niemeyer not to be missed include the Itamaraty Palace that serves as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Congresso Nacional which is the head of the Brazilian Political system, and the Palacio do Alvorada (Palace of the Dawn) which is the official presidential residence, and the national theatre. The only way to see the inside of the Congresso Nactional is to go with the free guided tour. You can get your tickets when you walk in the door at the counter. Don’t forget your camera because all of these buildings are astonishing!
If you have more than one day to spend in Brasilia, why not head out of town and get a break from the city life? Visit the Salto do Itiquira and unwind. We didn’t have enough time on this trip for this excursion but we hear it is a lovely park. It has a beautiful waterfall, hiking trails, heated pools you can swim in, fishing, horseback riding, and zip lining. It is only about a 2 hour drive from the city. The falls have a height of approximately 168 meters making it the highest accessible waterfall in Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro
Perhaps what most people think of when they hear the word Brazil is Rio de Janeiro and Carnival. Carnival is an incredible experience. The view from the statue of Christ the Redeemer with the beaches and bay spread before it is one of the most iconic vistas in the world. We’ve been there a couple of times now and I promise you Rio does not disappoint!
While there are a multitude of lesser known activities to do in and around Rio, you would be remiss if you didn’t hit the most famous spots on your first visit to the Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City as the locals call it). Our first time in Rio de Janeiro we took a city tour. We had a three day weekend and we wanted to get as much out of our trip in the time we had and we were not disappointed.
The tour took us to two of the most famous beaches in Rio, Copacabana and Ipanema. These beaches are awesome for people watching. The locals, or Cariocas as they call themselves, have a laidback lifestyle that usually revolves around the beach. It is so much fun to watch. Everywhere you look there is activity. People are jogging, attending beach boot camp classes, doing yoga, roller blading, playing soccer or “futebol” in Portuguese, slack lining, and playing handball. Don’t forget to try a coco verde (green coconut). They core the coconut, place a straw in it and voila-you have a delicious and refreshing drink!
If you are lucky to be in Ipanema on a Sunday, we highly recommend checking out the Ipanema Hippy Fair. They have a wonderful display of artwork you can purchase and take home with you, as well as some excellent souvenirs.
The iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city is located within the Corcovado National Park. To get to the peak - and the base of statue - you either go by bus or by train. The trip to the top only takes about 20 minutes, but the wait can take much longer than that. There is a separate line for those with a tour guide that expedites the wait. We highly recommend going with a tour to see this site unless you don’t mind waiting several hours in line. You see time is precious when traveling and it’s best not to be wasted!
Another don’t-miss activity is taking the cable cars to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain - or Pão de Açucar in Portuguese. The peak originally got its name by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Sugar being transported back to Europe was packed into conical molds that resemble the shape of the mountain. The ride to the top is actually taken on two separate cars - with an intermediate stop at the smaller Morro da Urca peak before finishing the 1400 meter trip to the top of Sugarloaf. The granite walls on Sugarloaf and its neighboring hills comprise the largest urban, rock climbing area in the world. You will usually see climbers roped up on the walls as you ride the cable car up to Morro da Urca. It is possible to book a guided day of climbing if you wish. That’s on my list for my next trip to Rio!
A trip to Rio is not complete without visiting the famous Lapa neighborhood and the Selaron Steps. Lapa is famous for nightlife, samba, and the Arcos da Lapa, an impressive aqueduct. The Arcos da Lapa is a popular gathering area for the young on Friday and Saturday nights. The most famous samba nightclub in the area is the Rio Scenarium. You can learn how to Samba here and dance the night away.
The Selaron Steps straddle the Lapa and Santa Teresa Neighborhoods. There are 250 steps in all. The Selaron Steps are the art work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron. These steps started as his hobby and later became his obsession. Strangely, Jorge Selaron was found dead on these same steps he created in 2013 with burn marks on his body and covered in pain thinner. His death is believed by many to have been suicide. As gory and depressing as the details of his death are, the Selaron steps remain a masterpiece and his legacy.
