Welcome to my first travel post – I chose to start with a place close to my heart: Rio de Janeiro! Many call Rio “the marvelous city” – even a short trip there will make it clear why! It offers a great combination of city and nature, with pockets of both calm and chaos. There are many things to do, and between the sights, the beaches and the partying it can all seem a little overwhelming! While you can’t “do it all” on a short trip, I have put together a guide to making the most of your time in Rio – and leave you yearning for more!
This post contains affiliate links (Amazon and Airbnb). I only recommend products and services that I like and either currently use or would use. If you make a purchase, you support this blog: I earn a commission at no cost to you.
Before your trip
I’m a strong believer in building anticipation for holidays by delving into the culture beforehand. I also believe in not getting caught out because of a lack of preparation. So here’s an indicative timeline of the steps you can take to avoid anything ruining your trip and to maximise the enjoyment you get from the city once you’re there.
Six months (or more) before your trip
Book your flights
I use Skyscanner to compare different dates: you can even search for the cheapest flights of the year departing from all airports in your country! Select your country as your departure and “Rio de Janeiro (Any)” as your destination, then “Whole month” and “Cheapest month” by clicking on the dates, if you don’t already have a given time in mind.
Rio has lots to offer year round, but my trusted Travel Book recommends visiting between November and April, whereas Where to Go When recommends February specifically. End of February or beginning of March is usually when the Carnival takes place, but the dates change each year; a quick Google will tell youwhen the next one is. The Carnival can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, however prices are much higher (book accommodation as early as possible – see below) and you are more likely to get ripped off / not experience normal Rio (if Rio can ever be described as “normal”…).
Get the boring stuff out of the way
Check that your passport is in date, and also make sure that you have the right visa, if necessary, and the right vaccinations. These vary based on the length of your stay and your country of origin, so please check your equivalent of the Foreign travel advice. These things can take time, so do yourself a favour: figure them out early on, then relax.
Start learning the language
Please, please, please do not be that tourist that speaks loudly in English and complains when locals don’t understand. Brazilians speak a variant of Portuguese which is lovely to listen to and quite easy to pick up. At the very least, it is courteous to learn how to say:
- Hello – there are many ways of saying this: bom dia (in the morning), boa tarde (in the afternoon), boa noite (in the evening / nighttime), olá (works at all times of day) and oi (same, but more informal);
- How are you?: tudo bem? to which you reply tudo, e você?;
- Where is …?: onde fica …?;
- I want … please: quero … por favor (fill with whatever tempts you on the menu – o cardápio);
- Thank you: obrigada (if you are a woman), obrigado (if you are a man);
- Goodbye: tchau!
You could survive with this very basic vocabulary, but if you get into any kind of pickle, you will be greatly aided by knowing more Portuguese. It does seem like it’s possible to talk oneself in and out of most situations in Brazil (in my experience anyway!). Your upcoming trip is also a great opportunity to challenge yourself to learn something new. I recommend using the free online courses available on Duolingo and Memrise in order to increase your understanding and confidence in Portuguese – the gamification aspect makes learning fun.
No one ever regrets adding a new language to their repertoire, and it might help you make connections once in Rio (also in your local Portuguese-owned fish and chip shop – or that might just be me!). Give yourself a daily or weekly learning objective – your progress might surprise you!
Three months to go
Book your accommodation
If you are staying less than a month, book an Airbnb for the duration of your stay: they are often better value than hotels and allow you to prepare meals in the comfort of your own (temporary) home, thus saving you money. If you are staying for an extended period of time, book an Airbnb for a couple weeks and start asking around about cheaper accommodation to rent.
Most of Rio’s well-known sights and beaches are in the Centre and South Zone – so look out for places in neighbourhoods such as Glória, Flamengo, Botafogo, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. Ideally you would want to be quite close to the metro, but walking in Rio is pleasant, taxis are quite cheap and some drivers (sons of Ayrton Senna?) make for exhilarating bus rides, so there are alternatives.
Dip into the culture
Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil in general, have a lot to offer in terms of art and entertainment. Rio is considered by many the cultural heart of Brazil, with samba as its heartbeat. Listening to music and watching films will heighten your excitement about your holiday and will allow you to become more comfortable with the language.
