To this day, my trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is one of the best vacations I’ve had in my adult life. Many things can influence one’s perception of a good vacation: who you’re traveling with, circumstances for traveling, the destination itself, culinary experience, tourist experience/activities, and interaction with the locals and other travelers, to name a few things. For me, it was all of the above.
In early 2016, my girlfriends and I were all studying for our medical board examination, and we wanted to reward ourselves with a post-exam trip. Most of us were pretty well-traveled at that point, so we actually had somewhat of a difficult time picking somewhere we all had NOT been. We ultimately decided on Rio de Janeiro because of easy travel logistics (short travel time from the East Coast of the United States and a 2-hour time difference) and the inability to really plan our trip given that we were in the midst of an intense study period. In not planning, what we didn’t realize is that our vacation week would be during Carnival.
Even though we were completely unprepared for Carnival, we still found ways to participate in the festivities. All day, every day for the week, there were street parties (”blocos”) around the city. Initially, we would just stumble upon them, but towards the latter half of our trip, we used an app (CarnaUOL Blocos de Rua) that gave timing and location of these blocos and we picked ones in other parts of the city that we had not explored yet. Apart from Carnival, there was still plenty to do and we had a nice balance of relaxing on the beaches and adventures.
We spent most of our time in the southern part of the city, where the beaches are. We stayed in an Airbnb apartment roughly 2-3 blocks from the public beaches of Ipanema. Ipanema is a neighborhood that is just next to Copacabana. We also explored Reserva and Barra da Tijuca and their beaches, which are more remote and less crowded options for relaxing time on the beach. If you’re into shopping, many big malls are located in Barra da Tijuca. Additionally, the Olympic village/sports complex is on that side of town.
No trip to Rio would be complete without seeing Cristo el Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue in person; and for me, this was a personal bucket list item. This monument offers great views of the city and a municipal lake, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Later that same day, we also ended up going to Urca and taking the cable cars up to Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain), which again had breathtaking views of the city and Guanabara Bay. We were able to see the Christ statue from the mount as well, and we were lucky to be there during sunset, so we enjoyed a nice glass of wine at one of the restaurants atop the mountain and took in more of the view. Other places we enjoyed included: Copacabana Boardwalk, which had lots of vendors/stalls for beachside shopping; Lapa, the “downtown” area/neighborhood with many bars and a vibrant nightlife; and, Marina da Gloria, which doubles as a marina and a concert venue–we saw Hardwell live (but you can charter boats from here, too).
If you’re anything like me, food is definitely part of your traveling experience. It’s a way to immerse yourself in the local culture of a place fully. The culinary experience in Rio did not disappoint. Most of the restaurants we dropped into were family-owned and served traditional food like feijoada (black bean/pork stew) and maqueca de camarao (seafood-based stew). Acai bowls are also a must-have while you’re there, especially given the heat. If you’re on the beaches, vendors walk around with grilled food items, usually queijo (cheese) or seafood to eat. Similar to their southern Argentine neighbors, Brazilians are known for barbecue. Churrascaria Palace is a traditional steakhouse and is definitely the place to go if you love meat. It seemed like every 5-10 minutes, someone came out of the kitchen with meat (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, seafood) fresh off the grill, ready to slice directly onto my plate. We also ate at L’Etoile, a French-Brazilian fusion restaurant that has received Michellin nods. The food was great and the accompanying panoramic views from the rooftop made it even better. Also, even though not Brazilian, Mee Restaurant (in the Copacabana Palace hotel) was another Michelin star restaurant, and exceeded expectations both from their pre-set course menu and a la carte from sushi, gyoza, and the main entrees.
From Carnival to the beaches; from the breathtaking views of Sugarloaf Mountain to the cuisine, Rio de Janeiro remains cemented in my top five cities that I have visited. The vibes were overall unmatched, and I look forward to a time when I can go back again.
Other logistics you might care about:
- Knowing basic Portuguese will help you get by, especially in restaurants and with cab drivers. If you know some Spanish, it may be a little easier to pick up (speaking from personal experience, but I definitely supplemented it with DuoLingo practice rounds).
- Ubers and taxis are very reliable ways to travel around Rio de Janeiro, especially between the neighborhoods/areas. However, once we arrived in a specific neighborhood, we found that they were reasonably compact and walkable, especially Copacabana, Ipanema, and Lapa.
- Most places do accept credit cards, though having spare cash on hand never hurts! The local currency is the “real,” and if you’re from the US/EU/UK, the exchange rate is such that your money will go very far.
- As a group of young women, we were frequently cat-called in the streets, but we were never in situations where our well-being was in danger. I’ve heard varying accounts, including from Rio natives, about how unsafe the city can be, both before and after my trip. All that to say, always travel safely and be smart.
Nationality/Home Country: USA
Travel Date: February 2016