18 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Brazil
The largest country in South America, Brazil occupies almost half the continent. Nearly all of it is in the Southern Hemisphere, and much of it is tropical, with vast stretches of rainforest filled with exotic plants and wildlife.
Brazil's 7,400-kilometer Atlantic coast is lined with golden-sand beaches, and its interior is filled with mineral resources. Gold from Brazil's mines still lines the churches of Portugal, the colonial power that ruled Brazil until 1822. This strong Portuguese influence is evident in Brazil's colonial architecture, in decorative arts such as the glazed tiles in its churches and convents, and in the language.
For tourists, Brazil is both a tropical paradise and an exciting cultural destination with attractions for all tastes, from idyllic beach holidays and jungle explorations to world-class art museums and the pulsing rhythms of Rio's Carnival.
To discover the best places to visit and things to do, use this handy list of the top tourist attractions in Brazil.
1. Cristo Redentor and Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro
With arms outstretched 28 meters, as if to encompass all of humanity, the colossal Art Deco statue of Christ, called Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), gazes out over Rio de Janeiro and the bay from the summit of Corcovado.
The 709-meter height on which it stands is part of the Tijuca National Park, and a rack railway climbs 3.5 kilometers to its top, where a broad plaza surrounds the statue. Completed in 1931, the 30-meter statue was the work of Polish-French sculptor Paul Landowski and Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, and is constructed of reinforced concrete and soapstone.
The eight-meter base encloses a chapel that is popular for weddings. Although this is one of Brazil's most readily recognized icons, it is often mistakenly called The Christ of the Andes, confused with the older statue marking the boundary between Argentina and Chile.
A mid-point stop on the railway leads to trails through the Tijuca National Park, a huge forest that protects springs, waterfalls, and a wide variety of tropical birds, butterflies, and plants. Several more viewpoints open out within the park.
2. Sugar Loaf, Rio de Janeiro
The easily recognized emblem of Rio de Janeiro, the rounded rock peak of Sugar Loaf juts out of a tree-covered promontory, rising 394 meters above the beaches and city. Its summit is one of the first places to visit for tourists, for views of Rio and the harbor, and for the thrill of riding suspended in a cable car between Sugar Loaf and the Morro da Urca, a lower peak from which a second cableway connects to the city.
Rio's first settlement began below these peaks, near the long Praia da Urca beach, and you can tour one of the three early forts there, the star-shaped Fort São João.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
3. Iguaçu Falls
At the point where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet, the Iguaçu river drops spectacularly in a semicircle of 247 waterfalls that thunder down into the gorge below. Just above the falls, the river is constricted to one-fourth of its usual width, making the force of the water even stronger.
Some of the falls are more than 100 meters high and they cover such a broad area that you'll never see all of them at once, but you do get the broadest panorama from the Brazilian side. Catwalks and a tower give you different perspectives, and one bridge reaches all the way to one of the largest, known as the Garganta do Diabo (Devil's Throat).
You can cross to the Argentinian side for closer views from catwalks that extend farther into the center of the falls. The two sides offer different perspectives and views, so most tourists plan to see both.
The falls are protected by the UNESCO-acclaimed Iguaçu National Park, where subtropical rainforests are home to more than 1,000 species of birds and mammals, including deer, otters, ocelots, and capybaras.
4. Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro
Downtown Rio's most fashionable and famous section follows Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and is bordered all along one side by four kilometers of white sand and breaking surf. The beach is separated from the buildings and traffic by a broad promenade paved in black and white mosaic in an undulating pattern reminiscent of streets in Lisbon, Portugal.
The beach isn't just for show. It's also a popular playground filled with sun-worshipers, swimmers, and kids building sand castles whenever the weather is fine. Stroll the streets here to find restaurants, smart shops, cafés, and beautiful old buildings from the days when Rio was Brazil's capital.
One of these, the famed Copacabana Palace, is protected as a national monument. Inside its lobby, you can easily imagine seeing the royalty and film idols who have stayed here.
5. Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro
Few shows match Rio's pre-Lenten Carnaval (Carnival) extravaganza for color, sound, action, and exuberance. Make no mistake, this is not just another rowdy street party, but a carefully staged showpiece, where spectators can watch the parades of competing samba dancers from a purpose-built stadium designed by none other than Brazil's best-known architect, Oscar Niemeyer.
