A Nat Geo Explorer’s guide to Rio de Janeiro (2024)

  • Travel

From sprawling forests to vibrant neighborhoods, discover Rio de Janeiro with these insider tips.

Rio de Janeiro, known as the Marvelous City, is famous for its breathtaking landscapes, wonderful beaches, welcoming people, and, of course, Carnival. Home to the Christ the Redeemer statue, the swing of samba and bossa nova, and the sprawling Tijuca Forest, the Brazilian city is a perfect mix of nature and culture. It’s this combination of wild wonders and human creativity that makes me never want to leave this city.

About my work

The Mantis Expedition was a journey in the Atlantic Forest to find the elusive praying mantis. The team explored amazing places—from the mountains of Serra dos Órgãos to the dunes of Itapebussus—where wildlife and humans coexist. In our search for mantises, we discovered the rich biodiversity of the endangered biome and the stories of those who inhabit it.

Travel for good

O Navegador in the Centro area of Rio de Janeiro is a cozy restaurant with typical Brazilian food and an organic local menu. Its ingredients are acquired from a range of small family farms, which helps develop a network of sustainable production.

What's in my bag

I never forget to pack a flashlight. Wildlife is abundant when the sun goes down, as most animals are active during the night. While many people walk around a natural area and are satisfied to see some butterflies and birds, I am always eager to come back at night and find its hidden inhabitants. Night searches are relaxing, full of wonders, and accessible for anyone with a flashlight. In Rio, always be sure to know which areas are safe to explore at night: Refrain from exploring alone, and always ask a local about which places to avoid, as they can change often.

Traditional crafts

Local artisans can be found at some fairs like Feira de São Cristóvão, Feira da Praça XV, Feira de Copacabana, and Feira do Lavradio. The Santa Teresa neighborhood, besides its nice antique houses, streets, and traditional restaurants, has many local artisans with small shops like Tucum Brasil, which sells indigenous art.

Local etiquette

Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America; do not expect that people will speak Spanish. English is widespread, especially in touristy areas, and locals are usually helpful. While Rio has wonderful beaches and waterfalls, be aware that nudity is not allowed. It is very common to share food and drinks at restaurants and bars, so feel free to ask if a meal can be shared. You’ll notice that locals often hug and kiss when greeting each other.

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A classic book to begin to learn about countries with rain forests is In the Rainforest by journalist Catherine Caufield. Although relatively old, it still accurately depicts the beauty and fragility of these places. But the true sense of Brazil is found in its music. Prior to visiting, one must listen to Acabou Chorare by Novos Baianos, Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis, Clube da Esquina by Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Elis Regina, Vinicius de Morais and Tom Jobim (bossa nova), Nara Leão, Chico Buarque and Gal Costa (Brazilian popular music), and Os Mutantes (Brazilian rock).

Take a class

During some seasons travelers can look for samba classes at samba schools and other places, especially close to Carnival time. Before Carnival, travelers can purchase Carnival costumes in local communities to participate in a samba school parade.

Ethical travel tip

Brazil is a multicultural and diverse country. Rio de Janeiro is home to all kinds of cultures and religions, so always be kind and respectful to others. Never leave trash behind, especially on the beach. Don’t feed wild animals.

Savor the flavors

The traditional order on the beach is Biscoito Globo (a manioc starch snack) and Matte Leão (cold tea). Fresh coconut water is a must on beach kiosks or on the lagoon. Frozen acai and fresh juices provide energy and refreshment on walks around town. For breakfast, try the Jarbô Café (Jardim Botânico), Da Casa da Táta (Gávea), Empório Jardim (Leblon), or Tapi (Leblon or Centro). For lunch or dinner, try Zazá Bistrô (Ipanema) or Fogo de Chão (Botafogo).

Head off the beaten path

Prainha is a pristine beach far from the city area but really worth a visit; the seafood in Guaratiba is a great option afterward. Pedra Bonita has an easy trail with a wonderful view of the city. For experienced hikers, Pedra da Gávea and Bico do Papagaio have the most beautiful views in town. It is possible to take a boat ride to Paquetá Island, a small village where time seems to have stopped.

Cultural heritage

Locals love watching the sunset. Head to Mureta da Urca, where people gather for an afternoon beer or caipirinha by the ocean, or Pedra do Arpoador, on the end of Ipanema Beach, to see it. Typical tourist spots that are worth a visit are Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Red Beach, Theatro Municipal, Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, Escadaria Selarón, Museum of Tomorrow, and Rio Art Museum. I never get tired of any of these. If you’re looking for live samba, Lapa is a bohemian neighborhood with great nightlife on the weekends.

Explore the outdoors

Wildlife can be easily experienced in the Botanical Garden, home to an immense diversity of plants and animals like toucans, capuchin monkeys, capybaras, and tanagers. Take time to visit the special areas for orchids, bromeliads, cacti, carnivorous plants, and bees. Stay late and you can explore it with a flashlight. The National Museum is the main natural museum, and Exposição Floresta Protetora is a nice modern exhibit about the Atlantic Forest. Remember to never feed the tamarins you may come across on the city streets.

Must-see spot

Tijuca National Park protects all forests nearby and is home to amazing wildlife. There are trails with a range of difficulty levels, waterfalls, and caves. It is a must-see for those who want to experience a tropical rain forest just 10 minutes from busy Rio de Janeiro. I take every guest I have to the forest and they always say it was their best experience in Rio.

Leonardo Moutinho Lanna is a biologist, founder of Projeto Mantis, wildlife photographer, and poet born in Rio de Janeiro. He aims to tell the stories of the Atlantic Forest and help raise awareness for conservation of insects—especially mantises—and their ecosystems. Follow @projetomantis on Facebook or Instagram.

A Nat Geo Explorer’s guide to Rio de Janeiro (2024)
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