Last Updated on June 19, 2023
Despite no longer being the capital of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is without a doubt the most iconic city in the country, and indeed in South America. From the lush tropical landscape and stunning white beaches of the wider Rio area to the hedonistic joy and clamor of carnival, there really is nowhere in the world quite like this.
In fact, the beauty of Rio de Janeiro is not just in its skyline and landscape; this city has a life and flavor of its own. From the sleek, sexy beachfront at Copacabana, to the worn and earthy beauty of Santa Teresa, no two parts of Rio are the same… which can make things tough, if exciting, for tourists.
After all, in such a huge city with so much on offer, how do you choose what to spend your precious time on? Among the wealth of samba bars, the hundreds of quality caipirinhas’, the beautiful beach bodies, the culture, the art, the history and the lure of the endless sunshine… what are the sights, sounds and activities that absolutely cannot be missed?
Here are 15 places that we believe are unmissable; places that truly earn Rio its title of the “miraculous city”.
1. Copacabana Beach
One cannot visit Rio de Janeiro without paying at least one visit to the pristine white sands of Copacabana Beach.
Covering a full three miles of untouched coastline along Avenida Atlantica, this beach is the most beloved in the city, and one of the most famous beaches in the world. This is not only a uniquely ‘Instagrammable’ beach with its white sands, vibrant turquoise waters, and the dramatic backdrop of the Rio skyline, but it is an easy and fun way to spend a full day at the heart of the city.
With plenty of activities along its length, Copacabana is not the kind of beach you might be used to seeing in the US or Europe (unless you’re lucky enough to come from Miami). You will find volleyball nets, soccer courts, gym equipment, and water sports readily available here, and if you take a break and cool off you can do so at one of the many beach clubs that line the sandy shores.
Be sure to grab some fresh coconut water from a vendor for a really authentic experience!
2. Christ the Redeemer
One cannot think of Rio de Janeiro without immediately conjuring the image of this imposing and iconic statue. From his lofty perch, Christ the Redeemer has dominated the Rio skyline for nearly a century now and remains one of the most popular attractions for visitors to the city.
Active visitors can hike the mountain for scenic views of the city and surrounding jungle-covered hills, but the statue can also be reached by train or minibus if you’re not a hillwalking enthusiast.
Made from soapstone, this 38-foot tall statue can be seen for miles, but nothing compares to standing toe to toe, so to speak, with Christ the Redeemer. Just remember to bring some water and suncream to combat the heat of the day if you decide to hike.
3. The Museum of Tomorrow
Widely considered one of the real legacies of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Museum of Tomorrow is a science center like no other.
Focused not on past achievements or developments, but on the big questions that will shape the future of the world, this science center has no actual technology on display. Instead these exhibits center on ecology, sustainability, and environmental concerns in a way that is designed to provoke thought in the viewer.
Furthermore, the Museum of Tomorrow practices what it preaches! Everything in the building, from the lights to the 360-degree projection theater at the entrance, is powered the buildings solar panels and cooled using water from the nearby bay. Look into the future of our natural world at the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.
4. Museu de Arte do Rio
Since opening in March 2013, the Museu de Arte do Rio has received awards and acclaim for its architectural design which sees two buildings combined by a fifth-floor walkway.
It is the mix of modern and traditional that interests most visitors, however; exhibitions include historical items and pieces, but also modern sculptures and artwork by South American artists. As with so much in Rio de Janeiro, there is a focus here on combining the roots and history of Brazil with the tempo of modern living.
Once you have sated your hunger for culture, you can enjoy a wonderful meal, complete with a view of Guanabara Bay, on the 6th floor Maua restaurant. There’s no better way to end the day!
5. Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain)
Sugarloaf Mountain is undoubtedly one of the sights that is synonymous with Rio de Janeiro. Standing at an impressive 1,299 feet tall and situated on a peninsula at the edge of Guanabara Bay, this natural dome, peppered with trees, is stunningly beautiful.
More than this, though, it is one of the best vantage points in the area! From the top of Pao de Acucar, you can see for miles around (and these views are truly stunning).
