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Carnival Time: A guide to Rio de Janeiro

by Travelbag on 13 February 2020, 16:02PM

Rio de Janeiro Carnival

Every year, in the lead up to Lent, Brazil’s former capital transforms into one giant party. The Rio de Janeiro Carnival is the largest carnival in the world, with two million people per day taking to the streets. This year’s official celebration will happen across five days, from 21st to 26th February, culminating on Fat Tuesday. Although, in reality, the festivities usually last far longer.

During carnival, a contagious holiday atmosphere overtakes the city and Rio comes alive with the sound of samba. Block parties – known as ‘blocos’ – happen in every neighbourhood, while Rio’s best samba schools put on spellbinding performances at the Sambódromo. Wherever you go, you’ll see people decked out in feathers, sequins and gravity-defying headdresses, eating barbecued meat and sipping on caipirinhas.

If you’re heading to Latin America for the Rio carnival, or planning to visit some other time, you’ll want to take in the Marvellous City’s top sights while you’re there. So we’ve rounded up the things you need to include on your Rio de Janeiro bucket list.

Enjoy some beach time at Copacabana or Ipanema

Copacabana and Ipanema are two of the most famous beaches not only in Rio de Janeiro but in the world. These long, sun-drenched stretches of sand sit adjacent to one another on the southeastern edge of the city. Although they’re both popular hangouts for locals and tourists alike, Copacabana, with its famous black-and-white, wave-design promenade, is the more boisterous of the two. Affluent Ipanema is more fashionable and, some argue, more attractive. The surrounding area is filled with expensive boutiques, upmarket restaurants and stylish cafes.

Tanned bodies line both beaches, with different groups staking out their own sections. Sports lovers, favela kids and older residents all have their preferred area. So the spot where you lay your towel will depend on whether you want to surf, play volleyball, or simply lie back with a book and a coconut.

Copacabana Beach

Cruise across Guanabara Bay

Flanked by Sugarloaf Mountain to the west and Parrot’s Peak to the east, Guanabara Bay provides the city with a truly striking backdrop. Its serene waters are the reason Rio de Janeiro is considered to have one of the best natural settings of any city in the world. There are more than 130 islands dotted around the bay, some of which – like Paquetá Island – have beautiful beaches and offer respite from the crowds on Copacabana. A great way to take in some of Rio’s top sights is from the water, with a boat tour along the coast. Or, if you’re feeling active, you can explore Guanabara Bay on a stand-up paddle-board.

Climb the Selarón Steps

The Selarón Steps is one of the most visited attractions in Rio de Janeiro – and it’s not hard to see why. The work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, the 215 steps leading up from Joaquim Silva are a riot of colour. He claimed they were his “tribute to the Brazilian people.” Connecting the two bohemian neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, they’re covered in fragments of bright blue, green and yellow tiles – the colours of the Brazilian flag. Selarón began renovating the dilapidated steps in front of his house in 1990 as a side project. It became a labour of love, though, and he continued to add to them for over two decades, until his death in 2013. 

Selarón Steps

Ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain

Rising 396 metres above Guanabara Bay, Sugarloaf Mountain is a striking granite monolith, and one of the city’s most spectacular natural attractions. To reach the summit, you can hike the Costão trail, which involves a fair bit of scrambling and a vertical pitch of rock climbing – although no prior climbing experience is required. Alternatively, you can take the glass-walled cable car which runs approximately every half an hour. Starting at Praia Vermelha (Red Beach), it stops first at Morro da Urca (Urca Hill) before continuing on to Sugarloaf Mountain. The views from the cable car and the vistas from the top of the mountain are some of the best you’ll find anywhere in Rio de Janeiro.

Reflect on the state of the planet at the Museum of Tomorrow

Located in Rio’s regenerated port district, the Museum of Tomorrow – or Museu do Amanhã in Portuguese – is a science museum dedicated to sustainability and climate change. With a focus on ideas rather than objects, it explores our origins and predicts future scenarios based on environmental, social and economic implications. The museum’s interactive exhibitions and visual displays look at outer space, Earth’s biodiversity and humans’ impact on the planet. Designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the building itself is a neo-futuristic feat – and just as impressive as the exhibitions inside. Since opening in 2016, the Museum of Tomorrow has fast become a must-see for anyone visiting Rio de Janeiro.

Sugarloaf Mountain Cable Car

Take a stroll through Tijuca National Park

Just west of the city centre, Tijuca National Park is all that remains of the Atlantic rainforest which once surrounded Rio de Janeiro, but was cleared in the seventeenth century to grow sugarcane and coffee. Although it’s only a fraction of the size it once was, it still spans 32 square kilometres, making it the largest urban forest on the planet. With its dense foliage, refreshing waterfalls and countless hiking trails, Tijuca National Park is the best place in the city to get back to nature. Besides an abundance of native flora, it’s also home to many animal species, including ocelots, howler monkeys, agoutis and sloths. And with over 300 types of bird now living in the park, it’s a paradise for birdwatchers.

Admire the view alongside Christ the Redeemer

The most famous landmark in Tijuca National Park – and probably all of Rio de Janeiro – is Christ the Redeemer. Standing atop Mount Corcovado (which translates as ‘hunchback’), the imposing statue towers above Guanabara Bay, protecting the city with outstretched arms. Built between 1922 and 1931, it’s the fourth largest statue of Jesus Christ anywhere in the world, and the largest Art Deco sculpture on the planet. The easiest way to get to Christ the Redeemer is via the bright red cog train which departs every 20 minutes from Cosme Velho station. Alternatively, there are a number of trails leading to the peak of Corcovado, so you can hike or cycle instead. However you get there, you’ll be rewarded with magnificent panoramic vistas of the city and the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s well worth the effort.

Christ the Redeemer

Watch a football match at the Maracanã

Officially called Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho, the Maracanã is one of the world’s most iconic football stadiums. It was originally built for the 1950 World Cup, with a major reconstruction project taking place ahead of the 2014 World Cup. During the 2016 Olympic Games, it staged both the opening and closing ceremonies, and it continues to host matches between the city’s major football clubs, including Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo, and Vasco da Gama. If you’re a football fan visiting Rio de Janeiro, you should definitely try to get tickets for a game. Or why not go behind the scenes on a guided stadium tour?

Spot exotic plants at the Jardim Botânico

If, after a few days, the hustle and bustle of the city becomes a bit much, make a beeline for the Jardim Botânico. Located in Rio de Janeiro’s popular South Zone, this blissful 137-hectare garden was designed in 1808 by order of the Prince Regent Dom João. Today, more than 8,000 plant species can be found within its grounds. The most photographed area is the Avenue of Royal Palms, which is fringed with 134 palms. Also worth exploring are the large lake filled with water lilies, the Japanese garden with bonsais and bamboo, and the greenhouse containing 600 different types of orchid. As you wander around you’ll likely see various birds, including the channel-billed toucan and the white-necked hawk – and possibly even a monkey or two. And if you’re in need of refreshment at any point, there’s a delightful French cafe on site.

Jardim Botânico

Ready to see what Brazil has to offer? Check out our incredible deals.

And if you’re thinking about a bigger trip, this is how to spend 40 days in South America.


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