Whether you prefer wilderness or dense cities, the call of frogs in the rainforest or the beat of samba drums, Brazil has an experience for you.

The country’s prowess as a natural paradise is impossible to deny, and superlatives simply don’t do it justice. The largest rainforest, the most sprawling wetlands, and more known species of plants, freshwater fish and mammals than any other country in the world can all be found in this continent-sized nation.

Brazil is also home to a myriad of indigenous and immigrant cultures, each with its unique languages, foods and music. Get a taste for Afro-Brazilian heritage by eating acarajé in Salvador. Dance samba in Rio de Janeiro or frevo in Olinda during Carnaval. The Amazon, too, hosts some of the biggest parties in Brazil. If you think you’ll be ready for another vacation at the end of all that, look no further than Brazil’s tropical islands for some downtime.

Here are the top things to do when you visit Brazil.

Spot whales in Praia do Rosa

Once a sleepy fishing hamlet, Praia do Rosa is now a top surf destination, with charming guest houses and hotels tucked into the hillside above a bay. In the winter months (June to November), surfers are joined by another type of visitor playing in the waves: Southern right whale calves. 

Whales were hunted in these waters as far back as the 1700s and were widely thought to be extinct by the 1970s. Despite making a comeback, they’re still highly endangered. They migrate here from Patagonia every year to breed, and a marine reserve stretching 130km (80 miles) along the coast was established to help protect them. Only masochists will want to swim in the sea this far south in the winter, but the beach is a beautiful destination for windy walks and whale spotting year-round. Boat tours can also be booked for a closer look.

A wattled jacana bird stretches its wings in the wetlands near Cariacica, Espirito Santo, Brazil
The wattled jacana is one of some 900 species of birds in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest biome © Leonardo Mercon / Shutterstock

Watch birds in the Atlantic Forest

Bird-watching enthusiasts will want to trek to some of the most spectacular off-the-beaten-path spots in the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest). One of Brazil’s six biomes, the Atlantic Forest is a hot spot for birding, home to nearly 900 bird species, a quarter of which don’t exist anywhere else, including three-toed jacamars and kaleidoscopic green-headed tanagers. 

Read more: 11 incredible places to visit in Brazil

You can explore Atlantic Forest habitats in dozens of national and state parks as well as hundreds of private nature reserves. Itatiaia, established in 1937 as Brazil’s first national park, is a birding paradise. Farther south, among the mangroves and salt marshes of Superagui National Park and the Sebui private nature reserve, other Atlantic Forest species such as scarlet ibis and red-tailed amazon fill the skies at sunset as they come in to roost for the night. 

Soak up the energy at a soccer game

It’s impossible not to know when there’s a big soccer game playing in Brazil, as every screen in every bar will have it on, with shouts ringing out across neighborhoods when goals are scored. Join in the action by booking tickets to see a game, where the passionate supporters can be as much of a spectacle as the game itself. 

The Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro is legendary, and it hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Flamengo is the biggest club in Rio and makes for exciting watching when the team goes head to head with a local rival. In São Paulo, Palmeiras and Corinthians both have new stadiums, and the latter in particular is famous for its passionate supporters. The city’s Pacaembu Stadium is an art deco jewel, although it hosts fewer games these days. The soccer museum underneath the stadium is a monument to Brazil’s greatest passion. 

Dance during Carnaval 

For one hot, sweaty but utterly thrilling hour of your life, you can feel like a star as you don an enormous costume and join a samba school to parade down the Sambódromo during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Broadcast live on national television with many thousands of spectators cheering from the grandstands, this parade is a fierce competition that’s taken extremely seriously by the samba schools that prepare for it year-round. 

Read more: The best times to book a trip to Brazil

But Carnaval is not all about Rio. Each corner of the country celebrates in its own way, and one of the most traditional can be found in Olinda. Instead of samba, the rhythms of frevo, maracatu and afoxé ring out across the hilly streets of this charming colonial town. Local bands playing percussion and brass draw huge crowds of excitable revelers trying to keep pace. 

A speedboat with tourists travels under one of the many cataracts at Iguaçu Falls
Since you’re going to get wet at Iguaçu Falls no matter what, why not dare to get as close as possible? © Jakub Barzycki / Shutterstock

Get soaked on a speed boat under Iguaçu Falls

The thunder and roar of 396,000 gallons of water pouring over the edge of Iguaçu Falls is a thrilling, visceral experience. Dozens of activities in and around the falls keep visitors occupied for days, from hiking and cycling in the surrounding national park to feeding the birds at the Parque das Aves bird and wildlife sanctuary. 

