Rio de Janeiro - 15 Things you should know before you go
In this Ultimate Guide of 15 things you should know before you go to Rio, I will share great tips on how to explore Rio and have an amazing time. Rio de Janeiro is, without a doubt, one of my favorite cities in the world. I know, you must be thinking as a Brasileira (Brazilian girl) I am biased, but I am being very honest.
I hope I can help you plan a perfect visit to the Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvelous City) as we Brazilian people call it.
What makes Rio so special in my opinion? Rio is such a magnificent city, one of the most beautiful in the world. Despite being a large city, with a population of 6.45 million, it is a perfect mix of architecture, beaches, galleries, museums, vibrant nightlife, and superb cuisine. Rio is regarded as one of the most energetic cities for a travel destination in the world.
Rio could be only another big and busy metropolitan city, with modern tall buildings, and be very business-oriented. But it’s nature is what makes this city so unique. There are views nearly everywhere in this city as it is surrounded by mountains, ocean, lagoons, beaches, and jungle.
Did you know?
- Rio is the only large metropolitan city that has a jungle inside it?
- One of the 7 wonders of the world is in Rio.
- Rio has the largest party on the planet.
Read more: 100+ Awesome things to do in Brooklyn (A local's Guide) - by Megan Indoe
1-WHAT DOES RIO DE JANEIRO MEAN?
This was the first question I was asked while I was traveling in Rio with some American friends, and I think it is a great question, with an even better answer.
Rio de Janeiro means "January River". It was named by mistake because there is no river in Rio. The explorer Gaspar de Lemos set sail from Portugal in 1501 and arrived at a huge bay in Brazil the following January. Thinking the bay was the mouth of a river, he named it after the month.
2- WHAT SHOULD I WEAR...PACK LIST FOR RIO
Overall, Brazilians dress pretty casually. Especially in Rio, where it is hot all year round, and during the summer, the heat and sun can be intense and you’ll want to be comfortable.
You don’t really want to still be in your jean shorts and a tank top once the night rolls around in Brazil. While it would be acceptable, Brazil has great nightlife and you’ll probably wish you had something slightly more appropriate. Here is a basic packing list to help you:
- Summer dresses (they are a must!)
- Skirts and shorts
- Tank tops/ T-Shirts
- Bikini and Canga (Brazilian sarong to cover up, you can find everywhere in Rio)
- Nice dress or pants and a blouse - to go out at night
- Tank tops/ T-Shirts
- Bathing suit
- Nicer shirt and pants - to go out at night
- A good and comfortable pair of shoes to walk and explore the cities
- A pair of pants
- Light Jacket
- Comfortable shoes
- Nice shoes to go out at night
- Sandals - take advantage and buy Havaianas very inexpensively everywhere in Brazil for the beach/everyday wear - We have amazing cute ones in Brazil
3- HOW LONG DO I NEED TO EXPLORE RIO
You only have a weekend to explore Rio? No problem, if you plan it well, it should still be enough time to have an amazing experience seeing the highlights.
I have prepared a guide for 1 – 4 days in Rio. Of course, if you have more time, you can always explore more and the surroundings.
4- HOW EXPENSIVE IS IT TO TRAVEL TO RIO
The good news is that the Brazilian Real (BR is the local money) to the dollar and pound have dropped, so prices are quite affordable, and cheaper than destinations like Europe! But compared to other parts of Brazil and South America, Rio is relatively expensive.
It is still affordable on a backpacker's budget, but if you are a tight budget, make sure to pay attention to prices. Even the most basic things, such as sunscreen can be surprisingly expensive.
- Accommodations: Hostels usually run from $15-20 USD per night, Hotels can be anywhere from $50 to thousands,
- Food: Standard meals range from $7-10, nicer meals from $20-80.
- Attraction entrance fees: cost around $10-20.
- Currency: The currency in Brazil is the Brazilian Real, which fluctuates quite often, usually between 3-4 Reais to $1USD.
5- SHOULD I DRIVE IN RIO
There are many options on how to explore the city. Personally I've tried different options: I drove by myself, hired a private driver to explore the city, and also went on a group tour. It doesn't matter which way is your favorite style to explore, your visit will be amazing.
If you decide to drive by yourself, keep in mind that driving in Rio can be very challenging. The traffic is heavy, especially during rush hour – From 7 to 9 AM when everyone is going to work and from 4 to 7 PM when everyone is leaving work.
