I spent two weeks in Rio de Janeiro and experienced my first southern hemisphere Christmas. We stayed with family, so a lot of our time was spent lounging by the pool in the backyard, or hanging out at the nearby beach cafes and restaurants. We did some of the major tourist activities, but skipped one of the most well-known. We spent New Year’s Eve at iconic Copacabana Beach, and that was an experience I’ll never forget. I cover travel in Rio in this article, and cover gluten free food in Brazil in a separate article!
Travel in Rio
Sugarloaf and Red Beach
According to TripAdvisor, Sugarloaf is the number one tourist destination in Rio. We started our visit at Red Beach (Praia Vermelha), opting to enjoy a caipirinha (a cachaça and lime drink) in the beachside bar and restaurant. After sitting and people watching for a while, we headed over to the Sugarloaf tram, where we got tickets for one of the last trips up the mountain for the evening. This was a good choice because there were no lines; during the day, you can wait hours in the sun to get into the ticket office and on to the tram.
The cable car operates in two sections; you start from the bottom and change cars halfway up at Morro da Urca. The second car takes you to the top of the Sugarloaf. It was just getting dark as we reached the top, so the shops were closing. We got some great photos on the way up. On the way back down, we spent a little time looking around Morro da Urca; there’s a restaurant and they were setting up for an event outside. I’d like to go back with a little more time to explore!
Both the beach and surrounding neighborhood share this iconic name. We spent time exploring both, wandering among the restaurants, shops and bars of the neighborhood before heading down to walk along the beach.
When people go to the beach in Rio, they are out for the day. You’ll see lots of beach vendors selling coconut water, snacks and other beach essentials, so there’s not much need to leave your perfect place in the sand! Take coins, as beaches like Ipanema typically have pay toilets.
Copacabana and New Year’s Eve
We visited Copacabana twice. The first visit was by day, where we walked along the iconic beachside walkway, stopped for a drink and a bite to eat at a snack bar, and spotted tourists. (Oh Americans, we’re so easy to notice!) We were there in the evening, so it was a bit cooler, and people were slowly packing up and leaving after a full day in the sun.
We went back to Copacabana for New Year’s Eve to take in the fireworks. Getting there can be tricky as the roads in the area are closed long before and long after midnight to allow for all the pedestrians that flood into the area. We had to purchase a special permit to park in a shopping center garage, then walk to meet up with family that lived in the area. Around 11 pm, we headed down to the beach and found a good spot in the sand a ways down the beach from the concert stages. It was still pretty full of people, but everyone was happy and it was pretty calm. Just about everyone wore white; the color you wear symbolizes what you’d like to have in the new year, and white stands for peace. Green is for health and yellow is for money. I couldn’t decide so I wore a multicolored dress. Many people made offerings to Yemanjá, a Brazilian mythical goddess that controls the seas. I saw people throw white flowers into the water, in the hopes that they will have good fortune in the coming year. Then at midnight, a firework display lights up the entire beach, with the pyrotechnics launched from barges positioned across the water offshore.
Vista Chinesa is a little Chinese structure atop a hill in the Tijuca National Forest. It offers spectacular views looking out over Rio de Janeiro. We didn’t stay too long, but we took a few pictures and took in the views. There were lots of people around but it wasn’t crazy. There are lots of warnings on TripAdvisor about crime there, so pay attention and don’t put yourself at risk! We didn’t have any trouble while we were there.
Shopping is a popular pastime in Rio, and with the malls offering air-conditioning, they are a great way to escape the Rio heat. You may recognize a few brands like H&M and Sephora, but likely most of the shops in Brazil will be new to you coming from the United States or United Kingdom. You’re likely familiar with Havaianas, a very popular brand of flip flops.
Pro tip: Havaianas are super cheap to buy in Brazil compared to the rest of the world. I paid around 25 reais for a pair; that’s about $6 US, or about £4.50! In the US you’d spend about $30 for a comparable pair, and in the UK you’d spend about £26. The exchange rate wasn’t quite so favorable when I was there, but I still spent at least four times less there than I would have in either of my “homes.”
What I didn’t do
Christ the Redeemer
We opted to skip the trip up to the actual monument. Instead, we drove to Mirante Dona Marta, which is on the way to Corcovado (the mountain where the statue is located). The view from there is said to be similar to the view from the top of Corcovado, but there are way fewer tourists around. We took a few great pictures and skipped the crowds.
If you want to go all the way to the top to see the statue, you can get there either by train or by van. The official website seems pretty poorly translated to English and is confusing. There is advice on TripAdvisor from people who visited (they seem split on whether the train or van is the best way to go.) No matter who you ask, people will tell you it’s a very popular destination and that it gets very crowded. You can buy advance tickets on the official website and this might be the way to go.