Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL – land of samba and caipirinhas! This seaside city has been on my bucket list even before I studied Portuguese in college. When we discovered a nonstop flight back to Houston (and on points!), we bought our tickets and never looked back.
Return itinerary by the numbers:
-GIG –> IAH = 10 hours of air travel
-Time change = 2 hours (US behind)
-Sunday Red Eye Option= Depart Rio at 9pm / Arrive Houston at 5 am (we slept 7 hours on the plane and were back at work on Monday morning!)
Our stay: 4 days/ 4 nights
Ritz Copacabana Boutique Hotel – just one block away from Brazil’s iconic Copacabana beach. Rooms are stylish, quiet, and very affordable under $100 per night. The rooftop pool faces the beach so you can enjoy sunsets in private – great added bonus!
We chose Copacabana to be centrally located to all sites – Rio is a huge city! The neighborhood itself is still a culturally rich neighborhood, but for seaside relaxation or trendy shopping options, it’s best to head west to Ipanema or Leblon.
Sugarloaf Mountain – take the cable car up to Urca and Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s best to go during sunset to capture both day and night views from the top. In March, the sun started setting at 5:45pm, so we got in line to purchase tickets at 4:30pm. Make sure to explore Praia Vermelha (Red Beach) before heading up the mountain. It’s an intimate beach with exceptional views of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Duration: ~2 hours
NOTE: Be mindful of the weather when planning your visit. You’ll get a glimpse of Christ the Redeemer from Urca if there is clear visibility.
Corcovado Train/ Christ the Redeemer – Planning is a bit tricky for this site because train tickets CANNOT be purchased on the same day. We crossed our fingers for sunny clear weather and chose the 8:20 am slot online. The Christ the Redeemer statue is so high up that the weather may differ from the ground. Naturally, we caught some rain at the top, but still snapped a few great photos. No refunds are issued if there is no visibility.
Pro Tip: GO EARLY. Choose the 8:00 am or 8:20 am departure to avoid crowds and photo bombs.
*Visibility can change in just minutes if clouds are in the forecast.
Copacabana Beach – Come here to soak up the Brazilian sun while admiring Sugarloaf mountain in the distance. For just $15 reais or $5 USD, you can rent two beach chairs and an umbrella for the entire day. Look for our friends at Escitorio do Ray Booth #149 (Avenida Atlantica, corner of Rua Miguel Lemos on Copacabana Beach). They were friendly, honest, and even told us we could return to our chairs later that afternoon without having to pay again.
Safety: Several locals warned us to be careful with our cell phones. It’s best to limit screen time especially at the beach as a precaution. For extra security, put your beach bag handles at the bottom of the umbrella stake while it’s being buried in the sand. Be vigilant in Rio at all times.
Ipanema Beach – Beach bums rejoice! This was our favorite spot to get some rays. The vendors will start umbrella prices at $20 realis, so make sure to negotiate down to $15 realis for the two chairs and umbrella. There are less (but still quite a few) vendors walking the beach selling food, sunglasses, cangas (light weight “scarf” that doubles as a towel), than in Copacabana.
Pro Tip: No one uses actual towels on the beach so don’t make yourself a target by bringing one. Buy a canga from a vendor for about $25 reais or $10 USD. We also stopped at the supermarket to stalk up on waters, beers, and snacks. However, the Argentine empanadas and potato chips on the beach are pretty delicious!
Don’t forget the sunscreen!
Escadaria Selaron – Chilean artist, Selaron, created a colorful tribute to the people of Brazil between neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa. Many supporters sent the artist tiles of their country to help him complete his work. See if you can find your country or state! #TexasForever
Precaution: Practice extra caution overall and limit cell phone usage in this area. Our Uber driver warned us that the area becomes much more dangerous as you approach the city center.
Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – rent bikes and peddle around Rio’s lagoon. There are orange bike stations located throughout the city and around the lagoon, called Tem Bici. The 7.2 km loop takes about 2 hours. Rehydrate with a frozen coconut from one of the many vendors around the lagoon – only $5 realis. After you drink the water, they will cut it up so you can carve the coconut out and eat the rest! Don’t forget to look up to get a view of Christ the Redeemer above.
Zuka – MUST VISIT restaurant located in the posh LeBlond neighborhood. Hands down our best meal in Rio! We started with beef croquettes and crispy gnocchi with truffled parmesan and shared the San Pietro (white fish) with mushroom risotto and beans for the main entree. Wash it down with a few caipirinhas and you’re ready to hit the town.
Pro Tip: There are several bars located in this area. Just next door is Vinil, a cocktail bar worth visiting.
El Born – need a break from heavy Brazilian dinners? This Spanish tapas restaurant was located on the vibrant Rua Bolivar street just steps away from the Ritz Hotel in Copacabana.
Zaza Bistro Tropical – reservations required! Unfortunately we weren’t able to dine here during our stay, but it was on our list to check out.
Mercearia da Praça – So good we went back twice! This traditional Portuguese restaurant doubles as a market and wine bar. Ironically, we ordered Patagonia Ambar beer (Argentina) with our meal because it was so hot outside. We usually use one English menu and one in Portuguese to see the specials listed.
We ordered the “Francesinha” steak sandwich, codfish risotto, stuffed squid, and the “pastel de pernil” (delicious puff pastry filled with pork, onions, and peppers). Leave room for a pastel de nata which tasted exactly like the ones in Lisbon. Great option for lunch or dinner!
Cervantes – local sandwich spot in Copacabana. Try the most popular item – roast beef sandwich with pineapple and cheese. They do carry an English menu, but you may have to ask for it. Two pieces of advise here:
Chopp = draft beer
Do you have an English menu? = Tem um cardápio em inglês?
Viasete – traditional flavors with a modern flair, located in Ipanema. Ask to be seated “fora” or outside and you’ll feel like you’re dining in a tree house. The translations on the English menu are a bit strange, so if you can read a little Portuguese, I recommend asking for the original menu.
Cafe do Alto – stop in for lunch while exploring the boho neighborhood of Santa Teresa. The menu offers fresh juices, craft beer, and Dmitriy’s favorite – Brazilian crepes made with tapioca flour and filled with jerk beef (listed as Porreta on the menu).
Lapa – come here for sounds of samba and caipirinhas! It reminded us of 6th Street in Austin because the area is full of bars and everyone is hanging out in the streets.
Casa da Cachaça – careful, you may get into trouble here as you taste your way through the cachaça menu. We enjoyed the milho verde (green corn), cafe (coffee), jurupinga (red wine)…and maybe a few more.
Several bars charge a cover, so you’ll find many Cariocas hanging out around the aqueduct ordering food and drinks from street vendors. Caipirinhas will run you only $5 realis or $1.50 USD.
Bar Carioca da Gema – worth the cover charge! Live samba music with strong drinks and a lively dance floor.
We were surprised at the limited amount of American travelers. We didn’t hear much English at all, so I can confidently say that having two years of Portuguese under my belt made the trip much easier to get around.
How are you?: Como vai?; Tudo bem? (In response, you can say “Tudo bem” as well, meaning “Everything’s good.”)
Hello: Olá, Oi (Hi)
Goodbye: Tchau (informal)
Good morning: Bom dia. (The “d” sounds like a “j”)
Good afternoon: Boa tarde.
Good evening/good night: Boa noite.
Please: Por favor
Thank you: Obrigada (if you are female), obrigado (if you are male). (Tip: Locals often shorten this to ‘brigada or ‘bridago, omitting the “O”.)
Thank you very much: Muito obrigada/o.
You’re welcome: De nada.
What’s your name?: Qual é o seu nome? – they will ask this when renting beach chairs
My name is…: Meu nome é…
Check, please: A conta, por favor.
How much?: Quanto?
Is Rio de Janeiro on your bucket list? Now is the time…Brazil is waiting for you!