2020 Brazil Travel Guide
If you are seeking adventures and thrills, Brazil is it! This country, which is the largest South American country and fifth largest country in the world, is understandably impossible to thoughtfully explore in just two weeks. But this article will provide the tips to preparing the perfect itinerary as a first-time visitor to Brazil and the best sightseeing and experiences to fully immerse in the Carioca way of life!
Is it Safe to Travel to Brazil?
While I certainly wouldn’t consider Brazil, and especially Rio de Janeiro, the safest place on earth, you can still enjoy your time there by taking some precautions.
During our last visit to Rio in early 2020, we witnessed several burglaries on the beach in broad daylight. As locals and previous visitors alike would tell you, practicing caution and vigilance is extremely important while you're in Brazil.
Once you understand the dos and don’ts, your time in this fabulous city will be a lot more enjoyable and stress-free. It is imperative that you:
Do not walk alone at night, especially in poorly lit streets
Do not go to the beach after dark
Do not walk around with your phone or wallet in hand
Do not go to parks or viewpoints after dark
Do not wear your wedding ring, watch or other obvious items of relative wealth
Do not accept any rides in cars (even if it looks like a taxi) other than Uber or a trusted taxi service you booked
Do not wander the city without knowing where you are going (you may end up in some unfriendly parts)
Always leave your passport, ring, and other important possessions in the hotel safe
Only carry bare necessities during an outing: one credit card, little cash and your phone
When is The Best Time to go to Brazil?
Brazil is warm and humid year-round. Southern Brazil has two seasons: a dry season from March to November (low precipitations), and wet season from December to February. Temperatures can get much cooler from June to September, which would be considered Brazil's 'winter.'
If your bucket list includes taking part in the Rio Carnival, then February is your best time to go to Brazil. Ultimately, I would recommend the end of February as the best overall time to visit Brazil due to it being the end of the wet season, which means heat and sun accompanied by celebrations all around the country during Carnival week(s).
Should Carnival be something you wish to avoid, March to May are the best months to visit Brazil to enjoy low fares, and great weather!
A Two Week Itinerary for Brazil
Where to Go in Brazil? What to Skip in Brazil?
Our recommendation is to skip São Paulo and focus on Rio de Janeiro, Iguaçu Falls and Salvador and/or Paraty.
Why skip São Paulo? Well, something’s gotta give right? And I believe that Rio, Salvador (or Paraty) and Iguaçu Falls are the perfect trio for a first time to Brazil.
If you’ve seen other large waterfalls such as Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) or the Niagara Falls (NY/Canada), you may opt to spend more time in other cities. But the Iguaçu offers a lot more than the waterfalls, including a taste of the Amazonian life.
Our high-level itinerary recommendation:
Land in Rio De Janeiro, spend 2-3 days in the city (with a stay in Ipanema or Leblon)
Head over to Iguaçu (quick flight from Rio) for a quick one day trip (or more should you want to get more of the Amazonian experience).
Head to either Paraty or Salvador for two nights and enjoy the scenic colonial style towns and a more relaxed pace, make sure to pick a hotel or pousada (BnB) in the center of town!
Make your way back to Rio for the last leg of your trip and opt to stay on the beach again (Ipanema) or get a change in scenery in the Santa Teresa district. (Check the “Where to Stay in Rio” section of the article for more details).
A Week in Rio de Janeiro
Where to stay in Rio de Janeiro?
During the 2020 trip to Rio, we stayed at three different hotels throughout our trip and by far the most rewarding, convenient and safe was our beach-front hotel on Ipanema beach, by Posto 9. Postos are sections of beaches from 1 to 12, the lower ones start in Copacabana and the higher ones end in Ipanema and Leblon.
Two Benefits of Staying by the Ipanema Beach:
It is extremely convenient for your ‘beach days’ as you can leave your belongings in your room and simply leave your hotel in your beach-wear without any worries or stress
It has gorgeous views of the mountains and Christ the Redeemer. Most hotels on Ipanema beach have roof-top pools where you can enjoy the sunset from a great vantage point
We also stayed in Copacabana and Santa Teresa.
Copacabana is very similar to Ipanema but lacks the beautiful views. Copacabana enjoys quite the name-recognition for foreigners, but really the one true place to see and be seen is Ipanema (and/or Leblon).
Santa Teresa is a charming neighborhood, known for its hipster vibe and artistic past – but the neighborhood is nonetheless in an area of town prone to get quite unsafe after dark.
I would not recommend staying in Centro/Santa Teresa. Instead pick a beach-front hotel in Ipanema (vs. Copacabana). That being said, Santa Teresa boosts some extremely charming BnBs and old-world hotels with great views and peaceful retreat-like pools and gardens. Spending a night or two there towards the end of your vacation (once you are getting sick of the beach) is a good option to see a different side of Rio.