If you find you have some extra time in the Cidade Maravilhosa, we recommend a few other great sites to see and things to do:
Botanical Gardens. This locale is rarely at the top of anyone’s list. However is surprisingly beautiful and relaxing with a peaceful contrast from the city.
Maracana Stadium. See a futebol (soccer) game at this famous stadium. If there isn’t a game you can still tour the interior of the stadium.
Sambadrome. Learn about Carnival. You can even try on your own Carnival costume and take photos like we did!
Foz do Iguaçu
One of the most incredible sights in the world, the waterfalls of Foz do Iguaçu were recently voted one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world. They. Do. Not. Disappoint.
You should spend at least two days in Foz in order to see both sides of the park. While there are local buses that run from the town to the park, there is no easy way to get to the Argentinian side. When we visited, we arranged for a local taxi to meet us each day and drive us around. You can probably work something out with a cabbie - or ask your hotel staff to help you. If your Portuguese isn’t too strong you should probably arrange this before you arrive with your travel agency.
It is an absolute must that you tour both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the falls. The Brazilian side gives more of a panoramic view of the falls and is known for its great infrastructure.
Also, we highly recommend you do the Macuco boat tour, not for the faint of heart and be prepared to get wet! You can bring a towel and change of clothes and rent a locker. The Argentine side of the falls allows you to get up close to the falls. It also is the perfect side for seeing rainbows.
If you are hungry and looking for great Italian food, La Mafia is the place to go. We had an amazing romantic dinner there and it was our favorite Italian restaurant in Brazil so far! The restaurant will even pick you up and drive you back to your hotel in their car for free. Just ask your hotel to call and make your reservations.
If you have extra time in Foz do Iguaçu visit:
Ice Bar. For a fun kitschy side trip, the Ice Bar on the Argentine side is a great place for some hilarious pictures. You pay an entrance fee that includes the clothing rental and all you can drink adult cocktails. You get around 30 minutes inside the Ice Bar but it is plenty of time to have a few drinks, visit with new friends, and take pictures. Also, children are allowed inside too.
Bird Park. We had some extra time to kill our last day in Foz do Iguaçu and we decided to go to the bird park which is across from the entrance of the falls on the Brazilian side. Our expectations were set a little low beforehand. We were not too keen on looking at birds after seeing so many amazing waterfalls, but let me tell you, we had a blast! The Bird Park allows you to see all the different birds up close. We really loved the numerous Toucans and Parrots! They were beautiful.
Tour vs Self-guided
So, should you go with a tour group or explore this country on your own? Sometimes those who consider themselves ‘travelers’ as opposed to tourists generally eschew the use of professional tour services. However, these folks are usually on an extended trip that gives them plenty of time to ‘live like a local’ and discover the sights on their own. This is generally our preferred way of traveling, but it can be nice to have some help - especially when you are visiting a country like Brazil. Working with a quality travel service can help you get the best of both worlds.
When you are on a tight schedule - only having a week or two - contracting the services of professionals can help ensure that you don’t miss anything. It can also remove the stress of planning out how to get from point A to point B in a country where the locals do not speak your language.
Brazil is one of the few countries where not many speak English. Brazil is accustomed to domestic travelers but they do not receive a lot of foreign travelers-even after the World Cup.
Our friends at the eShores travel agency can provide tailor-made holidays using personal travel consultants. Not many travel agencies offer customized vacation packages. They offer online convenience, a 24/7 helpline, and financial protection in the event your flight is cancelled or your plans are somehow disrupted. Financial protection is very important when traveling in Brazil because travel here can be unpredictable. We’ve had several flight cancelations due to weather while traveling in Brazil!
While the itinerary above would give you a wonderful trip and a good feel for what Brazil has to offer, don’t feel as if this is not the only way to see Brazil. As mentioned, the country is huge with an almost endless, diverse collection of areas to visit and see.
This post was brought to you in conjunction with our friends at eShores, but, as always, the opinions here are our own.