Touring Rio de Janeiro

Touring Rio de Janeiro
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When most people think of Rio de Janeiro they think of Carnival, Samba, and beautiful beaches. We’ve been to Rio de Janeiro several times since moving to Brazil. This city can be overwhelming and intimidating to most tourists. This is especially true if you do not speak Portuguese. And if you speak Spanish like I do, you will quickly find out that in Brazil, Spanish is not very helpful.

That is why we recommend that if you only have a short amount of time to spend in Rio, let’s say 48 hours, you go with a day tour. This will allow you to maximize your time while there as well as give you an English speaking guide. Rio de Janeiro is a massive city. It has an even bigger history and you don’t want to miss out on learning and seeing as much as you can.

Sure, you can go it alone and figure out how to get around, but a tour will save you time and money. Lines for Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer are long and can take all day. If you go with a tour group you get to skip the long lines, and you can see almost all Rio in one day.

Recently Dale’s father came to visit us in Brazil. Everyone that visits Brazil feels they must see Rio de Janeiro and Dale’s father was no exception. As I mentioned before we’ve been to Rio before and we did a day tour of the city. I was not looking forward to doing another full day city tour. I was afraid it would be the same as the other tour. But we had a limited amount of time in Rio. We wanted to show Dale’s father all the main attractions so a day tour made the most sense. We went with a different tour group this time, RDJ4u. This tour exceeded our expectations.

We were picked up in a comfortable, air conditioned bus at a hotel in Copacabana. It was cloudy and rain was in the forecast. The guide offered everyone the flexibility to change our tour to the next day. We declined because we already had plans for the next day and living in Brazil, we know the weather changes and it did. The clouds disappeared by late morning it turned out to be a beautiful day.

Our first stop was at Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro (Metropolitan Cathedral).  This cathedral was dedicated to Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of Rio. It is a modern style cathedral designed in the style of Mayan Architecture. There are four rectilinear stained glass windows that go from floor to ceiling. It is an interesting cathedral and the inside is beautiful.

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After the Cathedral visit our guide pointed out several sites to us on our way to Sugarloaf Mountain. We drove by beaches, lakes, the Sambadrome, several mansions, and other points of interest as well as “futebol” or soccer clubs. Our guide did an excellent job pointing out the sites and he gave us information about the different things to do in Rio after the tour.

By late morning we made it to one of our main attractions, Pão de Açucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain. The peak got its name by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Sugar was transported back to Europe. It was packed into conical molds that resemble the shape of the mountain. The ride to the top is taken on two separate cars. There is an intermediate stop at the smaller Morro da Urca peak before finishing the 1400 meter trip to the top of Sugarloaf. A visit to Rio is not complete without a trip to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. The views are spectacular and the experience is memorable.

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We discussed which view of the city was better, from Sugarloaf or Christ the Redeemer. We decided that we love the view from Christ the Redeemer better but the experience on Sugarloaf is far superior. To our readers who have been to Rio, which is your favorite? I will never forget standing on top of Sugarloaf with my husband and his 78 year old father taking in the view, enjoying a beer, and talking about his amazing once in a lifetime trip to Brazil.

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After a spectacular morning on Sugarloaf it was time for lunch. It sounds silly but this is another area the RDJ4U tour stood out above the other tours we took. Most day long city tours will take you to lunch but you will eat at an average por kilo (restaurant where you weigh your plate) or a buffet. Now to the tourist who has never been to Rio these restaurants seem awesome. For those of us who live in Brazil we realize that most of these restaurants are tourist traps. The food is adequate by Brazilian standards. Sort of like that time I was starving in Florence and we ate at a restaurant next to the Duomo. It was the worst lasagna I’ve ever eaten. Edible yes, but not the spectacular Italian food Italy is known for. That was what our lunch was like on our previous tour to Rio.

Our tour didn’t do the mediocre tourist trap lunch restaurant. They actually provide lunch at a traditional Brazilian steakhouse called a churrascaria. Our restaurant was Carretão Churrasca Grill. It was wonderful. On a funny side note, our guide gave everyone instructions and advice about how to eat at a Churrascaria like a Brazilian. But everyone on the bus was talking and not much listening was going on. The guide spoke 4 languages, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I happen to speak 3 out of the 4 languages so I enjoyed listening to all the different translations in different languages. He suggested that we do not fill up on the food from the salad bar and focus on the meat that would come around to each table.

I made sure to remind my father-in-law that the main attraction is the meat. I advised him not to fill up on food from the salad bar but I guess it was too tempting for him, and in his defense it looked really good. He made a mountain out of his plate. I had a tomato and a little lettuce. I’m not a rookie. All the foreigners on the tour piled their plates high with filler food. Once the skewers of meat came by they were shocked at the amount of food. It was funny to watch because I made the same rookie mistake over a year ago. We ate like kings at this restaurant. I recommend to anyone eating at a Brazilian Churrascaria to go light on the salad bar. Also order the best drink in the world -the caipirinha, and enjoy all the cuts of meat. Don’t rush; enjoy your meal and the company.

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Following a wonderful lunch we walked through a local farmer’s market to our bus. We then headed to Corcovado National Forest to see Christ the Redeemer. Our first trip to Rio our tour guide took us up the mountain in a bus then we had to split up, switch vehicles and get into vans. It took us hours to get to the top of the steep and windy mountain. Our group was separated. Not to mention it was pretty scary when our driver had to turn around on a narrow street with a cliff on one side. The Daytours4u experience was better. We took the train at the Cosme Velho Train Station to the top of the mountain. It was a short 20 minute trip to the top and the trains takes you through the Tijuca Forest. It is a really pretty train ride with some scenic vistas of the city. Take our advice here please and take the train to the top. It was a more pleasant experience and quicker.

