Brazil is a hot destination at the best of times, but with the World Cup and Olympics fast approaching, everyone seems to booking tickets to the meat-eating, samba-dancing extravaganza that is Rio de Janeiro. A friend recently asked me for advice on booking tickets for the Christ Redeemer and it got me reminiscing about my travel adventures there in March. I ended up responding with a list of my favourite “must do and eat” things! I’m always researching off-the-beaten-path ideas and insider tips for my holidays, so I thought I’d give back and throw my ideas into the cyber space! Here are a few of my suggestions for Rio de Janeiro:
1. Hire your own tour guide
I like to think I’m more of a traveller than a tourist, but it’s hard to leave a city without seeing at least the most famous and iconic tourist attractions. But instead of booking yourself on a generic and expensive tour or spending hours with your head in a map trying to find them yourself, I suggest hiring a taxi for the day. It gives you the freedom and flexibility that you just don’t get on a tour – plus the taxi driver usually has some interesting local knowledge. Ask your hotel/hostel to negotiate the price for you with a recommended driver and pay in cash at the end. We hired a taxi from 8.30am – 2pm to knock off all the tourist spots in one hit for about AUD$140 (split between the number of passengers in the car) – Christ Redeemer, the “New Cathedral”, Santa Teresa, Lapa Steps (aka Selarón’s Staircase), Maracana Soccer Stadium and finishing off at the bottom of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Yes, it was a jam packed photo taking spree but it meant we could spend the rest of our week doing way more fun things – keep reading!
2. Have the best acai in town!
I was lucky enough to stay with a very knowledgeable local whilst in Rio (read more here). He recommended Amazonia Sul as the best acai in town – and he personally took me there to prove it during my first hour in Rio! It’s a little store with a big purple sign in Ipanema (on Rua Jangadeira de Melo, 37) and serves the freshest and most natural tasting acai in Brazil. (FYI, acai is a berry superfood with 40 times more antioxidants than blueberries – I swear it cured my cold almost instantly). My favourite order is acai with banana and granola. Handy Hint: The granola comes separately in a bowl and not on top of the acai – eat it like a local and sprinkle a little bit on at a time, rather than pour the entire contents in. You’ll see plenty of acai bars around Rio but you’ll taste the difference – an artificial bubblegum tang – so do yourself a favour and check out Amazonia Sul. I guarantee you’ll go back for more.
3. Eat lots and lots of meat
Brazil is known for its meat, so you can’t visit Rio and not go to a good steak restaurant. My favourite was Carretao – an all you can eat restaurant in Ipanema (Rua Visconde de Pirajá, 112). Once seated, you’re given a card with green (“Bring it on!”) on one side and red (“Stop, enough already!”) on the other. The waiters bring around the most perfect salty and tender meat – steak, beef, veal, chicken, lamb – and you can eat until your heart’s content. Throw in a bottle (or three, as we did) of malbec and you’ve got the perfect dinner. It was so good, I went back twice! There is also a “kilo restaurant” close by called Frontera – this is more of a buffet style where you fill up your plate, then weigh it and you pay by the kilo. It’s slightly cheaper and slightly lower quality, but still great. I was a vegetarian for years and I still rave about the delicious meat in Brazil – that’s saying something…
4. Beach like a local
When I first arrived in Rio, I spent a good 3 days just relaxing on the beach at Ipanema with a coconut in hand. A book I found at our host’s place, Rio for Partiers, had a chapter on beach etiquette – as it turns out, there are a lot of unwritten rules! Don’t be fooled by the title – this is THE BEST travel destination guide I have ever read. So, I recommend you go to Posto 8 or 9 in Ipanema (each section of the beach has a different vibe – read about it here) and hire an umbrella for $5 (and a chair, if you’re averse to sand). Handy Hint: Hang your clothes and bag etc on the inside of the umbrella – it’s what all the locals do. Also, don’t take a towel as this screams tourist (probably because it’s the practical thing to do) – everyone uses sarongs (or kangas), which you can buy cheap on the beach. Every travel guide will say this but I’ll repeat it anyway – do not take anything valuable with you to the beach. This includes your wallet, phone, hand bag, backpack, camera, nice sunglasses… Just take enough cash for your umbrella, coconut (or beer) and snacks. It’s not worth ruining your holiday over.
5. Street food = good
I’m often on the overly-cautious side when it comes to sampling local street food – likely the combined result of being a typical risk averse lawyer and some bad experiences in Mexico. But I made an exception in Rio when I purchased some popcorn (yes, fairly low risk I know!) from DJ BOOM – a part time DJ and street vendor on Copacabana Beach. He gave me a cone filled with sweet caramel popcorn with a totally unexpected drizzle of condensed milk and sprinkling of coconut. It’s actually the most amazing combination – I was devastated that I only discovered it on our second last night. The savoury popcorn with chunks of smoky bacon wasn’t bad either. Learn from my mistake and start sampling the street food early! (But draw the line at the prawns on the beach – that’s practically food poisoning on a stick).
6. Hang out in a favela
The favelas have a bad rep but have really been “cleaned up” over the past couple of years. We didn’t like the idea of paying to tour and photograph the homes of the “have nots” but we soon realised that the majority of favela locals don’t think of themselves this way. For many (but obviously not all), living in the favelas is a lifestyle choice and there is an amazing sense of pride and community that I really didn’t expect. Again, our fabulous host arranged for a friend of his to take us into the favela where he lived. This wasn’t a tour – it was genuinely an experience. We climbed to the top for a great view, stopped to chat to several locals along the way, had a drink at the local favela bar and (my favourite) “played kites“. I learnt a few interesting things about the favelas that surprised me too:
- They have their own markets, shops, bars and restaurants – it’s like a mini city.
- The electricity bills are higher than mine in Melbourne – turns out, Brazil is super expensive for everyone! The illegal electricity networks have started popping up, although it’s still not cheap.
- The police have well and truly made their presence known, with most having a police station inside the favela and officers posted visibly on main corners (guns and all).
If you can, visit a favela with a local and experience the real Rio de Janeiro. I’m still in touch with my local there, so feel free to send me an email if you’d like his details.
This is an amazing city with so much to experience – I’ve barely scratched the surface but I hope this gives you a few ideas for your next trip.