The best hotel in Ipanema is The Fasano Hotel Ipanema, a higher-end hotel with great service and views. Nevertheless, should the nightly rate be a constraint: there are many other beach-front hotels for you to choose from. Sol Ipanema Hotel, for instance, is a great option as it provides better value for the price and is located straight across from the best part of the beach.
Should you stay in Santa Teresa, you should definitely consider either Villa Santa Teresa (with the most enchanting views from the pool) or Mama Ruisa (extraordinary breakfast and VIP-resort vibes).
Top 15 Things to do in Rio de Janeiro
1. Ipanema Beach
Ipanema Beach is by far the coolest beach in downtown Rio with great entertainment and amazing mountain views (including the Corcovado), and is relatively safe. Bring only the bare necessities and rent a couple chairs and umbrellas for almost nothing! Make sure to stop by any of the vendors by the beach selling Cangas (Brazilian beach towels which are thinner and larger than the bulky ones used everywhere else).
2. Copacabana Beach
Copacabana is the other great beach in downtown Rio and should not be missed, although many prefer the atmosphere and views from Ipanema. It would be a shame to go to Rio without at least once experiencing Copacabana!
3. Parque Lage (Tijuca National Park)
Parque Lage is a large park at the foot of Corcovado and offers astonishing viewpoints for great pictures. Most notably, the park hosts a mansion (which also serves as Rio’s Visual Arts School) where you can stop for a coffee and or a bite to eat. You can pay a small fee to go upstairs and enjoy the outdoor views of the mansion from up above, which I highly recommend. Walk around the park to enjoy some small waterfalls, ponds and caves at this must-visit in Rio.
For the Instagrammers out there wanting to get the perfect picture – I do recommend heading over to the park around 8:30am (the park opens at 8am and the mansion opens at 9am). That way you can ensure you’re the first (or within the first few) to enter the mansion and get your famous shot of the pool and the Corcovado without other roaming tourists.
4. Botanical Garden (Tijuca National Park)
A nice 15-minute walking distance from Parque Lage is the Botanical Garden, which you can do right after! Plus, you may find the serenity and peacefulness of the parks an enjoyable escape from Rio’s other attractions.
The botanical garden is a spectacular display of European, Tropical and Asian landscaping masterpieces. You can easily spend an entire half-day wandering the site, going on the several trails and stopping for ice-cold beverages at the couple refreshment locations on-site.
5. Dois Irmãos Hike
The view from the top of the Dois Irmãos (two brothers), which are the peaks you can see from Ipanema Beach sticking out in the distance, offer great views of the city from a different angle than from the other high points of the city. The catch is that you have to go through a favela to get there.
Either way, this is a highly-commercialized itinerary item and one of the safest favelas in Rio.
Dozens of motorcycle drivers wait at the bottom of the favela and at the top each day to take visitors through the favela streets and/or back down after the hike. From the top of the favela, you then enter the ecological park and start the hike up until you reach the panoramic views over the city!
6. Corcovado Mountain & Christ the Redeemer (Train or hike)
Perhaps the most popular site in Rio and one of the Eight Wonders of the Modern World, Christ the Redeemer, located at the top of Corcovado mountain is a must-do while in Rio.
Due to the site's popularity, it is imperative that you come prepared (as you should for any world wonders – ancient or new).
Popularity means long lines, and I mean very long lines and hours of queuing waiting for the little train to take you up the steep mountain (20-min journey to the top through the sub-tropical forests and outstanding views). The ride up in itself is a great attraction and only helps build up the excitement to reach the top and finally be faced with the emblematic statue.
The view from the top is simply indescribable. There are only a couple places on earth that offer such a view of the powerful mother earth.
Want to skip the lines and avoid the excruciating wait amongst all the other unprepared tourists? Make sure to book your ticket online ahead of time for a specific time and simply show up to the Corcovado train station 20-30 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure.
Once on top of the mountain, you will be greeted by Christ the Redeemer before heading to the large platform (which is usually filled with hundreds of visitors) where you can enjoy the magnificent views of the city.
7. Sugarloaf Mountain
Most of the Mirantes (viewpoints) in the city offer great views of the Sugarloaf, the second most recognizable site in Rio! But the views from the top of the Sugarloaf or the city, offer an angle that only that viewpoint can offer and will NOT disappoint, especially if you head over there pre-sunset.
I do not always recommend to over-pay for the VIP tickets or skip-the-line but for the Corcovado as well as for the Sugarloaf, the extra cash is well worth it!
