7 Unique Rio Experiences Worth Leaving the Beach For

Internationally known for its barely there bikinis (and not there at all waxes), Brazil has become synonymous with sand, sea, and sun. Nowhere is this more true than in Rio de Janeiro, home to some of the world’s most iconic beaches. While there’s no denying the allure of days spent lounging in the sun, Rio has a lot more to offer than miles of pristine white sand.

Here are 7 ways to have an amazing Rio de Janeiro vacation beyond visiting its beaches:    

1) Go on a Walking Tour

Rio is a centuries-old city worth exploring, and walking tours are a great way to learn a lot in a limited amount of time. Companies such as Rio Free Walking Tours offer a number of options for the devoted beach goer turned history buff. Tour the city’s historic center, which became the seat of the Portuguese Empire as the royal family fled Europe in 1808. There you’ll see vestiges of Brazil’s colonial past, architectural gems such as the Theatro Municipal, and the most ornate bakery you can find this side of the Atlantic (Confeitaria Colombo). RFWT also offers a tour of Rio’s port area, with a focus on the country’s African heritage. In the port stands the Valongo Wharf, a somber and powerful reminder of the region’s brutal slave trade. The area also features Morro da Providencia, Rio’s first favela. In recent years, the port has been the subject of a contentious revitalization project. There’s a lot to learn about this city, take advantage of a knowledgeable guide to help you make sense of it all.

2) Climb Morro Dois Irmaos

Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf may be famous for their spectacular views of Rio, but the swarms of tourists vying for a photo op can make the experience more frustrating than awe-inspiring. Avoid the crowds and selfie sticks and hike the Trilha do Morro Dois Irmãos for views that are equally stunning.

The trail head is in Vidigal, a favela in Rio’s South Zone. While Vidigal is generally safe, some might prefer to do the hike with a guide. Just do a quick Google search for options. These tours can be pricey, so for travelers on a budget, getting to the trail head on your own is perfectly doable. Take a city bus to the entrance of the favela, then catch a moto taxi or conde (a van used for transportation in the favelas) to the trailhead near the soccer field.

From there, the only way to go is up! The view from the top will leave you breathless, provided the climb didn’t already accomplish that.

3) “Happy Hour” at Arco do Teles

This sleepy architectural landmark comes to life in the early evenings as Cariocas (people from Rio) leave the office and gather around for an ice cold beer and live music. Drop by on a Thursday around 6 PM for the best experience.

4) Monday Night Samba

Finally, a reason to look forward to Monday! Samba, a Brazilian dance with African roots, is one of the country’s most iconic forms of cultural expression. While the international community typically associates samba with major celebrations like Carnival, you can find it any time of the year in Rio de Janeiro. Surprisingly, the best night for authentic, traditional samba in Rio is Monday. Join the party at the birthplace of Rio’s samba scene, Pedra do Sal, or head to Clube Renancensa for Samba do Trabalhador.

5) Visit a Museum

Need a break from the sun? Museum and cultural centers abound in Brazil’s second most populous city. Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (cultural center) features rotating exhibits and programs in a small but lively setting. Museu de Arte do Rio and Museu de Arte Moderna are two of the city’s most established art museums. The contemporary museum, MAC, is located just outside of the city in Niteroi. The building itself is a piece of art, designed by Brazil’s architectural master, Oscar Niemeyer. The Museu do Amanha, a science museum, was built just a few years ago in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

6) Brazilian Block Party

Rio’s nightlife isn’t limited to bars and clubs. If you’re looking for a low key night out, or want to have a few drinks before you paint the town, byob and do some people watching at a neighborhood hangout. Baixo Gávea draws a younger crowd, but attendance varies. Praça São Salvador is a hipster’s paradise. Mureta da Urca over looks Guanabara Bay and is a must! Weekends are best, and Portuguese definitely helps at the first two if you want to mingle with the locals.

7) Cruise Around the Lagoa

Rio’s natural beauty doesn’t end with its beaches. Pack a picnic and head down to the Lagoa, a small blue lake nestled in a quiet neighborhood of Rio. The Lagoa is surrounded by paths that make it perfect for an stroll or bike ride. You can rent bikes nearby through the city’s bike share program. If the Lagoa doesn’t strike your fancy, visit the Jardim Botânico (botanical garden) and nearby Parque Lage for a retreat instead.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Leite Salles


Vanessa Cornwell

Vanessa lives to travel and travels to eat. When she’s not on the hunt for her next great meal, you can probably find her at the beach. Vanessa is based in Miami, FL.