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Rio De Janeiro in 48 Hours: Unmissable Gems for Short Stays

Thinking about a trip to South America? Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's vibrant and beautiful city, should be at the top of your list!


Photo credit: Unsplash
Rio de Janeiro. Photo credit: Unsplash

Getting to Rio is easy

Lots of airlines fly straight into Galeão Airport (GIG) near Rio. Once you're there, taxis, rideshares, and buses can take you wherever you want to go in the city. If you are flying from the US East or West Coast, you could consider a short layover in Texas, Florida or Panama.



Why Visit Rio de Janeiro?

Rio isn't just about pretty pictures. It's a fun city! Relax on the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, listen to samba music, and sip on a cachaça caipirinha. Ride up Sugarloaf Mountain for amazing views of the whole city. See the giant Christ the Redeemer statue up close. There's also a giant rainforest to explore and a huge party called Carnival (Friday before Ash Wednesday) - you won't find anything like it anywhere else!


Do you need a visa to go to Brazil?

Not yet. Starting April 2025 - Yes, you will eventually need a visa for Brazil. Even American citizens will be required to get a visa. This wasn't the case in the past, but rules changed in April 2024. Find information regarding this (including e-visas) here.


Do you need any vaccinations?

Yes. Yellow fever vaccine is suggested, especially if you plan to spend time in the rainforest after Rio. It is an expensive shot (one and done for life) - your local pharmacy may offer it. Your insurance might cover it. You have to take it at least 10 days before your trip.


Brazil: People and community

The culture of Brazil is unique. Family is important, the culture feels collectivist. Gender roles seem traditional. Portuguese is the official language here, many do not understand Spanish or English. Google Translate is your friend!


Brazilian food is varied - There is a lot of meat. Brazilians are proud of their coffee. African influences are pretty strong here, and you see it weaved into every day life. Many aspects of culture are derived from Portugal - from language and food to the predominant religion - Catholicism (although that is slowly changing with the rise of Protestantism).



 

We visited Rio in March 2024. Let's delve into some of the must-visit attractions and experiences in Rio. As you see on this map, most of the attractions you want to see are close to each other - Only a cab ride away!



Christ the Redeemer - One of world's wonders!

An opportunity to visit the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue is a highlight of any visit to Rio de Janeiro. To reach the statue, you need to cross into the Tijuca National Park, which is a lush tropical rainforest located in the city of Rio. The statue itself is situated atop the Corcovado Mountain within this forested area.





Copacabana Beach: A celebration of life by the ocean

Undoubtedly one of the world's most renowned beaches, Copacabana Beach encapsulates the essence of Rio's vibrant beach culture.


Copacabana Beach, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Photo credit: Antônia Felipe

The beach scene is a fun blend of bikinis, umbrellas, and bustling vendors offering an array of local treats during the day. As the day transitions into evening, you can marvel at the stunning sunset painting the sky with hues of pink and orange.



Sugarloaf Mountain - An essential part of any Rio itinerary

To make the most of your experience, consider combining this visit with a half-day tour that includes an attraction like Christ the Redeemer. That's what we did!



From the high top, enjoy a bird's-eye perspective of iconic landmarks such as the Christ the Redeemer statue as well as the sprawling beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.




Selarón Steps: Unique artistic story

Our journey to the Selarón Steps began with a short ride from our hotel, courtesy of a convenient Uber taxi. Arriving at the entrance, we were greeted by the striking sight of the colorful staircase, adorned with tiles from all corners of the globe.



With approximately 215 steps, each one told a unique story, reflecting the artistic vision of Jorge Selarón, the mastermind behind this vibrant creation. His lifelong dedication to collecting and arranging these tiles resulted in a mosaic masterpiece.


At the foot of the steps, a bustling crowd gathered around a designated area known as the "stepping pyramid." This eye-catching structure, adorned in bright hues of red, served as a popular spot for photo opportunities, with visitors perching on different steps at varying heights.



As we ascended, the crowds gradually thinned, allowing for a more intimate exploration of the staircase. Along the way, we encountered an Indian restaurant nestled atop the steps - How interesting to find it here!


Despite the narrowing path, the ascent was manageable, with each step offering a glimpse of the journey behind us. From the summit, we could see the entirety of the steps we had climbed - A moment of reflection for Selarón's vision.


Pro Tip: The area around the steps feels a little unsafe, so plan this visit during the day. If you are venturing without a guide (like we did), get to the main road, and Uber out of here straight to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Don't walk.


