Rio de Janeiro State
If you thought Rio was just a city, think again! Right next door, the equally enticing state of Rio de Janeiro is home to some of Brazil’s greatest treasures, all within an easy one- to four-hour journey from the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City).
East along the coast are the dunes, lagoons, white sands and limpid blue-green waters of the Costa do Sol, an ever-popular playground for surfers, divers and suntan-seeking urban escapees.
Inland you'll find Itatiaia, Brazil's oldest national park, and the spectacular Serra dos Órgãos, whose whimsically shaped peaks test the mettle of international climbers and form the backdrop for the former imperial city of Petrópolis.
West lies the Costa Verde, a gorgeous patchwork of bays, islands, waterfalls and forest-draped mountains. Highlights here include the 18th-century architecture of colonial Paraty and the vast island paradise of Ilha Grande, where dozens of hiking trails lead to more than 100 of Brazil’s most secluded beaches.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Rio de Janeiro State.
The Tijuca is all that's left of the Atlantic rainforest that once surrounded Rio de Janeiro. This 39-sq-km tropical-jungle preserve is an exuberant green, with beautiful trees, creeks and waterfalls, mountainous terrain and high peaks. It has an excellent, well-marked trail system. Candomblistas (practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) leave offerings by the roadside; families have picnics; and serious hikers climb the 1012m to the summit of Pico da Tijuca. The heart of the forest is the Alto da Boa Vista area in the Floresta (Forest) da Tijuca, which has many delightful natural and human-made features. Among the highlights of this beautiful park are several waterfalls (Cascatinha de Taunay, Cascata Gabriela and Cascata Diamantina), a 19th-century chapel (Capela Mayrink) and numerous caves (Gruta Luís Fernandes, Gruta Belmiro and Gruta Paulo e Virgínia). Also in the park is a lovely picnic spot (Bom Retiro) and two restaurants – the elegant Restaurante Os Esquilos and Restaurante Barão a Floresta near the ruins of Ruínas do Archer (Major Archer's House). The park is home to many bird and animal species, including iguanas and monkeys, which you might encounter on one of the excellent day hikes you can make here; the trails are well signed. Good, free trail maps are given out at the park entrance. The entire park closes at sunset. It's best to go by car, but if you don't have a vehicle, numerous outfits lead hiking tours, including Jungle Me and Rio Adventures. The best route by car is to take Rua Jardim Botânico two blocks past the Jardim Botânico (heading east from Gávea). Turn left on Lopes Quintas and then follow the Tijuca or Corcovado signs for two quick left turns until you reach the back of the Jardim Botânico, where you turn right. Then follow the signs for a quick ascent into the forest, past the picturesque lookout points of Vista Chinesa and Mesa do Imperador. As soon as you seem to come out of the forest, turn right onto the main road and you'll see the stone columns to the entrance of Alto da Boa Vista on your left after a couple of kilometers. You can also drive up to Alto da Boa Vista by heading out to São Conrado and turning right up the hill at the Parque Nacional da Tijuca signs. Coming from Barra da Tijuca, take Estrada da Barra da Tijuca north, which eventually turns into Rua da Boa Vista, from which there are entrances into the park.
Seen from the peak of Pão de Açúcar, Rio is undoubtedly a Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City). There are many good times to make the ascent, but sunset on a clear day is the most rewarding. Two cable cars connect to the summit, 395m above Rio. At the top, the city unfolds beneath you, with Corcovado mountain and Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) off to the west, and Copacabana Beach to the south. A visit to Pão de Açúcar is a must, but be prepared for heavy crowds. If possible, go first thing in the morning – and avoid going on cloudy days. The first cable car ascends 215m to Morro da Urca. From here, you can see Baía de Guanabara (Guanabara Bay) and the winding coastline; on the ocean side of the mountain is Praia Vermelha. Morro da Urca has souvenir shops, snack bars, a concert venue (Arena Morro da Urca) and a helipad (helicopter tours are offered by Helisight). The second cable car goes up to Pão de Açúcar. If the breathtaking heights unsteady you, a stylish open-sided bar ( Clássico Beach Club) serves tropical cocktails, as well as high-end snacks. The two-stage cable cars depart every 20 minutes. Those who’d rather take the long way to the top should sign up with one of the granite-hugging climbing tours offered by various outfits in Rio. Morro da Urca is much easier to climb, and you can do it on your own. The short but steep path takes about 30 minutes to climb. You’ll find the unmarked trail along the Pista Cláudio Coutinho.
A magnificent confluence of land and sea, the long, scalloped beach of Copacabana extends for some 4km, with a flurry of activity along its length: over-amped soccer players singing their team's anthem; cariocas (Rio residents) and tourists lining up for caipirinhas at kiosks; favela kids showing off their soccer skills; and beach vendors shouting out their wares among the tanned beach bodies. Each group stakes out its stretch of sand. The area between the Copacabana Palace hotel and Rua Fernando Mendes is the gay and cross-dresser section, known as the Stock or Stock Market – easily recognized by the rainbow flag. Young football and futevôlei (soccer volleyball) players hold court near Rua Santa Clara. Postos 5 and 6 are a mix of favela kids and carioca retirees, while the spot next to Forte de Copacabana is the colônia dos pescadores (fishermen’s colony). As Copacabana Beach curves north you get into the quieter sands of Leme (Av Princesa Isabel forms the demarcation between the two neighborhoods). Here you'll find a mix of older Leme residents as well as kids from the nearby favelas of Babilônia and Chapeu Mangueira. The beach is lit at night and there are police in the area, but it’s still not wise to walk there after dark – stay near the liveliest beach kiosks when venturing out. Av NS de Copacabana is also sketchy – watch out on weekends, when the shops are closed and there are few locals around.
