Jason Daniel Shaw
Top Things to do on First Trip to Rio de Janeiro Brazil
Rio de Janeiro – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
It’s your first time to Rio de Janeiro and you are wondering what to do and what to see – luckily, I have you covered with my list of top things to do on your first trip to Rio. I just made my first trip to Brazil and my first trip to Rio de Janeiro in late 2017. A beautifully vibrant city, there are plenty of things to do to keep you busy.
ARriving in RIO – Santos Dumont Airport
While this was my first trip to Brazil, it wasn’t my first stop in the country. We had visited Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto before making our way to Rio. As such, we landed in Rio at the domestic airport, Santos Dumont Airport (SDU), making a dramatic entrance over the bay and onto the reclaimed peninsula. In the terminal was an Uber station that made it easy to catch a ride to where we were staying, the Praia Ipanema Hotel. We cruised down the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches until we arrived at our hotel.
Visiting Christ the Redeemer
One of the most iconic symbols of Rio is the statue atop the mountain of Christ the Redeemer. Standing stop one of the highest peaks, it is hard to be anywhere in the city and not catch a glimpse of my top pick. The crowds are plentiful but it is still very worth the trip. For some it is a spiritual journey, for others, a chance to take in the views and for some, a once-in-a-lifetime selfie opportunity. There are several ways to the top, the most common is via tour bus, train or catching a taxi/Uber. You can also hike from Parque Lage but it was unsafe to do so while we were there due to the battles between the police and the favelas.
We chose to take the train to the top. On the day we visited, the weather was overcast and cold so there wasn’t a long line and we were able to buy our tickets just before the departure time. However, I would highly recommend buying your tickets well in advance to guarantee your spot. The train ride takes 10-15 minutes and is a nice, relaxing ride up the mountain. Once at the top, there are quite a few souvenir shops and a few snack bars to have lunch or just hang out at and take in the views. There are several levels of observation decks that give you 360-degree views of Rio. The clouds were moving past the mountaintop very quickly so we would get wonderfully clear views and then we would be completely socked in, barely able to see the Christ the Redeemer statue from 100 feet away. It made for great photos, though. TIP – there is a little chapel in the base of the statue on the back side that you must visit while at the top.
Exploring Parque Lage
Parque Lage sits between Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and Christ the Redeemer and was one of the least touristy places that we visited in Rio. It is a densely shaded park that offers a great escape from the Rio de Janeiro heat. The public park shares its grounds with a visual arts school, Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, that is housed in a beautiful 1920s mansion. There is an atrium in the mansion that also serves as a cafe. You can grab a coffee or a snack and sit by the pool.
The best way to get to the park is by foot or taxi/Uber. Since our hotel was located in Ipanema, we decided to take a walk around the lake to get to the park. There are paths throughout the park that lead through dense vegetation leaving you with the feeling that you are no longer in Rio. One of these paths lead to a series of cascading waterfalls that were man-made. They were dry and not running when we were there but have a lot of potential to be very picturesque if properly maintained. As we continued exploring, we found a very unique aquarium that was hidden among the trails. The trails will also allow you to hike all the way up the mountain to the Christ the Redeemer statue but you have to check with the locals to see if it is safe to do so. When we were there, the favelas were at war with the police and had moved into the Tijuca Forest and would attack tourists. Rio is a beautiful city but you need to take care and be safe while taking in the sights. TIP – Make sure to get a photo of the stable from down the driveway.
Riding to the top of Sugarloaf
Sugarloaf is an absolute must-do for anyone who is visiting Rio for the first time. It is a good half-day to full-day excursion and offers amazing 360-degree views of the city. You take two gondolas from the beach to halfway point and then from there to the top of Sugar Loaf, or Pão de Açucar, as it is known in Portuguese. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy when you get tired of the views, but I don’t know if you will. There are plenty of trails up on top as well to get you to that perfect spot to take a photo. My favorite view was looking straight down runway 20L/02R of Santos Dumont Airport as the planes took off.
