Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s former capital and second-largest city, is a one-of-a-kind and mesmerizing place. Rio is known for the Christ the Redeemer statue — one of seven new wonders of the world —, for the stark contrast between its azure sea, lush forests, and towering cliffs, and for the joie de vivre of its natives, the Cariocas.
Let’s find out what else Rio de Janeiro is known for on this very special addition to our series focusing on the most exciting cities on Earth.
Be advised that, while I truly love Rio, I also hate it sometimes. I hope my mixed feelings will make up for the bias I naturally have when talking about my dear hometown.
Ready for an insider’s take on the most striking things Rio is known for? Just scroll down!
Rio is known for its many landmarks
1. Christ the Redeemer
I’m not particularly religious myself. Yet I did feel closer to getting a grasp of the sublime the few times I visited the Christ the Redeemer overlook, I’ll give you that. Pardon my cheesiness, but it leaves you simply speechless.
The largest Art Deco statue on the planet, dedicated in 1931, was erected on top of Mount Corcovado, carefully chosen for the commanding views of the eastern half of town.
In 2007, the Christ statue was rightfully voted one of seven new wonders of the world.
Rio’s slums encapsulate many of the social issues that unfortunately Rio is known for as well. Brazilian slums are normally called favelas, after the first such community was settled in Rio at the turn of the century.
Unlike other places I know of, the majority of Rio’s favelas are on the city’s hills. The local elites never really bought into the idea of building hillside homes, favoring being close to the coast instead (understandable).
Despite all the issues, favelas gave form to Rio’s contemporary culture and identity and are thriving communities, much like any regular neighborhood.
3. Atlantic Forest
Rio is known for having two of the largest urban forests on the planet. One of them is Tijuca National Park, located closer to downtown and around the Christ the Redeemer statue.
In the 19th century, coffee farmers had the great idea of tearing it down to replace it with their crops. That prompted a citywide temperature rise and such a dramatic water crisis that Emperor Pedro II felt compelled to lay down a massive reforestation effort. Phew!
4. Sugarloaf Mountain
The Sugarloaf that Rio de Janeiro is famous for has been welcoming visitors into Guanabara Bay (Rio’s harbor) for five centuries. Historically, until the Christ statue was built, it was the ultimate symbol of the city.
Its cable car, opened in 1912, is just as emblematic, and has featured in memorable movies like James Bond’s Moonraker (1979).
5. Selarón Steps
The Selarón Steps, made famous by a music video Zoomers are too young to have watched, were tiled by its namesake creator for none other than 23 years.
Neighbors initially poked fun at the loud color scheme. Yet the stairs went on to become one of the landmarks Rio is known for.
Foreigners shipped about 2,000 themed tiles from 60 countries to Selarón, who scattered them all over the place. You should find one from back home if you look closer!
The artist worked on the basic layout for ten years starting in 1990, then kept on embellishing the steps and surrounding walls for the rest of his life.
6. Maracanã Stadium
Before losing to Germany 1-7 at the 2014 Fifa World Cup, the worst humiliation Brazilians suffered soccer-wise happened right here. In 1950, the nation hosted the tournament for the first time, and everybody was excited at the prospect of winning it.
But Uruguay snatched the trophy at the final match, in a blow that led some folks to have a heart attack and die.
Maracanã has since been the stage for memorable events, including legendary concerts and the opening ceremony to the 2016 Summer Olympics. The stadium’s imposing record has earned it a place in the heart of Cariocas.
7. Botanical Garden
To escape the advance of Napoleon’s troops, John VI, then Prince regent of Portugal (mom was nuts), fled with the entire court — around 15,000 people — to Rio in November 1807. Although the Portuguese didn’t exactly love the unprecedented move, good ole John did manage to secure the throne. And Rio benefitted enormously.
Besides the country-to-be’s first public library, museum, college, and academy of fine arts, Rio was given its now bicentennial botanical garden. Surrounded by the neighborhood of the same name (Jardim Botânico), it houses more than 6,500 species and is crisscrossed by palm-lined paths.
Stepping out of Rio’s hectic pace and into the Botanical Garden you’ll find an oasis of calm, silence, beautiful landscaping.
8. Flamengo Park
As odd as this may sound, Brazilian parks and gardens were landscaped with foreign plants for a great deal of the country’s history. That would only change in the late 50s, when Brazil was taken over by an optimistic belief in progress and a sort of naïve nationalism embodied by the construction of Brasília.
Built on reclaimed land and opened in 1965 to mark Rio’s 400th birthday, the Flamengo Park is where the city’s marina and museum of modern art are located. About a third as big as New York’s Central Park, it’s hands down Rio’s most famous and popular park.
Rio is known for its unique culture
Cariocas pride ourselves on our party-throwing game, which is probably why we’ve unironically dubbed Rio Carnival the biggest show on Earth. We might have a point, though: we have around two million people on the streets for at least five days in a row.