Another challenge is that on Sundays, the main avenues of the city are closed so people can enjoy these areas for outdoor activities. You will see people running, cycling, rollerblading, or taking their dogs for a walk – it is pretty awesome, but the traffic will change to allow this. Also, parking can be difficult and frustrating, forcing you to drive many blocks until you find a parking spot.
6- TOUR IN RIO– PRICES AND OPTIONS
I've been in Rio many times, with family, with friends, as a couple and last, with co-workers for their first time exploring Brazil. It depends on what kind of experience you are looking for, you can accommodate a tour option.
- $ Public Transportation – It is the cheapest option, and the public transportation works well in Rio. The public transportation options are train, subway, bus, or VLT (Veiculo Leve sob Trilhos). VLT is relatively new, and it's a modern light rail system serving the city. It will require more time for you to understand where to go, and what transportation to use, but this is an effective and cheap option to explore the highlights of the city. An added bonus is that you get to immerse yourself in the life of the city by traveling along Cariocas (residents of Rio). This will add to an authentic experience, and one you won't soon forget. Visit here for a full itinerary for a full guide of a public transportation in Rio.
- $$ Rent a car on your own – You will pay an average of US$25 per day for a manual car. If you rent an automatic car, keep in mind that you will pay more. You still need to pay the entry fee if you are planning to visit the main sites, and for parking. While having your own car can be very convenient, parking is a large city can be a big hassle, not to mention expensive. If you do decide to drive, make sure you have GPS. Navigating the streets of the city is not easy when there are not regular street signs to guide you. Click here for options for rental car in Rio
- $$$ Go on a small group tour including trilingual guide – I did this last time when I was taking some friends from the U.S. for their first time in Rio. I consider this a great option for a day tour. The groups are small (5-10 people) and you will get to see the highlights of the city on an 8-hour tour. The average price is around $100 per person, including all entry fees and lunch. You can check with your hotel for this option or book directly from a website. Check here for options.
- $$$$ Hire a Personal driver with a personal bilingual tour guide – You will pay an average of US$30 per hour for a minimum of 4 hours – consider splitting the cost with friends. With this option, you will still need to pay for your entry fees to visit the main sites. You can check with your hotel for this option to book a reliable guide/driver.
7- ACCOMMODATIONS – WHERE SHOULD I STAY IN RIO
- Zona Sul (The South Zone) – Zona Sul is the classic beachside area of Rio. With its sun-drenched beaches, black and white patterned sidewalks, coconut water stands, hotels, restaurants and shops, this is a popular destination. The most common and well-known neighborhoods are Ipanema or Copacabana. You will stay near the beach, get all of the classic Rio vibes and enough people will speak English. This area is safe and very easy to get around.
- Leblon – Basically, Leblon is an extension of Ipanema, but a bit further out. It is a higher-end experience, a safe area, and also, gorgeous views.
- Santa Teresa – For a beautiful retreat further from the beach, you can stay in the artsy hills of this neighborhood. But keep in mind that you will need to take a taxi or have your own car to get in or out.
- Lapa – For a stay full of the city's best nightlife and a more bohemian downtown crowd.
8- IS RIO A SAFE PLACE TO VISIT?
Many (Brazilian and non-Brazilian tourists) peoples' first concern is how safe the city is. Giving an honest answer, Rio is a large city, and like any large city, it requires extra caution to explore. There is always a lot of conflict going on in the city, but the reality is that Rio has cleaned up the South Zone, which is the only area tourists visit anyway.
Things can happen anywhere, but muggings and pickpocketing are a vast majority of what may happen. Overall safety concerns are definitely not a reason to not visit Rio. Once you know where to go, what to avoid, and what to pay attention to you will realize Rio is becoming a more accessible destination than ever.
9- WHAT TO EAT IN RIO DE JANEIRO
Restaurant Menus in Rio: They overflow with dishes based on grilled meats, black beans and porções (snacks): fried pockets of mild cheese, all garnished with torresmo (crispy pork fat). You’ll have to dig around for some variety. Most restaurants will have English menus.
Rio is the best place to snack: street food, snack food, beach food—Rio de Janeiro thrives on snacks. And so will you, if you can find your way around the hundreds of baffling options. Find your favorites and sample them at many, many locations city-wide. Some of the most popular are - caldinho de feijão (black beans soup), pastel, croquete, bolinho de bacalhau (a variety of fried delicious hand food), fried calamari and fish...and many more!
