17 Unique Things to do in Rio de Janeiro

by Peter Noyce  |  Updated December 5, 2023

Rio de Janeiro is beguiling, thrilling and, at times, even a little overwhelming. With so much history, entertainment and natural beauty, one thing’s for sure: you’ll never get bored of this unique city.

Christ the Redeemer seen at sunset (Photo: anthony_goto via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Carnival, the Christ the Redeemer statue, Mount Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain: there are few destinations with as many revered and instantly recognisable attractions as Rio de Janeiro, the vast seaside metropolis on Brazil’s south-eastern coast. But there’s even more to Rio than the familiar sights you routinely see on postcards and tourism posters. If you’re planning a visit and would like to start building an action-packed itinerary, you might gain inspiration from our list below of 20 unique things to see and do in Rio.

Get up close to a world-famous statue

This enormous statue known as Christ the Redeemer that looks down over Rio from its perch at the top of Mount Corcovado is almost certainly the city’s most iconic landmark – and in a country where Catholicism continues to play a huge role in daily life, it is a monument that is as revered by locals as it is by transient sight-seers. Part of the Tijuca Forest National Park, the edifice was completed in 1931 and in 2007 was designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Every year more than 2 million people visit the statue, with most taking the Corcovado train, a centenarian eco-friendly electric train that makes its way through the forest to its base. From here, there are escalators and elevators for those who don’t wish to climb the remaining 200 steps.

You can book skip the line Christ the Redeemer tickets at Viator

Attend one of the world’s greatest carnivals

With flights and hotel prices sky-rocketing around the event, for some it’s a reason to stay away from the city, but for those who want to experience the magic of one of the world’s great street fiestas, then Rio Carnival offers that very opportunity. Taking place in February and March each year before Lent, the carnival’s main draw is its street parade, filled with revellers, floats, and adornments from numerous samba schools around the city. As well as the parade, there are also hundreds of street parties taking place across the city where neighbourhood bands march along playing songs and watched by party-goers dressed in costumes, as well as elegant Carnival Balls in swanky hotels that draw the great and the good of Brazilian society

Samba dancers at the Rio carnival (Photo: Studios via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Explore Rio’s historic downtown

Downtown Rio, known as Centro, can get a little hot and congested, but the city centre is the best place to learn about Rio’s history and unravel its complex past. As the spot where the Portuguese royal family landed when they first arrived in Rio, Praça 15 de Novembro is a good place to start. Here you’ll find some of the city’s finest colonial architecture, including the Imperial Palace and Tiradentes Palace, currently home to the state legislature. After all that sightseeing, you’ll likely want to head to one of the many bars located on the north side of the plaza for refreshments.

Praça Quinze de Novembro – Centro

Tijuca National Park

Best known as the home of the Christ the Redeemer statue (see above), Tijuca National Park is one of the jewels in Rio’s crown. Sitting within the Atlantic Forest, it is one of the largest urban forests on the planet, spanning some 9,600 acres, with its varied terrains, waterfalls, caves, thousands of species and more than 300 different species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles attracting more than 3 million visitors each year. Almost everyone who comes here will take the time to visit the famous religious statue, but there are plenty of other activities to enjoy too, including hiking, hang gliding and rock climbing, as well as more sedate pleasures such as picnicking.

You can book a guided tour of Tijuca National Park with Viator

Kick back on a beach that inspired a song

You know a beach must be special when it has a song written about that. In Rio’s case, there are two sandy shores that have been afforded such a tribute. The five-mile stretch that encompasses both Copacabana and Ipanema has gained almost mythical proportions among visitors, many of whom can’t help but hum the bossa nova beats of Astrud Gilberto’s “Girl from Ipanema” and Barry Manilow’s crooning classic “Copacabana” as they survey their sun-kissed surroundings. As for which to choose, if you’ve only got time for one then you’ll find a more classically touristic experience at Copacabana, which brims with shops, bars and restaurants, while Ipanema is more typically where the locals hang out.

The golden sands of Ipanema Beach (Photo: leesean via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Visit a fascinating museum

An internationally-acclaimed cultural institution, those who visit Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna are invariably left with their mouths agape even before entering its vast confines. Housed within one of Brazil’s most architecturally-striking modernist buildings and overlooking the ocean, it is equally impressive from the outside as in. Once you’ve got around to exploring its web of galleries, you’ll discover a world-class collection of more than 15,000 art pieces, with a strong focus on local artists. In addition to the array of art on display, the museum also houses an art school and a theatre that plays host to regular concerts, plays, and ballet performances.

