Rio de Janeiro’s location between the mountains and the sea is so spectacular that UNESCO called it the “stunningly beautiful location for one of the greatest cities in the world” when designating Rio a World Heritage Site. UNESCO’s accolades were not only for the natural environment, but also for the urban cultural landscape and the mix of architecture and planned green space that characterized the city’s growth.
Rio de Janeiro is the second largest city in Brazil and was the capital from 1763 to 1960, when Brasilia was founded. The city was founded by Portuguese settlers in the mid-16th century and became the port for the shipment of gold from the inland mining areas. Rio has been aware of its physical assets throughout its history – the soaring mountains behind it, Sugar Loaf towering over the harbor and its long crescent beaches that are its main tourist attractions – and has enhanced that landscape with prominent buildings from every era of its history. history and with a generous supply of urban parks and open spaces.
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1 sugar loaf
Rio de Janeiro’s most famous landmark is the Sugar Loaf rock pinnacle, which towers 394 meters above the harbor. It sits on a point that juts out into the bay and wraps around its harbor and is connected to the city by a low strip of land. You can take a cable car from Praça General Tibúrcio to the top of the Morro da Urca , a lower peak from which a second cable car runs to the top of Sugar Loaf. From here you can see the whole mountainous coast that surrounds the bay and the islands. Below, the 100 meter Praia da Urca beach is near the location of Rio’s original core, between the Morro Cara de Cão and the Sugarloaf Mountain. On Cara de Cão are three fortresses, one of which is the 16th-century star-shaped Fort São Joãois open to the public.
2 Christ the Redeemer (Christus de Verlosser)
The giant statue of Christ overlooking the city from Corcovado’s 709-foot summit is almost as widely recognized as a symbol of Rio as Sugar Loaf’s signature shape. The world-famous monument was erected between 1922 and 1931, funded almost entirely by contributions from Brazilian Catholics.
The Art Deco statue was created by Polish-French sculptor Paul Landowski and built by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, in collaboration with French engineer Albert Caquot. Made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, the figure itself is 30 meters tall with 28 meters long arms; it weighs 635 tons. Within its eight-meter base is a chapel, where it is not uncommon to find weddings and baptisms. The Corcovado rack railway runs from Rua do Cosme Velho up the 3.5-kilometer track to the statue, passing through the Tijuca National Park .
3 Carnaval (carnaval)
One of the world’s most famous pre-Lenten celebrations – known as those in Venice and New Orleans – takes place every winter in Rio de Janeiro. The celebrations begin shortly after New Year’s, but the splendor and extravagance reaches its spectacular peak in the four days before Ash Wednesday, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators to street parades, samba parties and shows. Other Brazilian cities celebrate Carnival; it is also a major tourist event in Bahia and Recife, but Rio’s are the most luxurious.
The most spectacular events are the parades of the samba schools, held in a unique venue designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The Sambódromo is a long trail route lined by stadium-like boxes, designed to allow up to 50,000 spectators to watch the processions of brilliantly costumed dancers as they compete. The parade route is 700 meters long and 13 meters wide. First used in 1984, it was updated as a venue for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Address: Rua Marquês de Sapucaí, Rio de Janeiro
Official site: www.sambadrome.com
Few cities are blessed with a beautiful sandy beach at their heart, let alone one that stretches four kilometers along one side of the inner city. Steps away from the golden sands are Avenida Atlântica, Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and the neighboring smaller streets where you will find attractive century-old buildings, fine hotels and popular restaurants and cafes. The undisputed monarch of the area, and of Rio hotels, is the famed Copacabana Palace , built in the 1920s and now protected as a national monument. Featured in the 1933 film Flying Down in Rio and playing host to royalty and glamorous movie stars, Copacabana Palace recalls the halcyon days of power, wealth and elegance, when Rio was Brazil’s capital.
