Do you kind of want to be lazy and lie on a beach, coconut in hand, not doing very much? Still don’t want to miss out on all the best sights and secret spots? That’s exactly how I felt! I mean, not every holiday should be relentless rushing around. So here’s my guide on how to get the best of both in 48 hours in Rio de Janeiro.
To get around you can take public transport, find a private tour which usually costs around £75pp for a whole day, organise yourself a taxi for the day (flat rates can be negotiated), or hire a car.
We booked a tour with a well recommended Brazilian local. Well it was more of a private, chauffeur-driven excursion around the city, peppered with awesome insider knowledge. The car even had a fridge! Not wanting to be rude and let it go to waste, we picked up some champagne from the hotel to stash and enjoy at some point during the day. I would recommend our guide but he only works with airline crew (thanks mum!) and celebrities – and had some amazing stories as a result! FYI Justin Bieber is an asshole (tell us something we didn’t already know…). We waited for a day with reasonably clear skies so we’d get good views from Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf mountain but as you’ll see from my pics below, the weather changes every half an hour anyway!
Christ the Redeemer
Time it will take you to look around: 1.5 – 2 hours
We drove up the steep hills to Christo Redentor through the rainforest via Estrada Redentor. This is a quiet route up Corcovado mountain that isn’t open everyday and we didn’t see a single other car. Driving through the Parque Nacional Tijuca, we saw monkeys, racoons and the occasional crazy Brazilian running uphill. There are spouts of water coming out from the mountain where sporty Cariocas (as Rio residents are known) cool off and have a drink before continuing on their way.
It’s worth stopping a couple of times on the way up to enjoy the views over the city and glimpse Christ the Redeemer from different points.
Hidden in the hills are beautiful waterfalls and a small pink chapel constructed in 1863. I’m currently planning my wedding and think this place is adorable! An 11h30 flight for many of my guests probably isn’t the dream though…
You can’t drive all the way up to Christ and have to park by the gift shop, which was newly refurbished for the Olympics. From there, you buy tickets and board minibuses which drive you close to the summit.
Then you can climb the steps to the statue, or take the lifts and escalators.
This world-renowned art deco statue was completed in 1931 after 9 years of construction. Christ the Redeemer stands at 30m tall, not including the 8m base – making him a lot smaller than I expected! But no less stunning.
There are so many people on the viewing platform that it’s actually quite hard to get a good photo. But while you wait, you’ll be more than entertained by the view and the horde of tourists accidentally hitting each other in the face as they spread their arms to do the ‘obligatory Jesus pose’! There are also mats to lie down on to get the perfect angle for your snaps – they’ve really thought of everything.
Don’t forget to check out the little chapel at the base of the statue before stopping at one of the cafés for a cold drink on your way down. From Corcovado, you can head downhill to the artsy neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, and the hidden away Lapa Steps.
Graffiti has been legal in Rio since 2009 and the whole city is a canvas. Crazy kids scale the outside of tall buildings to paint their tags and bombs at the very top. The higher your tag the bigger the bragging rights. Amongst all of this, there are some amazing walls of art. Wherever you go, keep your eyes peeled!
The attitude towards graffiti is very different in Rio. While people still don’t appreciate unartistic tags littering the city, they do welcome the painstakingly created walls of art. Our guide was friends with some of the big graffiti artists and explained how they are using their skills for good and helping local communities. We drove past a school where all the walls around the playground had been brightened up with incredible, colourful murals. Apparently, the artists organised a day with the kids, teaching them how to paint and laying on a BBQ out of their own pockets.
30 mins – 1 hour
Jorge Selarón lived by Lapa Steps, also known as Escadaria Selaron, and started out by renovating the ones in front of his house. An artist by trade, decorating the steps soon became his obsession and he said it would never be complete – it was an ever evolving piece of art for the Brazilian people. Initially, Selarón sold his paintings to fund his work and either made or scavenged tiles from construction sites or waste found on Rio’s streets. In later years, he was given tiles by people visiting his steps and ended up with a collection of thousands from all over the world. He passed away a few years ago on the same beautiful steps he dedicated decades of his life to.
When we arrived in the afternoon, the steps were empty. After spending about 20 minutes looking around, they were suddenly crawling with people! Most sights are less busy early in the morning but if you go later and it’s very busy, hang around and you’ll more than likely find a clear moment. The steps straddle the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods so there’s plenty of cute architecture, graffiti and eateries to help you pass the time.
30 mins – 2 hours
The Santa Teresa neighbourhood is famous for its narrow, winding streets and bright yellow trams.
The Santa Teresa Convent, built in the 1750s, brought people to the area and in 1872 the tram opened, connecting the district with downtown Rio. Originally the tram was pulled by mules before being fitted with engines in 1896.
Santa Teresa has a bohemian vibe and is home to many artists and musicians, and some of the finest examples of colonial architecture in the city. In the evening the bars are lively and the locals are so warm that you won’t leave without making some new friends. Party like a Brazilian and make your way to Santa Teresa on a Friday evening for dinner and drinks before heading down the hill to Lapa to dance the night away.
