Rio de Janeiro Vacations: 10 Must-See Attractions

April 19, 2015

The ocean breeze lifted the curly tendrils that escaped my ponytail, a cool respite from the tropical heat wafting off the beach. I dug my toes in the sand, hugged my knees, and giggled out loud. I was in Rio,  the “Rio” and the excitement was nothing short of intoxicating. It was the week after Carnival, and I’d missed the most extreme of the festivities, but it didn’t matter. The lingering vestiges of that steamy, sexy, never-ending party were enough to satisfy me.  I was in Rio.

With the hosting of the 2014 Soccer World Cup and upcoming 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro has become even more fascinating and desirable as South America’s “must-go” destination.

Best known as the world’s wildest Mardi Gras party, Rio de Janeiro is so much more than that. The postcard-worthy landscape with craggy mountains enveloping dazzling turquoise harbor, natural parks and rainforests, colorful culture and architecture, and samba obsession all contribute to the almost mythological aura of Brazil’s gem city.

The city was discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese. Rio de Janeiro, also known as “cidade maravilhosa” or “marvelous city” is the second-largest city and was the capital of Brazil for more than two centuries. Search as long as you like – you won’t find a more stunning metropolis setting.

If you are lucky enough to travel to Rio, here are my top ten suggestions for what to see and do:

1.  Carnival


The biggest party of the year is open to all in the streets of the city. Dating back to 1773, the streets are filled with live bands, parades, elaborate and barely-there costumes, this world-famous festival is held before the Catholic observance of Lent. Anyone can jump in and join the street revelry. Brazilians consider Carnival a national holiday. The festivities start on Friday night and continue non-stop until Wednesday, and many times beyond that. More than half a million foreign tourists travel to Brazil just to be part of Carnival every year.

Here are the best party hostels in Rio!

2. Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor)

rio de janeiro vacations

The iconic125-foot tall Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms is instantly recognized as the symbol of Rio. The statue, which rests at the peak of Corcavado Mountain, was created by French sculptor Paul Landowski and built as a collaboration between Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa and French engineer Albert Caquot. Over 300,000 visit the statue every year by taking the country’s oldest train to the top, some 2,330 in elevation. The statue is considered the largest statue in the world and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

3.  Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches

rio de janeiro vacations

The 1960’s bossa nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” put this white-sand crescent-shaped beach on the map. It’s still one considered not just one of the best beaches in Brazil, but in the world.

To the west of Ipanema is Copacabana Beach, an equally beautiful beach but with a slightly more active ambiance.  There are lots of food vendors here, and if you’re looking to take part in a beach volleyball game, you’ll likely find it here.

4.  Futbol (Soccer)

The Brazilians are fervent about this sport, and going to a game at the Maracanã Stadium is a high-energy, fun activity for everyone. Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you can’t help but be drawn in by the boisterous and frenzied atmosphere. The stadium holds 80,000 spectators – the largest in South America – and is one of Rio’s great landmarks.

5.  Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar)

rio de janeiro vacations

Towering 1,299 feet over Guanabara Bay, the vista from Sugarloaf is something to behold. Glass-walled cable cars pull spectators to the top, where the sunset is one of the most stunning anywhere.

6.  Lapa


For full flavor of Rio, a visit (or two, or three!) to this vicinity is a must. Located in “centro” or downtown, this Bohemian neighborhood was once a red-light district of run-down 19th-century mansions. A renaissance ensued and the area was rehabilitated. It’s now a hot-spot chock full of nightlife, pulsating music, and samba dancing, spilling out into the streets. The landmark Escadaria Selarón is a colorful and often photographed set of steps.

7.  Jardim Botânico


This sprawling natural reserve encompasses 340-acres with more than 8,000 species of exotic flora. The garden was created in the early 1800’s and opened to the public in 1822. The avenue of towering palms, the 600 species of orchids, fountains and lily pond are some of the biggest tourist draws.

8.  Churrascaria (Brazilian BBQ)

Brazilian bbq, Patti Morrow – Luggage and Lipstick

A churrascaria is a Brazilian-style rotisserie where huge chunks of high-quality meat are skewered and slow-roasted over open charcoal fires. The technique originated from the gauchos in the southern part of the country. When the top layer is done to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, the server slices it off with a razor-sharp cleaver and the roasting continues. The result is juicy, mouth-watering and addictive. This may be the only country in the world to surpass the huge, carnivorous appetite of Americans.

9.  Samba Three Ways


Rio de Janeiro vacations would be remiss without experiencing some sort of samba. Samba dancing is a fusion of Portuguese and African influences. One way to experience it is to book a dinner show. Carnival-costumed dancers gyrate across the stage effortlessly to the rhythmic music. Another way to experience samba is by experiencing the nightlife in the Lapa neighborhood’s live band dance clubs. There is usually a small cover charge and some clubs have dance floors that take up the whole club. The third way to samba is by taking a lesson. The steps aren’t hard and there are several places for tourists to take a crash course so they can take part in the nightlife while in Rio.

10.  Tijuca National Park

Waterfall in Tijuca National Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Tijuca National Park is one of the largest urban forests in the world. Making it to the peak will reward hikers with a stunning panoramic view of the city and bay. The walking paths include the 100-foot Cascatinha Waterfall and the Mayrink Chapel’s hand-painted murals.

Rio de Janeiro will likely offer more to do than time allows and will inspire visitors to make plans to return even before they leave.

You may also be interested in:

You Can’t Take Your Clothes Off at Machu Picchu? Now You Tell Me!

Why Cartegena Became My Favorite City

Adventure Cruising on the Amazon River

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.