Beach food is very popular in Rio - You will see many Barracas de praia (beach tent) with a huge variety of food: Fried fresh fish, sea food, steak, chicken, salads, rice and beans. Try the açai na tigela and coconut water, drink from the coconut fruit.
10- WHAT ARE FAVELAS, AND SHOULD I VISIT THEM
Rio has more than 1,000 favelas, and almost a quarter of the population lives in them. The poorest residents live in favelas for more affordable housing.
It's also in the favelas that the African slaves created the music that today is known worldwide as samba. The favelas have a reputation for being crime-ridden and acutely dangerous places flagged as no-go areas, infamous as the hangouts for criminals and the home of drug dealers.
You will find options to tour favelas. Favela tours are a safe and interesting way to see how the comunidades (communities) live. You'll have the opportunity to see some of the activities for children (such as dance, music school, and sports, etc.), and also get to meet the friendly people who live there.
11- RIO DE JANEIRO WEATHER
More great news: Rio has nice weather year-round, but you have to pack differently for summer and winter. Summer can get quite hot and humid, whereas you may be wearing pants some days during the winter.
Summer – From December to mid-March, with January and February promising the hottest temperatures often over 105F. This is also the time with the most rainfall, so be prepared for some impromptu rain showers, varying from rainy afternoons to the occasional three-day-long showers.
Winter – From July to September, though of course, it is never really cold. However, if you show up wearing the same clothes as someone who visited in December, you will certainly be surprised and maybe, even chilly. Average temperatures are around 75F, which means a sunny day is still perfect for the beach or a run outdoors.
12- WHAT ABOUT THE BIGGEST PARTY IN THE PLANET – CARNAVAL!
The Carnaval in Brazil is essentially a grand Samba performance for which many local "Samba Schools" prepare all year. The famous Carnaval parade in the city of Rio De Janeiro and is a competition among the various Samba Schools. The best Samba Schools compete against each other for pride, as well as for a multi-million dollar reward. Every year, each Samba School creates a theme, new music, costumes, floats, and then parades 5,000 members down the length of the sambadrome for 90 minutes of coordinated dancing, singing, drumming and passion.
The city attracts more than 3 million international tourists every year. But it is important to know that the Carnival in Rio is not just the Carnival parade, the whole city is full of street parties called “Blocos". Some are small with a few hundred people, and some are huge with more than a million people celebrating together in the street.
13- ONE OF THE 7 WONDER OF THE WORLD IS IN RIO, AND HIS NAME IS CHRIST THE REDEEMER
The most famous attraction in Rio is the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It was chosen as one of the 7 wonders of the world, together with the Colesseum in Rome, and the Taj Mahal in India. With arms wide open, Christ oversees and blesses the city of Rio.
The statue was built in 1931 in celebration of Rio's 100th anniversary, on top of the Morro do Corcovado. It is 30 meters high, and it is the largest Art Deco statue in the planet.
14 – RIO HAS THE LARGEST URBAN FOREST IN THE WORLD
Besides Rio being a very large city, it also can feel like a small town, especially when you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a forest, under a waterfall, or playing with monkeys. Floresta da Tijuca is the largest urban forest in the world at 33 square kilometers. In this large area, you can visit:
- Botanical Gardens,
- Parque Lage,
- Vista Chinesa, etc.
15- PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN RIO ARE CALLED "CARIOCAS"
If you visit Rio, you will probably see and hear this word pretty much everywhere. The meaning of the word carioca is "homem branco" (white man). The word carioca was originally from the indigenous language Tupi-guarani, and this is what they called the Europeans who arrived in Brazil and started to build the city.
Check my ultimate guide on how to visit Rio in 1, 2, 3, 4, or more days.
I think that everyone should visit Rio at least once in their lives! I've met loads of friends, travelers, and co-workers who didn't have a clue what to see or do while in Rio. For this reason I decided to write this ultimate guide to explain everything, and for everyone traveling to Rio to really be able to check out the Rio Vibes.
If you have any further questions about Rio or any fun facts, please feel free to share with me, as always, I would love to hear from you. I hope to see you in Rio sometime during your vacation. You will have a great trip guaranteed.
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