Heading to Rio soon? You’re in luck! I’ve got the best travel tips to prepare you for a great vacation in Brazil.
Our six days in Rio de Janeiro were really like a dream – so many interesting things to see, do, and eat. I was really blown away by just how much I loved the city! For me, I think it was a combination of loving a bustling city, but also loving nature and beautiful viewpoints – and Rio delivers both in such a unique way!
However, being a country in South America, there are a lot of differences between traveling in Rio compared to traveling in the United States. In this article, I want to talk about the best travel tips and important things to know before going to Rio de Janeiro, based on our experience there, and the advice given to me by my brother, who lived there for several years.
You’ll be on your way in no time! Let’s get into my 13 important travel tips for a Rio de Janeiro vacation:
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One of the most important things to know before going to Rio de Janeiro are some safety tips for the city. Safety was a big concern for us as we prepared to visit Rio. I’d often heard Rio described as an unsafe city, and I had talked extensively to my brother, who lived in Rio for a couple of years, about safety concerns.
Honestly, I had a decent bit of anxiety the 2 weeks before we left about our vacation. I was extremely worried about our phones getting snatched out of our hands, getting pickpocketed, getting my purse slashed, getting mugged, and just generally running into a lot of unsafe or unsavory situations.
I will say that we exercised much more caution than we normally do when traveling when visiting Rio, and were a lot more aware than usual about our surroundings (of course, we’re always taking precautions and being aware, but it was definitely heightened in Rio), but we almost always felt perfectly fine and safe as we toured the city. Still, learning about what precautions to take is an important thing to know before going to Rio de Janeiro.
These are the safety travel tips for Rio I would recommend:
Avoid the Favelas, Unless You’re in a Tour
Favelas are crowded, very poor neighborhoods, usually built up into the hillsides of Rio. Favelas are all controlled by gangs or the mafia, where they sell drugs and machine guns are carried openly.
While doing a guided tour of a favela is totally safe (and was a really interesting and positive experience in Rio, I highly recommend it – read our full review of it here), and the favelas in general can be relatively safe during the daylight hours, I would definitely still avoid them if you aren’t with a tour.
Gang invasions, shootouts, or police raids could take place during any time, day or night, and you’d have no idea it’s coming. The tourist favelas avoid this during the day because of the tourism, but any other favela is free game any time any day. So, outside of a tour, just play it safe and avoid the favelas!
Be Off the Streets After Dark
In general, don’t be walking on the streets after dark (which is about 6pm year round). As an international tourist, a good rule of thumb is if you need to go somewhere at dark, take an uber or taxi, or the metro if you’re walking less than a block to/from the stations to your destination.
Now, if you are in an area that is well lit and well-trafficked with people, then that is probably okay to be out and walking around. For example, one night after dinner we wanted to walk several blocks to a grocery store around 9pm. At first, I was hesitant to be out walking, but then saw that our route was along a road with lots of cars, lots of light, and many other pedestrians out and about. That was a fine situation.
Conversely, another night we thought we’d do the same thing because it was only about a 10 minute walk to the restaurant we were going to. This time though, there was very little traffic and very few pedestrians, although it was well-lit and not that late (only around 7pm). I felt like this situation was less safe and in retrospect would’ve gotten an uber (although we did walk right past the police precinct, so that did give some peace of mind).
Be Aware of Pickpockets
Be very aware of pickpockets (or thieves snatching your phone out of your hand), particularly in areas like Copacabana, markets, or other touristy spots. If you are in a taxi or uber and your window is down, be aware that passing pedestrians, bikers, or men doing sales in the street when cars are stopped will sometimes grab phones right out of your hands in the car.
In general, just be careful with your phones. Ideally, don’t pull them out on the street. Because we were always wanting to take pictures, we had our phones out a lot, and here’s what we did to try to be safe:
If we were walking around, I often kept two hands on my phone and kept it in front of my body. I also put a hand wrist strap lanyard on my phone case that went around my wrist, so it was somewhat attached to my body.
We tried to pay attention to our surroundings and not have the phones out conspicuously when there were people right by us.
