What the Guidebooks Won’t Tell You: 10 Things You Must Do When Visiting Rio de Janeiro

Okay, so you’re going to Rio. You’ve read the guidebooks, and you know you’re supposed to see Christo…The Copacabana beaches…Jardim Botanico…Sugar Loaf Mountain…but what else? What do the locals do in Rio?

Well, after spending nine months in Rio, I like to think that I became a bit of a local. I saw and did a lot during my time there…but there were a few memorable, not-so-touristy experiences that topped my list. And I’d like to share them with you.

So with that, here are the 10 things that I think everyone should do when visiting Rio…

  1. Grab a (Iced-Cold, Of Course) Beer at Bar Urca at Sunset 

Urca is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Rio. It’s also one of Rio’s safest.

Urca is known for its long, sinuous promenade that overlooks the bay, called Mureta da Urca. And at the end of the promenade is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar, called Bar Urca. On weekend afternoons (especially Sunday), people spill out of the bar and onto the streets, indulging in ice-cold beers and warm pastels. Directly across the street from the bar is a stone wall that lines the water, where many cariocas sit and watch the sun set behind the mountains.

Tip: Go Sunday afternoons, pre-sunset

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Bar Urca
last sunset in Rio :(
Urca sunset

2. Listen to Samba at Bip Bip in Copacabana 

Bip Bip is another one of those casual hole-in-the-wall bars, where a table of musicians play samba (also known as a roda de samba). This place is super local and looks/sounds a little something like this (please excuse my crappy iPhone video)…

3. Mingle on the Streets of Baixo Gávea on Thursday Night 

One thing that I love about Rio are the street parties–like the ones in Baixo Gávea.

On certain nights of the week (Thursday, Monday and Sunday), the streets of this affluent, former Bohemian neighborhood fill with young, beautiful Brazilians and gregarious street vendors selling caipirinhas and beers. And unless much has changed in the last four years, you won’t see many foreigners or tourists here.

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Baixo Gavea on Thursday night

4. Hike Morro Dois Irmãoes 

Morro Dois Irmãoes is a mountain that’s home to one of Rio’s most popular hiking trails. And the top of the mountain boasts some pretty amazing views of the city. The hike itself is pretty easy and takes about an hour.

It starts in the (pacified) favela, Vidigal (which is just past Leblon). Like any favela, Vidigal sits on a hill. So to reach the entrance of the trail, you can either walk about a mile uphill (if you really want to get a workout in), or you can take a moto-taxi or van up, which shouldn’t cost more than a couple of reais.

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Vidigal
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About 1/4 the way to the top of Morro Dois Irmaos (already looks like this…)
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Top of Morro Dois Irmaoes

Then after the hike, I recommend rewarding yourself with some food and drink at Alto Vidigal, a rooftop bar which offers some more unbeatable, panoramic views of the entire city.

5. Watch the Sunset at Palaphita Kitch in Lagoa 

Palaphita Kitch is an outdoor lounge area that overlooks the lagoa (lagoon). It feels like you’re somewhere in Bali, what with its bamboo furniture and thatch huts. It’s more of a day place, so go in the afternoon sometime, and then watch the sun set over the lagoon (can you tell I’m a fan of sunsets?).

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Lagoa
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Sunset on the Lagoa
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Palaphita Kitch

6. Enjoy Street Samba at Pedra do Sal on Monday Night 

Pedra do Sal is the place to go in Rio on Monday nights. The streets fill with rowdy Brazilians, who go to mingle and listen to the roda de samba ao vivo (a.k.a. live samba music performed by a group of people).

7. Wander Along the Streets of Santa Teresa 

Santa Teresa is one of the most charming neighborhoods of Rio, thanks to its narrow, hilly, cobblestoned streets populated by old, colorful mansions and colonial buildings. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Rio, there are also loads of chic, boutique hotels that offer incredible views of the city.

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The charming streets of Santa Teresa
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Pretty mansion in Santa Teresa

While you’re there, be sure to stop by the Parque das Ruinas (Ruins Park), which is an art gallery built in the ruins of a mansion. If you go at the right time, you can even enjoy live outdoor concerts as well.

Tip: Just be sure to wander the streets of Santa Teresa during the daytime, not at night. It gets pretty sketchy post sunset.

8. Spend a Night on the Beach of Arpoador With Friends and Guitar Music 

I don’t know about you, but I actually prefer to go to the beach at night. I find it so relaxing, since you don’t have to worry about finding a place to sit amongst hordes of people–nor do you have to worry about getting sunburnt!

In Brazil, it’s pretty popular for friends to get together on a weekend night and hold a “luau” as they call it (which, for those of you who don’t know, is actually the Hawaiian word for “party”).

In Brazil, a “luau” refers to a party on the beach, generally accompanied by some food, drinks and good music. And it’s a whole lot of fun. Bonus points if you go and stay till the sun rises.

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Arpoador at sunrise. Not even photoshopped, I swear!
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Arpoador just after sunrise

9. Hit Up the Blocos for Carnival 

Carnival in Rio centers around blocos, which are basically massive street parties. Everyone gets dressed up (men dress up as women). And music, dancing and grabby men abound (girls, watch out!).

While I’ve never seen a Carnival parade at the Sambadrome before, I imagine that it’s hard to beat the fun that can be had at Carnival blocos in Rio. Just be prepared for massive crowds and a lot of mayem…and guard your belongings like a hawk.

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10. Walk along Ipanema Boardwalk on Sunday 

On Sunday, the roads that line Ipanema boardwalk shut down to cars and are replaced with bikers, dog-walkers, joggers and the like. There are even bands playing music on the street. Like so…

So there you have it. Those are a few of my favorite (non-touristy) things to do in Rio.

Have you been to Rio? What’s your favorite non-touristy thing to do? Share in the comments below.

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