Head over to the bottom of the Sugarloaf, 60-90 minutes before sunset and purchase your VIP ticket at the vending machine. You will then be escorted to a private lounge area where you will be given a bracelet and some beverages. Once the cable car is ready to go up, you will be placed at the front of the line (no queuing) to get in, which also means you get to grab the best spot in the cable car to capture awesome videos of the ascension to the first stop.
The way up the Sugarloaf is a two-step process. The cable car will first take you up to the top of the lower-level rock where you can get the first glimpse of the views you’ll end up getting from the top. You can also shop for Havaianas, sunglasses, snacks or more on this level.
Once ready to head to the final stop, head over to the cable car. If you have purchased the VIP ticket I mentioned, you’ll be prompted to a special line and once again bypass all the other tourists in line (which can sometimes add up to 30+ minutes) and board the cable car within minutes.
You will be rewarded with extensive views of Rio on the top. As the sun sets, the beaches and the mountainous background will look as if gigantic dark waves were coming to crash on Rio. Grab a Caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail made with cachaça) and secure your spot for the most amazing sunset views. Bonus points if you are heading over there on a slightly cloudy evening, which adds pops of color in the sky for some unforgettable moments.
8. Dona Marta Look-out
Dona Marta Lookout (or Mirante Dona Marta) is THE place to be for the best views of the Sugarloaf from a lower vantage point than from the Corcovado (and closer). But beware: getting to Dona Marta look-out requires driving through some favela and deserted routes.
When I went there in February 2020, I decided to go for sunset views and got an Uber to take me up 30 minutes before sunset. The drive through some rough roads and up very steep hills can be unsettling.
Once at the parking lot, you will need to do a quick 5-min walk to the open-air balcony that offers the million-dollar view. I stayed there for at least 45 minutes and as everybody started to leave after sunset, I decided to head back to the parking lot as well. When I made it back to the parking lot, all the cars were gone and I started calling for Ubers.
One by one, all Uber drivers refused to come pick me up at the Dona Mata lookout because it is “very dangerous after dark.” Here I was, in the dark completely alone with fear starting to pile up in my mind.
After the 10th Uber cancelation from Uber and some distant gunshots, I decided to take my chances and walk down. To my greatest joy, within a few minutes walking down the hill, a police car showed up and agreed to escort us back to safety!
Therefore, if you are wanting to go for sunset and if you are getting an Uber or Taxi to take you up to Dona Marta, you must ensure that the driver will wait for you. It’s worth the extra few bucks.
9. Vista Chinesa look-out
A Chinese-style pagoda that opens onto heavenly views. While the monument itself is not striking, the gazebo offers gorgeous views of the splendors of the city, including Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf.
10. Shopping Leblon
Leblon is the upscale neighborhood of Rio, past Ipanema and feels like a quaint area with small boutiques, bakeries and gelato shops. Towards the center of the neighborhood you will find the mall called Shopping Leblon.
There are several malls in Rio, including the one in Botafogo (which offers great views of the Sugarloaf) but Shopping Leblon has the more upscale brands and is overall a beautiful place to spend a rainy afternoon!
Check out these Brazilian brands while there:
Havaianas for flip flops and/or other Brazilian beachwear and accessories
Blueman for sungas (Brazilian swimsuit for men) and bikinis
Reserva for beautiful ‘made in Brazil’ clothing (pants, shirts and shoes)
Foxton for beautiful ‘made in Brazil’ clothing (pants, shirts and shoes)
11. Urca neighborhood
Overlooking Guanabara Bay, Urca is dominated by the iconic hump of the Sugarloaf Mountain. Tucked away amid tranquil residential streets of charming villas and low rises are the small beaches of Urca and Vermelha. Head over there for sunset or right after work hours when the laid-back waterfront bars transform into lively gathering spots for young locals. Especially recommend visiting the Bar e Restaurante Urca.
12. Centro Rio and the Selaron Steps
Centro Rio is a completely different vibe than the rest of the city, with older buildings, some interesting colonial architectural works and large empty streets until you reach the landing of the Selaron steps where hundreds of tourists line up for a picture and enjoy the stroll up the stairs.
Today the world-famous candy-colored steps have become one of the most popular places to visit in Rio, a product of years of hard-work from one man, Jorge Selaron, who declared it as “a constantly evolving, changing and never-ending piece of art.”
You can start your walk from the Carioca Aqueduct (built in the 18th century to bring fresh water to the inhabitants of the city) and make your way to the bottom of the Selaron steps. Once up the several flights of stairs, keep going to the next destination, the Santa Teresa neighborhood.