As we were touring around Centro in particular, we saw a lot of police cars/officers out around the area, just parked and monitoring the area. This is for safety reasons, as a deterrent to crime, and we felt more secure walking around with that security present.
Be Careful of Hiking Trails and Paths
Gangs will sometimes take over nature trails, and for a while the path from Parque Lage to the Christ the Redeemer statue had a whole bunch of muggings, so it was definitely a place to avoid.
When we visited Parque Lage, we noticed that there was a police officer at the trailhead, so that trail may be safer now, but I would still exercise a lot of caution if you plan to do any trails, never be out after dark, and ideally be in a group.
In general, just be aware of your surroundings, keep a close eye (and hand) on your belongings, and just pay attention to what and who is around you.
Now, with all that said, I don’t think you need to be scared of Rio (the way I kind of was, haha). For example, I had read a couple of accounts where people said they didn’t go more than 10 minutes without running into a group of people or a scenario where they felt uncomfortable.
That was not our experience. In fact, we generally felt very safe as we walked around and toured Rio. And the few times I did feel a little uncomfortable, we were able to quickly get somewhere I did feel safer. I think that one of the good things to know before going to Rio is that, despite its reputation, with a few precautions you can have a safe and enjoyable trip.
Be situationally aware, have a plan of how you will get around and where you will be, and follow the above suggestions to maximize your chances of a great, safe trip.
2. How to Get Around
Having a plan for how to get around is another one of those important things to know before going to Rio. Thankfully, there are a lot of possibilities for transportation, and they are all very affordable.
Attractions are pretty spread out around the city, so we had to get transportation several times a day.
Rio’s metro system is very nice. One ride costs R$5 ($1), which is good for transfers within the metro system. I will say that the metro system does not go everywhere in the city, which is a big limitation. But if you are close to a metro line, the metros are air-conditioned and clean, and it is a cheap, convenient, fast, and safe way to get around the city.
We only ended up taking the metro twice, as our hotel in the Santa Teresa neighborhood was not really close to any metro station. However, if you are staying in Copacabana, I would definitely take the metro more frequently, as traffic seems to be worse in that area, and there is a line that takes you directly between Copacabana and Centro, where a lot of attractions are.
You can buy a ticket from the kiosks at the station. You can either buy a single ticket, or a longer term pass.
We only took the bus once, but it is another cheap and easy way to get around. The bus has many more routes than the metro does, but do beware – grab and run situations can happen on buses more, so just watch your stuff and phones closely.
We did find that taking the bus down from the Dona Marta viewpoint was necessary, as Ubers do not like to come all the way up to the summit for pickup. For this viewpoint, we took an Uber up, and then walked about 20 minutes back down the mountain to the bus stop, and took the bus back into the city.
You can pay with cash for a bus ride. One ride costs R$4.05 (<$1).
Quick Travel Tip: In Rio, when waiting for the bus, you’ll need to wave it down to stop for you.
We took a LOT of Ubers in Rio – 30 to be precise. With an average cost of $4.30 per ride (and a total cost of $130 for the whole week), it was a very cheap and convenient way to get around. In general, I would recommend taking Ubers the most, with the exception of if you are right on a metro line, and then I would opt for metro over Ubers more often.
While the taxi fare quoted to us at the airport was a lot higher than what we paid for the Uber at the airport (more than twice the cost), we found that the two times we took taxis in the city, it ended up being about the same cost that was quoted to us by Uber (we did a quick check in the cab).
Still, I preferred the convenience of Uber a little bit more than taxis, as we put the address into the app, didn’t need cash, and didn’t have to try to hail a cab (not difficult, but still felt more convenient).
Just make sure that the cab resets the meter when you go and have cash on hand. The meter resets at R$5.90.
Rio has a brand new light rail system that debuted just ahead of the 2016 Olympic games. To date, there are 3 lines on the light rail. One ticket costs R$3.60 (about .72 USD)
One crazy thing is that the light rail runs right down a street that has some street market stalls on it. (I don’t think its exactly a part of the Uruguiana market, but it was adjacent to it). We were in front of a table looking at some candy and, I kid you not, the light rail came less than a foot from where we were standing. I was literally like ‘Matthew do not move backwards.’
