Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide for First Timers

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Few cities in the world have such a spectacular natural setting as Rio de Janeiro, the former Brazilian capital. Endless lush green mountains, hills and valleys come down between lagoons and the sea, separating Rio’s different neighborhoods into almost separate towns. Favelas, slum houses with low sanitary conditions, occupy many of those hills, some on prime locations. The lowlands, on the other hand, house expensive high-rise buildings and colonial architecture. While everyone can recognize Rio’s landscape with gorgeous beaches, few are familiar with its interesting architectural heritage. If you are visiting Rio de Janeiro for the first time this guide is for you!

View from Corcovado

What is Rio Like

Rio de Janeiro is located at the Atlantic Coast, where Guanabara Bay enters the sea. Due to its mountainous terrain it has a very disperse structure. The City center – Centro and Northern parts of the city form a continuous conurbation, while the southern neighborhoods like Botafogo, Copacabana and IpanemaLeblon lie separated from each other by high mountains and Lake Rodrigo de Freitas. Most of the historical heritage is located around Centro, Lapa, Santa Teresa and Botafogo. Most of the high rise hotels and upscale residential buildings are located in Copacabana and Ipanema – Leblon. The best beaches are there too. A motorway in the interior and a modern avenue next to the sea, massive traffic arteries, connect all these neighborhoods.

Rio City Center

What to See in Rio

Rio’s main landmarks include nature and several architectural masterpieces. The most famous ones are two mountain peaks: Corcovado west of Botafogo and north of the Lake and Pão de Açúcar, a cape on the extreme southeast of the city. The former is famous for its statue of Christ the Redeemer, and the later for its two level funicular; both have breath taking views. Other interesting green areas include Lage Park in Lagoa neighborhood, the Botanical Garden southwest from it with one of the largest collections of orchids in the world, and Campo de Santana Park in Centro. Most of the architectural landmarks are in Centro. Baroque San Francisco de Penitencia Church, neoclassical Candelária Church and modern Metropolitan Cathedral are the main sacral edifices. Floriano square in Cinelandia is home to the Municipal Theatre, City Hall and National Library, one of the ten largest in the world. South east from there the Lapa Viaduct from the colonial period is still there. A few minutes from there Selarón Staircase, by a Chilean artist, is a nice entrance to the beautiful Santa Teresa neighborhood. The most important building from the post war period and one of the most famous Brazilian landmarks Niterói Contemporary Art Museum across the Bay in Niterói.

Take a look at this post about Rio at night.

Rio de Janeiro - Lage Park


Safety is the biggest concern when it comes to choosing a place to stay. Most historical sites, museums, interesting bars and cafes are located inside Centro and Lapa, but they are not the safest areas, thus not recommended to stay. Most of the large hotel chains have settled down in Copacabana and Ipanema – Leblon area. Although those areas are amongst the safest, the lack of good bars, clubs or any kind of attraction, besides the beach, is a turn off. Apart from that hotels there are expensive and the beaches are to be avoided at night. The only neighborhood with beautiful architecture and interesting cafes and restaurants is Santa Teresa, from where you can even walk down to the center (during daytime only). It is safe and hotels there are nice and relatively cheap.

Rio de Janeiro - One of many Favelas

Moving Around

Rio de Janeiro is a hugely populated city with densely built areas separated by mountains. Distances are long and there is a lot of traffic, especially at rush hour. The best way to move around is by metro, which is fast, cheap and safe. There are only 2 lines but they reach the most important tourist areas connecting them with the City Center. There is also metro bus which connects several neighborhoods with the Metro. Other regular buses are quite slow, with a somewhat confusing network. Taxis are relatively reliable and cheap if you insist on using a taximeter. There are public bicycles, which can be hired online. If you have time to cross the Bay and visit Niterói, take a fast ferry from a Terminal at Praça XV. The views are outstanding.

Selarón Staircase


Gorgeous nature, interesting architecture, cool cafes and bars, beautiful people and the lack of safety are some of the features of this Marvelous City. Nature is everywhere: hills with dense jungle surround neighborhoods and exquisite sandy beaches; water is plentiful, in lagoons and the sea. There is an important architectural heritage to be discovered in the Center and neighboring areas, but also in other places. Downtown is packed with historical and cool ‘old charm’ cafes and restaurants, with authentic food and drinks. Cariocas are extraordinary beautiful people, a mixture of different nations and ethnic groups. Yet the city doesn’t have a proper life. There is peace and order in the main tourist areas like Copacabana and Ipanema – Leblon, but there is nothing to see and do there, again other than an amazing beach. A strange intrusion of modern office blocks into the main historical core has resulted in the area being quite dangerous as soon as workers go home. There is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and religion everywhere, taking advantage of the situation. That’s Rio de Janeiro, beautiful and sad.

Ipanema Beach

Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide



  • Corcovado and Pão de Açúcar;
  • Candelária Church and Metropolitan Cathedral;
  • Lage Park and the Botanical Garden;
  • Lapa Viaduct and Selarón Staircase;
  • Real Gabinete Português de leitura and Museo MAR.


  • Have lunch in Confeitaria Colombo and coffee in Casa Cavé;
  • Have a drink in the pedestrian Rua do Lavradio.


  • By metro, on foot, by bike and taxi.


  • Go on an excursion to Niterói.


  • Wonder around Centro and Lapa, make sure to leave in the early evening;
  • Spend a day at Ipanema beach;
  • Watch animals in Campo de Santana Park;
  • Take a ferry to Niterói and visit Niemeyer’s architectural marvels;
  • Visit the house of landscape architect Burle Marx.

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