Patti has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe. You can follow Patti on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Read more about Patti Morrow.


  1. Comment by Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru

    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru Reply April 20, 2015 at 3:58 am

    What a fine list of must-sees for the first-timer or repeat visitor. After we went to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, we wondered if we should consider Rio. Tijuca National Park looks amazing.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 20, 2015 at 8:38 am

      Rio has a lot of diversified things to do. I highly recommend!

  2. Comment by Paula McInerney

    Paula McInerney Reply April 20, 2015 at 4:15 am

    Yes, I could go to Rio – very easily for everything that you have shared with us.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 20, 2015 at 8:38 am

      You’ll run out of time before you run out of things to do!

  3. Comment by Irene S Levine

    Irene S Levine Reply April 20, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Rio is definitely on my bucket list—moved up higher after your post!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 20, 2015 at 8:39 am

      You will love it, Irene, especially with your excellent photography skills!

  4. Comment by Susan Moore

    Susan Moore Reply April 20, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    I visited Rio in 2010 – it was my first solo trip to South America. My visa is good for 10 years so I should definitely get back again to see more of the city. I visited in September partly to escape the heat of summer in Texas and I was able to use up some frequent flyer miles (but had to fly into Sao Paulo) so I saved a bundle on airfare. I took the bus from Sao Paulo and I was thrilled to arrive in Rio – such a picturesque city – the mountains, beach, beautiful! I stayed in Ipanema neighborhood, next time, which was wonderful. Next time I would like to stay in Lapa as I didn’t make it to that part of Rio last time. Thanks for reminding me of some of the highlights and things to see in Rio!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 20, 2015 at 3:21 pm

      Rio has that “come back” charm that makes me want to return, too, Susan!

  5. Comment by Ana O

    Ana O Reply April 20, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Rio is indeed a cidade maravilhosa. It draws you in and never lets you go, right?

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 20, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      I couldn’t have said it better myself, Ana!

  6. Comment by Carol Colborn

    Carol Colborn Reply April 20, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    What a great list, every single one a good reason to go to Rio. It’s good we have a timeshare there. So all I have to do now is schedule the party. I am only familiar with 3 or 4 of these. Thanks!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 20, 2015 at 6:31 pm

      A timeshare in Rio? How lucky can a person get, Carol? #jealous

  7. Comment by Marilyn Jones

    Marilyn Jones Reply April 20, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    I think I’ll add Rio to my Bucket List!! Your descriptions and photos are awesome; makes me want to go!!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 20, 2015 at 9:36 pm

      Yes! You will love it, Marilyn!

  8. Comment by Kay Dougherty

    Kay Dougherty Reply April 21, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    I have never been drawn to Rio but your post may have changed that! Now that I live in southern Florida it’s easier to get to SA than from Boston so I’m starting to explore more. Personally I hate crowds so wouldn’t dream of going during Carnival but everything else looks fascinating!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 21, 2015 at 12:49 pm

      I’m with you as far as the Carnival crowds are concerned — I don’t like being pressed in by tourists on all sides. But Rio is definitely a great place to explore just about any other time of the year.

  9. Comment by Elaine J. Masters

    Elaine J. Masters Reply April 21, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    I was so taken with Rio when the family visited two years ago. Except for Tujaca Park waterfalls I’ve visited each of these sites but the best thing about Rio? The people and they were wonderful, crazy funny, playful and beautiful. Would love to return.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 21, 2015 at 6:34 pm

      Me, too, Elaine! I’m planning to go back. The people were indeed wonderful.

  10. Comment by The Gypsynesters

    The Gypsynesters Reply April 21, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    You are so right, we do want to go to Rio! Even more so after seeing these great pictures.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 21, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      It’s even better in person!

  11. Comment by Holly

    Holly Reply April 23, 2015 at 8:56 am

    i have never been, but it is on my list. I def want to go. Great pics!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 23, 2015 at 8:59 am

      Thanks, Holly! You’d love it!

  12. Comment by A Cook Not Mad (Nat)

    A Cook Not Mad (Nat) Reply April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am

    What a great list, saves a first timer a lot of research. Great photos!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 23, 2015 at 9:13 am

      Exactly! Hope you get to see these places!

  13. Comment by Suzanne Fluhr

    Suzanne Fluhr Reply April 23, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    You’re lovely photos have moved a visit to Rio up several notches on my “places I want to visit” list. Our travel blogger son is threatening to make that his next slow travel stop, so maybe he’ll be there long enough for Mom and Dad to visit. I’m sure he’d be thrilled 😉

  14. Comment by Catherine

    Catherine Reply May 15, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    I would love, love, love to do all of these things! I did try a Brazillian BBQ restaurant in the UK, and while it was amazing, I can imagine it’s so much better when you’re actually in Brazil! Would be amazing to experience the carnival, I’d imagine it’s one of those things that would stick with you for a long, long time!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply May 15, 2015 at 6:49 pm

      You would love it, Catherine!

  15. Comment by Deivide

    Deivide Reply November 18, 2015 at 8:11 am

    The Rio de Janeiro is really fantastic, a lot of natural beauty, beautiful beaches, receptive people. Whoever comes here will have leisure time.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply November 18, 2015 at 11:48 am

      I agree! Rio is a fantastic place!

  16. Comment by Miguel

    Miguel Reply October 14, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    I lived in Rio for over a year and I just love it. It’s a crazy city.. besides the most touristy spots I recommend all travelers to visit: 1) Dois irmãos (it’s a short hike with impressive views) 2) Pedra do sal (real samba music every monday and friday) 3) Docks area (there is a huge mural, very impressive).

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