Seven ways to experience Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is a spectacular city with an incredible setting, spread out amongst granite peaks and verdant rainforest on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the most recognisable cities in the world, more so than ever now after it took centre stage as host of the 2016 Olympic Games. However there is much more to Rio than it's world famous beaches and seductive views, so we've put together this guide to some of our favourite ways to experience the wonderful variety that this city has to offer, starting of course, with the big man himself. All of these can be enjoyed as full or half-day excursions as part of your stay with Veloso Tours.
1. Marvel at the Marvellous City from Corcovado & Sugarloaf Mountain
In a city of icons, one stands out, quite literally, above the rest. The welcoming outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer, perched high on Corcovado, can be seen from afar in many parts of the city and at closer quarters via a short cog-wheel train ride up the mountain. The terraces at the foot of the statue reveal one of the most spectacular urban views imaginable, as the city spreads out below and granite outcrops and tree-covered hills amass in misty layers in Guanabara Bay. Look upwards and your gaze is met by the towering stone-faced statue. You can't help but wonder, is it possible he'd ever gets bored of this mesmerising view?
The vista from Corcovado may be the most famous, but taking the iconic cable cars up to Sugarloaf Mountain in Urca (perhaps hiking the first half) affords you the best 360 degree views of the city. From here you can easily see the hidden beaches, bays, islands and forested outcrops that comprise what is frankly a ludicrous place to try and build a city. We're just eternally thankful that they did just that though.
Christ the Redeemer, the view from Corcovado and riding the cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain (by Visit Rio)
For fit and experienced hikers, an alternative (and quieter) view can be had from the summit of monolithic mountain Pedra de Gavea in Tijuca Forest. After scrambling up onto this huge stone, you are rewarded with a view which stretches across the white sand of São Conrado beach, the dense Mata Atlantica forest and the vast Rochina favela as it climbs up the hill in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.
2. Mix with the locals at Ipanema's Hippie Fair
It is known the world over for its glamorous beach, but just a few blocks away Ipanema has an altogether different side. The Ipanema Hippie Market has been running since the end of the 1960s in the Praça General Osório and every Sunday artists are joined by vendors selling all sorts of locally and often hand-made goods, including leather bags, jewellery, jem stones, musical instruments, clothes, sculptures and vibrant paintings. The market is a wonderful place to pick up some authentic souvenirs, sample food from across the country and watch local life in action, an experience greatly enhanced by an expert local guide.
Ipanema Hippie Fair & Ipanema Beach (by Visit Rio)
3. Journey through 500 years of history in one day
Rio de Janeiro was established by Portuguese explorers half a millennium ago and served as Brazil's capital for nearly 200 years. This history and heritage lives on in Rio's central neighbourhoods, offering a completely different perspective on the city everyone knows and loves.
Colonial era buildings and traditional market areas recall the days when Portuguese royalty first arrived on Brazilian shores, whilst the Old Cathedral and the 16th century Sao Bento Monastery and Sao Francisco de Assis Church are all important monuments that have been thoughtfully maintained and restored through the years. The Quinta da Boa Vista was part of the huge residencies of the 19th century Portuguese emperors and today serves as a public park. Here we find the fascinating National Museum, housed in the Imperial Palace. The bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa continues the story, where vintage trams trundle over its famous aqueduct towards the city centre, passing brightly-coloured colonial mansions.
Other highlights that are easily overlooked include the 108 year old Municipal Theatre, the huge Metropolitan Cathedral (inspired by the Mayan pyramids of the Yucatan) and the lavish Confeitaria Colombo cafe. The spectacular Escadaria Selaron beautifully brings together all of the characteristics of the city; colour, expression, community and even tragedy. It is the work of Jorge Selarón, a Chilean artist who began to cover the steps with tiny pieces of tiles in 1990 and continued (incorporating pieces donated by individuals and organisations inspired by his work) until his suspicious death in 2013, when he was discovered on the very same steps which he had transformed over the past twenty years. In doing so he leaves a colourful and appropriate homage to the city which he made his home.
Vintage trams on the Lapa arches, Municipal Theatre, Sao Bento Convent & Confeitaria Colombo (by Visit Rio)
4. Learn to shake your hips like a Brazilian (or just admire the experts)
Samba is as synonymous with Rio as tango is with Buenos Aires, salsa with Cartagena and capoeira with Salvador. Although it is far from confined to Rio (and has its roots in the African influences from Bahia state), the music and dance form are intrinsic parts of the Carioca identity and have in many ways come to symbolise the city as much as Christ the Redeemer or the famous beaches. You can experience the hypnotic moves, infectious music and eye-popping costumes at an authentic samba show and dinner, or alternatively on a night tour of Lapa, watching the locals strut their stuff in the district's lively bars.
To truly immerse yourself though, why not have a go yourself in the company of expert instructors? It's not just samba that you can try your hand (or hips) at, but also other Brazilian social dances such as forró and the lambada. Our preferred dance school is run by experienced pros who have performed throughout Europe and offer a perfect balance between teaching you the basics of these dance forms and sharing with you the roots and traditions of each.
