Rio is a place where smiles are returned and often twice as big. It's a place where you'll never have to dance by yourself or worry that you don't belong. This is why Rio has my heart and will likely snag yours too.
I lived in Rio a long time ago but going back always feel like returning home. Ask anyone who has spent time living there and you'll likely hear the same. For all its problems, Rio will is a travel gem.
Being honest, Rio is a city that has been discovered; there are small corners that tourists don't know about or frequent as much but overall tourists mingle with locals as part of daily life. That's not a bad thing in my opinion. It's actually part of the magnetism of the city; it's easy to feel integrated, to join the local "vibe." This mini guide is going to help you do that even more so - to suggest experiences that are truly "carioca." Carioca = Rio local.
(If you enjoy this guide, make a note to check back here early next year for the FULL guide with lots of tips on culture, language, getting around...basically the full local experience.)
Rio is a city that proudly displays its beauty. You don't need to do a deep dive to get a sense of the culture, the music or the vibrancy here; you'll be slammed in the face with all the above as soon as you leave your taxi. Don't worry, it's the nicest kind of slam. It's intoxicating actually. Do Rio like a local with these experiences.
Rio is MADE for being active; fitness life revolves around the beach and you won't be able to go a day in Zona Sul (the southern area of Rio) without seeing at least one person running, doing push-ups or kicking around a ball on the sand. You may be on holiday but this is one destination where you're going to find it hard to make excuses to get a workout in - especially with the PERFECT setting for it!
Join the local sweat life by jogging barefoot on the sand or doing bodyweight exercises at one of the many outdoor gym stations along the boardwalk. Take the video above for ideas and enjoy the music!
MY LOCAL TIP: Try a night run along the orla (boardwalk.) I hate running but I can't resist this one. Just imagine light Brazilian beats against a lovely-lit night sky and the smell of the sea breeze as you go. You'll feel like you're in a movie! (Note: Avoid taking any valuables with you.)
TRAINER'S TIP: Plan two workouts to do BEFORE you arrive. These don't need to be any longer than 20 minutes. Do one of these on your first day (this could also be a hike, cycle, etc.) and one on your last. This will help you stay motivated after your holiday ends.
Not everyone surfs in Rio but those that do, do it religiously. The big waves and gorgeous views more than cancel out any discomfort from the chilly water (and it is chilly let me tell you!) Even if you're not a surfer, it's worth taking a a lesson or two just to have the experience. A bonus is that it's a total body workout like no other!
There are surf camps and schools but if you want to learn without a huge group of other tourists, the best way is to get a private or semi-private lesson directly from one of the local surfers. This can be informally set up right there on the beach at Arpoador (between Ipanema and Copacabana) or by asking locals for instructor recommendations; many will have a friend who gives lessons.
Cycling around Rio (particularly in Zona Sul) is a really easy and lovely experience. There are usually bike lanes you can use and it's fairly difficult to get lost. Of the routes you can take, one of the most scenic for me is around Lagoa.
The neighbourhood of Lagoa is known for its huge lake surrounded by penthouses, greenery, playgrounds and informal restaurants. Locals come here to do everything active from volleyball to running. The most relaxing (yet still active) way to see Lagoa is by bike.
It always surprises me how few foreign tourists actually go to Lagoa. It's a quick bus, taxi or slightly longer walk away from most hostels and hotels. You can rent a bike near Copa/Ipanema and cycle to Lagoa or rent one after you get to the lake. There's also Bike Rio with bikes all around the city (just be prepared for a bit of hassle in using them particularly if you don't have a local sim card for your phone.)
Plan to spend at least an hour here so that you can stop as frequently as you like to take in the views, grab some pics or just have a sip of coconut water along the shore.
Most visitors to Rio stay at sea level, captivated by the beaches and nightlife. However, there are some excellent hikes around the city that the outdoorsy cariocas will do on the weekends. You will run into the other tourists, but depending on the path you choose, you may just have all the greenery and views to yourself.
Sunset views are stunnning no matter where you are along the beach. There's also almost always a live performer playing music to make the mood even more magical. However, the best panoramic view (albeit touristy) is at Arpoador. Here you can see the full wrap around of the beach, which looks incredible against the red sky (I took the shot above there.)
The downside is that you should expect HUNDREDS of people on a weekend evening. Going during the week is better. Arrive 30 minutes before sunset and camp out with a beer or juice.
