In 2015, I left the Philippines to travel for 5 months in South America. I spent just a little over a month in Brazil, surprisingly loving its cities, food, colonial architecture, and the many local friends (and their cats!) that I met there.
Unfortunately, I haven’t written much about Brazil yet (aside from my snorkeling trip in Bonito!), so I was very glad that Miguel of the blog Travelsauro contributed this to my Solo Travel City Guide series. All photos are mine, though!
After three years of traveling in South America, I felt like I needed a little break. Long-term travel can be really exhausting. But where should I go? To be honest, I didn’t know. ‘I’ll follow my instinct,’ I thought.
I was traveling to Brazil, and the truth is, it’s an incredible country. From thick Amazon jungles to paradisiacal beaches to vibrant cities, the opportunities for recreation are almost endless. When I arrived in Rio, I had no doubts. This was the place!
When you hear the name “Rio de Janeiro,” you probably think about beaches, samba music, crazy carnivals, and parties. Well, that’s definitely part of the city, but I guarantee that there are many things beyond those clichés.
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most interesting cities in the world, boasting impressive landscapes and a unique culture.
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Arriving in Rio de Janeiro
There are three airports serving Rio de Janeiro: Galeao-Antonio Carlos Jobm International Airport (GIG), Santos Dumont Airport (SDU), and Francisco de Assis Airport (JDF) which is around 75 miles from the city and only has one airline operating there (Ocean Air).
When booking a flight to Rio, search for the airport code RIO, which stands for Rio de Janeiro International Airport and serves both GIG and SDU.
While you can take the bus from the airports and into the city (bus numbers 2018 or 2918 from GIG or bus 2018 from SDU), it can be challenging if you don’t know any Portuguese.
You can take the subway, though. To go to GIG, take the subway to Vicente de Carvalho station and then get on the BRT bus line Transcarioca (with stops) or Transcarioca Expressa (express). For SDU, take the metro to Cinelandia and then the VLT (Veiculo Leve Sobre Trilhos) to the airport.
The most convenient, of course, if a little bit pricier, would be to book a pick-up service from your hostel/hotel, take a taxi, or use Uber.
Getting Around Rio de Janeiro
Getting around Rio de Janeiro on local buses isn’t easy. Although lots of bus lines are available to virtually every neighborhood, most bus stops don’t show route maps, making it very difficult to know where to catch your bus if you don’t speak Portuguese and can’t ask the locals.
Thus, I recommend that you take the metro, which will get you to most destinations around the southern part of Rio. A lot of tourist attractions in Rio are near subway stations anyway, so it’s a very convenient mode of travel.
If you prefer to take taxis, you’ll find lots of them all over the city. Uber works really well, too. It’s not so expensive and you won’t need to wait longer than a few minutes for your car to show up.
Where To Stay in Rio De Janeiro
Most hotels and guest houses are located in the southern part of the city.
Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon, and Botafogo are great options because they are well-connected and have beaches and parks around them. Otherwise, you can stay in Lapa and Santa Teresa if you want to be closer to the most vibrant nightlife spots.
Things To Do in Rio de Janeiro
The “Carioca city” is larger than you’d imagine, offering a variety of historical sites, natural parks, and adventure activities. In addition, Rio boasts the world’s largest urban forest: Tijuca National Park, a real jungle in the heart of the city.
If you are traveling alone, don’t worry! Rio is a great destination for solo travelers. It offers plenty of guest houses and hostels in which you can meet other travelers. On top of that, “cariocas” (what the Rio residents are called) are among the friendliest people in the world.
If you will be in the city for a few days, let me give you a few recommendations on the best places to visit.
Christ the Redeemer
Without a doubt, this is the most famous icon in the city; you can’t miss a visit to Christ the Redeemer.
I recommend that you start your tour there because it will give you a great panoramic view of the whole city. Although many people go up there at sunset, I suggest that you go early in the morning. The sky is usually clearer and you’ll find fewer people.
One of the best ways to explore the city center is to take a free walking tour (i.e., a tip-based tour).
