Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a riot of natural, human, and cultural vibrancy—lush rain forest, engaging locals, African rhythms—and outsiders are openly welcomed.
You can stare at it from Ipanema Beach, but the best way to experience Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Hill), named for its sibling peaks, is the just-under-one-mile, moderately difficult hiking trail leading to a glorious view from the top. Your journey starts with a moto-taxi ride up through the Vidigal favela, a route safe for visitors (except for the moto-taxi part).
With 15 square miles of rain forest within the city limits, Tijuca Natonal Park is home to hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic outlooks, and the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. Parts may look virgin, but Tijuca was reclaimed from ranches and coffee plantations beginning in the mid-19th century. If it doesn’t matter to the monkeys, foxes, toucans, and sloths, why should it matter to you?
At least 900,000 African captives debarked from slave ships onto Valongo Wharf in the 19th century. Excavated in 2011, its various layers of remains are not wildly impressive, but their significance is. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 2017, noting it is “the most important physical evidence associated with the historic arrival of enslaved Africans on the American continent.”
Rio’s flashiest Olympic-era museum is the futuristic, outward-looking Museum of Tomorrow, designed by Santiago Calatrava. But a stroll across Mauá Square (which you’re bound to stroll across anyway) is the Rio Museum of Art, which houses exhibits that take an unvarnished look inward at the city’s rich, artistic, and oftentimes socially troubled past.
Best Day Trip
One day isn’t quite enough to make like Emperor Dom Pedro II and head to the mountain resort town of Petropolis. But it’s plenty of time to drive to Prainha or Grumari beaches, in an environmentally protected area in the western reaches of Rio. The extra-ambitious can get an early start and cram in an afternoon visit to the nearby Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, the former home of one of the world’s most celebrated landscape architects.
Off the Beaten Path
There are plenty of parks and plazas for relaxing in more touristy neighborhoods, but none can capture the vibe of heading to the Laranjeiras neighborhood, buying a beer from a street vendor, and cracking it open on San Salvador Square alongside relaxed locals (and sometimes live music). Good bars and restaurants nearby can turn a late-afternoon hangout into a full evening.
Most Iconic Experience
Put on your skimpiest Speedo or bikini, leave your valuables at home, head to Ipanema Beach, and claim any stretch of sand near Posto 9 (Lifeguard Station #9). You’re not going for the beauty of the beach but to sit in your rented beach chair sipping a passion fruit caipirinha and observing Cariocas in their native habitat. No one does beaches better.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
For drinking and dancing, head to the live music clubs and thronged streets of Lapa, a downtown neighborhood equally famous for its nightlife as the towering white arches of its 18th century aqueduct. Visitors and locals mix easily, mostly in harmony. Still, avoid empty streets as you make your way to famous spots like Circo Voador, Carioca da Gema, Semente, and Rio Scenarium.
Downtown Rio, dodgy but improving, has some incredible old churches and theaters to explore. Slightly less impressive from the outside is the Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura (Royal Portuguese Reading Room), but step inside and be dazzled by this Gothic-Renaissance-style library opened in 1837 to bring centuries of Portuguese literature to the newly independent nation of Brazil.
Cariocas take fitness seriously and love to show off the results. One-piece bathing suits are rare for women of any age or shape, and even far from the beach at neighborhood bars or open-air nightspots, you’d be forgiven for thinking that many Carioca men simply don’t own T-shirts.