Two weekends ago, I visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was my first time in Rio and in Brazil. For many countries a visa is required to visit Brazil, a requirement that was waived during the Olympics. For U.S. Citizens the hefty visa fee pays off as the visa lasts ten years, as long as your passport.
Rio and Brazil is as colorful as one would imagine it to be. I can only imagine just how lively and incredibly vibrant the whole country, especially Rio, gets during Carnaval. I enjoyed by weekend in Rio. However, I will say that I hope to return one day with someone who speaks Portuguese, is Brazilian or join a small local tour lead by someone really in the know. There is definitely a layer that requires peeling back to truly get to know Brazil, its people and its culture, you can tell they are a passionate peoples with lots to share and are in general very friendly. However, Spanish is no Portuguese and only got me so far. The local appreciate the effort to say hello and thank you and weave in some Spanish rather than straight up speak English and whip our my translator (which was sadly needed in some situations). Nonetheless on this quick weekend trip, I knocked off most of the touristy sites and will return one day to dive deeper into Brazil.
Most flights originating in Europe and the U.S. arrive in the morning in Brazil and depart at night, allowing for an ample amount of time to explore over a weekend, or even a day trip if you so desire. Getting around Rio is easy and affordable, Ubers (~$12 airport to city) and taxis (never exceeded $10 within downtown area) are both very cheap, and the subway (~$1.25/ride) is even more so but does not get you everywhere. I did a mix of taxis, ubers and mainly took the subways to key stations, where I then transferred to a taxi or uber. The traffic in Rio can be quite bad, so I do recommend going the route I did by taking subway to cover long distances and then using other forms of transport to take you the final stretch.
There are ample selections of hotels, BnBs, AirBnBs and hostels in Rio. I opted for a Bed & Breakfast in the Bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa called Rio Panoramic, housed in a restored art deco house. NOTE: lots of bed and breakfasts in Rio are cash only, so be sure to check with them prior to your arrival to prepare enough cash or exchange enough cash upon arrival. Rio Panoramic also has a “honesty bar” where you have a itemized list with your name on it stuck on the fridge, anytime you grab a beverage or bottled water you mark off the quantity, the final tab is added to your hotel bill. Where you stay will depend on what your activities are and what style you prefer. If you want to stick to the beach, stay in Copacabana or Ipanema. If you want to stay in a more local area full of character and charm then I’d recommend Santa Teresa.
- Arrive Rio Galeao International Airport around noon after a two hour delay, hopped on a uber and headed to my BnB.
- After sort of getting lost and looping around Santa Teresa for a few minutes my uber driver and I finally found the hotel.
- Checked in, explored the house and the wonderful art deco furniture and decor. As well as the spectacular views of Rio and Sugarloaf from the pool and garden area.
- 2 minutes walk from Rio Panoramic is the Largo dos Guimaraes station to take the historic Santa Teresa Tram, which is a free ride through Santa Teresa down the hill to the downtown area and near a subway station (Cinelandia, one stop after Gloria, the two main subway stations for Santa Teresa). The tram runs around every 20 minutes, and I highly recommend it, its fun, historic and scenic.
- I then walked to the Cinedlandia subway stop, along the way I saw the Municipal Theater, which was gorgeous.
- Took the subway to Largo do Machado where I had wanted to purchase tickets to head up to Christ the Redeemer, but was told it was too cloudy up there to see. So I decided not to (more on how to get to the Christ on day 2).
- Instead from there I took the subway a to Botafogo stop where I then hopped on a cab to head to Pao de Acucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain, where I took the cable car up to the mid-peak platform, then took the second cable car up to the main peak. Sugarloaf is Rio’s iconic rock formation that is featured in almost all Rio skyline images, and is often confused with where the Christ Redeemer is located. The views here are spectacular and worth the approximately $25 fee.
- I then hopped on a cab to head to the subway. Took the subway to Ipanema, Nossa Senhora da Paz station. Had a juice snack break at a popular local juice shack called Polis Sucos, where none of the staff spoke English and there was a Portuguese only menu. I managed to order a Acai with granola. It was tasty and refreshing, though Acai is definitely thicker than I was expecting.
- I then walked a few blocks on to Ipanema‘s boardwalk and walked down the beach. It was around sunset, although on this day it was a rather cloudy one. But it was fun and interesting to people watch along Ipanema, and observe the ever-free-spirited and passionate local walk, run, or bike by.
- I returned to the hotel (combo of walking, subway and taxi) to take a break and change before my dinner.
