19 Top Tourist Attractions in Rio de Janeiro
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Rio de Janeiro's setting between the mountains and the sea is so spectacular that UNESCO cited "the staggeringly beautiful location for one of the world's biggest cities" in naming Rio a World Heritage Site. UNESCO's accolades weren't just for the natural setting but also for the urban cultural landscape and the mix of architecture and planned green space that characterized the city's growth.
Rio de Janeiro is the second major city in Brazil and was its capital from 1763 to 1960, when Brasília was created. The city was founded by Portuguese colonists in the mid 1500s and became the port for the shipment of gold from the inland mining areas.
Throughout its history, Rio has seemed aware of its physical assets - the soaring mountains behind it, Sugarloaf towering above its harbor, and its long crescent beaches that are its prime tourist attractions - and has enhanced that landscape with distinguished buildings from each era of its history and with a generous supply of urban parks and open spaces. Discover the best the city has to offer with our list of the top attractions in Rio de Janeiro.
See also: Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
1. Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer)
The giant statue of Christ overlooking the city from the 709-meter summit of Corcovado is almost as widely recognized a symbol of Rio as the distinctive shape of Sugarloaf. The world-famous landmark was erected between 1922 and 1931, financed almost entirely by contributions from Brazilian Catholics.
The Art Deco statue was created by Polish-French sculptor Paul Landowski and built by the Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, in collaboration with the French engineer Albert Caquot. Made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, the figure itself is 30 meters tall with arms stretching 28 meters; it weighs 635 metric tons. Inside its eight-meter-high base is a chapel, where it's not uncommon to find weddings and baptisms taking place.
The Corcovado rack railway chugs from Rua do Cosme Velho up the 3.5-kilometer track to the statue, through the Tijuca National Park. You can see this monument without the usual crowds and by early morning light on a guided Early Access to Christ Redeemer Statue with Optional Sugarloaf Mountain Tour. A tour upgrade includes a cable car ride up Sugarloaf Mountain for more stunning views.
Rio de Janeiro's best-known landmark is the rock peak of Sugarloaf, towering 394 meters above the harbor. It sits on a point of land that projects out into the bay and wraps around its harbor, and is connected to the city by a low strip of land.
You can take a cable car from Praça General Tibúrcio to the top of the Morro da Urca, a lower peak from which a second cableway runs to the summit of the Sugarloaf. From here, you can see the entire mountainous coast that rings the bay and its islands.
Below, the 100-meter Praia da Urca beach is near the location of Rio's original nucleus, between the Morro Cara de Cão and the Sugarloaf. On Cara de Cão are three forts of which the 16th-century, star-shaped Fort São João is open to the public.
Few cities are blessed with a beautiful sand beach at its heart, let alone one that stretches four kilometers along one entire side of its downtown. A few steps from its golden sands are Avenida Atlântica, Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, and the neighboring smaller streets where you'll find appealing century-old buildings, fine hotels, and popular restaurants and cafés.
The unquestioned monarch of the area, and of Rio hotels, is the renowned Copacabana Palace, built in the 1920s and now protected as a national monument. Featured in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio and host to royalty and glamorous movie stars, Copacabana Palace recalls the halcyon days of power, wealth, and elegance, when Rio was capital of Brazil.
At the far end of the beach, Copacabana Fort dates from 1914 and was the scene of a 1922 revolt of officers, who took over the fort and turned its artillery on the city. The short-lived revolt ended the next day when the government brought in battleships to bombard the fort. You can learn about this and other military history at the Museu Histórico do Exército (Museum of the History of the Army) now housed here. Outside, on the fort grounds, are artillery pieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Address: Praça Coronel Eugênio Franco, Rio de Janeiro
Continuing on westward from Copacabana's four-kilometer strand, the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon are separated by the Jardim de Alá Canal, which drains the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Along the seafront promenade are large hotels, sidewalk cafés, and restaurants.
These two districts, although best known for their beaches (one of which was made world-famous by the song The Girl from Ipanema) have a lively cultural life, with art galleries, cinemas, and an avant-garde theater. Praça de Quental in Leblon is the scene of an antiques market every Sunday, and Praca General Osorio hosts the Sunday Feira de Artesanato de Ipanema featuring crafts, music, art, and local foods.
5. Carnaval (Carnival)
One of the world's most famous pre-Lenten celebrations – as well-known as those in Venice and New Orleans – takes place each winter in Rio de Janeiro. The celebrations begin shortly after New Year, but the splendor and extravagance reaches its spectacular climax in the four days before Ash Wednesday, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators to its street parades, samba parties, and shows. Other Brazilian cities celebrate Carnaval; it is also a major tourist event in Bahia and Recife, but Rio's is the most lavish.