One long stretch of sun-drenched sand, Ipanema Beach is demarcated by postos (posts), which mark off subcultures as diverse as the city itself. Posto 9, right off Rua Vinícius de Moraes, is where Rio’s most lithe and tanned bodies migrate. The area is also known as Cemetério dos Elefantes because of the handful of old leftists, hippies and artists who sometimes hang out there. In front of Rua Farme de Amoedo is Praia Farme, the stomping ground for gay society. Posto 8 further east is mostly the domain of favela kids. Arpoador, between Ipanema and Copacabana, is Rio’s most popular surf spot. Leblon attracts a broad mix of single cariocas (residents of Rio), as well as families from the neighborhood. Posto 10 is for sports lovers, where there are ongoing games of volleyball, soccer and frescobol (beach tennis played with wooden rackets and a rubber ball). Whatever spot you choose, you'll enjoy cleaner sands and sea than those in Copacabana. Keep in mind that if you go on a Saturday or Sunday, the sands get crowded. Go early to stake out a spot. The word ipanema is an indigenous word for ‘bad, dangerous waters,’ which is not far off, given the strong undertow and often oversized waves that crash onto the shore. Be careful, and swim only where locals do.
Standing atop Corcovado (which means ‘hunchback’), Cristo Redentor gazes out over Rio, a placid expression on his well-crafted face. The mountain rises straight up from the city to 710m, and at night the brightly lit 38m-high open-armed statue – all 1145 tons of him – is visible from nearly every part of the city. Corcovado lies within the Parque Nacional da Tijuca. The most popular way to reach the statue is to take the red narrow-gauge train that departs every 30 minutes, and takes approximately 20 minutes to reach the top. Note that same-day tickets are not available from the cog train station. Buy tickets online or from an authorized seller around Rio (the website lists numerous places to buy under 'Selling Points'); you must select a date and time when purchasing. To reach the cog station, take any ‘Cosme Velho’ bus: you can take bus 583 from Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon. You can also go by Parque da Tijuca–authorized van to visit the monument. These depart from three locations around town: Copacabana (in front of Praça do Lido from 8am to 4pm; adult/child R$74/48), Largo do Machado (8am to 4pm; adult/child R$74/48) and Paineiras, a few kilometres north of the statue (8:30am to 5pm; adult/child R$41/15).
Rio’s Maracanã stadium is hallowed ground among football lovers. The massive arena has been the site of legendary victories and crushing defeats. Maracanã played a starring role in the 2014 World Cup when it hosted major games, including the final between Germany and Argentina. The stadium also staged the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics. No matter who takes the field, the 78,800-seat arena comes to life in spectacular fashion on game days. For a quasi-psychedelic experience, go to a football match here. These rate as among the most exciting in the world, particularly during a championship game or when local rivals Flamengo, Vasco da Gama, Fluminense or Botafogo go head to head. Games take place year-round and generally happen on Saturday or Sunday (starting at 4pm or 6pm) or on Wednesday and Thursday (around 8:30pm). Seating at the stadium is by sector, A through F. The north (E and F) and south (C and B) seats are behind the goals and are generally the cheapest and liveliest sections. East (D) and West (A) sectors have better sight lines and are pricier; these have numbered seats and are not as rowdy as the goal seats. Maracanã Mais is part of the west sector, with buffet service included with your ticket. The ticket price is R$40 to R$80 for most games. If you prefer to go in a group, a number of English-speaking tour operators organize game-day outings, including round-trip transportation. Leading big group tours are Brazil Expedition and Be A Local. For something more personalized, independent guide Sergio Manhães takes small groups with him (usually via metro) on game days. For a behind-the-scenes look at the stadium, take a stadium tour with Maracanã Tour, available daily.
This exotic 137-hectare garden, with more than 8000 plant species, was designed by order of the Prince Regent Dom João (later to become Dom João VI) in 1808. The garden is quiet and serene on weekdays and blossoms with families on weekends. Highlights of a visit here include the row of palms (planted when the garden first opened), the Amazonas section, the lake containing the huge Vitória Régia water lilies, and the enclosed orquidário, home to 600 species of orchids. There's an outdoor snack bar on the grounds (near a playground) and an appealing cafe just outside the main entrance. The new visitor center shows films (in English and Portuguese) that give the history of the gardens, and has a gift shop selling unique crafts and souvenirs, such as shirts made of bamboo and bowls with pre-Columbian designs made from banana fibers.
This beautiful cultural center hosts impressive exhibitions, often showcasing the works of some of Brazil's best photographers and artists. The gardens, complete with artificial lake and flowing river, were designed by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. There's also a craft shop, and an excellent cafe that serves breakfast all day as well as lunch and afternoon tea. On display there's usually at least one Rio-focused exhibition, which taps into the extensive archive here: the IMS has more than 80,000 photographs, many portraying the old streets of Rio as well as the urban development of other Brazilian cities over the last two centuries. Check the website to see what's on when you're town.
Looming large over Praça Mauá, the MAR is an icon for the rebirth of Rio's once derelict port. The huge museum hosts wide-ranging exhibitions that focus on Rio in all its complexity – its people, landscapes, beauty, challenges and conflicts. Start off by taking the elevator to the top (6th) floor, and absorbing the view over the bay. There's also an excellent restaurant here. Then work your way down through the galleries, taking in a mix of international and only-in-Rio exhibitions.
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