There’s a good chance you’ll get wet at some stage during a visit, so why not submit to the deluge in the most adrenaline-fueled way: with a speedboat ride right under the falls? Turbo-dinghies with 500 horsepower of outboard motors nearly go under the falls, where it’s so loud no one will hear your shrieks. The nearby Itaipú Dam – the world’s second-largest – is well worth a visit, too, and accessible via Brazil or Paraguay. 

Kitesurf on Brazil’s northeast coast

Some of the world kitesurfing champions are from Brazil – no surprise given the country’s thousands of miles of windswept Atlantic coastline. Ceará in northeastern Brazil has some of the best kitesurfing hotspots, including Cumbuco (a mecca for some of the top athletes), Icapuí and Preá. A little farther north in Piauí state, Barra Grande is an up-and-coming spot for the sport. In Maranhão, lagoons in Atins offer up wind without the waves and the bonus of being on the doorstep of the desert-like Lençois Maranhenses National Park

Read more: How to get around Brazil

Contemplate the origin of species in the Serra da Capivara 

The culmination of a lifetime’s work for Brazilian archeologist Niède Guidon, the Museu da Natureza (Museum of Nature) opened in late 2018, a spiral-shaped building at the edge of the Serra da Capivara National Park. The museum explores the history of humans and other species from their earliest known existence. Highlights include saber-toothed cat teeth and a 6m (20ft) life-size model of an Eremotherium, a giant sloth, fossils of which were found in the park. 

Serra da Capivara has an astounding 300 archeological sites where fossils, ceramics, bones and tens of thousands of examples of cave art – the largest collection in the world – have been found over the decades. These discoveries suggest that humans settled here as far back as 50,000 years ago, challenging the mainstream theory about human settlement in the Americas. While an airport was built near the Serra da Capivara to bring the museum the tourist numbers it deserves, no commercial flights operate the route as yet, so either drive or catch a bus from Petrolina or Teresina. 

An aerial shot of Rio de Janeiro showing Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay
Corcovado, Sugarloaf and Guanabara Bay beyond: Rio might have the most beautiful vistas of any city in the world © microgen / Getty Images

Admire the view in Rio de Janeiro

Beaches, architecture, museums, waterfalls, nightlife: Rio de Janeiro has dozens of reasons to visit. But if this city has just one essential thing to do, it’s to get up high and admire the view. That’s where Rio’s dramatic topography is revealed in all its splendor: forest-covered mountains plunging down to the ocean with urban sprawl jammed in between. 

Visitors jostle for selfie space at two of the city’s most popular tourist spots, the 710m-high Christ the Redeemer statue and Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), which both offer spectacular 360-degree views. To avoid the crowds, a splurge on a helicopter tour is worth every real. A stunning vista is the reward at the end of hikes in the Tijuca National Park - one of Brazil's best national parks - and the views from Pico da Tijuca and Pedra da Gávea are breathtaking. 

Float down the river in Bonito

An ecotourism boom town near the Pantanal wetlands, Bonito is a giant aquarium and a playground for lovers of nature. River waters spring up through a limestone base that acts as a water purifier, allowing for astounding underwater visibility that lets visitors to come face to face with fascinating fish while floating down the Rio da Prata. Alternatively, rafting down the Rio Formoso is a chance to look out for fish and birds between navigating the rapids.

A woman wears typical Afro-Baiana dress in Salvador, Bahía, with a colonial-era church in the background
In Salvador, you can see, hear and taste the best of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian culture © Westend61 / Getty Images

Understand Afro-Brazilian culture in Salvador

Chili, coconut, coriander, dried shrimp, dendé palm oil: the ingredients of Bahian cuisine make for some of the tastiest dishes in Brazil. A popular street food is acarajé, a deep-fried ball of black-eyed-pea paste stuffed with a dried-shrimp stew and other condiments. The dish is traditionally made by baianas, descendants of African women; it was even given protected cultural heritage status in 2005. Acarajé is just one of the baiana-made foods that are connected to the worship of orixás, deities of Yoruban influence. 