Tours will take you around the Municipal Theater, Praça Carioca, the National Library, and the Imperial Palace. You’ll be able to enjoy the city while learning about its history.
If you want to go on your own, that’s cool, too. You can grab a map and explore the city center by yourself.
Sugar Loaf Mountain
Take a day to relax on lovely Praia Vermelha Beach and then ride the cable car up to the Sugar Loaf. I recommend that you get there by sunset to enjoy breathtaking views of the mountainous skyline.
Ipanema and Copacabana
Both are famous worldwide and have evocative names. Pick one and enjoy a lazy day of sunbathing.
If you don’t know which one to visit, I suggest Ipanema, as the views are more impressive because of the huge Mount “Dois Irmãos” at the right side of the beach. Ipanema is also more sophisticated and fancy. (It’s known for being a place to watch beautiful people.)
Copacabana, on the other hand, is larger and more “popular” or “local” in a certain way.
Lapa offers a combination of historical sites, colonial streets, and crazy nightlife. Every day after 6pm, you’ll find food and drink stalls in the streets around the famous Arches of Lapa. Not far from the Arches, you can visit “Escadaria de Celaron,” the iconic colorful stairs.
Make sure to go to Lapa when there are a lot of people. While it is tempting to go very early or very late so you can have the colorful stairs to yourself, it can be dangerous.
Two bloggers from the Philippines, for example, went early in the morning to take pictures and got robbed in Lapa at gunpoint. (Another tip: to avoid major losses, don’t bring everything with you when you go around the city!)
Adventure And Off The Beaten Path Activities
Aside from the above popular things to do in Rio de Janeiro, I can also recommend some off the beaten path activities in the city. Here are just some of them.
Paragliding has become very popular in Rio. Because the city is surrounded by beaches and green peaks, this activity offers top-class bird’s-eye views.
Most hostels can arrange for a tandem flight or you can book it online. Prices range from $100 to $200 depending on the company, flight duration, program, and season.
From short 10-minute walks to more challenging multi-day treks, Rio de Janeiro offers dozens of impressive hikes. For those looking for something easy, Morro da Urca and Morro do Leme trails can be completed in about 20 minutes, and offer stunning views.
If you’re looking for a more serious hike, Pedra da Gavea and Dois Irmãos are my favorites, taking three hours and one hour, respectively. Whatever your options, don’t miss the chance to enjoy the city from above.
Visiting a favela
If you want to see a different part of the city, some favelas are safe to visit now. Rio de Janeiro has more than 600 communities, so it really depends on which one you visit. I lived in a favela for six months and I always felt safe, though I recommend that you remain accompanied by a guide or someone who lives there.
Vidigal and Rocinha are among the safest and most visited options if you decide to give it a go.
Safety Considerations For Solo Travelers In Rio De Janeiro
Petty crime, assaults, and robberies are common in Rio de Janeiro. However, the chances of being robbed if you are visiting the city for only a few days are not that high.
You must be careful; never walk alone at night and avoid dangerous neighborhoods. Most tourist attractions are safe during the day, and even Lapa isn’t as bad as most people think it is.
That said, avoid the downtown area at night and on the weekends, when all the shops and business are closed, as assaults are common when there are not so many people around.
Learn some Portuguese as well. Although most graduated students can understand and speak decent English, you’ll find that many people in the street won’t understand you.
You don’t need to be fluent in Portuguese, of course, but a few words will be much appreciated. Even if you speak some Spanish, they will understand you better.
There is also a big Couchsurfing community in Rio, and it’s quite active. They have regular meetings every week, including language exchanges and hiking activities. You’ll meet other foreigners, of course, but also a lot of Brazilians.
You can also choose to stay in a hostel. The city has many backpacker hostels, from quiet places to party hostels. As a solo traveler, you’ll have the chance to meet other fellow travelers with whom to explore the city.
I hope you found these tips helpful! If you travel to Rio, you’ll understand why they call it “Cidade Maravilhosa.” Rio de Janeiro really is a wonderful city! Enjoy your trip there!
Text by Miguel (with additional sections by Aleah). All photos by Aleah Taboclaon.