The most spectacular events are the parades of the samba schools, which are held in a unique venue designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The Sambódromo is a long parade route lined by stadium-style boxes designed so that up to 90,000 spectators can watch the parades of brilliantly costumed dancers as they compete. The parade route is 700 meters long and 13 meters wide. It was first used in 1984 and updated as a venue for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Address: Rua Marquês de Sapucaí, Rio de Janeiro
Official site: www.sambadrome.com
6. Tijuca National Park
Tijuca National Park protects the Tijuca Forest and several viewpoints overlooking the city, and surrounds Cristo Redentor, the giant-sized statue of Christ on Corcovado. To explore the park, you can leave the train up to Corcovado at a midpoint and follow the road through the forest.
The 3,300-hectare Tijuca Forest, one of the world's largest forests within a city, was planted in the late 1850s on land that had been destroyed by coffee plantations, to safeguard the springs that supplied Rio de Janeiro's water. Most of the trees are native species and provide habitat for Capuchin monkeys, quatis (Brazilian raccoon), colorful toucans, hawks, brilliant blue butterflies, and many other species of wildlife, which you may spot while exploring its trails and roads.
Near the station of the Corcovado railway is Largo do Boticário, one of Rio's most picturesque squares, surrounded by colonial-style houses. From the pagoda-style pavilion at Morro da Vista Chinesa, 380 meters above the shore, are views of the Municipal Park, the Botanic Garden, and a long stretch of the south coast.
There are more views from Mirante Dona Marta, a viewpoint on a spur of rock above Botafogo Bay. Several waterfalls drop from the forest springs, including the 30-meter Cascatinha Taunay.
Set in extensive gardens near the park is the Museu do Açude, with the valuable porcelain collections of the West India Company; old views of Rio de Janeiro by Brazilian and foreign artists; and azulejos, traditional Portuguese tiles from the 17th through 19th centuries.
7. Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden)
Covering 350 acres at the foot of Corcovado, Rio's Jardim Botânico combines an ecological sanctuary with show gardens and a scientific laboratory, all in a beautiful park-like setting. Highlights are the Orchidarium, an iron-and-glass greenhouse built in the 1930s and filled with more than 2,000 species of orchids, and the Japanese Gardens with their cherry trees, wooden bridges, koi ponds, and Bonsai.
A Sensory Garden of aromatic plants and herbs is signed in Braille. The garden, which is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, contains more than 8,000 species of plant life and the birds and animals that make this their habitat, including Marmoset monkeys and toucans. You can walk through the gardens, under the soaring royal palms and pau-brasil trees, or ride through on an electric cart tour.
Address: R. Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro
8. Prainha Beach (Little Beach)
If you have visited the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and still crave more, but at the same time are looking for something a bit different, take the 20-kilometer jaunt down to Prainha. Where the rainforest meets the ocean, this beach is more natural than the ones in the heart of Rio.
Golden sands and large round boulders are lapped by the sea, and finding your own patch of sand to soak up the sun is never an issue. If you like to surf, this is the place to do it. Nice right and left breaks provide consistent rides in May, then flatten out until September.
A must-see for football (soccer) fans when a game is scheduled, Brazil's largest stadium was home to the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. It was completely renovated for the FIFA World Cup 2014 and holds more than 78,000 fans.
The stadium is used for matches between Rio's major football clubs, the Flamengo, Botafogo, Fluminense, and Vasco da Gama, as well as for concerts. The brief tour would be of interest to avid fans, but others should give it a miss.
The shore of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, near Copacabana and Ipanema, where many other Olympic events took place, is lined by parks and sports clubs, and its waters are popular for regattas and other water sports.
Address: Av. Pres. Castelo Branco, Rio de Janeiro
10. Santa Tereza and Escadaria Selarón
A district of steep, quiet streets and hundred-year-old houses, Santa Tereza is Rio's most atmospheric neighborhood. Its cafés and restaurants are favorites of artists and intellectuals who add to the Bohemian atmosphere. Although its greatest charms are found just wandering its streets, which often open out onto beautiful views, there are several attractions and things to do, among them the church and convent of Santa Tereza, dating to 1720.
The Museu Chácara do Céu has an art collection of mainly modern works, including those by Picasso, Miró, and Matisse, as well as Chinese sculpture from the 17th through 19th centuries. The adjacent Parque das Ruínas is the shell of a socialite's mansion that fell into disrepair and has become an art, music, and performance venue.