At the end of the beach, Copacabana Fort dates back to 1914 and was the scene of a 1922 revolt by officers, who took over the fort and turned its artillery on the city. The short-lived uprising ended the next day when the government brought in battleships to bombard the fortress. You can learn about this and other military history at the Museu Histórico do Exército (Museum of the History of the Army) now housed here. Outside, on the fort’s fort, are artillery pieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Address: Praça Coronel Eugênio Franco, Rio de Janeiro
Official site: www.fortedecopacabana.com
5 Tijuca National Park
Tijuca National Park
Tijuca National Park protects the Tijuca Forest and several vantage points of the city and surrounding area Cristo Redentor , the giant statue of Christ on Corcovado. If you want to explore the park, you can leave the train halfway to Corcovado and follow the road through the forest. The 3,300-acre Tijuca Forest, one of the world’s largest forests in a city, was planted in the late 1950s on land destroyed by coffee plantations to protect the springs that supplied Rio de Janeiro’s water. Most of the trees are native species and provide habitat for capuchin monkeys, quatis (Brazilian raccoon), colorful toucans, hawks, brilliant blue butterflies and many other types of wildlife, which you can see while exploring the trails and roads.
Close to the station of the Corcovado Railway is Largo do Boticário , one of Rio’s most picturesque plazas, surrounded by colonial-style houses. From the pagoda-style pavilion on Morro da Vista Chinesa , 380 meters above the coast, are views of the city park, botanical garden, and a long stretch of the south coast. There are more views from Mirante Dona Marta , a lookout on a rock spur above Botafogo Bay. Several waterfalls fall from the forest springs, including the 30 meter Cascatinha Taunay . Set in extensive gardens near the park is the Museu do Açude, with the valuable porcelain collections of the West India Company; old views of Rio de Janeiro by Brazilian and foreign artists; and azulejos, traditional Portuguese tiles from the 17th to 19th centuries.
6 Selaron Staircase
One of Rio’s newest tourist attractions was started in 1990 by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón as his gift to the Brazilian people. Until his death in 2013, he covered a long staircase in front of his house with mosaics made of tiles, pottery and mirrors, many in the blue, green and yellow colors of the Brazilian flag. Selarón started out using broken tiles salvaged from construction sites and demolitions of old buildings, but as his footsteps caught the attention of tourists, people started bringing him pottery and tiles from all over the world. Now pieces from more than 60 countries are represented in the 250 Steps, which span 125 meters of stairs. The steps are a popular filming location and were featured in the 2016 Rio Olympic bod video.
Address: Rua Manuel Carneiro (off Rua Joaquim Silva), Rio de Janeiro
7 Paqueta Island
The island of Paquetá, with an area of just over a square kilometer, is located in Guanabara Bay, an hour’s boat ride from Praça 15 de Novembro . It became a fashionable resort in the early 19th century, when the Portuguese emperor Dom João VI spent his summers here (the colony of Brazil became the seat of the Portuguese Empire in 1808, when Napoleon’s armies occupied Portugal). Solar del Rey, a palace in which Dom João VI regularly stayed, is one of the interesting old buildings, including the 1698 chapel of São Roqueand the home of José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, father of Brazilian independence. No cars invade the peace of the island, but you can explore it on foot, by rented bicycle or in a horse-drawn carriage. Palms line the island’s beaches, where you’ll find impromptu dishes grilling fresh fish.
8 Public Promenade in Cinelândia
Stretching along Avenida Beira-Mar, Passeio Público is an attractive park designed in 1779 by a group of artists. The oldest public park in Brazil and one of the oldest in the Americas, it is filled with statues by Mestre Valentim and pavilions with paintings by Leandro Joaquim, two of the park’s designers. The baroque entrance, a stone staircase, fountains and statues of figures from mythology are the focal points of this vast green space. To the east along the bay is Parque do Flamengo and the Marina da Glória, with gardens designed by Burle Marx, and the modernist Monumento aos Mortos, a memorial to the dead of World War II. At the north end of Flamengo Park is the Museum of Modern Art .