Av. Infante Dom Henrique, 85 – Parque do Flamengo / Weds-Sun 10am-5.30pm Closed Mon-Tues

A 21st-century architectural masterpiece, the Museum of Tomorrow is part of a broader regeneration of the city’s old docklands area. This remarkable museum takes visitors on a captivating journey through natural history and explores the impact humans are having on our planet. Home to 4.9 million square kilometres of rainforest that continues to be depleted, Brazil urgently needs to address these questions and the museum is certainly doing its bit to push the issue into the spotlight.

Praça Mauá, 1 – Centro / Tues-Sun 10am-6pm Closed Mon

Marvel at a majestic cathedral

As the country with the largest Catholic population in the world, religion plays a significant role in all aspects of Brazilian life. And there’s no starker emblem of this than the towering Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian on the fringes of downtown Rio. Constructed in 1964, the huge modernist structure is an eye-sore to some and eye-candy to others – but either way, it certainly captures the attention. Twenty-thousand people can fit inside it at any one time and inside you’ll find neon-esque stained-glass panels stretching up to a light-filled cross perched over the building’s circular roof.

Av. Chile, 245 – Centro / Mon-Sun 5pm-7pm

Inspired by the Maya pyramids in Mexico, Rio's cathedral is a towering presence (Photo: Cyro Silva via Flickr)

Rio’s eye-catching Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian (Photo: Cyro Silva via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Learn how to samba dance

If you search for “Rio samba school” on Google, you’ll likely receive tons of information about the famous Carnival. That’s because samba schools in Rio are not educational institutions, but rather social clubs that compete against one another each year at the Carnival. While you can go to a samba night held by these schools, in order to first learn how to dance to samba music, it’s best to enrol at a samba class. There are many great places around the city where you’ll receive a crash course in the rhythms and steps of the famous musical style.

Soak up the atmosphere at a sporting temple

There’s another sort of religion in Brazil besides Catholicism: football. And its most hallowed institution? The Maracanã, right in the heart of Rio. This huge stadium once held more than 150,000 spectators, but has since been altered to an all-seated arena with a capacity of almost 79,000 – but that’s still enough for an electric atmosphere. Two teams call this home – Flamengo and Fluminese – making for one of the fiercest rivalries in world football. If you’re not lucky enough to get a ticket to a ‘Fla-Flu’ game, as it’s called, other major matches get played here regularly too, including international fixtures.

Av. Pres. Castelo Branco, Portão 3 – Maracanã

A bird’s-eye view of the Maracanã (Photo: Pedro Lopez via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Dine at a traditional Brazilian ‘Churrascaria’

There are many dishes and delicacies to be savoured in Rio, including pao de queijo (cheese bread) and feijoada bean stew, but the ultimate eating experience can be found at churrascarias. Not ideal for vegans and vegetarians, churrascarias serve grilled meats by the shed load as waiting staff amble from table to table offering different cuts. Diners use a green-red card system to indicate whether or not they wish to continue eating – most people need at least a few breathers. For a recommendation, one of the best in town is Carretao, located on a street just off of Copacabana beach where it serves up the enticing combination of a prime location and prime cuts.

R. Visc. de Pirajá, 112 – Ipanema / Mon-Sun 11am-11pm

Dance the night away in Lapa

No Rio trip is complete without a night out in Lapa. Start at the arches, aka Carioca Aqueduct, where you’ll find the true spirit of Lapa, with live samba music in the street and vendors selling caipirinhas. Street parties take place on Fridays and Saturdays and go on until the small hours. From here, indoor night spots are the next port of call. All around Ave. Mem de Sá, northwest of the aqueduct, there are dozens of excellent bars. But wherever you end up, Lapa offers a uniquely memorable night out.

Revellers dance in a rain shower on the streets of Lapa (Photo: Rafae Silva via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Walk the legendary Lapa Steps

They may be lesser known than their Rome counterparts, the famed Spanish Steps, but Rio also boasts its own historically important staircase. Known as the Lapa Steps for being situated in the eponymous neighbourhood, the Escadaria Selaró are a set of steps that have become a major tourist attraction since being renovated by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón back in 1990. Running along the front of his house, Selarón transformed the dilapidated steps, emblazoning them in fragments of blue, green and yellow tiles – the colours of the Brazilian flag. Today the steps have become a veritable art installation, covered entirely in tiles, ceramics and mirrors, and representing – in the words of its creator – a tribute for the Brazilian people

R. Manuel Carneiro – Santa Teresa / Open all hours

Hang glide over the city

There are few better ways to get the full picture of a city than by looking down on it from above, and for those seeking unparalleled views of the Cidade Maravilhosa in the most thrilling manner, there’s only one option: hang gliding. Launching from one of the many mountains that surround the city, you’ll soar over rainforest and the Atlantic Ocean, before landing in style on one of Rio’s white-sand beaches. Flight prices are often much lower in low season (April to November, excluding holidays). This isn’t for the faint-hearted, but is a truly unique experience.