At the edge of Santa Tereza, where it joins the Lapa neighborhood, is one of Rio's newest tourist attractions, the Escadaria Selarón. From 1990 until his death in 2013, Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón covered a long flight of steps in front of his house with mosaics made of tiles, pottery, and mirrors, many in blue, green, and yellow - colors of the Brazilian flag.
Selarón began by using broken tiles that he salvaged from construction sites and demolitions of old buildings, but as his steps drew the attention of tourists, people began bringing him pottery and tiles from all over the world. Now pieces from more than 60 countries are represented in the 250 steps, which cover 125 meters of stairs. The steps are a popular film location.
Address: Rua Manuel Carneiro (off Rua Joaquim Silva), Rio de Janeiro
11. São Bento
On the hill just above the harbor are the church and monastery of São Bento, one of the finest Benedictine complexes in Brazil. The original 1617 church was without aisles until it was enlarged in the second half of the 17th century by the addition of eight side chapels. The finest artists of the Benedictine order were involved in decorating the interior.
The exuberant carving that covers the walls and ceiling was mainly the work of a monk named Domingos da Conceição, who was also responsible for the figures of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica on the high altar.
The choir chapel has silver work by Mestre Valentim and 14 paintings by Ricardo do Pilar, a monk who was the foremost Benedictine painter of colonial Brazil. His masterpiece, Senhor dos Martírios (Christ of the Passion), is in the sacristy of the monastery.
12. São Francisco da Penitência
The Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência is divided into three sections with separate entrances, and the simple façade of this church belies the riches within. The interior, which was begun in 1657 and completed in 1773, is a riot of gilded wood carving.
Among those who contributed to the decoration of the interior were Manuel and Francisco Xavier de Brito, two leading Portuguese sculptors and woodcarvers. They had very similar styles, known as Brito, using decorative forms that influenced Aleijadinho and other masters of Brazilian Baroque.
The ceiling of the choir has the earliest trompe-l'oeil painting in Brazil, completed in 1736, the work of Caetano da Costa Coelho, who later painted the ceiling of the nave in the same style.
Address: Rua da Carioca, Rio de Janeiro
13. Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theater)
The grand Municipal Theater, built in the early 20th century, was inspired by the Paris Opera of Charles Garnier, and its interior is even more ornate and luxurious than the dramatic towered façade. Important highlights to see are the sculptures by Henrique Bernardelli and paintings by Rodolfo Amoedo and Eliseu Visconti, as well as the drop curtain, the proscenium frieze, and the ceilings.
Guided tours, some in English, are available or, better yet, attend a classical concert or ballet performances here.
Address: Praça Floriano, Rio de Janeiro
14. Quinta da Boa Vista
The gardens, villas, and imperial palaces of São Cristóvão are now public parks and museums, the foremost of which is Quinta da Boa Vista. From 1808 to 1889, the palace was the residence of the royal and the imperial family and was later altered and rebuilt as the Palácio de São Cristóvão. It houses the National Museum, which has the largest zoological, botanical, ethnographic, and archaeology collections in the country, totaling more than a million items.
In the expansive park are gardens with lakes, woodlands, and caves, which you can reach via a miniature railway. Also inside the park is a zoo with more than 2,000 species of mammals, birds, and reptiles from Brazil and around the world.
Address: São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro
15. Nossa Senhora do Carmo and Monte do Carmo
The parish church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo was the Capela Real (Royal Chapel) from 1808 to 1889 and the cathedral until the modern one replaced it in 1976. Connected to it by a passage is a second Carmelite church, Monte do Carmo, begun in 1755.
Highlights are its Baroque façade, stone doorway, and the white and gold carving by Mestre Valentim in the Chapel of the Novitiate. The 1761 former cathedral is richly decorated with carving and has a silver high altar. In a side street is the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Cabo da Boa Esperança (Our Lady of the Cape of Good Hope), the last surviving street oratory in the city.
Address: Rua 1 de Maráo (off Rua do Ouvidor), Rio de Janeiro
16. Ilha Fiscal
This neo-Gothic castle in Rio de Janeiro's harbor was built in 1889 and used for many years as a customs inspection building. Today this architectural gem, complete with turrets and towers, is open to the public.
Inside Ilha Fiscal, you'll find smooth hardwood floors with mosaic patterns throughout, while impressive stained-glass windows glow in Rio's tropical sun. As you wander around, take a stroll through the museum that showcases Brazilian naval history. Access to the island is either by bus or by boat.
17. Catedral de São Sebastião
Architect Edgar Fonseca, who designed Rio's Catedral de São Sebastião, took his inspiration from Mayan pyramids, interpreting their soaring forms in a modern context. Built between 1964 and 1979 and often referred to as the New Cathedral to distinguish it from its immediate predecessor, Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the church seats 5,000 in its 96-meter interior. Four stained glass windows rise 64 meters from the floor to light the interior with brilliantly colored natural light. At night, the church is lit from within, a bright beacon in the central skyline.