5. Experience the city's three exotic eco-systems
When Portuguese colonizers first stepped foot on Brazilian soil 500 years ago, the country was largely blanketed by rainforest. Whilst the Amazon accounted for most of this, it was believed that over 1 million square kilometres of 'Mata Atlantica' rainforest stretched down the length of Brazil's eastern coastline - in total an area of land roughly equivalent to neighbouring countries Peru and Bolivia. Today though just 15% of that is thought to have survived, with deforestation having devastated this precious eco-system.
The Tijuca Forest National Park in Rio de Janeiro is one of the best places to access the remaining Mata Atlantica, with trails leading you past magnificent waterfalls, small mammals and exotic bird life and flora to glorious lookout points from its various peaks.
The tropical rainforest can be explored by jeep or on foot and we can also combine it with a visit to two of Rio's other eco-systems. The small beach of Prainha is a great spot to continue our journey through the city's tranquil natural side. It is particularly notable for its volcanic sand, coconut trees and the dense jungle which tumbles sharply down to the shore.
Heading back towards the city, we complete the tour at the tropical Botanical Gardens, home to incredible bio-diversity; there are over 5,000 Brazilian plant species from across the country found here and it is a haven for butterflies, toucans, parakeets and hummingbirds.
Tijuca forest hike, Prainha Beach & Botanic Gardens (by Visit Rio)
6. Discover Rio's cultural side in fabulous galleries and museums
Art galleries and museums might not be the first that springs to mind when conjuring up images of Rio de Janeiro, but this a city of many layers with something for everyone, even the most culture-hungry traveller.
Rio boasts some of the countries' most well-known painters, sculptors, architects and ceramic-makers, whose works are exhibited alongside international artists in a collection of renowned art galleries, exhibitions and museums, spread throughout the city. The most iconic of these is the Museum of Contemporary Art, an eye-catching building designed by Oscar Niemeyer, one of the men behind the striking modern architecture of the capital Brasilia.
Our tours are designed around your own tastes and interests and could include the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Centro Cultural, the Museum of the Republic or the enticingly named Museum of Tomorrow.
Museum of Modern Art, Centro Cultural & Museum of Fine Arts (by Visit Rio)
7. Board a schooner to explore remote tropical islands
One of the reasons we love Rio de Janeiro so much, and what makes it possible to spend a week here without venturing far from the city, is the sheer variety of experiences a visitor can have. One day you can be whisked up to the tops of Sugarloaf and Corcovado, the next strolling round historic streets or world-class galleries. You can shake your hips all night at one of the many live music bars, then shake the hangover with an energising hike through dense forest or perhaps board a schooner and spend the day sailing around tropical islands.
If that last option sounds appealing then you'll want to get yourself down the coast to Sepetiba Bay, (or better yet be escorted in the company of one of our local experts) around 40 miles from the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon. From here you can drift between remote islands, covered in lush vegetation, enjoy a leisurely lunch amid idyllic surrounds and take a cooling dip in the sea at some of the most attractive beaches in the region. That should have you suitably refreshed and ready to delve back into Rio to continue your exploration of this intoxicating, multifarious and yes, marvellous city.
Visiting Rio de Janeiro
Arrival: British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Rio de Janeiro, a journey of around 11 hours 30 minutes. An alternative route is to fly direct with British Airways to Buenos Aires in Argentina, Santiago de Chile or Lima in Peru and combine multiple countries, before flying home from Rio de Janeiro.
When to Go: Rio enjoys good temperatures and sun all year round, but the summer months (December to March) are the hottest, wettest, busiest and most expensive. February is carnival time, which brings in even greater numbers of visitors. The winter (July to September) is the coolest and driest and therefore quietest and cheapest time. Perhaps the best time to visit is during Spring (October to November) or Autumn (April to June) when rainfall is low and temperatures high (around 30 degrees), but less humid.
Eating & Drinking: The delicious black bean stew Feijoada is synonymous with Brazil, it is normally eaten with beef or pork, though vegetarian options are available. The Caipirinha is the national cocktail of Brazil and is a staple bucket-list item for visitors to Rio, particularly when drunk within sight of the beach or rooftop pool. Another exotic way to quench your thirst here is to drink directly out of a coconut, sold widely on Copacabana beach.
Where Next: Rio de Janeiro can be combined with a huge range of destinations, both within Brazil and in neighbouring countries. Some of the most popular places nearby are colonial Paraty and its jungle-fringed golden beaches and the classic Brazilian beach town of Buzios, neither of which require internal flights to reach. Further afield, onward travel could take you to the magnificent Iguassu Falls, the Pantanal - the best place to see wildlife in Brazil, the colourful Afro-Portuguese city of Salvador de Bahia or the city of Manaus, gateway to the Amazon and its lodges and cruise. The best way to decide is to view our range of tours to Rio de Janeiro or speak to our expert Travel Consultants.