Called the Sambódromo, this long series of grandstand boxes provides ringside seats to a 700-meter parade route where dancers and musicians from the competing samba schools strut their stuff in a dazzling explosion of brilliant costumes.
If mob scenes are less appealing to you than more spontaneous celebrations (that are equally riotous and colorful), you'll also find Carnivals in Salvador, Bahia, Recife, and other Brazilian cities.
Beyond the beaches of Copacabana, the glorious white sands merge into the just-as-famous beaches of Ipanema. The same wave design of Copacabana's wide promenade continues here, separating the sand from the line of hotels, restaurants, cafés, art galleries, and cinemas that make this a popular social zone year-round.
Farther along, beyond the Jardim de Alá Canal, which drains Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, are the beaches of Leblon. With more locals and fewer tourists, these beaches are favorites for families. Sunday is especially busy, with an antiques market at Praça de Quentaland and the Feira de Artesanato de Ipanema, alive with music, art, handcrafts, and street food.
The waves at Ipanema and Leblon can be very strong and unpredictable, so be careful where you swim. Follow the locals and stay out of the water where you don't see others swimming. If surf is what you're looking for, head to the stretch between Copacabana and Ipanema, where the surfers hang out.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ipanema
7. Amazon Rainforests
About 20 kilometers southeast of Manaus, the dark Rio Negro waters meet the light muddy water of the Rio Solimões, flowing side by side for about six kilometers before mixing as the Amazon. Boat trips from Manaus take you to this point, called Encontro das Aguas, meeting of the waters.
Other boat trips take you into the heart of the rainforests and the network of rivers, channels, and lakes formed by the three rivers. In the Rio Negro, the Anavilhanas Islands form an archipelago with lakes, streams, and flooded forests that offer a full cross-section of the Amazonian ecosystem.
You can see monkeys, sloths, parrots, toucans, caimans, turtles, and other wildlife on a boat trip here. Also close to Manaus, the 688-hectare Janauari Ecological Park has a number of different ecosystems that you can explore by boat along its narrow waterways.
An entire lake here is covered with giant water-lilies found only in the Amazon region. While in Manaus, be sure to see its famous Teatro Amazonas, the Italian Renaissance-style opera house, designed to put Manaus on the map as South America's great center of culture.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Manaus
- Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Manaus
8. Brasília's Modernist Architecture
Brazil's new city of Brasília was carved out of the wilderness and completed in less than three years to replace Rio de Janeiro as the country's capital in 1960. The ambitious plan by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer became a showpiece of city planning and avant-garde architecture, and it remains today as one of the world's few cities that represent a completed plan and a single architectural concept.
Without the normal mix of residential and business districts, the entire governmental section is composed of major architectural highlights, which are the city's main tourist attractions. Some of the most striking surround Praça dos Tràs Poderes: the presidential palace, supreme court, and the two sharply contrasting congress buildings, plus the Historical Museum of Brasília and the Panteão da Liberdade (Pantheon of Freedom), designed by Oscar Niemeyer.
That architect's best-known building in the city is the circular Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, whose curved concrete columns rise to support a glass roof. Another of Niemeyer's landmark works is the Palácio dos Arcos, surrounded by beautiful gardens designed by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who worked with Niemeyer on several projects throughout Brazil.
The round Memorial dos Povos Indígenas (Museum of Indigenous People) is patterned after a traditional Yąnomamö round house. But many consider Niemeyer's finest work to be the Monumento JK, a memorial to President Juscelino Kubitschek, the founder of Brasilia. Brasilia has been named a UNESCO World Heritage city.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Brasília
9. Salvador's Pelourinho
The Cidade Alta (Upper Town) of Brazil's former colonial capital has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exceptional collection of 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings, the finest such ensemble in South America.
Called the Pelourinho, this old quarter is where you'll find Salvador's most beautiful churches and monasteries, built at a time when Brazil was the source of Portugal's riches, and the plentiful gold was lavished on the colony's religious buildings.
The finest and most opulent of the city's churches is São Francisco, built in the early 1700s and filled with intricate carvings covered in gold. In the choir and cloister, you can see excellent examples of Portuguese tile panels, called azulejos.
