9 Ways to Experience Rio Like a Local (and Like a Tourist Too)
Rio truly is the Marvellous City. Though I’ll admit, I was wary that it wouldn’t manage to live up to its reputation. The city gets so much hype - particularly post-World Cup and Olympics - that I was convinced it wouldn't be as fabulous as everyone insists. But I couldn't have been more wrong. Rio is marvellous and more.
This even despite a major hostel hiccup. Though perfectly located in Ipanema (which is both safe and central), the service and cleanliness of our hostel was really poor. Though we upgraded rooms eventually, our first impressions tarnished the start of our trip. Apparently Rio is notorious for its lack of decent hostels and cheap accommodation, so if your budget isn't too strict, consider splurging here. There are some great options on Booking.com, my go-to site.
In any case, our disappoint didn't last long. As soon as we started exploring, Rio quickly cast its magical spell over us too.
Here are my top 9 tips and recommendations, particularly for first-time visitors, to enjoy Rio like a tourist (because you just can't skip Big Jesus) but also a bit like a local too. I can guarantee by the end of your trip you'll be asking how to move to La Cidade Maravilhosa.
1) Walk Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana beaches both day and night. Put your trainers on and go for a very long wander along all three of these beautiful beaches. There is nothing better than people watching along Rio's extensive beachfront. You will literally spot anything and everything: dog walkers, skateboarders, bikini-clad babes, caipirinha and cake sellers, football games, volleyball or tennis, favela kids, samba dancers, hawkers and more. And the vibe changes as the day goes on. Just stroll and soak it all in.
2) Stop for a chopp (draft beer) at one of the beach bars. When you can't take the heat anymore, stop for a Brahma (or your brand of choice) at one of the beautiful beach bars to refresh, listen to some live music and immerse yourself in the Carioca spirit.
3) Take the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf to watch the sunset. We accidentally ended up at the top of the mountain as the sun was going down, but this moment was undoubtably one of the highlights of my entire time in Brazil. Watching the light and colours change over the entire city was truly magnificent. We also bumped into Baddywinkle which was pretty epic!
4) Try all of the Brazilian food. I could probably dedicate an entire post to Brazil's food alone but Rio was by far where we tried the best and most varied dishes. Do NOT skip the feijoada, a type of bean stew with meat served with rice, a kale-like veggie and farofa (a lovely toasted cassava flour that you sprinkle all over your plate). I also fell in love with Brazilian tapiocas (similar to crepes), acâi with granola, Brazilian barbecues, moqueca (as described in my Salvador post) and - of course - the caipirinhas. Sample as much as you can. Two of my favourite restaurants were Academia de Cachaça in Leblon and Nova Capela in Lapa.
5) Take a tour through Rio's largest favela. Having had a positive experience on the Kibera slum tour in Nairobi, I was open to giving a favela tour a go too. We booked with Rio Favela Tour and spent the day in Rochina, the largest favela in Rio, learning about the community as well as the convergence of factors that led to its growth. Our guide was really knowledgable and friends with all of the locals. Shortly before our visit, there had been some trouble among the local gangs so there was a significant police and military presence throughout Rochina as we wandered about. So although I recommend a trip to the favelas for a fuller picture of life as a Carioca, do visit with a reputable company and follow the advice of your guide when you're there.
6) Hang out with Jesus (or Cristo Redentor). This is a must. He's located in the beautiful Tijuca forest and you take a funky little tram to the top. The views on the way up are equally as lovely as those at the top. But be warned: the crowds are relentless. It's challenging to get your perfect photo op, but you'll still enjoy the views as well as getting up close and personal with Big J.
7) Discover the city's brilliant street art. This was probably my favourite Rio experience. We booked a tour with Rio Street Art, an agency run by the lovely entrepreneur, Nina. It was absolutely pouring with rain on our day out but we powered through. Nina took us all around the city, both on foot and by car, and showed us some of Rio’s coolest street art, talked us through its history (FYI: graffiti has been legal since 2014) and gave us very personal accounts of the artists themselves. Nina is a true expert and professional; she's friends with all the artists and gets their full approval before showcasing any of their work. We finished the tour in an uber-cool brewery called Jeffrey, sampling some fabulous pilsens whilst admiring the graffiti on the walls.
8) Spend a night dancing samba in Lapa. When we booked our trip to Rio, we ensured we had at least one weekend that overlapped with our time in the city. We took full advantage and got our party on in Lapa. We enjoyed a brilliant night of live music and samba at Carioca da Gema. This adorable little bar always has live music and we joined in with the locals, dancing our hearts out to some of their favourite tunes.
9) Sample all sorts of caipirinhas. What would a trip to Rio be without sampling a caipirinha or three? I'll admit, these babies are strong. So I certainly had to sample in small doses. But I absolutely loved trying the different varieties - everything from a kiwi + mint combo to cinnamon and, my absolute fave, passionfruit. There is nothing quite like Brazil's fresh sucos (juices). Throw in a heavy splash of cachaça and you've got your dream cocktail.
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