You can find a map of the public transport in Rio here.
You can definitely walk around parts of Rio during the day, but note that a lot of things are very spread out. There are, however, a lot of attractions in the Centro/Lapa areas that you can walk between, and you can certainly walk around Copacabana and Ipanema.
There are bike rental stands throughout the city, but I would hesitate to recommend biking solo in most parts of Rio, as the traffic is kind of crazy. On Copacabana and Ipanema, there is a dedicated bike lane separate from the pedestrian sidewalk and the road, and biking along there is really fun!
Download the Bike Itau app to locate and rent bikes throughout the city – it’s an easy scan and go situation.
3. The Architectural Style of the City
Architecturally, Rio de Janeiro has a lot of variety. Centro is the historic center of the city, and you’ll see a lot of 19th century buildings with pretty design features.
Rio was the capital of Brazil for a few centuries and was the hub for the Portuguese crown before Brazil gained its independence from Portugal, So a lot of the architectural style comes from the European influence from Portugal during that time.
The Theatro Municipal was based off of the theater in Paris, for example. But there are also modern, futuristic designs as well, in the Museum of Tomorrow and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Throughout Rio you’ll find colorful painted buildings.
You’ll also find plenty of stark buildings or non-descript high rises.
There are areas with a lot of graffiti, and some buildings have barbed wire around the exterior walls.
The Santa Teresa neighborhood is unique in Rio, with a very Bohemian vibe, tons of street art and the trolley that winds its way to the top of the hill overlooking the city.
The favelas have their own style as well, with small, squat, painted houses stacked closely together as they climb up a hill.
And be sure to look down, too. There are frequent cobblestone streets and tiled sidewalks to enjoy.
You really get a range of so many styles in Rio! One of my favorite travel tips is to pay attention to all the different types of architecture you’ll see in Rio!
4. The Size and Geography of the City
One of the things to know before you go to Rio de Janeiro is that it is a very big city (over 450 square miles), and it feels particularly big due to its geography. Rio is right on the coast, but the coastline isn’t straight; you have curves and jutoffs and sudden turns. Additionally, there are a TON of hills and mountains in the city, and the city just builds around (and sometimes up!) them.
So, you do have some navigating around hills to get places, or driving up the mountain to visit certain spots. The twists and turns (and density of the city) can make for slower transit at times.
5. Best Area to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
Figuring out the best area to stay in Rio de Janeiro is an important part of planning a trip to Rio de Janeiro, since, as we mentioned in #4, the city is very spread out, and some areas of the city are decidely more safe than others.
There are a few good areas that I would recommend to stay in Rio, based on what we looked at before we left, neighborhoods that were recommended to me by my brother, and what we observed while we were there.
This was the area we ultimately ended up staying, and I was extremely happy with this choice. As I mentioned in #3, Santa Teresa is a quiet, artsy neighborhood that extends up a hill overlooking the city. There was a ton of street art and brightly painted houses in Santa Teresa, and the area felt very residential, and safe during the daytime hours.
The traffic was never bad in this neighborhood, and it was a quick and easy (and cheap) ride down into Centro, where a lot of sites are.
Recommended Hotel: Villa Franca
I can highly recommend Villa Franca here. It had a secure entrance, a beautiful courtyard, and a very relaxing lobby entrance that really felt more like the living area of a villa than a hotel reception area.
The rooms were large and decorated nicely, and, very importantly, the wifi and air conditioning were strong, and the rooms had a good size mini-fridge. Check current rates for Villa Franca here!
Centro is a great area to stay in. It is more the “business” district of Rio, but it also has a lot of buildings that are beautiful, historic, and/or colorful.
There are a TON of things to see and do in Centro, and so staying in this area will be very convenient, as you’ll be able to walk to a lot of spots. It is a safe area, especially during the day. I would be careful and exercise caution at night, as there are some areas with more homeless people.
Lapa is the neighborhood right next to Centro, although we found the Lapa area to be just a little bit more dilapidated, and is known for having more crime. So while you can and should visit the sites in Lapa, just exercise a little more caution here.
