Rio de Janeiro is an urban beach influenced by the Portuguese that crowned it capital of the Portuguese empire in 1763, from the slave trade abolished in 1888, to the impact of being nestled between the tropical forest (Mata Atlântica) and the lumbering Atlantic Ocean.
Most guides skim over the obvious sites in Rio de Janeiro from Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf and Copacabana beach. However, what you should be looking for is how the locals enjoy each of those locations. What experiences will you never find in other beach cities around the world?
10 alternative things to do in Rio de Janeiro highlights a treasure trove of fresh discoveries that make the city worth the chaos.
See orchids growing on trees
In tropical countries life thrives. The trees are bigger, laced between the towering concrete apartment blocks. A unique discovery in the city of Rio is the plant life that has attached itself to the trunks of the trees. Known as epiphytes these varieties of plants can be anything from moss to bromeliads, but the Rio residents like to give nature a nudge.
Often residents will also tie orchids to the trees. Overtime the roots grow and lock onto the trunk at which point they can cut away the plastic pot. Feeding from the nutrients and moisture of the tree, the orchids bloom yearly and are a charming sight to watch out for in Rio.
Small troops of marmosets often descend into the city from the Mata Atlantica. This forest is the second most threatened bioma (ecosystems) in the world and stretches along Brazil’s east coast. It’s possible to spot these monkeys anywhere, but they will usually stick to forest bordering neighborhoods. We suggest trying Santa Teresa, Jardim Botânico, Gávea, Botafogo, Flamengo or Leme.
To increase your chances of seeing monkeys read our detailed post on 5 places to see monkeys in Rio!
Attend a Roda de Samba
Take the opportunity to catch live music around Rio.
In Lapa you can pay to enter one of the samba houses, where your entrance fee includes the performers’ costs. Some high quality musicians perform at Carioca Da Gema and Café Cultural Sacrilégio. There are many detailed bar guides to Lapa here are a couple: Culture Trip’s Guide and 10 Best’s Guide.
Circo Voador is a ticketed concert hall that hosts big name artists as well as local rodas de samba (improvised samba jam sessions).
Sample the street food carts
Brazil is a country where people mingle in the streets. There’s no place like Rio to go outside, soak in the nature, beaches and parks right inside a city of 12 million people.
In the evenings street cart owners come out in droves along the sidewalks to sell an array of specialties. Find them anywhere from outside a mall, cinema, station or dotted along the beachfronts between Flamengo to Recreio dos Bandeirantes (Western Rio de Janeiro).
Most common food carts in Rio de Janeiro:
Tapioca – a gluten free pancake like snack made from hydrated mandioca flour. You can ask the vendor to fill your tapioca with fillings from Minas Cheese and tomato to chocolate.
Pipoca (popcorn) – Brazilian style popcorn comes in either sweet or salty. The sweet is caramelized popcorn with the option of dribbling condensed milk on top. The salty can come stuffed with pieces of bacon and goats’ cheese.
Milho (Corncob) –Brazilian corn is not sweet like the American or European sweetcorn, but a savory snack. Boiled to perfection, then smothered with butter and a salt rub.
Cachorro quente (hot dog) – not your average hot dog, in this one the dog is much more of a side-thought. The fillings dominate the show, a personal favorite being a handful quail eggs.
We have a more detailed post on Decrypting the Brazilian Menu here too!
Explore the fairs and markets
Make sure you hit up the weekly market when it comes to your neighborhood. First circle the fair once to sample the exotic fruits. Many of the vendors will slice up tasters and display them in front of their stall. We suggest trying fruta de conde, guava and jaca fruit for starters.
Interested in learning which Brazilian fruit you are? Yes, really … Take the Brazilian Fruit Quiz.
You should then try traditional Brazilian Feira (open market) snack food. Pastel is a fried pastry pie with a filling of either ground beef, shrimp or cheese. Pair this with a sublime cup of sugar cane juice with lime. The cane is squeezed right in front of your eyes!
Buy Cangas on the beach
Brazilians don’t take towels to the beach, they take sarongs (cangas). Even the men. You can lie on the sarong as you dry off in the baking sun, and then wear it. There’ll be numerous vendors trudging along the beach selling cangas (among other things), so you can barter and peruse the different styles.
A canga should cost around R$25 – R$35 (US$8).
Take a sports class on the beach
Being active is what Rio is all about. The beaches are divided by lifeguard posts designated each 1km – 2km along the beachfronts. The exercise clubs are identified by their position to a post number and the particular neighborhood/ beach name. Some classes have a monthly membership, whereas at others you can turn up and pay on the day.
You can play beach volleyball, futevôlei (a soccer and volleyball hybrid), beach tennis, peteca (hitting a hand shuttlecock over the net). More recently cross fit sessions, yoga classes and circuit training have opened up around town. Along the beachfront there is also a designated shared cycle/jogging lane, so many running clubs meet up at the beach or around the Lago de Rodrigo Freitas (the lagoon in Zona Sul).
Eat grilled goats’ cheese on the beach
Food vendors wander the beach the same as the canga sellers. A very Brazilian snack is the goats’ cheese sold by vendors carrying small metal boxes that contain a portable grill. The goats cheese comes on a stick a bit like a savory popsicle. Whereas, some of the food can be questionable as it is ferried under 40 degree C heat for hours (never eat the shrimp) the goats’ cheese is perfectly safe and worth trying.
Enjoy the Sunday promenade shut down
Every Sunday the beachfront from Leblon to Gloria is shut down to give priority to pedestrians, cyclists, skaters. This opens up an extra 2 lanes for residents and tourists to enjoy without the usual hum of traffic.
On Sundays street vendors, musical buskers, and touts will crowd the closed road allowing you to delve into the true spirit of what is it like to be carioca (someone born in Rio de Janeiro). Try renting one of the ITAU orange bikes found in docking stations throughout the city. There are also a few designated spots to rollerblade and roller-skate with others (Gas station Copabana beach near to Leme).
Go street drinking
Not only is it legal to drink on the street in Brazil, but it is a rite of passage. Revelers come out in their troves to celebrate in mini carnivals nightly around Rio de Janeiro. Certain areas have a designated night, so see the list below (only including Zona Sul and Centro):
Baixo Gávea – Thursdays
Lapa near Cinelandia – busiest at weekends
Baixo Botafogo – Every night
Praça São Salvador – any night (live chorinho Sunday 11AM)
In each place there will be bars that serve drinks (nowhere to sit), then you wander out into the square. Except Baixo Botafogo where the bars lining the streets will pull out chairs onto the sidewalk. You will sit and be served by a waiter in Baixo Botafogo (rua Volutárias da Patria). In the other places you have the option to take your own cooler with alcoholic drinks. Or there will always be informal street vendors lugging around a polystyrene box loaded with beers cooled in mountains of ice.
Be mindful that there often aren’t public bathrooms, so perhaps it would be good to have an agreement with a bar owner and buy exclusively from them in order to have access to a bathroom.
Bonus! Spend Sunday at the Jockey Club Rio
Hidden away between the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and the Botanical Gardens the Jockey club offers restaurants, horse racing and a stunning view of the Christ the Redeemer statue. Find out more in our article on How to Spend a Lazy Sunday in Rio Jockey Club.