The Tupí and other indigenous groups inhabited modern-day Rio state for over two millennia before Europeans arrived in the 16th century. Early Portuguese activity was focused along the coast, but the discovery of gold in the late 17th century prompted construction of Brazil’s first major overland thoroughfare, the Caminho do Ouro. This rugged route extended from coastal Paraty across the jungle-clad Serra da Bocaina and the Rio Paraíba valley to the gold and diamond mines of Minas Gerais, whose mineral riches were exploited using slave labor to fill Portuguese royal coffers. Another important chapter in Rio state’s development was the establishment of coffee plantations here in the early 19th century, another enterprise heavily dependent on the labor of enslaved Africans. The crop was taken by mule train to new ports along the coast, and these roads were the main means of communication until the coming of the railways after 1855.

In the first decade of the 21st century, modern Rio de Janeiro state was one of Brazil’s economic powerhouses, fueled by oil, a steady tourist trade and traditional industries such as steel and shipbuilding. Recent political crises have taken a heavy toll on the state's prosperity, with money laundering charges earning the state's former governor Sergio Cabral a 72-year prison sentence in 2017.