3 days in Rio: tips, must sees and local things to do

Aaah, Rio de Janeiro! A name and place that leaves nobody indifferent! I planned on spending just a few days here, I ended up staying a week! A lot has been said or written about Brazil’s most (in)famous city. But how exactly do you “tackle” Rio? By all means, read on and find out the best tips to spend 3 days in Rio!

The best travel tips for Rio de Janeiro

1. Is Rio safe?

Rio de Janeiro:  a name that evokes “beach, sun and sex”.  To some…
To others Rio evokes “crime, favela’s and hold-ups.  “Oh, be careful!  Are you sure it’s wise to go on your own?  Don’t go out at night! “: these are just a few of the “useful tips” I received. By the time I was ready to set off, my initial enthusiasm had turned into proper fear. I was convinced I was going to get robbed.  Or stabbed or even murdered!

How I’d love to give the middle finger to these scaremongers now! Cause no, Rio isn’t the horribly dangerous city portrayed in the click-bait media.  I enjoyed lingering on Ipanema beach, visited the city on my own for 8 days and went out at night until the early morning hours. No, I didn’t go wander off in the favelas, yes I took a taxi at night and no, I didn’t swing any expensive camera around my neck.  Vigilance and common sense are the key words in Rio, just like they would be in any other city!

Of course I am not oblivious to the fact that crime IS a major problem in Rio. I saw a guy getting robbed at the beach and I nearly got my phone stolen, but should that stop you from visiting this gorgeous city? Definitely NOT!!!


2. How do I get around?

Rio is big, but manageable. The public transport system has benefitted from a big boost thanks to the World Cup and the Olympics, so it’s really easy to get around. The metro is safe and gets you from the beaches to the city centre in no time.  If you are planning on using the metro a lot, it’s cheaper to get a “Metro Card”.
If you are staying in Ipanema or Copacabana, frequent buses will take you to all major attractions. (Sugar Loaf, Christ the Redeemer, Lapa…) Bus routes are displayed at most stops and on the front window of the bus. There’s no time table (hey, this is Rio, why would you be in a hurry?) but you’ll never have to wait longer than 20 minutes during the day!
Flag down the bus, pay the guy behind the turnstile and off you go!
Oh and don’t be fooled by the small distances on the map.Copacabana beach alone for example is 4 kilometers!

Santa Teresa Rio

3. Where should I stay?

If you are only planning on staying 3 days in Rio, chances are you’ll want to stay near the beach, right? Well, you’re lucky, because Rio has over 7km of beaches! The most popular areas are no doubt Copacabana and Ipanema. The first one has still a glamorous ring to it since the 1970’s, but to be honest, it’s the most touristy part of Rio and can feel quite gloomy in the evenings. Ipanema, although pretty touristy as well, is more upmarket and I felt generally safer there.

If you can do without the beach, then I’d definitely urge you to stay in Santa Teresa. It’s the “bohemian artistic” neighbourhood of Rio and feels like a village. There are plenty of nice cafés around, cobbled streets and there are some gorgeous views over the city!  A bonus point is that you are near Lapa, THE nightlife district of Rio!

Santa Teresa Rio

4. How long should I stay?

I’m a great devotee of slow travel, but even if you’re not, I’d definitely recommend you to take time to explore Rio! Yes, you can probably “do” the must sees when staying 3 days in Rio, but you would miss out on so much! I stayed in Ipanema, where it’s very easy to while the day away having a fresh fruit juice for breakfast, perfect your tan for a few hours on the beach, only interrupted by some fried shrimp or coconut juice, and explore some of the back streets later.
Take a walk or cycle around Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (should take you +/- 1h30), stroll along the Claudio Coutinho trail near Sugar Loaf or discover the gorgeous Santa Teresa neighbourhood.  Don’t rush! Rio deserves your time!
Check out the local things to do in Rio in the chapter below to totally blend in!

Santa Teresa Rio

5. What’s the weather like?

All images of Rio display sun-soaked beaches and clear views of Christ the Redeemer. Rio de Janeiro is synonym to sun, right? WRONG! Although I visited in summer (January), I had to wait for 6 days before I could get a proper view from Christ the Redeemer. The statue is situated at an altitude of 700m above sea level and surrounded by mountains, which means the clouds get free play! I’m not lying when I say that out the 8 days that I stayed, 5 days were cloudy and during some of them I had the “joy” to discover tropical downpours. Another reason to take your time: if you wait long enough, the sun will eventually break through!
One word of warning though: even if it’s cloudy, UV-rays still get through, so by all means, wear sunscreen!!