Address: Av. Chile 245, Rio de Janeiro
18. Take a Boat Trip to Ilha de Paquetá
The island of Paquetá, with an area of a little more than a square kilometer, lies in Guanabara Bay, an hour's boat trip from Praça 15 de Novembro. It became a fashionable resort in the early 1800s, when Portuguese Emperor Dom João VI spent his summers here (the colony of Brazil became the seat of the Portuguese Empire in 1808, when Napoleon's armies occupied Portugal).
Solar del Rey, a palace in which Dom João VI frequently stayed, is among the interesting old buildings, which also include the 1698 chapel of São Roque and the house of José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, father of Brazilian independence. No cars invade the peace of the island, but you can explore it on foot, by rented bicycle, or in a horse-drawn carriage. Palms line the island's beaches, where you'll find impromptu food stands grilling fresh fish.
19. Day Trip to Petrópolis
Petrópolis, 68 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro, sits high in a forested valley of the Serra dos Órgãos and was chosen by King Pedro II of Brazil as his summer home. Aristocrats quickly followed, building their own summer palaces and villas and making Petrópolis an elegant upper-class resort.
It was later a favorite of artists and intellectuals and a popular tourist destination for its beautiful buildings and pleasant year-round climate. Today, the former Summer Palace is the Imperial Museum, filled with memorabilia from the days of the Brazilian Empire. Also worth seeing are the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Alcântara, the Crystal Palace, and the house of aviation pioneer Santos-Dumont.
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro for Sightseeing
Rio de Janeiro stretches between the bay and mountains, its attractions so spread out that there is no neighborhood convenient to more than a few of them. Fortunately, Rio's Metro system is fast and efficient, so the best hotels for tourists are in the safe beach neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, amid restaurants and shops and handy to Metro access. Another option is Botafogo, a residential area adjacent to Copacabana, near the cable car to Sugarloaf. Here are some highly rated hotels in Rio de Janeiro.
- Featuring a scenic rooftop pool, Miramar Hotel by Windsor is right on Copacabana beach, where sun chairs and umbrellas are available for guests; it's a short walk from Ipanema.
- Belmond Copacabana Palace is an icon of Copacabana's reputation for sophistication and glamor, a place where film stars and royalty have basked in Old World elegance.
- The rooftop pool at JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro overlooks Copacabana beach (umbrellas and chairs are reserved for guests) and there is a spa and fitness center.
- A block off the beach, friendly Ipanema Inn offers personal service in the midst of Ipanema's vibrant dining and arts scene.
- On a quiet street in the heart of Copacabana, Hotel Sesc Copacabana is a block from the beach and surrounded by restaurants and shops.
- Also a block off the beach, Windsor Palace Hotel has a small rooftop pool, a large breakfast buffet, and free airport shuttle.
- Ibis Copacabana Posto 5 is a few blocks off the beach and near the Metro station, with plenty of dining options nearby.
- Close to the Metro in residential Botafogo, one stop from Copacabana, Ibis Rio de Janeiro Botafogo is near the Sugarloaf cable car.
- So is Mercure Botafogo Mourisco, whose higher rooms have a view of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Rio de Janeiro
- Day Tour: On an eight-hour Full Day Complete Tour of Rio de Janeiro, you'll get a good overview of the city, with stops to visit the major highlights, including Copacabana beach, the Tijuca Forest, Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado, the Metropolitan Cathedral, Escadaria Selarón, and the Baroque São Bento Monastery. Also included in the tour is the cable car ride to Sugarloaf and lunch at a steakhouse.
- Corcovado and Sugarloaf Tour: See Rio from the two most prominent points in the city on the Corcovado Mountain, Christ Redeemer, and Sugarloaf Mountain Day Tour. This full-day of Rio's most famous landmarks includes a cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and travel by van or cog train through the Tijuca Rainforest to the Christ the Redeemer statue.
- Jeep Tour: Explore the immense National Park on the slopes of Corcovado on a Tijuca Rain Forest Jeep Tour from Rio de Janeiro. As you ride through the rainforest in an open-top Jeep, you'll have a four-hour eco-tour, with a hike to observe butterflies, monkeys, sloths, and birds. Stop to see the Cachoeira dos Macacos (Waterfall of the Monkeys) and for panoramic views from Vista Chinesa (Chinese View) as you learn about the flora of the Mata Atlântica from your guide.