This was the friary church, and next to it is the church of the Franciscan Third Order. It's impossible to miss the riotously carved façade covered in statues and intricate decoration. The interior is just as ornate, surpassing even the Portuguese Baroque in its opulent detail.
10. Ouro Preto
The wealth of Brazil's state of Minas Gerais in its glory days of the colonial period is easy to imagine from the interiors of the churches in its old capital, Ouro Preto. Entire walls are washed in gold that flowed – along with diamonds – from the mines surrounding the city in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Cascading down the sides of a steep valley and surrounded by mountains, Ouro Preto is a jewel of a colonial town, but its steep narrow streets and mountain setting – however captivating for tourists today – didn't meet the needs of a growing provincial capital. The government moved to the newly built capital of Belo Horizonte, leaving Ouro Preto in its time capsule.
The 17th-century Baroque and Rococo churches of São Francisco de Assis and Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar are the best examples, but the entire town is so rich in colonial architecture that Ouro Preto has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The steep streets, so precipitous in places that they become stairways, are lined by gracious colonial mansions, and white churches crown its hills with Baroque bell towers.
11. Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow)
The futuristic architecture of the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro gives a clue about its contents. Thought-provoking exhibits invite visitors to think what the world might be like in the future, exploring scenarios of how our planet may change in the next half century.
Examining these times of fast-moving changes in society, technology, and the physical world, the museum prompts viewers to consider various paths into the future, and how each opens up based on the choices made every day as individuals and as a society.
This eye-catching science museum overlooking the waterfront was designed by Spanish architect and artist, Santiago Calatrava.
Address: Praça Mauá 1, Centro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
12. Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo
The most visited park in South America, Ibirapuera Park is a vast green space designed by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, with buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer. The park is a showcase for modern architecture and a center for Brazilian culture.
Amid its monuments, gardens, playgrounds, trails, and lakes are museums and performance spaces that include Oscar Niemeyer's Auditório Ibirapuera, one of São Paulo's best concert venues. A Japanese Pavilion with sculptures, clothing, and traditional crafts is set in rock gardens with a fishpond.
The Museu da Aeronáutica e do Folclore, the Aeronautics and Folk Art Museum, features thousands of examples of folk arts and exhibits on traditional cultures from across Brazil. The lower floor is devoted to aeronautical equipment and model airplanes. A separate museum, the large Museu Afro-Brasil, features the culture and history of Afro-Brazilians and their contributions.
Address: Avenida Pedro Alvares Cabral, São Paulo
13. Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba
Paving the way for the unconventional building shapes created by later futurist architects such as Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava, Oscar Niemeyer left his native Brazil with a treasury of his most iconic buildings. One of these was built as the New Museum, completed in 2002 when Niemeyer was 95 years old, and renamed in tribute to him in 2003.
Balanced on a massive 60-foot pillar, the gallery is formed by a pair of joined arcs that resemble the shape of the human eye, hence its popular name, Museu do Olho – Eye Museum. Access to this raised structure is by a series of curved ramps. Inside the eye, the 2,000-square-foot gallery focuses on architecture, design, and the visual arts, and displays many of Niemeyer's works.
Niemeyer added a later rectangular gallery on the grounds to display changing exhibitions of works by contemporary Brazilian artists. In addition to visiting during its daytime open hours, try to see the Museu Oscar Niemeyer after dark, when it is spectacularly lighted.
Address: Rua Marechal Hermes 999, Curitiba
14. Botanical Garden of Curitiba
Reflecting the style of 17th- and 18th-century French palace gardens, Curitiba's Botanical Garden was opened in 1991. Formal beds are outlined by low sculpted hedges, in a geometric design inspired by the city's flag. The landscape is enlivened by fountains, waterfalls, and ponds, and in the park surrounding the gardens are forests of native trees, with walking paths.
The focal point of the botanical gardens is the main greenhouse, an Art Nouveau-style conservatory made of glass and white metal, reminiscent of the Crystal Palace in Victorian London. Its unusual shape includes three domes that merge into the rectangular base. Inside are plants native to the region.
Even the grass in the Garden of Native Plants of Curitiba is a native variety, and its flowers are especially attractive to butterflies and other pollinators. The Garden of the Senses (Jardim das Sensações) is a 200-yard path through a wisteria tunnel, where the more than 70 plant species are chosen for their fragrance or tactile appeal. Visitors are invited to try walking through it blindfolded to fully appreciate the garden by using their other senses.