Adjacent to the Passeio Público is the Cinelândia neighborhood, one of Rio’s political and cultural centers, full of beautiful civic buildings from the first decades of the 20th century, after Rio de Janeiro became Brazil’s capital. The Academia Brasileira de Letras (Academy of Letters) occupies a building on Avenida Presidente Wilson, modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles. It was donated to the city by the French government in 1923 to house a society founded in the late 19th century by a group of writers and poets inspired by the Académie Française. The aim of the association is to protect the Brazilian Portuguese language and to promote Brazilian literature.
Adres: Rua do Passeio, Rio de Janeiro
9 Ipanema in Leblon
Building on the four kilometers of Copacabana beach, the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon are separated by the Jardim de Alá channel, which drains into the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Large hotels, terraces and restaurants are located along the boulevard. These two districts, though best known for their beaches (one of which was made world famous by the song Girl from Ipanema), have a vibrant cultural life, with art galleries, cinemas and an avant-garde theater. Praça de Quental in Leblon is the scene of an antiques market every Sunday, and Praca General Osorio hosts the Sunday Feira de Artesanato de Ipanema with crafts, music, art and local food.
The coast of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas is lined with parks and sports clubs and the water is popular for regattas and other water sports. On the west side of the lagoon, the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden) has more than 5,000 species of plants from around the world, including water lilies and other Amazonian plants.
10 Nossa Senhora do Carmo in Monte do Carmo
The parish church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo was the Capela Real (Royal Chapel) from 1808 to 1889 and the cathedral to the modern one was replaced in 1976. Connected to it by a passage is a second Carmelite church, Monte do Carmo, begun in 1755. Highlights include the baroque façade, stone doorway and the white and gold carvings by Mestre Valentim in the novitiate chapel. The former cathedral from 1761 is richly decorated with carvings and has a silver high altar. Down a side street is the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Cabo da Boa Esperança (Our Lady of the Cape of Good Hope), the last living street building in the city.
Address: Rua 1 de Maráo (off Rua do Ouvidor), Rio de Janeiro
11 Santa Teresa
Santa Tereza is a neighborhood with steep, quiet streets and hundred-year-old houses, the most atmospheric neighborhood in Rio. The cafes and restaurants are favorites of artists and intellectuals, adding to the bohemian atmosphere. While the greatest charms can be found simply by wandering the streets, which often open up to beautiful views, there are several attractions to seek out, including the Church and Convent of Santa Tereza, dating back to 1720. The Museu Chácara do Céu has an art collection of mostly modern works, including those by Picasso, Miró and Matisse, as well as Chinese sculpture from the 17th to 19th centuries. The adjacent Parque das Ruínasis the shell of a socialite’s mansion that fell into disrepair and has become an art, music and performance venue.
12 Quinta da Boa Vista
Quinta da Boa Vista
The gardens, villas and imperial palaces of São Cristóvão are now public parks and museums, the most important of which is Quinta da Boa Vista. From 1808 to 1889, the palace was the residence of the royal and imperial family and was later changed and rebuilt as the Palácio de São Cristóvão. It houses the National Museum , with the largest collections of zoological, botanical, ethnographic and archeology in the country, totaling over a million items. In the extensive park there are gardens with lakes, forests and caves, which you can reach via a miniature railway. Also in the park is a zoo with more than 2,000 species of mammals, birds, and reptiles from Brazil and around the world.