- Knowing I would be in Brazil this weekend, I made reservations at Lasai, 1 Michelin Star, 2016 Latin America’s #18 and 2017 world’s #76. The restaurant has two gardens, and aims to showcase local and organic produce as well as modern take on Brazilian cuisine. Over all I enjoyed my meal here and there were definitely some highlights and the organic Brazilian wine I had was delicious, however given the price and concept, the meal I had at Leo Cocina y Cava in Bogota, Colombia was much better.
- I then took a taxi and returned to Santa Teresa. But before calling it a night, I felt I still had a little space left to have another meal at a popular local hole in the wall, Bar do Mineiro. Here I ordered a Caipirinha, Feijoada Completa (the famous and traditional Rio stew of pork ribs and sausage and black beans), and Pasteis (mini Brazilian pastries with different fillings). All were delicious and the atmosphere was great, however the Feijoada was definitely quite filling.
- Returned to the hotel and called it a night.
- Woke up and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast at Rio Panoramic (included). I then checked out and left my stuff in storage at the hotel before I ventured off on my 2nd full day in Rio. My flight would be later this night.
- I was off at around 9AM and walked through Santa Teresa down the hill towards Escadaria Selaron, the famed mosaic staircase in Santa Teresa by local artist Jorge Selaron. The walk to the stairs was only recommended to do during the day by the hotel staff. Most of Santa Teresa is safe, and for the most part use your normal travel street smarts and you’ll be fine, but there are still areas I was told to avoid at night. The stairs were quite pretty and the benefit of getting there early and starting from the top going down was that you beat the crowds.
- I then continued walking to the Cinedlandia subway where I took the subway to Largo Do Machado to try my luck at visiting the Christ the Redeemer again. They told me it was clear skies up there as of when I asked.
- So getting up to the Christ can be a little confusing if you are not part of a larger tour group. Largo do Machado plaza area has two booths, one sells tickets for the van service (you take a van up to the Christ, admissions included), the other at the tourist kiosk is where you get tickets for the historic Tram plus admissions. NOTE: the tram station is about a 5-10 minute cab ride from Largo do Machado station, and yes you can go directly to the Trem do Corcovado station and purchase your tram and admissions ticket there. NOTE: tram tickets are timed and depart about every 20 minutes. Apparently some folks buy their tickets in advance online to avoid the lines on site, but the real lines are to line up to get on the tram itself not to buy tickets (from what I saw on a Sunday morning at 10:30AM). Another way I have read is to hike it.
- Christ the Redeemer: first off, the tram is awesome, it winds through part of the Tijuca National Park and offers great views of Rio along the way. This is definitely the way to get to the top, dont take the van, or you can also hike it. The Christ itself is spectacular. When I arrived it was very cloudy, I could barely make out the silhouette of the statue. But like everyone else there I decided to wait and see, because I was told it was clear earlier and on day 1 I saw clouds move in and out of the Christ. Sure enough a few minutes later the clouds parted to reveal the statue and that moment was very magical and surreal. The crowds cheered, oohed and clapped. And I saw why this is such a profound site for many. Very much worth the nearly $30 admissions fee (transport included). After spending a good amount of time admiring the statue and taking some selfies I headed back down.
- I then headed to the Copacabana area. I had lunch at Os Imortais, a modern take on the traditional Brazilian Botequim (gastropub), that was recommended by Culinary Backstreets, my go to local food guide in certain cities (they also do food walks, I had signed up for one but not enough people joined so it was cancelled). The food was delicious, cheap and I even got my Brazilian steak fix. They also have a selection of home craft beer which was refreshing on this sunny day in Rio.
- I then ventured into the famous and historic Copacabana Palace hotel now run by the luxury chain Belmond. One day perhaps I shall stay here.
- I then walked along Copacabana Beach for a while, doing what I did on Ipanema, people watch.
- I then returned to Santa Teresa. I stopped by one of the area’s most famous hangout spots for both locals and tourists, Armazem Sao Thiago aka Bar de Gomez. A historic bar and watering hole in the neighborhood with an insane list of Cachacas, the Brazilian national liquor. I ordered a shot of the house brewed Cachacas to sip on, followed by a Gin & Tonic which as simple as it was, was delicious at this particular place (maybe the atmosphere helped?).
- I then returned to Rio Panoramic for some chill and pool time through to sunset.
- After sunset, I grabbed my things and headed to Hotel Santa Teresa to have a drink and small bite at Bar dos Descasados. The craft cocktails here are quite good, I ordered one made with coffee liquor, sugarcane, grapefruit and of course Cachacas.
- I then grabbed an uber and headed to the airport for my 10PM departure back to Atlanta.