Sertanejo and bossa nova are good places to start getting used to the language as the lyrics can be simpler and the rhythm slower than other Brazilian genres such as funk and samba (but not always!). Any Brazilians reading this should probably skip this section if they don’t want to be offended by my taste in music, ha! For the the others, Brazilian songs I personally like include:
- Garrafa Pet by Gusttavo Lima;
- Seu Bombeiro by Munhoz & Mariano (just try to resist the outfits and moves in the video!);
- Nosso Sonho by Claudinho e Buchecha;
- Peguei um Ita no Norte by Salgueiro;
- Rap dos Bad Boys by Romário e Edmundo;
- Como Era Verde o Meu Xingu by Mocidade (interesting lyrics).
If you liked any of the rhythms, just keep clicking around Youtube’s recommended videos for more in the same style. I recommend googling the lyrics (letras in Portuguese) and trying to follow along.
Films recommended in the Travel Book and my City Guide include Central do Brasil (Central Station), Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) and Cidade de Deus (City of God). Depending on your progress in Portuguese, you’ll want to have Portuguese or English subtitles.
Start saving your beer money!
With three months to go, you’ll want to start putting a little money to the side on a regular basis. These savings will add up and can be used for beer (more on that later!) and other expenses on your trip.
One month to go
Order some books to read on the plane / beach
I like to novels or non-fiction books that are relevant to my destination to read before every trip. This gives you an insight into the place you are going to, something to do while travelling or relaxing – and most important of all, will offer you a different perspective on what you are about to experience in Rio. Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon) by Jorge Amado is recommended by the Travel Book. The City Guide offers many other recommendations of books related to Brazil – I have not read them myself but they are most definitely on my to-read list before I head out there again!
Read about what is going on in Rio
Beyond the beaches and the stereotypes, Rio faces quite a lot of challenges, namely in terms of inequality. To learn more about these issues and also about inspiring community projects, have a look at RioOnWatch and read a couple articles that catch your eye. For instance you could learn about responsible tourism here. I wrote a few articles when I was an intern with Catalytic Communities, the NGO that created RioOnWatch as a programme for community reporting in Rio. You can support them directly here or check out how to support them through buying Rio-inspired clothes, accessories and decor in part two.
Come up with a plan
Have a think about what are the unmissable things for you. Sit down and share them with your travel companions if you are not staying in Rio on your own. The idea isn’t to establish a rigid schedule, but rather to have a bit of an itinerary so that you get to do all the things that appeal to you personally.
My suggestions of memorable experiences are in part two of this post, but you could also use city guides like this one to come up with a plan. There is a more recent version, but I found this one a charity shop for virtually no money and most of the recommendations still seem good. I had a little walking tours book that served me well while in Rio, but I must have left it there and now I can’t remember the name of it!
One of the advantages of coming up with a plan ahead of time is that there are some things that may be better to book in advance, such as tickets to go up to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor).
A week before you go
Start packing your bags
I’d rather avoid packing my bags at the last minute so that I have time to realise if I’m missing something and to do something about it. One of the most important considerations regarding your trip to Rio is the way you appear and what you put on display. Brazil remains an unequal country, and its cultural capital is no exception. There are lots of people who live on low incomes. so flashing expensive accessories and gadgets is not only unfair, but it might also get you unwanted attention.
If I were you, I would leave anything you don’t need at home: you don’t need a laptop and several other gadgets on holiday for example. Also possibly aim for a more casual look than usual: think relaxed and beachy. You probably won’t pass as a local, but the idea is that your appearance doesn’t scream “tourist” or “richer than you”.
I was never mugged or pickpocketed in Rio and I put that down to a combination of luck, dressing appropriately and being able to talk my way out of certain situations (such as a group of men asking me to give them my mobile phone) in Portuguese.
Also, do check the weather. Rio can be a bit cool in winter, so it may be worth taking a couple longer layers.
Once you’ve checked that you have everything you need: revisit your plan, listen to a bit of Brazilian music and get excited!
See you next week for part two, where I unveil my favourite experiences to try in Rio for a fab time.