Recommended Hotels: Windor Asturias Hotel
The Windsor Asturias is a very comfortable hotel in the Centro district, not far from the Lapa attractions. It is within walking distance of many sites in the area! In addition, the hotel has a rooftop bar and pool, with beautiful views out over the bay. You’ll enjoy an extensive breakfast buffet every day, and of course, comfortable rooms and a helpful staff. Check current rates for the Windsor Asturias Hotel here!
Copacabana and Ipanema
Copacabana and Ipanema are the best areas to stay in Rio de Janeiro if you want to spend more time at the beach. Copacabana is a little more centrally located, while Ipanema is generally considered a nicer beach.
However, we found the beach at Copacabana to be really nice! I had heard that it was a pretty crappy beach, but I think it got cleaned up quite a bit before the Olympics in 2016. The water was nice and the sand, while there was some trash here and there, did not feel particularly dirty or gross. I would hang out at Copacabana again, no problem.
Ipanema is considered to be a more expensive area in the city, and also generally considered to be a little nicer than Copacabana.
Note that we did find the traffic to be heavier in this area (but as noted above, it is on a metro line, which is a plus).
Recommended Hotel in Copacabana: Velinn Reserva Copacabana
The Velinn Reserva Copacabana is in an awesome location if you are wanting plenty of beach time, as it is just a couple blocks from both the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. The hotel is clean and the staff is friendly, and the rooftop breakfast is a big highlight. Check current rates here!
Botafogo is a lively area situated between Copacabana and Centro. It’s a good, central location and generally considered a safe area to stay and visit in Rio. This neighborhood sits right on Guanabara Bay and at the foot of the super cool Sugar Loaf mountain.
We came to this area a few times for dinner and really liked it!
Recommended Hotel in Botafogo: O Veleiro Bed and Breakfast
I love the cozy interiors in this B&B and the absolutely gorgeous garden courtyard area (with pool!). It’s a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. The bedroom design feels like you’re visiting an old friend in Rio instead of staying in a hotel, and the views over the hills are excellent. Make sure you book a standard room (not economy) for the AC. Check current rates for O Veleiro here!
Leblon is the best area to stay in Rio de Janeiro if you want to be close to the beach, but in a nicer and quieter area than either Copacabana and Ipanema. The downside – it is a pricier area and farther away from many attractions. It can be a beautiful spot, though!
Recommended Hotel in Leblon: Sheraton Grand Rio Resort and Hotel
If you’re staying in Leblon, it’s probably because you want that upscale beach experience, and the Sheraton Grand Rio definitely delivers. With an absolutely gorgeous pool and lush grounds directly overlooking Leblon Beach, you’ll enjoy luxury beach and pool days, with several on-site restaurants and spacious rooms with balconies overlooking the beach. Check current rates for the Sheraton Grand Rio here!
6. Brazilian Coinage
Brazil’s currency is the Real, which is pronounced “hay-ahl”. The plural of real (reais) is pronounced “hay-ize.” The emphasis is on the last syllable (the “ahl” or “ize” part).
At the time of writing, one US dollar is worth about 5 reais. Most places around the city take card, but I would still plan to have cash on hand for things like bus fares, street food, or taxis.
7. Withdrawing Money
Be careful at ATMs on the street and exercise caution if there are other people around.
I would recommend withdrawing some money at the airport, but find the ATMs, not the exchange centers. We did try the exchange centers by baggage claim, but one only took cash (we only had our debit cards), and the exchange rate from the other one was basically highway robbery.
Quick Travel Tip: At the exit doors where you can get a taxi into Rio, there are some escalators that will take you up a level, and at the top there are some ATMs. These machines will give you a much better exchange rate, and you can use your debit card instead of cash. You can ask any employee or taxi driver where the ATMs are.
General Travel Tip: Whenever traveling in a foreign country, always have cashiers run your credit card in the local currency, not dollars (or whatever your home currency may be). Sometimes you are given the option to choose between the two currencies on the screen if you are inserting the card yourself. You will get a better exchange rate by having your bank convert it, not the store.
Wondering what it costs to visit Rio? Check out our detailed Rio de Janeiro trip costs post here!