13. Santa Teresa neighborhood
With cool cafes, great boutique hotels and views to beat them all, get away from the beaches and enjoy a stroll through the hilly enclave of artsy and bohemian Santa Teresa.
After hiking up the Selaron Steps, keep walking up towards Santa Teresa until you reach the heart of the neighborhood, enjoy the beautiful views, the numerous coffee shops, art shops and galleries for a lovely afternoon.
14. Rio Art Museum
The Museu de Arte do Rio, which opened early 2013, occupies the renovated interiors of the Palacete Dom João, a 20th century palace beside Mauá Square in Rio's port. It is a truly beautiful museum and filled with exquisite art.
15. Pedra de Arpoador
Arpoador is the stretch of land between Ipanema and Copacabana which consists of a beautiful rock formation, a favorite overlook with a wonderful view of Ipanema, Leblon beaches, Morro Dois Irmaos and Pedra da Gávea. Arpoador Beach starts at Posto 8 and is open for pedestrians only.
Where are the Best Spots in Rio de Janeiro to see Sunset and Sunrise Views?
An imperative when planning your Rio itinerary is to plan and figure out where you will be for sunrise and/or sunset each day. The marvelous city is known for extraordinary and heavenly vistas for both sunrises and sunsets, I personally have a preference for sunsets in Rio because of the incredible contrast between the colors from the sky and the darkness of the mountain peaks that become layers of shades of black in the distance.
Dona Marta look-out
Anywhere on Ipanema or Leblon beach
Pedra de Arpoador
Dona Marta look-out
Vista Chinesa look-out
Where to Eat in rio de Janeiro?
1. Churrascaria Palace
Great place for a nice dinner on Copacabana and a staple of Brazilian steakhouse. Get your sides and seafood from the buffet (sushis, salads, veggies, breads etc.) and be served an unlimited amount of delicious meats (filet, chicken, pork etc.) at your table cut directly into your plate. Reservation recommended!
Amazing location, views and food on top of a hill in the Santa Teresa area. Go there for lunch to take advantage of the views. Order the Acai guacamole or the roasted hearts of palms for a true Carioca gourmet experience. Reservation recommended!
3. Garote de Ipanema
The girl from Ipanema – a staple restaurant a block from the beach serving delicious Caipirinhas and good-mood food. No reservations necessary.
An Italian restaurant, but with a Brazilian twist! The location is more of a bar than a restaurant and serves equally good drinks! But the food was a highlight of my time in Rio, mostly serving small plates. You will not regret having dinner there!
The restaurant is located on Rua Dias Ferreira, in Leblon and is a very popular street for after-work gatherings and evenings with friends, filled with great restaurants and bars, music and is safe after dark (unlike most locations by the beaches). Reservations are recommended especially on Friday and Saturday nights as the number of tables is limited!
5. Bar e Restaurante Urca
Located in Urca, this is the place you should stop and enjoy the scenery during your Urca walks.
6. Confeitaria Colombo (Centro)
Confeitaria Colombo has several locations in Rio, but the Centro one is a must-visit and experience. The place is pretty much a dream-like bakery. You will be enchanted as soon as you get in and look up and around, with majestic mirrors, golden ornaments and a belle-epoque feel that fits in perfectly with the smells of pastries and finger foods you can order at the counter or from a table. No reservations needed but I would recommend sitting at a table and having a full meal there or just for dessert and coffee.
7. Braseiro da Gavea
Brazil is famous for churrasco (grilled meat), Braseiro da Gávea is renowned for serving the best barbecue around! So, get there hungry because each cut of picanha (fillet steak) is juicier than the last!
Should I visit a Favela while in Rio de Janeiro?
Most locals will and do recommend against it, as they know the dangers of going inside a Favela. As safe as it may seem on some of the organized tours’ ads, they do remain favelas. I opted not to go because of two main reasons:
If locals recommend against it for security reasons, I tend to listen to them
I am not a big proponent of “zoo-like tourism,” which is basically what Favela tours propose you to do: walking around a Favela and see from your own eyes how the people there live, with your expansive camera in hand while they struggle to make ends meet.
So, at the end of the day, it is your call to decide to go on such a tour or not, but I would personally recommend against it.
Being in Rio de Janeiro during the Carnival Festivities
Brazil, but most importantly Rio, becomes a giant party for almost a month around the Carnival festivities. Coming to Rio during that time means higher fares (flights and hotels) and a lot of logistical issues while in Rio, as many roads become unusable due to the street parties (also called blocos).
Going to Rio during Carnival time also means that you’ll get to experience the heart and soul of Rio de Janeiro, and that can be felt anywhere in the city from sunrise to sundown.