Leblon Rio

Top attractions in Rio de Janeiro

Let’s face it, you can’t come to Rio and NOT see Christ the Redeemer (although I nearly did, due to the bad weather!) Just as you wouldn’t go to London and not see Tower Bridge, there are a few attractions in Rio that you can simply not afford to miss!

1. Sugarloaf Mountain

The view from Pão de Açucar or Sugarloaf is one of the most known vistas of Rio de Janeiro and standing atop it’s easy to see why Rio is branded as the most beautiful city in the world! The panorama is simply stunning! Take the metro to Botafogo and from there on the two cable cars. The first one will take you to Morro da Urca, which offers views over the winding coastline. The second one take you all the way to the top where the whole of Rio will unfold beneath you! Go early to avoid crowds!
Some people are tempted to climb up the granite rocks instead of taking the cable car but this should only be done with a group of people who are used to scrambling rocks! Don’t do this on your own!

Sugarloaf Rio

2. Christ the Redeemer

Another iconic landmark of Rio de Janeiro and no doubt the most popular one. Again, this is all about the views! The Corcovado mountain, where the statue stands on, is +/- 700m high. Even when the sun is shining below, it is not guaranteed that you’ll get clear views on top! You can get there by a narrow-gauge train (prepare for long queus!) or by van from Paneiras. The vans also stop at the Dona Marta lookout, halfway up the mountain, and worth the trip on its own!

view from Christ the Redeemer

3. Ipanema

Known for its gorgeous, long stretch of beach, between Leblon and Copacabana, and one of the safest areas in Rio. The beach is divided into different “postos” or zones, which is handy if you’re trying to meet up with someone. Posto 9 is where the “rich and beautiful” hang out, an ideal spot for people-watching. You are not going to go hungry on Ipanema. Beach vendors sell everything from caipirinha to snacks and from sunglasses to towels. In the back streets, there are plenty of open-air cafés and juice bars to give you a respite from the scorching sun.


4. Santa Teresa neighbourhood

Santa Teresa is like a village within Rio. It oozes with colonial charm and paints a perfect picture of a Rio away from the beach scene. Cobbled streets, bohemian restaurants and open-air cafés line the streets. You can amble among the ruins of a former mansion in Parque das Ruinas or admire the views from the viewing platform.

Santa Teresa Rio de Janeiro

5. Selaron steps

The Escadaria Selarón are a dedication to the colourful population of Rio. The Chilean artist Jorge Selarón decided that the steps leading up from Rua Joaquim Silva (Lapa district) could do with a make-over and covered them with colourful mosaics. Everybody wants a picture on the steps, so it’s one of the most crowded places in Lapa!

Selaron steps Rio

Now that you have covered the must see’s, it’s time to dig a bit deeper and discover what else the “Cidade maravilhosa” has to offer.Do you like to immerse yourself too while travelling? Then the next chapter is for you.

Local things to do in Rio de Janeiro

1.Start your day in a juice bar

What will it be today? Watermelon juice? Papaya? Or maybe guava or tangerine? The options are endless! There seems to be a juice bar on every corner in the “Zona Sul” (Leblon-Ipanema-Copacabana) and they are easy to spot: towers of fresh fruit behind the counter are luring you in for a healthy breakfast.  Not that they are limited to breakfast-time; any time of the day is a good excuse to drop in! Make sure you taste the “acai na tigela”, a refreshing sorbet made of Amazonian berries, topped with banana and granola.

juice bar Rio de Janeiro

2.       Visit a botequim

Botequims  or botecos can mean anything from “street corner bar” to “restaurant”. I’m talking about the informal street corner version. Very basic, they usually have a few seats at the bar and the “menu” is limited to pão de queijo (delicious!) , bolinhos, juices and a few beers or cachaça. It’s a good way to have a quick bite,  watching Carioca street life pass by.

Ipanema beach

3.       Jog, cycle or walk

The Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a lagoon in the Zona Sul, is encircled by a 7.5 km walking/cycling path. During the weekend, join the joggers as the path winds along the neighbourhoods of Ipanema, Leblon, Botánico and Lagoa. On warm evenings the lakeside kiosks make for a great place for a drink or bite.

Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas Rio

4.       Walk the Claudio Cautinho path

The start of the path is right next to the beautiful Praia Vermelha, near the cable car station for Sugar Loaf. The well-paved path winds along the Morro do Urca for about 2km and takes you along lush trees and crashing waves below.