The carioca way to enjoy the beach or "pegar uma praia" is to go early, join a group of friends and stay until the sun drops. To do it the local way, scout out the best spot to enter the water and work on your tan. Let the workers at the nearest quiosque (beach stand) approach you. Your goal? A guarda-sol and cadeira (umbrella and sun chair.) Don't be afraid to bargain on price but still be nice because these guys will be your go-tos for everything from beer to açai for the entire day.
Once you've got your gear, you'll be asked for your name to start a tab. Just like a bar, you now have full service without leaving your coveted place in the sun. If your quiosque doesn't have something, one of the ambulantes (beach vendors) will. You can flag them down with a whistle or simply by saying the name of whatever they're selling (e.g. açai.)
Stay until sunset and then settle your bill. (Note: sometimes they will ask you to pay for your chair and umbrella in advance.)
MY LOCAL TIP: If you're in town for a few days, always go back to the same quiosque so that they remember you and you get better service. One of the most important travel lessons for Brazil is to make relationships wherever you can - from your waiter to your doorman/hotel receptionist. Treat them kindly and they'll go above and beyond to help you. Treat them poorly and well...don't expect much in return.
There's no party like a Rio party...even if you're not the party-going type. Music and dancing are so integral to Brazilian culture that you can't say you've really experienced Brazil (especially Rio) without them. No matter how shy you are about dancing, I really encourage you to join in and experience the alegria (happiness) that comes from shaking to a beat with a bunch of Brazilians. Plus they've all been dancing since diapers so no one expects you to keep up. This is the only place in the world where I've been outclassed by both a five year old and a sixty-something on the same dance floor...and I've got half the Brazilian going for me.
Many nightclubs will have live music on the weekends, especially in Lapa, but one of the more unique local experiences is to go to an ensaio at one of the local samba schools. During these events, local communities practice their music for the next Carnaval, dance and socialize.
Coffee isn't Brazil's strong point...at least not in Rio. I know that seems ridiculous right? After all, Brazil is known for it's quality coffee beans, many of which you may have enjoyed around the world. Well, the problem isn't with the beans, it's in the roasting.
Most places in Rio will over-roast or burn coffee when they make it. You won't necessarily have the worst coffee of your life, but it's unlikely that you'll have the best. I'd settle for drinkable. A cafe com leite, is usually perfect for me - just enough caffeine with lots of milk to soften that sharp, burnt taste. If you're keen to try a more local way of drinking, try the pingado at one of the padarias (bakeries) or botecos (bars.) It's mostly milk with just a hint of coffee.
Men usually wear T-shirts and shorts during the day and jeans to go out at night. Flip flops are common during the day but not acceptable for many clubs at night. You'll see women wearing the same type of summer clothes you would do anywhere but usually in brighter colors and tighter. I LOVE shopping in Rio for clothes and you will too if you're a shorter and curvier lady. At night, women dress up quite a bit so at the very least have a nicer pair of sandals in addition to your flip-flops. For both men and women, bring a light jacket. You never know if you'll get a cold wind or some tropical rain.
You can eat well and WELL in Rio. There are lots of healthy options and just as many unhealthy options that taste amazing no matter your dietary preferences. I'd suggest to do both - eat healthily and experiment with some new local flavors that aren't so healthy.On the healthier side, I love the fresh juice and will have at least one a day. Abacaxi com hortelã (pineapple and mint) is one of my favorites. On the less healthier side, I LOVE the feijão (beans) with some rice, farofa and vinagrete (a pepper salsa blend usually not too spicy.) This dish is usually made with lots of salt and oil which is why I classify it as unhealthy but you can find places that will prepare it lighter. Just be aware that the beans are often made with pork fat and meat so always ask to confirm if you're a vegan/vegetarian.
This is a country where speaking bit of Portuguese can make a BIG difference. Make it a point to learn greetings, ask for directions and how to order food/drink.Safety is a concern. It's important to take it seriously. You avoid becoming a target of petty theft by not displaying valuables. Don't wear your watch or jewellery out and about (even if they aren't expensive.) Keep your smart phones in your purse/travel bag most the time - only taking them out when you're inside a restaurant, bar, etc. If you want to take pictures, check out your surroundings first for any possible "red flags" before shooting away with that expensive iPhone or camera. Avoid carrying anything in your back pockets. Cariocas like to say that whenever you're in the street it's best to keep moving. That advice has served me well and the only two incidents I ever had in Rio were when I didn't follow it.
If you have any questions or concerns about Rio, leave them in the comments or email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to help you get this one off the bucketlist!