Rio de Janeiro is the only big city in the world that I’ll admit has a nicer natural setting than that of my hometown, Sydney.
It’s a fun, glamorous, vibrant city, with plenty of opportunities to party – especially during Carnaval. Unfortunately it’s also quite dangerous, and large tracts of the city, including many of its beaches, are too unsafe for tourists to visit.
But fear not, there’s still plenty for tourists to do and see in Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvellous City).
Start with the famous Copacabana Beach. The perfect beach, right?
Well, depends on your definition of perfect.
And, oddly, as soon as I arrived in Rio de Janeiro people began telling me – tourists and locals alike – to avoid Copacabana Beach.
It’s too dirty and crowded, they said.
And they were right. But there’s no way you can come to Rio de Janeiro and not visit this legendary beach.
On the plus side, if a violent storm arrives – and violent storms are frequent in Rio de Janeiro – you’ll end up with a little more elbow room on the sand.
Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro
Don’t go to Copacabana, go to Ipanema; it’s much cleaner, and less crowded.
This tidbit of advice, usually dispensed with a knowing nod and a suggestive double-tap of the nose, was whispered in my ear at least a dozen times during my stay in Rio de Janeiro.
I did eventually visit Ipanema Beach. The conditions there, as far as I could tell, were identical to those of Copacabana.
Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro
Football fans should make attending a game at Maracanã Stadium a priority.
Maracanã was the largest stadium in the world when it was built (in 1950), able to hold 200,000 people. Its capacity has been considerably reduced since then – following the collapse of part of the stadium in 1992 – but it is still one of the largest football stadiums in the world, and one of the most famous.
And while the rumbling and shaking of the 60-year-old concrete bleachers might be a little alarming for engineers, it does add an extra dimension of the excitement to the match.
This 30-metre tall statue (one of the seven wonders of the modern world), built on the peak of 700-metre tall Corcovado Mountain, is a symbol of Rio de Janeiro.
It’s a big statue – the 4th largest statue of Jesus on Earth – but all the shots you’ve seen of it towering over Rio have used perspective to their advantage. The statue is tiny and unrecognisable when looking up at it from the city below.
A trip to the base of the Cristo Redentor statue is still worthwhile, not so much for the statue itself – which is rather plain as statues go – but for the views the peak affords over Rio de Janeiro, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Guanabara Bay
Check the weather before you set off; the peak of Corcovado Mountain peak is often immersed in cloud.
Sambódromo, Rio de Janeiro
This 800-metre long grandstand-seating-lined event space, known as the Sambódromo, hosts Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnaval parade.
The parade is actually an extravagant samba competition staged between Rio’s finest dance schools. The schools get ninety minutes each in which to parade from one end of the Sambódromo to the other. Accompanying them is a convoy of floats decorated as technicolour sphinxes, cities in the clouds, futuristic castles, pillaging Spanish galleons, winter wonderlands, vulgar caricatures of past and current American presidents, and everything and anything in between
Be warned: the main event runs for a total of nine hours. And it features an abundance of repetitive, high-pitched, Latin American pop music (each school will use a two-minute sample of music, which they repeat forty-five times in a row during their performance – it gets painful).
If you think you’re up for it make sure you book your tickets well in advance (try six months ahead of time at least) or be prepared to fleeced by a shady scalper in a dark alley.
Rio de Janeiro is dangerous. Crime is rampant. Everyone in my dorm room (apart from myself and Ami) was mugged. One guy was robbed three times during the five-day period (this was during Carnaval when crime skyrockets). Another traveller I met was robbed twice in one hour. Take heed, and manage the risk appropriately. Carry minimal cash and valuables with you at any time. And hand over your valuables to the assailants without protest if confronted.
Carnaval is held during the four days preceding Lent (the exact dates change every year, but it’s usually either February or early March).