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We took the elevator and escalator to the top and skipped the stairs as we were with Dale’s father. It was crowded as usual. If you do not like huge crowds this part of the trip may not be as enjoyable. But try and relax, be patient, and take in the view because it is amazing. We were able to work our way to the end of the balcony. We took some photos, enjoyed the scenic overlook, and then we escaped the crowd to sit down in the outdoor café to have something to drink while enjoying the less crowded view. What an amazing way to end our tour of Rio!

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We cannot say how impressed we were with RDJ4U compared to our previous tour of Rio. RDJ4u stood out as the superior tour. Their staff was great at keeping tabs on everyone from the group. They knew the history of Rio well. Our guide gave us recommendations on other things to see and do while in Rio. He seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing his city with us. We highly recommend going with this tour.

If you find that you have additional time in Rio de Janeiro here are a few other places we suggest visiting:

The Selaron Steps

These 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.  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. You can take the Metro or a taxi to the Lapa neighborhood. The steps are near the aqueduct or in Portuguese, “Arcos da Lapa”.

Enjoy the nightlife

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.

Botanical Gardens

This locale is rarely at the top of anyone’s list. Yet it is surprisingly beautiful and relaxing and is a peaceful contrast from the big 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. We watched an exciting match between Palmeiras and Fluminense. It was an amazing experience in such a modern and famous soccer stadium we will never forget!

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Sambadrome

Learn about Carnival. You can even try on your own Carnival costume and take photos like we did on our first trip to Rio. This most recent trip the Sambadrome was closed. Most tours will take you inside the Sambadrome when it is open.

Rocinha Favela

Initially we were hesitant to do a favela tour but we read up on it and went ahead and gave it a try. Tours like this help to break stereotypes of what favela life is like for many. It also gives you insight into the history and culture of Rio de Janeiro. Read all about why we think you should consider taking a favela tour

Ipanema Hippy Fair

If you are lucky to be in Ipanema on a Sunday, we recommend checking out the Ipanema Hippy Fair. They have a wonderful display of artwork you can buy and take home with you, as well as some excellent souvenirs.

Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches

All the touring around can be exhausting so be sure and get some down time sipping on a caipirinhia at the beach. Rent a chair and umbrella and don’t be afraid to buy items from the vendors that walk up and down the beach. This is common in Brazil and Brazilians purchase items on the beach all the time.

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Food and Drink in Copacabana

You can’t go wrong eating anywhere in Copacabana. Below are a few of our favorite inexpensive places to eat and drink.

We eat and drink at Boteco Belmonte every time we visit Rio. There are several – including one in Copacabana and one in Ipanema. The one in Copacabana is located on Rua Bolivar. They have awesome empadas they bring out on a tray and offer to customers. They do charge you for the empadas. You can also order empadas and pastels on the menu.

This most recent trip we ate and drank at Cervejaria Devassa twice. Devassa, like the Belmonte, is located in Copacabana and Ipanema. They are on the same street in Copacabana as Devassa, Rua Bolivar. They have an excellent selection of Devassa beer along with a lot of different mixed drinks, snacks and full meals.

Pub Escondido is a hamburger bar/restaurant. They have an excellent selection of local and imported beers. The hamburgers are the best you will find in Brazil and they have a unique selection. It is a popular nightspot for the young and old. Pub Escondido is a little tough to find, like its name meaning “hidden” in Portuguese. They are located on Rua Aires Saldanha, 98.

Bibi Sucos is an excellent restaurant for breakfast or lunch. They offer a full menu, amazing juices and we loved the Acai. They are located at Rua Miguel Lemos, 31 and this restaurant is always packed.

Lodging in Rio de Janeiro

Lodging in Rio can be expensive. Expect all prices to go up around Carnival and the Olympics. Also know that rooms to sell out quickly. During the World Cup rooms sold out so fast that people were staying at Rio’s Love Motels (Motels couples and people having affairs go to for sex). It is already difficult to find affordable lodging during the Olympics because most places are booked and prices have increased. So book early if you plan to come to Rio for Carnival or any other major event.

We use booking.com, decolar.com, and airbnb.com. This most recent trip we stayed in a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment; just a block away from the Copacabana beach using airbnb. We’ve stayed in Copacabana several times.  During our first trip to Rio we stayed in a hotel in the Catete neighborhood which is close to Flamengo beach, has a metro station, and a much cheaper option for hotels. 

Getting around in Rio de Janeiro

From the airport we take a taxi to our hotel. It costs around 60 Reals from both airports to Copacabana. While we drive in Santa Catarina, Brazil daily, we are not brave enough to attempt to rent a car and drive in Rio. For us it just seems like it would be too stressful and confusing. Driving is also expensive because parking is difficult to find in Brazil. You often must pay to park. For getting around the city I cannot recommend the Metro enough. Traffic in Rio can be horrendous. The Metro is cheaper and faster than a taxi or bus. They have expanded the Metro since winning the Olympic bid. You can get to almost all the main tourist sites using the metro. We took the Metro to Carnival and we felt safe the entire time. For the solo female travelers, on weekdays they have a women’s only car on the Metro. It is towards the front of the train and the car is pink. When we travel to Rio we usually use a combination of both Metro and Taxi the entire time we are there.

Final Thoughts

While we really love living in the south of Brazil, it is truly hard not to love Rio de Janeiro. Yes, it’s a big city with all the baggage that comes with a large urban center. However, Rio’s people, geography, and culture certainly make it someplace you don’t want to miss. Everyone’s perception of a place is different – especially if you live there. If you would like to read more about life in Rio we would highly suggest checking out our friend Stephanie’s blog at My Quarter Life Epiphany. And if you are looking to book a tour in South America we highly reccomend you contact our friends at RDJ4U. Their service was first class from start to finish.