By this point, you’re probably pretty hungry – we were! So we stopped at a local favourite, Bar Urca, which serves seafood and drinks overlooking the bay. I’d highly recommend their calamari, squidelicious! After lunch, the locals pass the time sitting on the wall overlooking the beach and chatting with friends, whilst Christ the Redeemer watches over them from high up on his peak.
1.5 – 2 hours
Sugarloaf Mountain was named after the conical moulds of clay that sugar was transported in on ships in the 16th century. The shape of these moulds was similar to the peak.
The mountain sits on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of Guanabara Bay. Reaching 396m into the sky, you get to the summit by taking two cable cars. The first one takes you to the 220m Morro da Urca, and the second ascends to Pão de Açúcar (what the local’s call Sugarloaf).
From the top, you’re treated to incredible views over the archipelago of islands, favelas clinging to hillsides, Christ the Redeemer, and the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
Millions of people live in these urban slums with some of the best views in the city! Far from a makeshift, temporary shanty town, they build their houses out of concrete & steel and tap into the electrical systems themselves (meaning live wires EVERYWHERE). The favelas have their own schools, businesses and even a fleet of motorcycle taxis, identifiable from their bright neon bibs, if you don’t want to walk up the steep hillsides that the favelas are famously built on…. Now I understand where the renowned Brazilian booty comes from – most people live on a hillside!
The favelas began as small, poorly constructed places for people to squat when city prices or the abolition of slavery left them nowhere to go, and are now little ecosystems – although they still don’t pay taxes or for utilities. It’s true that there’s brutal gang warfare, so you need to be careful but despite that, the narrow streets are buzzing with energy and the people are warm and keen to share their way of life.
The higher up you go in the favelas, the greater the discontent and unrest. It seems to be due to a lack of police presence higher up. This seems counterintuitive to me – the open sewers flow downhill surely meaning that quality of life (and of course those views!) are better at higher elevations?
We really enjoyed walking around Favela de Rocinho. Most of the buildings have a commercial space, i.e. a bare, open fronted, concrete floored room, on the ground floor so that the owners can set up a business (illegally obvs). Enterprising people were fixing motorcycles, peeling vegetables to sell, and displaying their art. People were welcoming and we never felt threatened, but the mood can change very quickly and gun fights are common so never go without a local. It’s also worth mentioning that some favelas are deemed too unsafe to visit even by locals, and usually peaceful areas can become violent due to turf wars, so make sure you get up to the minute, good advice on safe places to visit.
Copacabana & Ipanema Beach
1.5 – 8 hours
We went back to the hotel after the Favelas and drank the bubbly we’d forgotten we’d stashed in the car – I think we got overexcited by all the sights 😂 We decided to explore Copacabana and Ipanema beaches the next day. The two beaches hug the same stretch of coastline and are close enough to walk between (there is a bus too though).
The golden sand and wide paved pathways reflect the baking sun making it feel even hotter. The beachfront is lined with stalls selling ice cold drinks and nibbles – the caipirinhas and granola with Acai are must haves!
After renting deck chairs and a much needed sun umbrella, we settled in with our icy cocktails to watch the surfers, overlooked by the Two Brothers Mountain.
Vendors strolled past showing off their wares – fresh coconuts, teeny bikinis and sunglasses.
Sadly, the beaches aren’t great for swimming. Seriously, don’t swim!! Rio lacks decent sewage treatment facilities. There are sewage outflow pipes constantly pumping the city’s sewage out to sea. Additionally, raw sewage from favelas pours into the ocean and scientists have said that most of the time the seawater isn’t safe for human contact. Many people get sick after braving the water, particularly after rain. The issue is, that many of Rio’s beaches are connected to stormwater drains and canals which are full of sewage. The rain washes this into the ocean meaning Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are teeming with dangerous faecal bacteria and viruses after storms. You will see people in the water but they’re either local and have immunity or are blissfully ignorant! If you’re desperate for a dip there are idyllic Caribbean-style beaches 30-45 minutes drive from Rio.
How to beach it up like a Brazilian:
- Respect the power of the South American sun and regularly apply sunblock.
- Don’t drink excessively – the caipirinhas and cocktails are lethal and combined with the sun will leave you beyond dehydrated.
- Avoid towels which get caked with sand in favour of the Brazilian favourite – a Canga. This light cotton sarong is used for everything from lying on the sand to covering up.
- Leave expensive jewellery, watches and tech at the hotel, and don’t leave your items unattended. Theft is common on the beach and I’ve even heard horror stories about gangs hitting a beach for 5 minutes, taking everything they can at gunpoint, then bailing.
- Move your deckchair to follow the sun for an all over even tan. Locals can always tell who the tourists are as they sit facing the ocean regardless of where the sun is.
So, where to cool down after baking on the beach? I recommend nipping into the nearby Belmond Copacabana Palace where you can lounge by the pool with chilled coconuts.
I’ll definitely be back as there’s a few things I didn’t tick off my list. Like climb to the top of Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers mountain), visit the bar at the top of a favela, and go to carnival! What are your ‘must sees’ for 48 hours in Rio de Janeiro?