So you've got visions of Rio dancing in your head. Sunny beach days, heart-stopping views, spicy snacks... Rio offers all of this and more. But the city is big, and especially during the Olympic Games, it will be crowded to capacity.
So how best to enjoy this beautiful city, whose dramatic landscape has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status? We asked locals and visitors alike for their best insider tips on getting the most out of your Rio visit. Here are eight can't-miss spots to hit in Rio:
A Stunning Sunset on the Rocks of Arpoador
If you want to feel yourself wrapped up in the beauty of Rio, grab a canga (one of the colorful Brazilian towels sold along the beach) and head to the rocks jutting out on the eastern end of Ipanema beach, lying between Ipanema and Copacabana. Get there at least a half-hour before sunset, and lay out your canga on a spot on the rocks. Then, sit back and let Rio's beauty do the work.
As the sun sets behind the Dois Irmaos mountains on the southwestern end of Ipanema, the curving lights along the beach flicker to life, and the orange lights of the Vidigal favela, nestled into the mountains, begin to twinkle. In the foreground, surfers enjoy the waves well into the evening, and in the background, the glowing Christ the Redeemer statue seems to float above it all. Call over one of the vendors scrambling over the rocks and order a caipirinha (the Brazilian national cocktail, made with lime, sugar, and cachaça). There is perhaps no more peaceful way to end a hectic day in Rio than by sipping on a caipirinha or an ice-cold Coca-Cola and watching the colors in the Rio sky change.
Insider tip: For an even better view, climb up to the top of the rocks, where you can get a 360-degree view of the south zone of Rio, from Copacabana to the Christ statue to Vidigal.
A Breath of Fresh Air Tropical Refuge at Parque Lage
Although Rio is nestled in a dense strip of Atlantic Forest, it can be hard to really sense the tropical forest among all the hustle and bustle of the city. But on the north end of the lagoon there is a little reserve that allows visitors easy access to nature without having to hike. The area is called Parque Lage, and within this patch of forest sits a grand old mansion with a chic swimming pool.
Insider tip: Enjoy a coffee at the café inside the mansion and pretend it's your home, or roam the grounds while looking up, keeping an eye out for swinging monkeys.
Afternoon Carousing in Santa Teresa
The Santa Teresa neighborhood offers visitors a taste of the artistic, bohemian life of Rio. Located up winding roads above Rio's downtown, the neighborhood is a cluster of traditional Brazilian botecos and art galleries. Roam along the defunct trolley tracks, popping into the shops and bars along the way.
Insider tip: For a chic lunch spot with a view, try Aprazível or Espírito Santa, or for a traditional feijoada (meat and bean stew) feast, put your name on the list for a seat at tiny Bar do Mineiro. And either on your way up or down, pass through the tiled Selaron staircase, a colorful icon perfect for postcard clicks.
Shop and Snack at Ipanema's Hippie Fair
For easy souvenir shopping in the south zone of Rio, check out the “Hippie Fair" in the Praça General Osorio in Ipanema. On Sundays, the square fills up with a maze of vendors selling everything from jewelry to wooden fruit to art.
Insider tip: If you get hungry at the fair, this is a great opportunity to try an iconic Brazilian snack with African roots, normally found in the northeastern state of Bahia. It's called acarajé, and is sold on the corners of the market by women dressed in all white. Be sure to save room for their cocada coconut dessert too.
Happy Hour with Locals in Urca
For a great view of the Christ statue without having to wait in line for the gondola, head to the cloistered neighborhood of Urca, beneath Sugarloaf mountain. There, at a spot called Bar Urca, you can order a beer and some snacks and then sit along the seawall lining the Guanabara Bay and watch the sun set behind the Christ statue.
Insider tip: Urca is an easy bike ride along a path from Copacabana and Ipanema.
Party in Lapa
If you want to do it up late in Rio, Lapa is the spot to go, especially on Friday and Saturdays. It's then that the neighborhood fills up with vendors selling all variety of fresh fruit cocktails and street snacks. Roam down Avenida Mem da Sá, passing beneath the iconic white Lapa aquaduct and popping into the bars that catch your eye.
Insider tip: For a killer shrimp pastel, pop in Boteco Belmonte. And if you've got your dancing shoes on, get in line for Rio Scenarium, where multiple floors of myriad bands will keep you moving until dawn.
People Watch at Ipanema Beach
Let's be honest, one of the best things to do in Rio is hit the beach. And no beach is more popular with visitors than Ipanema. Stroll along the sidewalk until you find a spot you like. A worker from the closest tent will likely run to offer you a chair. Open a conta, or bill, with them. The tent's vendors will come running around to offer you beers and sandwiches, and itinerant vendors will pass through at a steady clip, selling everything from bikinis to fruit salad. The beach is great people watching, so sit back and enjoy.
Insider Tip: Look for a crowd that suits you before settling in. Some sections of the beach have playground and hence more families, while other sections are especially inclusive as marked by the rainbow flags.
See Rio from Above at Sugarloaf Mountain
The view from top of the Sugarloaf Mountain will take your breath away. While most tourists head first to see the view from the Christ statue, in many ways Sugarloaf offers an even better view, as the Christ statue will appear in your pics. Ride the gondola up to see Rio's mountains and beaches in all their glory.
Insider tip: Aim for sunset – the most spectacular time to catch the view – but get in line early to be sure your timing works out.