Pista-Claudio-Colocal things to do in Rio de Janeiro claudio coutinho trail

5.       Feast on feijoda

Feijoda is a stew of beans, pork bits, sausage and spices. It is accompanied by kale, farofa, (some kind of flour mix) oranges and rice.  Feijoada is traditionally eaten on a Saturday afternoon. Because of the heavy ingredients, you’ll need the rest of the afternoon to digest it. I had the “bright” idea to have it for dinner, right before a night out. An example not to be followed!

feijoada Rio

6.       Take the bus

A lot of guide books warn you against taking buses in Rio, but I never encountered any problem and took them almost every day! They are great to get your bearings of the city, cheap, but not the quickest. (especially the stretch between Ipanema and Copacabana can be slow) It is not advised to take them at night. I did, coming back from Lapa… Nothing happened, but maybe I was just lucky?

7.       Watch the sunset on the Arpoador rock

At the end of Ipanema beach, towards Copacabana you’ll find the Arpoador rock. People gather there to watch the gorgeous sunset over Ipanema and the Dois Irmãos. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t really on my side during my two attempts, but you still get nice views over Ipanema and Copacabana on the other side.

sunset Arpoador rock Rio de Janeiro

8.       Dance the night away in Lapa

Rio’s nightlife is legendary and rightly so! During the weekend the Lapa neighbourhood becomes one big open street party.  The crowds spill out onto the pavement near the famous “Arcos de Lapa”, the atmosphere in the clubs is “muito quente” (very hot) and the beer is flowing abundantly in the bars. Needless to say, you’re better off leaving your valuables at home.

Lapa Rio

9.       Take part in an “ensaio” or “bloco” before Carnival

At first I was a bit disappointed of missing out on Carnival in Rio, but locals soon told me that the best time to come to Rio was actually a few weeks before the event.  You can take part in one of the numerous “blocos” or street parties every weekend or, even better, go to an “ensaio”, a rehearsal from one of the famous Samba schools. I did both and would highly recommend them!  Some blocos start as early as late afternoon, others don’t get going until midnight.  I went to an ensaio of the “Salgueiro” samba school, one of the most popular ones. Try to go with other travellers so you don’t feel too much out of your depth. Prepare yourself for a lot of noise, music, dancing and caipirinhas!


10.   Go to a “por kilo” restaurant or try a “churrascaria”

A very popular option with locals for lunch, the “por kilo” restaurants are buffets where you pay per weight. If you like to taste a bit of everything, then those buffet restaurants will be your thing! It’s a good option for vegetarians as well, since there are always plenty of veggies and fruit around.  Try whatever takes your fancy, weigh it and pay it.  Simple, usually of good quality and relatively cheap. (there are some expensive ones about though)
Churrascarias roughly translate as “barbecue or grill restaurants”. More popular for dinner, expect numerous options of flame-grilled meat, sliced straight from the skewers.  It’s a carnivore’s paradise!

por kilo restaurant Rio

Any other Rio de Janeiro travel tips you would add? Planning a trip to this gorgeous city and have questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments!

7 Replies to “3 days in Rio: tips, must sees and local things to do”

  1. Zach Angarano

    Gah! My dream that is still unrealized. I cannot WAIT to get to Rio, but I’ll admit I’m waiting till the hubbub of the international events slow down…

    This post got me right in the feelings!

    • Els Post author

      It’s a fantastic city indeed, but yes maybe wait until after the Olympics might not be a bad idea, prices will probably drop then 🙂 Glad my post got you into the spirit!

  2. mark wyld

    South America always looks so green and beautiful. And yes Rio always bring images of beaches and cocktails to my mind. Glad you had a great time and did not get robbed or mugged.The area you stayed looks very authentic and thats what i like about travelling. South America is not on my To Do list just yet maybe one day, but if it was Rio would be right up there.

  3. Vicki | MakeTimeToSeeTheWorld

    Great tips – and i’m so pleased you felt safe throughout your visit! We were robbed whilst visiting Rio but it wasn’t violent – more like a crime of opportunity(!) We stayed between Copacabana & Ipanema and it was great but would have loved to have visit Santa Teresa – the artistic vibe looks cool!

  4. Joanna

    I have also heard that Rio is pretty dangerous but, as a tourist, you won’t get too much of attention. I would go to visit a favela, definitely with a local. I am interested in the local life and way of living and I think that would be an amazing experience.


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