The peak can be reached via the sugarloaf cable car aerial tramway, which was built in 1912 and offers wonderful 360-degree views of the city and surrounding area on the way to the top.
6. Santa Marta Favela Tour
If you want to learn more about life in Rio de Janeiro, then the Favelas of the city, home to 1.5 million people, will no doubt be of interest to you. Of course, not all favelas are safe for tourists, but Rio’s Urban Adventures offers a guided tour of the now regenerated Santa Marta Favela which are both interesting and educational.
This once run-down and dangerous part of the city has been cleaned up and connected to the grid thanks to a city-wide clean-up project which is in operation.
The tour guides will tell you about the city, and the history of the Favela, but also about the improvements that have been made and the real-world impact that this has had for the people living in the area.
7. Parque Lage
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and experiences that Rio has to offer, you should take a day of rest and relaxation in Parque Lage.
This public park, found in the Jardim Botanico area of the city, was a wealthy estate in the 19th century. Owned by industrialist Enrique Lage in the 1920s the mansion was remodelled by an Italian architect called Mario Vodret. As a result, the building itself is stunning, featuring interior paintings by Salvador Sabate and wonderful architecture.
The main attraction by far, however, is the park itself which features a hidden aquarium, caves, shady gardens and palm-lined pathways, and even free art exhibitions. All of this is laid out against a backdrop of mountainous jungle landscapes.
This is heaven for any nature lover!
8. Rio de Janeiro Botanic Gardens
The Rio Botanical Gardens are home to roughly 8000 plant species and cover 130 acres of lush, natural grounds which offer the perfect retreat from the heat of the day.
Along with the flora protected in this area of the city, the gardens also house monuments, sculptures, greenhouses and a research center and library which houses around 32,000 volumes on botany.
Originally founded in 1808 by King John VI of Portugal, and was originally intended for the introduction of spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper which were being brought in from the West Indies.
9. Catedral Metropolitana
The Catedral Metropolitana is one of the most beautiful and unique sites in a city and is famed for its beauty, which is really saying something.
Dedicated to Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of Rio, and designed by Edgar Fonseca, this stunning building has been built in the style of a Mayan pyramid and features 64-meter tall stained-glass windows.
Though the exterior of the building seems out of place in the downtown area, the interior space is out of this world; the vibrant colors of the windows illuminate the space in spectacular fashion. No matter your religious leanings, this is a space that makes you feel spiritual.
10. Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil
The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil is made up of three sites, found in Brasilia, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, and was established in 1986.
All three of these museums are placed within the top 100 most visited art museums in the whole world; the site in Rio itself is placed at number 20 for very good reasons! The collection is housed in a stunning neoclassical building which was built in 1906 and renovated for the opening in 1989.
Alongside the featured exhibitions, this museum also houses a cinema, theatre, tea room, and restaurant. You could spend a whole day here, steeped in the culture of Rio de Janeiro… in fact, you really should!
11. Prainha Beach
If you want to see a side of Rio de Janeiro that’s off the beaten track (and totally stunning) then you need to visit Prainha Beach.
Just a short journey southwest of Rio by car, this secluded and stunning half-moon beach is sheltered by high, orange rocks. Thanks to the land formation here the swell is huge and waves come in hard and fast, and the beach catches prime sunshine during the day. This makes it the perfect place to sunbathe and surf.
However, it is recommended that only very strong surfers and swimmers take to the waves here; the undertow is strong and unpredictable! If you get hungry while you’re down on the sand you can also walk up to the Mirante de Prainha restaurant which overlooks the beach.
12. Morro da Urca
For hiking enthusiasts, Rio is a dream come true; there are many hiking trails in and around the city, and Morro da Urca is one of the most popular.
Found near the eastern side of Zone Sul, this mountain is popular with both locals and travelers and is labelled as an easy hike suitable for people of most fitness levels. Morro da Urca peaks at 722 feet so the view is truly stunning when you reach the top, but the journey is just as wonderful!
