The undulating landscape that surrounds Rio de Janeiro is studded with wilderness-backed beaches, ancient sites and fascinating smaller-scale urban hubs.

But the fact of the matter is that public transport outside the city lacks efficiency. Trips to destinations that, on paper, appear potentially close – such as the cobbled streets of Paraty or the island charms of Ilha Grande – could well take most of the day, realistically requiring at least a night’s stopover.

With that in mind, here are five amazing day trips from Rio de Janeiro – three doable using public transport, plus two for those with their own set of wheels.

1. Head to Ilha de Paquetá for an island escape

Travel time: 1 hour 10 minutes

As you stroll the sandy simplicity of peaceful Ilha de Paquetá, it can be difficult to believe that a mere hour or so ago you were in central Rio.

This small island of fruit trees, pastel-hued buildings and golden sand is just an hour-long ferry ride from Praça XV in the city center. The island is gloriously car-free, and the most popular way to get around is by bicycle. Rent one from the main street in front of the ferry terminal. 

A short cycle from the ferry is Parque de Darke de Mattos, a leafy public park with trails leading to viewpoints such as Mirante Boa Vista, from which you can look back to Sugarloaf Mountain. One Sunday a month, the streets erupt with samba, and the rhythmic festivities continue well into the night.

How to get to Ilha de Paquetá from Rio de Janeiro: Ferries leave every 90 minutes from Praça XV (Quinze) de Novembro in Centro, starting around 7am.

Tourists go swimming in the pristine Atlantic Ocean at Prainha Beach, near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Prainha is easily accessible on a day trip from Rio © iStockphoto / Getty Images

2. Catch a wave at Prainha

Travel time: 1 hour 

West of Rio, the unfurling shoreline becomes wilder and increasingly more secluded. Those with time on their hands have endless swathes of rustic coast to explore, but if you’re looking to step out of Rio for a quick slice of tropical beach life, Prainha is one of the more accessible beach options. 

Lush ascending greenery hugs this wedge of white sand, and its dramatic backdrop is matched by some seriously powerful waves. Prainha is a regular hangout for Rio’s more experienced surfers, and its beauty is no secret – weekends and holidays see the cove fill with Rio residents taking a break from the city.

Large rock formations and strong currents mean that only the most confident swimmers venture out of their depths; the beach has no lifeguards. A scattering of rustic eateries provide simple refreshments.

How to get to Prainha from Rio de Janeiro: Catch the orange “surf bus” that passes through Copacabana and Ipanema or take a taxi. The beach is also accessible by bicycle.

3. Eat fresh seafood in Niterói 

Travel time: 10 minutes

An 14km (8.7-mile) bridge connects Rio with its little sister city of Niterói, and it takes just 10 minutes by bus or 20 minutes by ferry to get there, making it an easy day trip.

Locally renowned fish market Mercado Sao Pedro on Av Visconde do Rio Branco sits a few blocks from the ferry dock and is frequented by many of Rio’s top chefs sourcing their menus. Upstairs, several small restaurants serve affordable seafood. For an agreed price, chefs here will also prepare fish you’ve purchased in the market.

Renting a bike is a pleasant option in Niterói, and a 15-minute cycle from the market is the futuristic-looking Museu de Arte Contemporânea. Famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer designed this looming flying saucer of a museum. The contemporary exhibits can be interesting, but go for the sweeping architecture and panoramic views of Guanabara Bay. 

How to get to Niterói from Rio de Janeiro: Take a bus from Novo Rio Bus Terminal (Av Francisco Bicalho). Boats leave from the Praça XV ferry terminal. 

People walk around Praca da Liberdade Square in Petrópolis, Brazil
German immigrants were the first residents of Petrópolis © Diego Grandi / Shutterstock

4. Explore Brazilian history in Petrópolis

Travel time: 1 hour 10 minutes

A little more than an hour’s drive north of Rio, at a cooling elevation of 2749ft, sits the city of Petrópolis. Known as the Imperial City, Petrópolis is a stately reminder of Brazil’s days of empire. Created under the instruction of Emperor Dom Pedro II and designed by German engineer Júlio Frederico Koeler, the city was initially populated by German immigrants. 

Don Pedro’s chunky pink-and-white palace is now home to the Museu Imperial, where a collection of objects from his rule is on display. To see contrasting architecture from the same time period, take a turn around the glass and iron Palácio de Cristal.

Down the road is Brazil’s oldest brewery, Cervejaria Bohemia. Swing by for a brewery tour and a swig, plus a limonada for the designated driver. 

How to get to Petrópolis from Rio de Janeiro: Take Elevado Professor Engenheiro Rufino de Almeida Pizarro in São Cristóvão from Av Pres. Vargas and follow the expressway Via Expressa Pres. João Goulart/Linha Vermelha and BR-040 to Av Ayrton Senna to Petrópolis.

A surfer cuts through a frothy wave in Cabo Frio, Rio De Janeiro, Brazi
Cabo Frio has tons of beautiful beaches © amygdala_imagery / Getty Images

5. Find your perfect beach in Cabo Frio

Travel time: 2 hours 30 minutes

About 150km (93 miles) east of Rio de Janeiro is the small coastal city of Cabo Frio. The intricately weaving shoreline means stunning beaches are in plentiful supply, and each has its own personality. Favorites include Praia do Forte and Praia das Conchas for their bright blonde sands and smooth turquoise waters.

Fans of surfing and other water sports flock to Praia do Peró and Praia das Dunas. 

A short boat trip away is Ilha do Japonês (Japanese Island), where paddleboarders and kayakers glide over shoals of colorful fish.

For an extended road trip with a hefty dollop of glitz, drive for less than an hour further up the coast to the resort of Búzios. This idyllic fishing village has been liberally injected with cosmopolitan chic. Stop for swanky cocktails and sunset dining.

How to get to Cabo Frio from Rio de Janeiro: Take Via Elevado da Perimetral in Caju from Túnel Rio 450 Anos and Via Binário do Porto. Follow BR-101, Via Lagos and RJ-140 to Rua Alex Novelino in Ville Blanche, Cabo Frio. Continue straight onto Rua Alex Novelino.

This article was first published Oct 23, 2022 and updated Sep 30, 2023.

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