The Uber dropped us off right at the ticket counter for the gondola first thing in the morning so we could an early start on the hoards of tourists. There was no line and the weather was beautiful so we couldn’t wait to get to the top. Once we were loaded in the gondola, we soared above the beach and were able to see all the entire Copacabana Beach. TIP – be one of the first ones on the gondola to get a spot next to a window. The halfway point serves as a place to transfer to the upper gondola but they also offer helicopter rides from here. The prices seemed a bit higher than what we were able to find but if you are short on time, give it a go.
Once at the top, you are free to explore for as long as you like. It was a beautifully sunny day when we were there so we grabbed some snacks and enjoyed the views of Rio. After exploring a few of the trails and seeing a few monkeys, we headed back down to try and check out Mureta da Urca, which is a great way to spend the rest of your day.
Incredible Architecture of the Museum of Tomorrow
The Museum of Tomorrow, Museu do Amanhã, was our option for a rainy day in Rio de Janeiro since it got us inside one of the most unique buildings in the city to explore some art, science and innovation. The big draw for me was the architecture of the building itself. TIP – when planning a trip to places that you might encounter rain, try to schedule your indoor activities around the rain so that you don’t lose precious time. The museum is a great way to spend half a day and when the weather is nice, there are plenty of other things to do nearby as well. There is a RIO TEAMO sign out in front of the building that is popular with the tourists. BONUS TIP – after you finish with the museum, head over to Confeitaria Colombo for a pastry in a century-old café, but be prepared to stand in line as a lot of people are onto this place.
Riding the Train Through Santa Teresa
Riding one of the oldest street railways in the world is something that you have to do while visiting Rio. Opened in 1877, the 140-year old tram connects downtown with Santa Teresa, famous for its winding, narrow streets. TIP – the train is free to ride from the top, Santa Teresa, to the bottom. Have an Uber drop you off at the top and make sure to leave some extra time to explore before hopping on the tram.
The journey will take you through the narrow streets of a once, upscale neighborhood, providing beautiful views along the way. As you make you way down the hill, keep your arms and legs inside the tram as you cross the narrow, 45-meter high Carioca Aqueduct. Once at the station, make time to view the aqueduct from ground level to appreciate its true size. BONUS TIP – take a walk over to the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, a beautifully designed theater in the style of the Paris Opera House. Again, take care when walking around the city streets and always keep your eyes open.
Rio de Janeiro Beaches
Everyone has heard of Copacabana, most have heard of Ipanema and you may have heard of Leblon but each of the beaches is a must-visit when you are in Rio de Janeiro. Each beach has its own feel, its own style, right down to the sidewalks. You can tell whether you are in Ipanema or Copacabana just by the design on the masterfully laid out sidewalks. Take a stroll down the beach, even in winter to experience why everyone dreams of laying on the sand in Rio. There are plenty of sidewalk vendors selling you coconuts, snacks and trinkets to keep you busy for an entire vacation.
In my mind, Copacabana is the most famous of the three beaches and maintains its reputation as being the go-to spot for the young, single guys looking to take in the tiny bikinis of the young, single girls. Ipanema is the little more upscale and laid back, maintaining its place between Leblon and Copacabana, both physically and culturally. Leblon, separated from Ipanema by only a narrow canal, is the most upscale of the three beaches. It is also home to some of the most expensive real estate in Rio. With all that being said, you can’t go wrong with any beach in Rio so pick your spot, kick back with a coconut and enjoy the views. TIP – rent a bike and cruise the sidewalks to experience all of the beaches and decide for yourself, where you want to soak in the sun.
Helicopter Tour of Rio De Janeiro
Although, I think the best way to see any city is to see it from above, that is especially true for Rio de Janeiro. To truly appreciate all of the beauty that this city has to offer, you have to see it from the sky. Luckily, I have already written a blog on all you need to know about taking a helicopter tour of Rio and how to get pictures that will make your friends jealous. Make sure to carve out some time to take a helicopter tour, even if it is only an 8-minute ride from the top of Sugar Loaf.