Rio de Janeiro, like its people, is warm, musical, and devoted to enjoying itself. Each neighbourhood has a distinct character, and an unforgettable view of Cristo Redentor, who surveys the city with arms spread in perpetual welcome.
If you’re lucky enough to have a trip planned to Rio sometime soon, here are the top ten things to put on your list.
The iconic Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) watches over Rio de Janeiro from the 2,316 ft (706 m) high Corcovado, named for the Portuguese word for hunchback. The winning design in a competition to represent the spirit of the city, it was inaugurated in 1931 and has come to symbolize Brazil. The journey to Christ’s feet – through the streets of Cosme Velho and the Parque Nacional da Tijuca – is as rewarding as the panorama from the summit.
This stunning national park contains the Floresta da Tijuca (Tijuca Forest), one of the world’s largest urban forests. It also features the dramatic Serra de Carioca and the impressive Pedra da Gávea monolith. Home to countless species of plants and animals, as well as waterfalls and springs, this peaceful forest, which covers 15 sq miles (39 sq kilometres), is a little piece of paradise.
None of Rio’s magnificent views are more breathtaking than those from the top of the 1,312 ft (400 m) high granite and quartz Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) at the mouth of Guanabara Bay. Marmosets, tanagers, and myriad birds are a common sight on the trails that run around the monolith’s summit. Visit early in the day or after rain for the clearest views from here and its majestic neighbour – Morro da Urca.
The Benedictines, the first religious order to establish itself firmly in Brazil, founded this magnificent hilltop monastery and church in 1590.
Dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat, one of the black Madonnas of Europe, it boasts richly decorated interiors that date from the 18th century – the formative years of Brazilian Baroque. The interior took almost 70 years to complete and was the life work of a series of artists, notably Benedictine monk Frei Domingos da Conceição (1643 – 1718).
Housing the most comprehensive collection of Brazilian art in the country, the National Museum of Fine Arts was established in 1937 in the former Brazilian Academy of Fine Arts building. The collection comprises close to 20,000 pieces, including fine, decorative, and popular art. The majority of works are Brazilian from the 17th to the 20th centuries. A small number are foreign, predominantly from Europe.
Tucked away behind Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and Ipanema beach, Rio’s shady Jardim Botânico offers a haven from the urban rush. Founded by Prince Regent João in 1808 as a repository for imported plants to become acclimatized to the tropics, the gardens were opened to the public after the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889. Plants are grouped in distinct areas linked by gravel paths and interspersed with streams and waterfalls. The gardens lend their name to the neighbourhood, which has excellent restaurants and nightlife.
Rio’s most interesting museum is devoted to the human history of Brazil. Exhibits include paintings, sculptures, photographs, maps, and other historical artifacts. Galleries are dedicated to Brazil’s indigenous tribes, while the colonial, imperial and republican eras are also well represented. Visitors can see a replica of the prehistoric rock paintings from the Serra da Capivara in the northeast of Brazil, claimed to be the oldest record of human presence in South America.
Praça XV was the first area to develop during the 18th century Minas Gerais gold rush, which transformed Rio from a scruffy port town into a wealthy city. The square became a trading centre, and trade still takes place here in the market next to Rua 1 de Março. It also served as the centre of Brazil’s political power under the Portuguese. Today, Praça XV is dotted with historical buildings and streets. The 1980s restoration of the Paço Imperial catalysed the return of culture to the city centre.
One of Rio’s most celebrated beaches, Copacabana stretches from the Morro do Leme in the northeast to the Arpoador in the southwest. It is a year-round tourist hub, famed for its New Year’s Eve celebrations. When a tunnel connected the area with Botafogo in 1892, Copacabana was an unspoilt bay with picturesque dunes. By the time the Copacabana Palace was built, the neighbourhood had more than 30,000 residents. Today it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
Ipanema and its extension further south, Leblon, are urban Rio’s most beautiful, fashionable, and secure beaches. Most tourists make their base at the two wealthy neighbourhoods located behind their eponymous beaches where chic boutiques and glamorous restaurants line the streets. Neighbouring Copacabana, the Jardim Botânico, Gávea and Corcovada, are easily reached from here.
Discover the best of everything Rio de Janeiro has to offer with this essential, pocket-sized DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Rio de Janeiro with pull-out map. An essential guide for your trip to the 2016 Olympics or Carnival, top 10 lists showcase all the highlights of the city, from climbing to the iconic Christ the Redeemer to lying on Copacabana beach.