Nearly half a million tourists are expected to descend on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. In addition to runners, jumpers, swimmers, and gymnasts taking the stage, the city itself will be in the spotlight. While some of the Olympic stadiums and arenas may not be ready for the athletic events, Rio as a city is always ready to welcome visitors who are eager to explore the bustling town’s many historic and cultural.
Rio has a lot to offer travelers from sun to sand to samba dancing to modern museums and charming neighborhoods filled with galleries and al fresco cafes serving traditional meals.
Here’s what you need to see in between the games.
1. Christ the Redeemer
Photo by Getty/Chris McGrath
Since 1931 Christ the Redeemer has stood guard over the city of Rio from high on its perch atop Corcovado Mountain. Not only is the 100-foot Jesus one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, but it’s also the rare touristy stop that is truly worth the trip. When you plan your trip up Corcovado, expect crowds to be part of the experience. Push through the crowds and you will be rewarded with an incredible view of the city below and Christ himself looming above. At the foot of the Corcovado Mountain, the Parque Lage was designed by the English landscaper John Tyndale back in 1840 and remains one of the natural highlights of Rio. It’s filled with curated gardens, lakes, and a gorgeous mansion that houses the Escola de Artes Visuais (School of Visual Arts), which hosts free art exhibitions and performances. If you want to climb the Corcovado, the trailhead begins in Parque Lage.
2. Museum of Tomorrow
In a country filled with the modernistic designs of architect Oscar Niemeyer, it can be hard to stand out, but the Museu do Amanhã (The Museum of Tomorrow) manages with its remarkable wing-like structure. The museum, which opened in 2015, was designed by architect Santiago Calatrava with a focus on green design and a goal to use 40 percent less energy than a traditional building. Inside the future-forward museum there are installations and exhibitions that paint a picture of a world dramatically transformed by climate change. If the museum depresses you, follow the waterfront paths to drown your sorrows at one of the bars and restaurants that are popping up around the museum as part of the city’s drive to revitalize the historic port area.
3. Santa Teresa
Tucked into the hills surrounding Rio is the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Founded in 1750, it is one of the city’s oldest enclaves, lined with cobblestoned streets, charming homes, and historic villas. To visit the neighborhood, ride the Santa Teresa tram from Carioca station over the 18th century aqueduct. In addition to getting you up the hill without breaking a sweat, the historic rail system offers some of the best views of the city. Once you arrive, explore the winding streets filled with lively cafes, bars, and galleries. Stop into Bar do Mineiro for their giant Minas Gerais-style feijoadas and a cold beer or step into the backyard wonderland of Aprazível for a more formal meal.
4. Copacabana Palace
If you can afford to stay at the historic Copacabana Palace hotel, which has housed everyone from real royalty (Prince Charles and Princess Diana) to pop royalty (Madonna, The Rolling Stones), you definitely should do it. The rest of us can stop in for a drink at the iconic hotel’s piano bar to sip a glass of wine or a caipirinha and ogle the hotel that inspired Barry Manilow, tolerated Orson Welles throwing a desk out its window, and once had Fred Astaire dance across its ballroom floor.
Photo by Getty/Chris McGrath
5. The Beaches
No trip to Rio would be complete without a day (or two or three) at the beach. Cariocas—what Rio’s inhabitants call themselves—treat the city’s many resplendent beaches like their own backyards, filling them with barbecues, volleyball, and casual parties where friends gather after work or for a lunchtime game of soccer. To join in the fun, grab your smallest swimsuit and strongest sunblock and stake out a spot on Copacabana, which is popular with families, or Ipanema, which has a more fashionable edge. If you forget to bring water or a towel, or start to feel peckish for a sandwich and a cold beer, look for vendors who stroll the shores eager to help. On Sundays, the highway that runs along the beach is closed to traffic, making the day even more enjoyable. To escape the crowds that fill Rio’s most popular beaches, try Prainha Beach, which has great surf and a rainforest setting, or Arpoador, whose rocky shore juts out into the Guanabara Bay.
6. Botanical Garden
Rio de Janeiro’s botanical garden has been hosting visitors since the early 1800s. The carefully planned garden is a natural retreat from the hustle of the big city. The peaceful respite is home to more than 300 acres of over 8,000 varieties of Amazonian plants, like giant water lilies and massive palm trees, and is home to plenty of wildlife, including monkeys (who may try to steal your snacks). If the weather turns on you, explore the greenhouses where over a thousand species of local orchids and bromeliads thrive in the warm climate.
7. The Sunset on Sugarloaf Mountain
Photo by Getty/David Silverman
The summit of Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) offers a spectacular 360-degree view of Rio whatever time of day you visit. However, if you happen to arrive at dusk and can watch the sun illuminate the Christ the Redeemer statue as it sets, it is truly memorable. The trip up the nearly 1,300-foot mountain requires a two-part cable car ride that is not for anyone with a fear of heights. If you do make it to the top, reward yourself with a caipirinha at one of the summit’s restaurants and admire the sweeping views of Guanabara Bay and Corcovado.
8. Feijoida in Ipanema
Weekends in Brazil mean one thing: Feijoida. The thick stew made from beans, pork, beef, and traditionally pig’s ear is as much of a Saturday ritual in Rio as brunch is in the United States. There’s no better place to enjoy it than at a restaurant in Ipanema, either at a spot by the famed white-sand beach or in one of the streets that line the fashionable neighborhood. On the weekends, the Ipanema branch of the Botequim Informal serves up little black cauldrons filled with feijoada with a side of farofa (toasted cassava flour), rice, and carne-seca (dried beef), but if you can’t wait for Saturday, head to the Casa da Feijoada, which lives up to its name and will even serve you a stew on a Tuesday.
When you’ve eaten your fill, wander the galleries, theaters, and high-end shops sprinkled throughout the Ipanema area. If you are there on a Sunday, visit the weekly market where local vendors sell their crafts.
9. Dancing in Lapa
Brazil is the God of samba and Rio is its heart. Dance the night away in the nightclubs or street parties that dot the Lapa district and fill the night air with samba music. Don’t expect to stand on the sidelines and watch the festivities, either, if you’re there you have to dance. If you work up an appetite shaking what your mama gave you, at night the street is filled with vendors selling all manner of food. In Lapa, like much of Rio, be mindful of your surroundings and leave your valuables at home.
Before you hit the clubs, take in the area’s other sites—the Roman-inspired 18th century aqueduct and the Escadaria Selarón, a tile-covered staircase that connects Lapa to the Santa Teresa neighborhood. The stairs are carefully decorated by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron with thousands of ceramic fragments.
10. Real Gabinete Português de Leitura
Book lovers from around the world flock to the cathedral-like library of the Portuguese Royal Reading Room. The three-story tall reading room is a shrine to the written word and houses the largest collection of Portuguese books outside of Portugal. While the books that line the shelves are all written in Portuguese, the language barrier doesn’t stop bibliophiles from admiring the scope of the collection and the massive number of texts, statues, medallions, and maps that fill the room up to its soaring ceiling. Because the love of books is universal, the reading room is free-for-all to come and marvel at the book-lined sanctuary.
Melissa is a freelance writer and permanent oliebollen fan.