With its white sandy beaches, soaring mountains and picturesque harbor, it’s no wonder that Rio de Janeiro is known as the “cidade maravilhosa”, or marvelous city. Facing the South Atlantic coast, the second-largest city in Brazil is blessed with one of the most beautiful natural settings for a metropolis in the world. The dazzling landscape is just one of the reasons that visitors flock to Rio. During carnival season, the streets fill with music and ornately costumed dancers, attracting revelers from all over the globe. At any time of year, visitors won’t want to miss the top tourist attractions in Rio de Janeiro.
The Lagoa area is not only the most exclusive neighborhood in the affluent Zona Sul district but is the third-most expensive neighborhood in all of South America. It is also home to a large lagoon known as the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The four-mile path encircling the lagoon is a favorite spot for joggers and cyclists. Open-air cafés and restaurants along the shore offer stunning views of the lagoon and the beaches beyond.
Football (or soccer) is by far the most important sport in Brazil and the Maracanã Stadium is one of Rio’s most important landmarks. Once the world’s highest capacity football venue, it was able to hold nearly 200,000 people when it opened in 1950. In modern times, the capacity has been reduced because of safety considerations, and the introduction of seating for all fans. It was partially rebuilt in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and is currently able to seat 80,000 spectators making it the largest stadium in South America.
One of the largest urban forest in the world, the Tijuca National Park covers a huge area of a mostly mountainous landscape. Visitors can hike to Rio’s highest peak, the Pico da Tijuca, to enjoy expansive views of Guanabara Bay and the city below. Nearly destroyed in the early 1800s by encroaching coffee plantations, much of the forest was replanted by hand in the latter half of the century with as many as nine million trees. Attractions include the Mayrink Chapel, which has murals painted by the famed Brazilian neo-realism painter Cândido Portinari, and the tumbling 100-foot Cascatinha Waterfall.
Located in the downtown section of Rio known as “Centro”, the Lapa neighborhood was once the city’s red-light district. Today, the area is known for its vibrant nightlife. Lined with samba and choro bars, the music and dancing spills out into the street on weekend nights. Most of the neighborhood’s architecture dates back to the 1800s, providing a scenic backdrop to all the festivities. It’s the perfect place to meet up with friends and cariocas to sample local cuisine and to sip caipirinha, the national cocktail made with sugarcane hard liquor and lime. Escadaria Selarón, a set of famous steps connects both the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods.
Perched on a hill overlooking the city’s harbor, the Santa Teresa neighborhood invites visitors to step back in time and experience the faded elegance of Rio’s 19th-century plantation mansions and cobblestone streets. The region escaped development until 1896, when an aqueduct was built that linked the neighborhood to the city. The district was a haven for artists, musicians and writers in the 20th century, and although trendy clubs and boutiques have since overtaken the neighborhood, it still retains a friendly artist-colony vibe. The city’s last remaining streetcar, the Santa Teresa Tram, used to be a popular tourist attractions in Rio de Janeiro but was closed after a serious accident on the line.
Located to the west of the Lagoa neighborhood, the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, or Jardim Botanico, houses more than 8,000 species of plants. Built in the early 1800s, the garden features many mature specimens, including avenues of towering palm trees. Visitors flock to the park to view the 600 species of orchids. The garden includes a number of monuments, fountains and features, including a Japanese garden, a pond filled with water lilies and the new Museu do Meio Ambiente, which displays exhibits that focus on the environment.
Rising 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the mouth of Guanabara Bay, Sugarloaf mountain is a monolith of quartz and granite that visitors can crest via a glass-walled cable car known as a “bondinho” or “teleférico.” The cable car departs every 20 minutes from the base of Babilônia hill and climbs to the top of the Morro da Urca hill. From there, visitors can take a second cable car up to the mountain’s summit.
The beach made famous in the bossa nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” in the 1960s remains one of Rio’s most popular tourist spots today. A long, arcing expanse of soft white sand and rolling waves, Ipanema routinely reaches the top of the “Best Beaches in the World” lists year after year. The beach is bordered by a well-organized grid of shops, cafés and restaurants as well as an array of art galleries, theaters and clubs.
Located in the upscale South Zone, or “Zona Sul”, Ipanema lies between the beaches of Copacabana and Leblon. Posts or “postos” mark off the beach into sections, and different types of people tend to congregate in each area. Families favor the section between posts 11 and 12 while the area near post 9 attracts dedicated sunbathers and free-wheeling artists.
Separated from Ipanema to the west by surfer-favored Arpoador beach, Copacabana has a more active vibe than its equally famous neighbor. Rio locals, called “cariocas,” always seem to have a game of soccer or volleyball in play, and vendors vociferously hawk their drinks and snacks from the kiosks that line the beach. Fort Copacabana, a military base with a wartime museum that is open to the public, stands at one end of the beach. On the length of beach fronting the fort, fishermen offer up their morning catch for sale.
Visitors and cariocas alike love to stroll along the promenade that borders the 4 km (2.5 mile) long beach. Originally built in the 1930s, the walkway features a wave-like design laid out in black and white stones. Inland from the promenade are closely-packed multistoried hotels and apartments.
Perched atop the 710 meter (2,330 feet) high peak of Corcovado Peak, the statue of “Cristo Redentor” stands with arms outstretched, gazing serenely out over the city. Construction of the statue began in 1922 during the heyday of the Art Deco movement, and the concrete and soapstone statue is considered the largest statue designed in the genre in the world. Most visitors take a vertical cog train to reach the base of the summit. From there, visitors to the monument once had to climb hundreds of steps to reach the top. Today, elevators and escalators are available to shorten the trip.
Exclusive bonus: Download the “Top 11 Itineraries in South America” Guide that Includes Our 4 Best Vacation Blueprints for Your Trip to Brazil.