Address: Sao Cristovao, Rio de Janeiro
13 Saint Benedict
On the hill just above the harbor is the Church and Convent of São Bento, one of the most beautiful Benedictine complexes in Brazil. The original 1617 church was aisleless until it was enlarged in the second half of the 17th century by the addition of eight side chapels. The best artists of the Benedictine order were involved in the decoration of the interior. The lavish carving that covered the walls and ceiling was mainly the work of a monk named Domingos da Conceição, who was also responsible for the figures of St Benedict and St Scholastica on the main altar. The choir chapel has silver work by Mestre Valentim and 14 paintings by Ricardo do Pilar, a monk who was the most important Benedictine painter of colonial Brazil. His masterpiece,
14 Saint Francis of Penance
The Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência is divided into three sections with separate entrances, and this church’s plain facade belies the wealth within. The interior, begun in 1657 and completed in 1773, is a riot of gilded carvings. Among those who contributed to the decoration of the interior were Manuel and Francisco Xavier de Brito, two leading Portuguese sculptors and woodcarvers. They had very similar styles, known as Brito, with decorative forms that influenced Aleijadinho and other masters of the Brazilian Baroque. The choir ceiling has the earliest trompe-l’oeil painting in Brazil, completed in 1736, the work of Caetano da Costa Coelho, who later painted the nave ceiling in the same style.
Address: Rua da Carioca, Rio de Janeiro
15 Cathedral of San Sebastian
Architect Edgar Fonseca, who designed Rio’s new cathedral, drew inspiration from Mayan pyramids and interpreted their soaring forms in a modern context. Built between 1964 and 1979 and often referred to as the New Cathedral to distinguish it from its immediate predecessor, Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the church seats 5,000 in its 96-meter interior. Four stained glass windows rise 64 feet from the floor to illuminate the interior with brilliantly colored natural light. At night, the church is illuminated from within, a bright beacon in the central skyline.
Address: Av. Chili 245, Rio de Janeiro
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro for Sightseeing
Rio de Janeiro stretches between the bay and the mountains, its attractions so spread out that there is no neighborhood suitable for more than a couple. Fortunately, Rio’s Metro system is fast and efficient, so the best hotels for tourists are in the safe beach neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, surrounded by restaurants and shops and convenient to subway access. Another option is Botafogo, a residential area next to Copacabana, near the cable car to Sugarloaf. Here are a few highly rated hotels in Rio de Janeiro.
- Luxury Hotels : Miramar Hotel by Windsor has a beautiful rooftop pool and is located directly on Copacabana Beach, where lounge chairs and umbrellas are available for guests; it is a short walk from Ipanema. Belmond Copacabana Palace is an icon of Copacabana’s reputation for sophistication and glamour, a place where movie stars and royalty bask in Old World elegance. JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro’s rooftop pool overlooks Copacabana Beach (umbrellas and chairs are reserved for guests), and there is a spa and fitness center.
- Mid-Range Hotels: A block from the beach, friendly Ipanema Inn offers personalized service in the middle of Ipanema’s vibrant dining and arts scene. Hotel Sesc Copacabana is located on a quiet street in the heart of Copacabana, steps away from the beach and surrounded by restaurants and shops. Windsor Palace Hotel is also near the beach and has a small rooftop pool, a full breakfast buffet and a free airport shuttle.
- Budget Hotels: Ibis Copacabana Posto 5 is a few blocks from the beach and near the subway station, with plenty of dining options nearby. Close to the metro in residential Botafogo, one stop from Copacabana, Ibis Rio de Janeiro Botafogo is near the Sugarloaf funicular. As is Mercure Botafogo Mourisco, whose higher rooms offer views of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado.
Day trips from Rio de Janeiro
Petrópolis, 68 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro, sits high in a wooded valley of the Serra dos Órgãos and was chosen by King Pedro II of Brazil as his summer home. Aristocrats soon followed, building their own summer palaces and villas and turning Petrópolis into an elegant, first-class resort. It was later a favorite of artists and intellectuals and a popular tourist destination due to its beautiful buildings and pleasant year-round climate. Today, the former summer palace is the Imperial Museum , filled with memorabilia from the days of the Brazilian Empire. Also worth seeing are the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Alcântara , the Crystal Palace , and the home of aviation pioneer Santos-Dumont.