It’s hard to sum up what Brazil was like in words, but it energized me. The color, the people, the vibrance, the creativity, the art, the spirit—all of it was like an infectious energy that left me not only wanting more of Brazil, but wanting to reawaken my own creativity and spirit.
I could go on and on about how much I fell for Brazil in just the seven days I spent in its arms, but this post isn’t meant to be a love letter. For now, I’m just going to tell you how to max out on a two-day stay in Rio, because that was all I had and I tried to do the most with it.
Brazil is known for being high on crime (though so are a lot of places in the world that people often travel to, like Acapulco and Cape Town), so if you’re traveling solo like I was, you have to be smart about your movements.
With that in mind, I opted to book this full-day tour of Rio through TripAdvisor, which was amazing and hit just about every place I’m going to tell you about below. The best part was that they collect you from your hotel, take you all over the city, provide built in people to talk to (and take your pictures because, Instagram), feed you, and then after all that, they return you safely back to your hotel. The only thing you have to think about is waking up on time.
I can’t say that I necessarily saw the real Rio in just two days, but when you’re visiting somewhere for the first time, there are usually some tourist spots you should probably hit. So here they are, the hotspots to add to your Rio to-do list.
Head to Corcovado for Christ the Redeemer
Known locally as Cristo Redentor, the Christ the Redeemer statue is one of the most iconic symbols of Brazil. The art deco statue that’s considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, was built between 1926 and 1931 and stands 26 feet tall, though it looks much more imposing when you’re up close and personal with it. For me, it felt kind of spiritual to be looking up at Christ, who’s looking down at you with open arms. But the slew of tourists mimicking the arms outstretched statue and trying not to hit the tourist next to them doing the same thing? A little less spiritual. Info.
Check out Copacabana
The world famous Copacabana beach is a sight to see in Rio. It comes to life just like you’d expect it: delicious footballers kicking the ball around on the beach, friends playing beach volleyball, beauties in skimpy bikini bottoms—it feels like Rio incarnate. Heads up though, the water is freezing even in the midst of the city’s summer (December to March), and people get pick-pocketed here. I was told by a local that if you go to the beach without any jewelry and without an iphone, you should be good to go. I walked around solo and was perfectly undisturbed. While you’re in the area, head to the lavish Belmond Copacabana Palace, a staple of 1920’s Rio, which has played host to many a celebrity, including Michael Jackson. Go there for a caipirinha cocktail and to check out the pool, unless of course you feel like treating yo’self to a stay that’s upward of $500 a night. Info.
See Sugarloaf Mountain
Let me first say that if you don’t like heights, this will not be the favorite stop on your whirlwind Rio tour. But if you can overcome that fear, the views from this peak at the mouth of Rio’s Guanabara Bay are everything. You’ll start on a cable car to get to the shorter Morro da Urca peak (and if you’re lucky, you’ll see monkeys running around the grounds and in the trees), and then onto another cable car to reach Sugarloaf, where you’ll be able to see out over all of Rio, with a tiny Christ the Redeemer in the background. Info.
Eat at a churrascaria
If you don’t eat meat, please proceed to the next spot on the list. For the rest of you, the Brazilian steakhouse is like a meat parade. Waiters come around at a steady clip, delivering all different kinds of carne, from steak to sausages to mini burgers to things you won’t even necessarily recognize, and if you say yes, they slice a bit off onto your plate. When you tire of eating, you’ll turn over the little card that comes with your meal, shifting it from the green side to the red side to signify that you want the meat parade to stop. The tour I went on took us to Carretão in Ipanema, known for being one of Rio’s best churrascarias. If you don’t eat meat, but you’re still reading, there’s an incredible “salad” bar with every kind of salad you could ever imagine, plus non-salad things like beans, corn, cheese empanadas, even sushi, which could fill you up quite well without any meat at all. Info.
Get to Escadaria Selarón
The Escadaria Selarón could easily be the most Instagrammed thing in Brazil. But it’s more than just an attraction, the Selarón steps are an intricate work of very creative art. The artist, Chilean-born Jorge Selarón, collected tiles from all over the world to cover the steps that sit between the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods of Rio. The tiles feature everything from intricate patterns to Bob Marley’s face to hundreds of repeated tiles displaying a pregnant African woman hand painted by Selarón, which the late artist reportedly addressed as a “problem from his past.” *Pro tip: head passed the part near the bottom of the steps where it actually says Escadaria Selarón, because that’s where everyone wants to take a picture and there’s a line to take a photo, which also doesn’t mean you’ll get a shot without a million other people in it. Keep walking up, where the stairs are just as beautiful, but with far fewer people. Info.
Visit the Maracanã
Football fans will rejoice at being in the presence of the Maracanã stadium, home to FIFA World Cup matches and events during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. You can take a picture of, or with, the statue of famed Brazilian footballer Hilderaldo Bellini that’s out front, and buy football club jerseys and other gear from vendors capitalizing on the tourist stop even when there’s no football being played. I got to see “Pelé” out front doing tricks with the football. (check out my Insta stories for a look at the action). Info.
Hit the Feira Hippie de Ipanema
Trust a so-dubbed hippie fair to have all the best in art and crafts coming out of Brazil at prices you can’t find anywhere but an open-air market. At this #SundayFunday Ipanema activity, you’ll find original canvas paintings, jewelry galore, head scarfs, home decor, wood carvings and more—all made in Brazil. My best find was a pair of handmade leather sandals for $20 that I’ll be wearing all summer and will probably cry once I’ve worn them out. Info.