Behind the main greenhouse is the Frans Krajcberg Cultural Space, displaying more than 100 large sculptures created from the remains of trees that were burned or illegally cut, calling public attention to the destruction of Brazil's native forests.
15. Porto de Galinhas & Pernambuco Beaches
The crystal waters, tall palm trees, and broad stretches of silver sand are only a few of the reasons why Porto de Galinhas is frequently cited as Brazil's best beach. For a country with more than 7,000 kilometers of Atlantic coast, much of it sandy beaches, that's saying a lot.
The town stretching along the beach is laid-back, colorful, and just the right blend of old-fashioned beach town fun and chic boutiques. Its hotels and resorts lie close to the land instead of soaring in high-rise blocks.
Jangadas, picturesque sailboats, will take you out to reef-top pools where brilliant tropical fish swim around your feet in ankle-deep water. You can also take a boat to a lagoon where tiny seahorses swim, and you can scuba dive to explore impressive coral reefs or shipwrecks, kayak in the lagoons and estuary, or buy a fanciful kite from a beach kiosk to fly in the steady breeze. Nearby Maracaipe is popular with surfers.
Porto de Galinhas is just one of the beautiful beaches on Pernambuco's 187-kilometer coast. Closer to Recife, 17th-century Olinda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site overlooking a popular beach. The main beaches in Recife itself are Praia da Boa Viagem, São José da Coroa Grande, and the Carne De Vaca.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Pernambuco
16. Art Museums of Sao Paulo
São Paulo holds some of the best collections of fine arts in Latin America, and the buildings in which they are housed are architectural landmarks as well. The Museu de Arte, MASP, displays the continent's most comprehensive collection of western art, with representative works by artists from the Renaissance through modern masters.
There are 73 bronze sculptures by Degas and works by Renoir, Manet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and Miró. From its beginning, the museum has concentrated on works of mid- to late-20th-century artists, and the building designed by architect Lina Bo Bardi is a Modernist landmark.
Oscar Niemeyer designed the Pavilhão da Bienal de Artes in Ibirapuera Park, home to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea. More than 8,000 works of art - one of Latin America's largest collections of 20th-century Western artists - includes Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Miró, and Modigliani along with major Brazilian painters.
Set above Versailles-inspired formal gardens, Museu do Ipiranga houses paintings and decorative arts.
For another kind of art, don't miss Batman's Alley, an open-air gallery of street art by local and international artists. It is in the bohemian Vila Madalena neighborhood, where you'll also find art galleries showing the works of well-known and rising Brazilian artists and craftspeople.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Sao Paulo
17. Belo Horizonte
The capital of the state of Minas Gerais gave the pre-eminent Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer his first commissions, and today, these early Niemeyer buildings draw tourists and fans of Modernist architecture to the city.
His first major work, which immediately set him apart from conventional architects, was the parabolic-curved São Francisco de Assis church, beside a lake in the Pampulha neighborhood. On the hillside above it, and connected by gardens designed by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, is Niemeyer's earlier casino building, now an art museum.
Overlooking the large Praça da Liberdade in the city center is the sinuous apartment building, Edificio Niemeyer, one of his most famous early works. The clean geometric lines of his later Palácio das Artes mark the edge of the Municipal Park, housing the Minas Gerais Craft Center featuring works of contemporary craftsmen.
The postmodern Rainha da Sucata – Queen of Scrap Iron – is another landmark building in Belo Horizonte, this one the work of Éolo Maia and Sylvio Podestá. It now houses the mineralogy museum.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Belo Horizonte
18. Escadaria Selarón
For 13 years, until his death in 2013, Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón covered the long stairway that formed the street in front of his house with a mosaic of colorful ceramics and glass fragments. Broken tiles and pottery, mirrors, and colored glass were worked into exuberant designs that largely feature the colors of the Brazilian flag.
Selarón called this "my tribute to the Brazilian people," and as the work grew year by year, people began bringing him shards to incorporate. First these were from his Santa Tereza neighbors, then as the fame of the stairway spread, contributions came from all over the world. Now more than 60 countries are represented in the 250 colorful steps.
Address: Rua Manuel Carneiro (off Rua Joaquim Silva), Rio de Janeiro