Saint Sebastian Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro

The Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro was built between 1964 and 1979, and is dedicated to Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro. The cathedral is a modern-looking conical structure and it doesn't look like a traditional church at all. It actually almost resembles a futuristic space ship and yet reminds one of Mayan pyramids of Mexico.



As suggested above, it's advisable to opt for transportation directly to the cathedral's entrance, either by taxi or as part of a guided tour. We learned this the hard way, having initially attempted to navigate on foot. Our route took us through unfamiliar streets, where the ambiance quickly turned unsettling, with homeless individuals and the pervasive odor of urine permeating the air.


Once you are near the cathedrals entrance, the area changes dramatically. Entering the cathedral, we were greeted by an expansive interior, capable of accommodating up to 20,000 worshippers. The sheer height of the space evoked a sense of reverence, enhanced by the rays of sunlight filtering through stained glass windows. This is a beautiful structure and a great spot to sit and reflect.


Going Beyond Sightseeing: Rio's Vibrant cultural experiences


If you're visiting Brazil during football season, catch a game at Maracanã stadium for a true Brazilian sports experience.


Recommended AirB&B experience, both offered by Bruno:

(Often, transportation may not be included, but these are small groups of about 10 people and it is a 4-hour experience)


Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro
Photo credit: AXP Photography

You can also immerse yourself in Brazilian music!

Recommended AirB&B experience: Samba night at Pedra do Sal


Samba shows and a visit to the Brazilian steakhouse is a popular option to experience Carioca culture but sells out quickly. It is also only offered on certain days. See details here.


You can even take Samba classes and dance the night away at local clubs.

Recommended AirB&B experience: Samba Class Rio



Where to Stay in Rio


For those with limited time in Rio de Janeiro, opting for a stay at Copacabana Beach is a popular choice, thanks to its iconic status and vibrant ambiance. Given the number of people on the beach, this area is surprisingly clean. The beach too!



The atmosphere here is laid-back and casual, with beachgoers often seen strolling in bikinis. Rio may not be inherently dangerous, but exercising caution, as in any major city, is always prudent.


Here are some great hotels you can consider:


This is the most iconic hotel, a symbol of elegance with amazing service and great views. And this pool? Extraordinary.


It also has world-class restaurants. We went to the Pergola restaurant which had great options for vegetarians, food was fantastic! Please book in advance, it is worth it.


This is where we stayed. Service was fine, the rooftop pool and bar were lovely and views from our room were fantastic - This was the sunrise view from our room # 403 on the 25th floor. Isn't it just gorgeous?




For those planning an extended stay, consider Rio's upscale enclave - Ipanema. This neighborhood boasts a selection of luxury restaurants and high-end shopping boutiques, offering a taste of indulgence for discerning travelers.  Be sure to explore Garcia Street, where luxury shopping, and delicious cuisine converge.



Unlike the bustling crowds of Copacabana, Ipanema offers a more serene experience, making it ideal for those seeking a quieter retreat. This street says it all.


These are the kinds of stays you can consider:



If you are looking to buy Havaianas, Ipanema is exactly where you need to be. The second largest store of this colorful flip-flop brand is right here. (The largest is in Sao Paulo).



Beyond its culinary and shopping delights, Ipanema is also famous for its stunning beach and sunsets. The Ipanema beach is a good spot to grab a coconut from a nearby beach stall and watch footvolley (known as futevôlei in Portuguese.) As the name suggests, it is a mixture of soccer and volleyball. The most important rule of this game is that the ball can be played with all parts of the body except your hands, arms, and shoulders.



When on the Ipanema beach, look to your right to see Morro Dois Irmãos - also called Two Brothers mountains that really add to the scenery. Some people choose to hike those mountains .


Vegetarian Food in Rio

Vegetarian dining in Rio de Janeiro offers some options, though predominantly carb-heavy. Look for pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), a gluten-free treat made with tapioca flour and cheese. Fresh fruits like mangoes, watermelon, melons and passion fruit abound, often featured in local dishes and drinks. Feijoada, a traditional stew, can be found in vegetarian versions using beans and vegetables.


Brazilian cuisine also offers international flavors in vegetarian-friendly eateries. To ensure vegetarian options, ask for dishes without meat (sem carne) and inquire about vegetarian stock (caldo de legumes). HappyCow.net can help locate vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the city.


Check out these restaurants when you are there:

Govinda, Balada Mix, Thai food at Cam On, Zatar -Beco (Arabic) Folhia Cozinha (Brazilian spot with veggie options).

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