Salvador is the best place to explore Afro-Brazilian culture and religion, and the Caminho dos Orixás do Oxum is a tour of the city’s sights run by an agency specializing in Afro-Brazilian culture. Viare Travel also organizes tours tailored around Afro-Brazilian heritage. 

Party on at festivals in the Amazon

Trees, not people, are what dominate the popular imagination of the Amazon. But the world’s largest rainforest is home to more than 30 million people – and they throw some pretty spectacular parties. (They’re Brazilian too, after all.) Boi Bumbá is a folk festival held in June in Parantins that recounts the death and resurrection of an ox, with music, fireworks, dancing and glittering costumes. 

The biggest Amazonian festival is Círio de Nazaré, a Catholic celebration that attracts more than a million devotees each October, who process through the streets of Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River, in a cathartic throng. Some 600 miles up river, the town of Maués throws a festival every December to celebrate the harvest of its energy-boosting fruit guaraná. Locals dance on the beaches of the Maués-Acú River until the early hours. 

Visit a cachaça distillery 

Also known as pinga (among dozens of other nicknames), cachaça is an exclusively Brazilian distilled sugarcane spirit that can range from cheap rocket fuel to expensive aged artisanal varieties. It’s also the main ingredient in the unofficial Brazilian national drink, the caipirinha. Bars can provide an easy education in the delights of cachaça – but better still is a distillery tour. 

The Mapa da Cachaça website is a great resource, mapping out distilleries across the country. Minas Gerais is the main cachaça-producing region in Brazil and home to the oldest functioning distillery, Engenho Boa Vista, which has been in business for more than 260 years. Overlooking the sea, the Maria Izabel distillery is a must for any visitors to Paraty. Rio Encantos runs a cachaça tour in Rio, taking in the historic center of the city and finishing up a cachaça tasting. 

Track jaguar in the Pantanal

The largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar is a rare and elusive creature. They roam far and wide across Brazil, and despite game hunting being illegal since 1967, jaguars are still poached. Add in habitat loss – exacerbated by recent fires and the expansion of cattle ranching – and the result has been a decline in their population, making them at risk of extinction.

Read more: Brazil's best hikes from beaches to rainforests

One of the best habitats for spotting one is the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, especially during the dry season (April to September). Conservation NGO Onçafari was set up in 2011 to help protect the jaguars through research and ecotourism. The group runs jaguar safaris from its base at the Caiman Lodge, a private nature reserve. A number of local tour operators also run jaguar safaris, and the farther you can get into the wetlands, the better chance you have of spotting one.

Relax on a tropical island

Since Brazil has thousands of beaches along its coastline, you can side-step the difficult task of choosing one by escaping to a tropical island instead. Ilha Grande, south of Rio de Janeiro on the Costa Verde, has warm seas and white sandy beaches fringed by the forests of the Mata Atlântica. Ilhabela combines good restaurants for the São Paulo weekenders with hiking trails and guest houses hidden away in the dense, jungle-covered hills. 

The smaller, 9.5km-long Ilha do Mel in the south of Brazil feels more remote, with just a handful of accommodation options, plus a lighthouse, fort and caves to explore. The Bahian coast is a safer bet for sunshine, and Boipeba has more than 20km (12 miles) of palm-lined beaches and a castaway vibe. 

See street art in São Paulo 

A maze of underpasses and overpasses, sidewalks cracked by tree roots, and steep hills makes walking in São Paulo something of an adventure sport. But the reward is a wealth of murals and graffiti daubed across the city’s urban sprawl, all the more striking against the city’s ubiquitous gray concrete .

The colorful Beco do Batman (Batman’s Alley) is a top spot for street art and a tourist honeypot. In Centro, artist Felipe Yung’s 10,000 sq m “Aquarium” covers the facades of 15 buildings. The Minhoção (officially Via Elevada Presidente João Goulart) – a 3.5km-long viaduct – is closed to traffic at night and at weekends, making it the perfect place to stroll while taking in artwork by Speto, Zezão and Mag Magrela. Cambuci, in the southeast of the city, was the stomping ground for world-famous duo OsGemeos in their youth, and it’s the best place to see their art outside of museums. In northern São Paulo, the Museu Aberto de Arte Urbana (Open Museum of Urban Art) brings together street art by dozens of creators on the huge columns underneath a metro line.

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This article was first published January 2022 and updated January 2022

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