No matter how many days in Rio you end up spending, you’ll have to get past the city’s reputation. Whether about the virus-laden waters Olympians were forced to compete in, or reports of police shooting seemingly innocent men, Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa tends to make the news for all the wrong reasons.
Meanwhile, personal experience has tarnished my opinion of the city: My brand-new iPhone got stolen a half-dozen Junes ago, when I visited the city for the second time. I should’ve known better—I had the phone in my back pocket while riding public transportation—but it still bummed me out.
Of course, it’s very difficult to deny the amazingness of Rio de Janeiro when you’re there, whether you’re looking down onto the city from Corcovado mountain, sipping caipirinhas on Ipanema Beach or traipsing through colonial Santa Teresa, to name just a few of the experiences you can have. Use my guide to plan your trip to Rio, which will hopefully be virus- and crime-free!
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
Hotel, hostel or apartment, location matters in Rio de Janeiro, no matter how many days in Rio you decide to spend. I recommend staying in the upscale neighborhood of Leblon, which isn’t the most interesting or inspiring in the city, but is among the safest. A great way to start your search here, regardless of your budget, is to peruse Airbnb’s inventory here—there are lots of affordable options right near the beach.
Outside of Leblon in Ipanema, a small number of reaís per night will get you a bed or private room at Lemon Spirit Hostel. If you’ve got more to spend, why not go Madonna-style with a suite at the Windsor Atlântica along Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach?
How to Organize Your Time in Rio de Janeiro
Life’s a beach
Regardless of how many days in Rio you spend in the end, you’re going to be craving a beach. I mean, you’re either going to be getting off an overnight flight from Europe or the United States, or coming from somewhere in Brazil (probably São Paulo) that isn’t on the coast.
Assuming you sleep in Leblon, your trip to Rio de Janeiro begins with a relaxing strut toward the beach, whether you stay in Leblon or hang a left toward Ipanema Beach. While the beaches of Leblon are quiet and peaceful, Ipanema’s ambiance (which is admittedly crowded) provide a more iconic Rio de Janeiro experience. If you’re a gay traveler, you’ll want to make your way toward Post 8. (Or not—the guys there, while beautiful, aren’t always friendly!)
If you don’t feel like bumming, another option would be to walk the entire length of the beach, perhaps heading even farther north into Copacabana, whose name is perhaps more ubiquitous than Ipanema’s, even if the neighborhood itself veers toward the “shabby” side of shabby-chic.
For your first sunset in Rio, you’ve got two options. Walk (or, more realistically, get a cab) to the base of Pão do Açucar (a.k.a. the Sugar Loaf) and take a cable car to the top, or climb up onto Arpaodor, the giant rock that separates Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.
A tale of two (additional) cities
To many travelers, Rio de Janeiro is nothing more than the aforementioned beaches and the tourist attractions I’m going to list in the next section of this piece. For this reason and others, I’m recommending you explore some lesser-known parts of the city during your trip, irrespective of how many days in Rio you end up staying.
After enjoying a breakfast of açaí at most any café near your hostel or apartment, get a taxi to the Lapa Arches, a conspicuously Roman structure in the heart of Rio’s modern downtown. Don’t walk toward the skyscrapers (you will later—don’t worry!) and instead take a left and walk up the hill, which will take you into Rio’s bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood.
Although I don’t believe its iconic street car is operating anymore, Santa Teresa feels very European, whether you’re exploring the strange Parque das Ruinas or sneaking up to the rooftop of the Santa Teresa Hotel for a 360º panorama. To be sure, you could simply call it a day here and wait for the sun to set behind the Santa Teresa’s Portuguese-looking cityscape.
Or, you can head back down the hill and past the Lapa Arches and into Rio’s downtown, a lesser-visited part of the city that’s home to treasures such as São Bento Monastery, Metropolitan Cathedral, Rio’s Municipal Theater, and the neo-gothic palace at Fiscal Island. Ride the metro to Ipanema-General Osorio station and have dinner at Garota de Ipanema, where the song “Girl from Ipanema” is said to have been written.
Jesus e o jardim
Unless you have a major aversion to Wonders of the World, you’ll want to scale Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado mountain to enjoy a panoramic view of Rio de Janeiro. If you want to take the funicular railway to the top (which you should, unless you’re crazy like me and walk the two-hour, favela-filled path up to the top), you must buy tickets online and in advance here.
After saying goodbye to Jeezy, take a taxi or the 569 bus to Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, a.k.a. the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens. A veritable jungle in the middle of the city, the garden is filled with towering palms, exotic flowers and mischievous monkeys. In its deepest reaches, you might forget you’re in a city, let alone one of the world’s largest.
As to how you finish out your time in the Cidade, no matter how many days in Rio you stay in the end, that’s up to you. You could head to Sugar Loaf or Arpaodor to watch sunset, if you missed either of those on day one, or you could eat dinner at Garota de Ipanema if you were too exhausted to make if there last night.
Then again, you’ve probably made friends (Brazilians or fellow foreigners—likely both) and have veered off my itinerary by this point, and maybe even taken some day trips from Rio. The hard part about seeing Rio de Janeiro in 3 days? Calling it quits after such a relatively short time!
How Much Time Do You Need in Rio de Janeiro?
When I first assembled this Rio de Janeiro itinerary, I structured it with the assumption that you’d want to spend around 3 days in Rio. This would allow for a day along the beach in Ipanema or Copacabana, a day in the Botanical Gardens and at Christ the Redeemer and a day to explore Rio’s underrated downtown, then head “up the hill” to Lapa and Santa Teresa.
Another dimension to the question of how many days in Rio is that idea that the city might end up serving as “bookends” to your Brazil trip. For instance, if you book a flight in and out of Rio, you could start your trip to Brazil in Rio, head up to the Lençóis Maranhenses or down to Igazu Falls, and then end with a night or two in Rio to put a bow on it.
Other FAQ About Visiting Rio de Janeiro
What can you do in Rio for 3 days?
With three days in Rio, you can have it all. Spend one day on the beach in Ipanema and Copacabana and another divided between the Botanical Gardens and Christ the Redeemer. On day three, head “up the hill” to Lapa and Santa Teresa, and then down into Rio de Janeiro’s underrated downtown.
Is 5 days in Rio enough?
With five days in Rio de Janeiro, you can really see everything the city has to offer. You can spend a day each on Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and also take your time enjoying the nightlife of these coastal districts. In addition to city-center attractions such as Christ the Redeemer and the Santa Teresa district, you can get out of town, whether to the wilder beach or Barra de Tijuca, or to outlying cities like Paraty and Buzios.
How safe is Rio?
It’s difficult to say that Rio de Janeiro is a safe city—its 2020 homicide rate was 7 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 1.5 in London and 5.5 in New York. Anecdotally, I have been pickpocketed in Rio; I know several people who have been shot or otherwise robbed violently.
The Bottom Line
No matter how many days in Rio you plan to spend, and whether or not they’re part of a a longer Brazil itinerary, the Cidade Maravilhosa more than lives up to its name. Frolic on the white sands of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, ascend Corcovado mountain to get some perspective with Christ the Redeemer or take a day trip to somewhere even more exotic. Get out of town by taking day trips to smaller cities or more beautiful, forlorn beaches elsewhere in Rio de Janeiro state. And remember: If planning your trip to Rio is proving stressful, you can hire me as your Travel Coach, and let me sweat the details.