Go for the culinary, architecture, historic importance, swimming, beaches, boating, sightseeing, and people.
Alright, full disclosure, this writer right here is a "Carioca". Knowing that a "Carioca" is someone that was born in Rio, you'd think I am biased to write about Rio. You are absolutely right! Rio is, doubt me not, the most beautiful city in the world. And, I humbly need to explain, for the purpose of making my point, that I have travelled the world quite a bit; and, the more I travel the more enchanted I get when I am in Rio. Now, that doesn't mean that Rio is a perfect city, quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. Rio can be dodgy, unpredictable and dangerous at times (like big cities often are), it can also be intimidating; but once you have the guts to visit it and tame it, it becomes your lifelong sweetheart.
Natural beauty is one of the city's primary enchantments; then there is the lifestyle of the "Cariocas" and finally the people, who are mostly generous and welcoming. These are things that you will only "get it" after you visit Rio.
This blog is NOT about telling you of all the obvious touristic attractions that you need to visit in Rio. Attractions like the "Sugar Loaf mountain", the statue of "Christ, the Redeemer, at the Corcovado mountain", the "Botanical Gardens" and perhaps attending to a soccer match at the "Maracanã" stadium, will give you bragging rights upon your return home, so, by all means, just go for it! Bear with me, and you will get some local advice, insights that only a "Carioca" can give you, and that may turn your next visit in Rio, a little less touristic and a little more enjoyable and social.
Rio is also full of history; it was discovered and named in the early 1500's, became a city (São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro) in the mid 1500's and, in 1808, it became the capital of the Portuguese empire and new home of the Portuguese Royal family. The Portuguese colonization left a significant legacy to the city and to the people of Rio. It would take an entire book to be fair with the history of Rio de Janeiro, so I wil refrain myself from taking that road; instead, I will offer you a short list of three amazing cultural sites that are still open to visitors today: Botanical Garden (1808), The National Library - formerly, Royal Library (1810) and the Fiscal Palace, where the last ball of the empire took place (1889).
Number one in my list, as one can expect, is "spending time on the beach"; Cariocas are "beach bums" by nature and tradition.
After a deep and comprehensive study that I never did, I found 5 key reasons for that: 1) beaches are free; 2) the beaches in Rio are beautiful; 3) access to them is pretty easy for most part; 4) beaches are one of the two key places in Rio for social networking (that's where you will find out about that party, about that job offer or about that girl), and; 5) drinking at the beaches starts at noon (not 5pm).
From the iconic sidewalk of Copacabana on the East end of Rio to Barra da Tijuca on the West, you will find a beach to fit in.
A typical "Carioca" has a very minimalistic approach when going to the beach; besides the inevitable bathing suite (and a sarong for the ladies), sunglasses, a pair of flip-flops, a cap, and some money for food and beverages, any additional accessory would be counter the idea of moving free along the beach and make connections. Most "Cariocas" will arrive at the beach late in the morning, and only leave it after the sunsets. At the beach, check out the people playing all kinds of sports, from Volleyball to footvolley, and from "frescobol" to Beach Tennis"; if you ask kindly, you may be able to play along. There is a number of things to eat and drink at the beach, from Coconut water to beer and caipirinhas; from a sandwich to fried fish; so you do not have to worry about leaving the beach at any time. If you stay long enough, you will find out that "cariocas" are kind of obsessed about sunsets. One of the most popular places to watch the sunset in Rio is the Arpoador beach, just next to Ipanema Beach. Truth is, even on a ugly day, the view of the waves from the Arpoador Rock, the white sand beaches of Ipanema and Leblon and the Morro Dois Irmãos at the end, is breathtaking. Wait for the sunset and you may be surprised to see some people clapping hands in return of the free spectacle.
The next thing on my list is the "boteco" or "botequim"; the Brazilian version of the English Pub. No matter what anyone else tells you, only in Rio you can find the real deal; not in São Paulo, not in Minas Gerais, not anywhere else in Brazil. And, again, based on one deep and comprehensive study that I never did, this is due to our Portuguese colonization. A true "boteco" in Rio is a place where you will find people of different social classes and different backgrounds sharing the same bar counter. Beware, there are several boutique "botecos" designed to accommodate the elite and although they can be pleasant at times, that's not what I refer to in my list. In a real "boteco", you find a white collar executive having beer after a hard day of work, and you will find a blue collar worker having a shot of "cachaça". In the real "boteco" you will find a great number of food and appetizers on display inside the glass-top bar counter; things like "oven roasted pork leg", "bolinhos de bacalhau" (a Portuguese fried cake made with salted codfish); "empadas" (not to be confused with "empanadas"), "coxinhas", boiled quail eggs, fried provolone cheese, grilled octopus, etc. Here are a few suggestions of Botecos for your visit. The list of "botecos" is endless, here are a few for you to start with: Pavão Azul and Adega Perola in Copacabana; Bar Urca in Urca; and Bracarense, Jobi and Bar do Bacana in Leblon. Cariocas will stop at a "boteco" any time of the day; in the morning for a breakfast, during lunch for a beer and an appetizer, on the way back from the beach for a snack and a drink or on the way out at night to have a drink or two. If the "boteco"does not look kind of sketchy, then it is not a real boteco - trust me on that,
As you plan your trip to Rio and want to decide when to go, have in mind that summer is very hot and humid, and seasonal thunderstorms can turn the city into a chaos from one moment to the next. Also, be aware that "Cariocas" have thin blood, so when winter arrives and temperatures in the city drops below 65 F (18 C), they will not hang out outdoors that much anymore, especially if it drizzles. My favorite time in Rio is New Year's Eve. NYE in Rio is packed with people, (which is not my thing anymore) but there is some magic in the air. Plan to dress in white and/or golden, stroll on the beach to see the offering to the African gods, find yourself a NYE ball in a beach front hotel and watch the fireworks from the terrace, then stay up to watch the first sunrise of the year from the beach. Having said that, some people would prefer to go to Rio for Carnival and other people would enjoy fall and spring better than summer or winter. Truth is, Rio is a beautiful city any time of the year.
A final tip, if you are really in for a treat and want to explore a not so traditional approach to getting to know Rio, consider taking some of your friends out on a boat ride in Rio with a Captain that will show you the city from the deck of his boat. You will see Rio from an angle most people don't get the chance to, besides, you can refresh yourself in the ocean and enjoy some privacy for a while. You can check for more details about such boat trips here.
If you found here some insights that you did not find anywhere else, then my mission is accomplished. Feel free to reach out with any question or need for assistance.