Taking around 1.5 hours to complete, the hiking trail is 2 miles long and winds through stunning root systems and flora, making use of wooden stairs and even steps carved into the mountain itself.
If you’re lucky you might even see some marmosets in the trees!
13. Real Gabinete Portugues da Leitura (The Royal Portuguese Reading Room)
Book lovers and history enthusiasts cannot visit Rio de Janeiro without seeing this hidden gem! Sadly underappreciated, this little known reading room has the single largest collection of Portuguese literature outside of Portugal itself.
Whether you read Portuguese or not, the sight of this beautiful and ornately decorated building, all three levels of it, filled with rare leather-bound manuscripts, will be heavenly to anyone who loves books.
When visiting, look up and pay special attention to the stained-glass skylight and the stunning 19th-century chandelier which hangs below it. You’ll want some vacation snaps of this space, believe us!
14. The Museum of Modern Art (MAM)
The Rio Museum of Modern Art is considered a temple to 20th and 21st-century art; this is a pretty accurate description too, as the building houses more than 15, 000 works of art by some of Rio’s most famous sons and daughters.
The building itself, designed by architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy, is a work of art; before you enter, take the time to appreciate its unique form and smooth, curving lines.
Once inside you can enjoy the permanent exhibition, titled “Genealogies of the Contemporary” and other rotating exhibitions which feature works by artists such as Maria Martins, Candido Portinari, and Fernand Leger. While you’re there make sure to walk through Flamengo Park (where the museum is situated).
15. Ilha Fiscal
If you have ever dreamed of being in a fairy tale, or you have wanted to see a Disney-esque castle then you simply must visit Ilha Fiscal.
This picturesque neo-gothic castle, which can be found perched on a tiny island in the waters of Guanabara bay, has been renovated and now houses a cultural museum. Those interested in the history of the island and castle can opt for a guided tour of the lounges and the stunning tower.
The views from the top of the tower are truly out of this world, and constitute a good reason to take a tour of the castle. After all, when else will you be able to claim that you took your vacation snaps in the tower of a castle?
16. Lapa Steps
The 215 colorful Lapa Steps are one of the most famous and unique attractions in Rio. Every single year tens of thousands of visitors climb the beautiful and vibrant tiled steps from Lapa to Santa Teresa.
The tiles were sourced by Chilean artists Escadaria Selaron who started by laying colored tiles on the steps outside his house. He then continued to add to the artistic display with over 2000 tiles from 60 countries around the world.
This was a passion project for Selaron, so much so that he continued to lay them until his death in 2013. Today these steps are recognized around the world; what a legacy!
17. Santa Teresa
At the top of the Lapa steps lies the community of Santa Teresa; once a convent, built in the 1750s, it has become a hub for creatives in Rio.
The area around the convent became a hotspot for writers and artists in the ’60s and ’70s, and while it has become a little more gentrified with boutique hotels and restaurants it has still retained its friendly, boho feel and artistic vibe!
Visitors to this area can look forward to street food, music and fantastic places to eat; this is a slice of authentic Rio that should not be missed by anyone who wants to connect with the real spirit of Rio de Janeiro.
18. Pedra do Sal
Home to the choro and samba music scenes of Rio, Pedra do Sal is also a site of historical and religious significance (so many places in this city are of dual importance).
The center of an area known to locals as “little Africa”, this area was first a hub for freed slaves who sought refuge in Brazil. These days it’s a vibrant and lively neighborhood steeped in culture, music, and history which hosts many events, a great samba school. and dozens of lovely cafes and eateries in which to spend the balmy evenings.
Once you arrive in Pedra do Sal, you’ll never want to leave again.
It would take a lifetime to see all of the “miraculous city”, but if you start with these 18 sites you will at least have seen the best that Rio de Janeiro has to offer.
Once you come face to face with Christ the Redeemer, spend a day on Copacabana beach, summit the famous sugarloaf mountain, and climb the Lapa Steps Rio will be firmly in your blood. Just remember to visit Parque Lage to relax and unwind before you leave, and you will return home rejuvenated and relaxed!