Blocos are street parties during the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Those parties are much more casual and not always family-friendly than what you could experience at the Sambadrome. Each Bloco has a theme song and has a band to play Samba music. Being part of a Bloco is an unforgettable experience of music, laughter and mild debauchery. Blocos are scheduled and planned ahead of time so you can find out where and when they start/end during your time in Rio.
In addition to the Blocos, I do recommend to also grab tickets to the Sambadrome carnival festivities which includes some of the most extravagant floats and beautiful dancers around. You can select front row seats or nose-bleed tickets but regardless of where you end, your heart will beat to the rhythm of Samba and transport you.
All things considered; I am glad I got to experience Brazil during the Carnival festivities, but I wish I had known in advance about the difficulties to move around during those days. For instance, we did get stuck on top of a one-street hill after lunch because a Bloco was partying on the street at the bottom, so no Ubers or cabs could get us and/or take us back to our destination. But in the end, this is a small price to pay to experience this definite bucket-list item! And we simply ended up walking a lot more than expected, which is never a bad thing (depending on the neighborhood of course).
Two Days in Paraty – Road-trip to Paraty
Paraty is a mini heaven on earth and should definitely be on your itinerary for that first time in Brazil! Make sure you pronounce it "para-chee" so not to sound too much like a Gringo.
Paraty is nested along the Costa Verde between Rio and Sao Paulo and was built during the 17th century Brazilian Gold-Rush. Its colonial architecture, streets paved in uneven cobblestones and colorful buildings will put you in a relaxation-mode as soon as you park your car and take your first stroll in the old town.
Road-trip to and from Paraty
The road between Rio and Paraty is very scenic, safe and well maintained. There are close to 50 speed radars on the road, a good sign that authorities are keeping the road safe. I started the road-trip with a slight apprehension after seeing how people drive in Rio but was quickly put at ease once behind the wheel. I would compare the experience to driving a car downtown Manhattan during Rush-Hour and driving in the rural areas of New Jersey.
You may get some raised eyebrows when you say you intend to do a road trip in Brazil but the ride through the Costa Verde and even continuing down to Sao Paulo is safe and well maintained. We left Rio at 6am and were in Paraty by 9:30am, which is a lot faster and more convenient than the buses you can take for the same journey.
Where to Stay in Paraty?
You could spend only a day in Paraty on your way to São Paulo, but I recommend staying at least 1 night and at most 2 nights. Paraty is gorgeous and heavenly during the day, but after sunset, the town becomes a lively hub with beautiful and colorful street lights, music and foods. Either make reservations for some of the gourmet restaurants (Banana da Terra, for instance) or walk through the streets until you stumble upon the place that will appeal to all your senses.
Paraty is quite large as a city but the historic downtown is much smaller and therefore it is primordial that you select a Pousada (BnB) in the historic center of town. See map below of the historic district and where I recommend staying (inside the circle).
During my stay in Paraty, I selected the Pousada Literaria and was not disappointed one bit! The hotel is centrally located and magnificent with its relaxing pool, beautifully yet simply decorated rooms and a breakfast to make all other breakfasts jealous (ask for the Chef’s special waffles and start your day the best way possible). If you are spending only a night in Paraty, make sure to arrive around 10am (early check-in for free in most places) and enjoy the Pousada amenities both days!
What to do in Paraty?
Paraty is all about enjoying the sunshine, the birds singing, the distant sounds of waves and hourly bells ringing from the church.
In that spirit of relaxation and enjoying the natural beauty of the region, head over to the marina by the main church and discover a plethora of colorful little boats that can whisk you away to a deserted island for a ridiculously small fee!
I recommend against planning this excursion in advance (through aggregators such as Viator for instance) as you will end up paying a lot more than necessary and be subject to a specific time and most likely end up on a boat with other people; a lot less scenic and peaceful than my recommendation!
Here is how to make your plan for a day at sea in Paraty:
Around 5pm: Head over to the Marina and look for the boat you prefer - they are pretty much all the same but differ in colors, furniture and captains.
Negotiate directly with the captain of the boat(s) you select, you can choose the duration of your excursion and the itinerary:
My recommendation: early morning (8:30am) departure to Praia Vermelha and Praia Lula (it gets hot and sunny very early, which means you can fully enjoy the beaches as early at 9am without the hundreds of boats and tourists that start arriving around 11am).
Island hop with the guidance of your captain and reach your Lunch stop before heading to 1 or 2 more beaches based on your preference (such as Praia Sono) before heading back to Paraty.
Expect to pay between R$75 to R$100 ($15 to $20) per hour for the entire ‘little’ boat and captain. Which is quite affordable for a 5-6 hours excursion!