You can book a Rio hang gliding trip at GetYourGuide

Hang gliding over the rainforest in Rio (Photo: via

Take a boat tour 

Rio is a sight to behold from any vantage point, but for a unique perspective on the city, head out to sea. There are a number of companies offering guided boat tours on the waters off the coast of Rio, most of which take in the unrivalled beauty of on Guanabara Bay. With both daytime and sunset tours available, you’ll get to soak up both city views and the unvarnished natural scenery including Rio’s famous mountains, the bay and the many small islands in its vicinity. Some tours also include  breakfast at a local café before your departure.

You can book a Guanabara Bay boat tour at GetYourGuide

Stroll through a charming neighbourhood

As Rio’s ‘bohemian’ district, and a good stop-off point on the way back from visiting Christ the Redeemer, Santa Teresa is a must for anyone looking for another side of Rio. Its cobbled streets, pretty colonial houses and cafés are the polar opposite of the busier districts that hug the coastline. The rickety tram is evocative of Lisbon, which may well have been the influence. Santa Teresa used to be the domain of the rich and famous before they fled in the 1960s and 70s to the south of the city, away from the city centre. It later became a hub for artists and artisans, and there are still plenty of small shops dotting Santa Teresa’s narrow streets where you can pick up local artwork.

You can ride the tram from Lapa up to Santa Teresa, a small 'bohemian' community on the hill (Photo: Rodrigo Soldon via Flickr)

A packed tram from Lapa on its way up to Santa Teresa (Photo: Rodrigo Soldon via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Escape the city at a botanical garden

If you ever grow tired of Rio’s clamorous streets and beaches and want some time out, the city’s sprawling Botanical Garden is an ideal antidote. Situated close to Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and at the foot of Pedra D’Agua and opened in 1808, this is a tranquil space, where tall palms race to the skies and fountains trickle cooling water. Birds chirp, frogs croak and you almost lose the sound of the traffic in the distance. You may even see a monkey or two. Particular highlights are the more than 600 species of orchids, and you’ll occasionally find a break in the trees with impressive views of Christ the Redeemer in the distance.

R. Jardim Botânico 

Tall palms of Jardim Botânico (Photo: Vinicius Pinheiro via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Take in the views from a monolithic mountain

Despite the procession of jaw-dropping views in Rio, there are still places that can truly surprise visitors, new and old. While the most popular destination for vistas is Sugarloaf Mountain, the energetic and adventurous hike up Pedra da Gavea. At a lofty 844 metres (2,769ft) it is one of the tallest mountains in the world to directly border the sea. This giant monolith lies west of the historic neighbourhoods of the city, offering mesmerising views of Rio and its surroundings. The trek up there can be dangerous for the poorly prepared; it can take 4-6 hours, including a short section of scrambling and a roughly 30-metre (98-foot) rock climb.

Barra da Tijuca

For some of the best views of Rio and its surroundings, you can trek up to the top of Pedra da Gavea (Photo: Leonardo Shinagawa via Flickr)

The mountain of Pedra da Gave (Photo: Leonardo Shinagawa via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Join a favela tour 

There has been some backlash in the past against the theme park-style jeep tours of Rio’s notorious shanty towns known as favelas. These neighbourhoods, after all, are complex – and often dangerous – places with their own distinct ecosystem of cultures, rituals and norms. One way of exploring them with a clear conscience is to make sure your money is going to  a worthwhile cause. Most of  Rio’s Favela tours are non-intrusive and aim to dispel many of the stereotypes by exploring the daily life, history and struggles faced by many of the inhabitants.

You can book a guided favela tour at GetYourGuide

Immerse yourself in knowledge at a prestigious library

Undoubtedly one of the world’s great libraries, the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading is an important cultural institution in Brazil. It contains the largest collection of Portuguese-language books outside of Portugal. Perhaps more significantly for visitors, the singular beauty of the building makes this a must-visit for bibliophiles and those who can appreciate architectural beauty. The building’s facade and interiors follow what’s known as Neo-Manueline architecture, a Portuguese take on late Gothic architecture. Of particular impact is the reading room, with its three tiers of books, enough to humble even the most intelligent of people.

R. Luís de Camões, 30 – Centro / Mon-Fri 10am-5pm Closed Sat-Sun

The ornate interior of Rio’s Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading (Photo: Mayumi Ishikawa from JAPAN via Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)