The Marvelous City of Rio de Janeiro

Let’s just start with saying how marvelous the city of Rio de Janeiro is… which its nickname is The Marvelous City.  I really underestimated this city’s beauty, people, and colorful culture.  If you’re like me, I didn’t know a lot about Rio de Janeiro aside from knowing the Christ the Redeemer statue was here and the 2016 Olympics took place here.  I’ve learned a lot the past few days and experienced the best of Rio culture… I can’t wait to come back again.

Here are some quick tidbits on Rio de Janeiro:

  • Used to be the capital of Brazil from 1763 to 1960 (the new inland city of Brasilia took over in 1960 to encourage citizens to move more inland)
  • Discovered by Portugal and its royal family ruled Brazil until 1822 when independence was gained.
  • Descendants of the royal family continued to rule the Empire of Brazil as its own country until 1889 when it converted to a republic and the ruling family was exhiled.  The head of state was the emperor during this time. (I had no idea)
  • The offical language is Portuguese. (English is widely spoken as well)
  • Rio de Janeiro means River of January as the Portuguese discovered Rio on January 1, 1565 and they thought it was on the mouth of a river (but it was actually a bay).
  • Major industries include oil, mining, and telecommunications.
  • 2nd largest city in Brazil (Sao Paolo is largest)
  • Known for its Christ the Redeemer statue, Carnival festivities, bossa nova music, samba dancing, and picturesque beaches (think Copacabana and Ipanema)
  • Rio’s population is roughly 6.5 million.
  • Rio’s ethnicities include many European descendants, native people, and african descendants which melt together for an eclectic culture.
  • Getting here was easy on Delta… just a connection via Atlanta followed by a 9.5 hour flight.

Copacabana Beach

Upon arrival to Rio, I made my way to the hotel on Copacabana Beach called Windsor Leme. Because I’m on a tour with Gate 1 Travel, all of my transportation and hotel bookings were taken care of for me which certainly makes for a more relaxing excursion.  Arriving on the red eye at 6:30 am gets you to the hotel early and don’t expect to be able to check in.  Plan accordingly and just have beachwear ready to go to enjoy the day until you can check in.

Copacabana Beach is very active with bikers, runners, and volleyball games galore and families enjoying the beach and the surf.  The waves were pretty big.  When you go to the beach, be sure not to leave anything unattended as it will likely get stolen.  Petty theft continues to be a problem so be cognizant for a better experience overall.  There are also beach cafes all along the promenade to enjoy your favorite drinks and Brazilian bites.  The most famous hotel on the promenade is the Copacabana Palace Hotel.

Christ the Redeemer

The most popular icon in Rio is Christ the Redeemer statue on top of Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park, the largest national park within a major city in the world. It is listed as one of the seven new wonders of the world. The statue was finished in 1931 and is about 125 feet tall (including pedestal) and his arms stretch 92 feet wide.

As you can expect, this is a major tourist attraction with over 3 million people visiting per year. To get there you have to take a cogwheel train up the steep mountain and then either 200 steps or elevator to reach the summit. You should plan to spend 2 to 3 hours here as it takes about 20 minutes on the train each way and then you want plenty of time for pictures. It’s well worth the time to visit as it is impressive and the cultural symbol of Rio. Also it’s the best spot for a picture of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Scenic Beaches Galore

After seeing Christ the Redeemer, the next stop was exploring the other beaches in Rio, including Ipanema Beach, Leblon Beach, and Pepino Beach. The community of Ipanema is also a great spot for upscale shopping and trendy restaurants. Pepino Beach is the landing strip for those wishing to paraglide or hang glide from high above. Pepino beach is fun to watching the landing and enjoy a nice fresh coconut water beverage straight from the coconut.

Below is short video of a hang glider landing. Amazing how fast they come in for a landing and stick the landing…

The Views from Sugarloaf Mountain

Another iconic symbol of Rio is Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s named this because of its similar shape to loaf sugar when sugar cane was widely traded. It rises 1,300 feet above the Atlantic Ocean with panoramic views of the city. Because of the mountainous terrain of Rio and how widespread the city reaches, you can only begin to understand the enormity of the city by seeing it from Sugarloaf Mountain. After two cable car rides to the peak, the vistas were spectacular… a definite must see.

The Heart of Rio de Janeiro

After spending the morning at Sugarloaf Mountain, we headed to downtown Rio to see some historical sites and buildings, including the opera house, national library, national cathedral, and a newer tourist attraction, the Selaron staircase. Below are some of the architectural masterpieces surrounding the historic quarter and a new modern building.

The National Cathedral

We stopped to see the National Cathedral which is one of the most interesting I’ve ever seen as it’s in the shape of a pyramid and not really part of Brazil’s history. It was impressive. The structure is not air conditioned but when you walk inside, it is very cool and part of the engineering of the building. A definite must see when in Rio. Notice how different the bell tower is too.

Selaron Staircase

Our last stop downtown was the Selaron staircase. This staircase was made famous by Jorge Selaron after he began to install tiles on the staircase from all around the world. A great place for pictures. There’s much more to the story of Selaron which ended in tragedy.

Carnavale Experience

Let’s not forget what makes Rio the most famous around the world being its celebration of Carnavale. We had the experience to go behind the scenes with one of the samba academies to learn what it takes to plan for Carnavale and how each academy contributes to its success. It was a fun experience… be prepared to dress up in costume and dance a little samba! Below are some of the float props.

I wasn’t expecting to be dressed in costume but when in Rio…

Making a Statement with Art

In preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio commissioned acclaimed artist, Kobra, to paint an art mural in the old harbor of Rio. The mural is called Las Etnias (“The Ethnicities”) and is the largest graffiti mural in the world at 560 feet wide. It features five faces from five different continents that represent both the Olympic rings as well as the cultural diversity of the games. The inspiration was “we are all one”. The mural is impressive and as you walk you feel like the eyes continuously watch you.

The Rio Slums or “Favelas”

I had heard about the slums of Rio and knew they had become a bit of tourist attraction which seems a bit odd. The word slums is a bit misleading. The people who live in the favelas are not necessarily poor or receiving handouts from the governement. Most people are contributing members of society and the homes can be spacious inside. The reason they appear unfinished on the outside is to get around a loop hole of paying property taxes… if you’re home is never finished, property taxes are not assessed. Favelas house many thousands of people and can have great views of the ocean, some are right next to wealthy neighborhoods. The people who bring life to Carnavale mostly come from the Favelas. Our guide indicated the communities have some of the best parties and samba dancing. There are problems with drug lords within the Favelas.

I’ll be back Rio…

I have to say I had pretty low expectations of Rio de Janeiro as I hadn’t heard many good things about it aside from the touristy stuff. I had heard how dirty and dangerous it was. My experience was quite the contrary… the streets and beaches were extremely clean. The people were hospitable and I never felt unsafe. Just like in every big city, you need to take certain precautions to not become an easy target for petty theft.

Rio blew me away and I can’t wait to return and take more time to explore the museums and less touristy areas such as the national park in the city. Rio is a very hot and humid city so be ready to sweat a lot no matter what time of the year due to its tropical climate. Until we meet again…

Next Blog: Iguazu Falls

Categories: Architecture, National Parks, South AmericaTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Looks like lots of opportunities to be super active! Enjoy every moment!


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