8. The Language
Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, and unlike many other tourist destinations in Europe, not many Brazilians speak English, even in tourist-facing locations. While there were some people who spoke English, most people did not.
We did learn a few Portuguese words and got along fine, but I do wish we had learned a few more common words and phrases before traveling to Rio de Janeiro (please, thank you, hello, goodbye, where are the bathrooms, I don’t speak Portuguese, the numbers 1-10, etc are some good ones). Knowing some basic phrases before you go is a really useful step for visiting Rio de Janeiro.
I would also try to look up and practice pronunciation of any words you’ll learn, because pronunciation in Portuguese is not always how you think it’d be (we were really surprised with some of the pronunciation rules!)
A big travel tip for Rio: Plan to use Google Translate a lot!
Despite a big language barrier, we found that people were still very nice and willing to work with our pointing/miming/google translating. Most of the Brazilians we interacted with were extremely friendly!
9. Weather and What to Wear
Weather in Rio is either hot or VERY HOT. As Rio de Janeiro is in the southern hemisphere, seasons are opposite the US, with December being summer and June being winter.
Thus, hottest months in Rio are December, January, and February, with temperatures almost always above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (plus humidity!) Coldest months are June, July, and August, with average highs in the upper 70’s.
The rainy season is from December to March and the dry season from May to October, with April and November being transitional months. During the rainy season, you can either get rain showers in the afternoon (the kind of rain very common in tropical areas) or you can get all day downpours. When we visited in the middle of March, the forecast showed high chances of rain and thunderstorms every day we would be there, but we ended up barely even having any clouds in the sky and no rain at all.
The average relative humidity stays very constant throughout the year, at about 78 to 80%. This is EXTREMELY humid! One of the big travel tips for visiting Rio de Janeiro is to plan on wearing wickable, breathable fabrics as you explore the city.
In hot weather, I prefer wearing breezy dresses (less things to stick to my body!). These are the ones I wore in Brazil:
A few other travel essentials for Rio include:
Don’t forget to put on sunscreen everyday! The sun is intense in Rio, even if you’re not at the beach. With my acne-prone skin, I always wear this sunscreen for sensitive skin, but Matthew likes using this sunscreen stick.
10. Bottled Water vs Tap Water
While the cleanliness of tap water in Rio has come a long way, it is still not guaranteed safe to drink. You’re better off just drinking bottled water. Plus, tap water comes with a rather unpleasant odor, so you will likely find it more pleasant to drink bottled water, anyway.
Bottled water is easy to find around the city, as there are stands, or even just people with a cooler, set up all over the city.
Tipping is not expected or customary when traveling in Rio de Janeiro. A tip is already included in the bill.
12. Toilet Paper
One of the very important things to know before going to Rio de Janeiro is that the sewage system in Brazil (like many countries in south and central America) is not set up to handle toilet paper. Instead of flushing it, you just stick it in the bathroom trash can.
Brazil uses two types of electrical plugs: types C and N. Plug type has two round pins, and is also commonly used in a lot of Europe. Plug type N has two round pins plus a grounding pin.
Brazil operates on a 127/220V supply voltage and 60Hz. We did not need to use any electrical converters for our electronics in Brazil (just the adaptors), as all our electronics are dual voltage rated.
This is the type C plug adaptor set we always travel with – it’s an inexpensive price for a 3-pack.
Bonus Tip – Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Securing some travel insurance is an important part of prepping for any international trip – you never know when something might happen, and your regular insurance generally won’t cover you overseas. Costs for a medical emergency on vacation can add up extremely fast, so it’s just better to be safe than sorry.
I like booking insurance at Insure My Trip, as they offer a variety of plans with different coverages to choose from, so you can find the right option for you. Plus, they have great customer support if you need help before, during, or after your trip.
Final Thoughts on the Best Rio de Janeiro Travel Tips
I absolutely loved Rio de Janeiro – the bustling, vibrant city, the mountains and hills all around, the street food everywhere, the beaches and friendly people. My biggest Rio travel tips are to really enjoy the city and all the surrounding nature – Rio is such a fun and unique city!