Carnival took shape in the colonial era, when a Portuguese religious festival met the rhythms and the irreverence of Africans. The samba schools that contend for best-of-the-year title started parading in the early 1930s. The show slowly evolved into a monumental affair that Cariocas love but rarely watch live.
The majority of us follow the hundreds of marching bands that play all over town, the so-called blocos. After almost fading out of the scene between the 80s and 90s, they’re back in full swing, and a bunch are founded each year.
10. Beach culture
Rio de Janeiro is known for its 72 km (45 mi) of coastline and for a few of the most iconic beaches in Brazil. While the hottest ones — Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon — are in the city’s affluent South Zone, some of the coolest beaches (Grumari, Prainha) are in the remote westernmost ports of town.
11. New Year’s Eve on Copacabana Beach
We have to thank followers of Candomblé, the largest African-Brazilian religion, for originating the biggest New Year’s party — or réveillon, because of course we’d call it by the French name — on the planet.
Each year, they’d gather to throw flowers into the ocean as a tribute to Yemọja, a deity that rules waters.
The white-clad folks would attract the curiosity of locals and visitors alike, who from the 1970s on started to copy the tradition. Then the crowd grew larger with the fireworks displays promoted by waterfront hotels.
Today, Copacabana receives 2-3 million people for 15+-minute fireworks and record-breaking, night-long concerts for New Year’s eve.
Few things unify Brazilians as consistently as the pride for our rich musical tradition. And since Rio was the birthplace of many of the genres that formed modern Brazilian music, the city was (and in a way still is) Brazil’s main stage.
From chorinho, the nation’s first urban music, to legendary samba, and from the jazzy bossa nova to frenetic funk Carioca (the beat of the favelas), Rio is known for oozing music from every corner.
13. Rio vs. São Paulo rivalry
If the rags-to-riches self-made man is all about hiding his humble origins, the decadent aristocrat hides behind his glorious past.
Paulistanos (i.e. folks from São Paulo) don’t quite get Rio’s poetic chaos and the self-importance of the city’s natives, while Cariocas write Paulistanos off as workaholics living in a gruesome concrete maze.
Historically, São Paulo state’s landed elites long resented Rio’s political importance. By the mid 20th century, as São Paulo grew into Brazil’s biggest (and richest) city, and the nation’s capital was moved to Brasília, the tension died out.
Today the feud is basically a (half-serious) joke.
14. Cultural landscape
In 2012, Rio became the first city ever to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural landscape, thanks to the outstanding interaction between locals and nature that has been shaping the city throughout 450+ years’ worth of history.
UNESCO underscores the city’s as an outdoor-oriented culture, which couldn’t be any more accurate.
It may take years before a Carioca friend invites you over to their house. Why should they, if chilling at the beach, people-watching over a beer at Urca, or going on a forest hike is a lot more fun?
Rio is known for its colorful neighborhoods
For the first three centuries of its history, Rio was confined to the swampy lowlands that would make up its downtown. Nowadays, that’s Rio’s financial, historic, cultural, and sentimental core.
Countless historic gems were lost to “progress” since the late 1800s. But many others (especially churches and monasteries) were preserved as the city tore down a couple of hills and expanded towards reclaimed land and in virtually every direction.
Downtown is where you’ll find Baroque wonders like the abbey of the Monastery of St. Benedict, pictured above, and contemporary masterpieces like Santiago Calatrava’s alien-spaceship-looking Museum of Tomorrow within walking distance from one another.
Though a relatively unassuming mixed-use neighborhood during the day, at night Lapa lets loose and reveals its wicked self. Rio’s most notorious red-light district is the city at its best: outdoorsy, rugged, warm, wild.
As on our post, Lapa is squeezed between downtown and Santa Teresa. Its initial development was made possible in the early 1700s by the construction of the Carioca Aqueduct (commonly called the Lapa Arches, or Arcos da Lapa, pictured above), through which fresh water would flow into the city.
Casa da Cachaça, a tiny and cluttered dive and a favorite with locals, is the least touristy place in town where to try dozens of flavors and brands of Brazil’s national liquor.
17. Santa Teresa
A historic and artsy district on the hills to the west of downtown, Santa Teresa is like a Lisbon outpost in Rio. Its streetcars are all that’s left of a system that the rest of the city phased out in the late 60s.
Home to art galleries, cafes, 19th-century villas, and commanding views of the city center, Flamengo Park, and the Sugarloaf, Santa Teresa is a world of its own and a beloved neighborhood among Cariocas and visitors alike.
Heading uphill on a yellow streetcar through the Lapa Arches, exploring Santa Teresa, then walking down the Selarón Steps to enjoy Lapa’s nightlife = making the most of Rio.
While I’m sure you’re familiar with the second most recorded pop song in history, “The Girl from Ipanema”, the neighborhood she hails from is virtually unknown to foreigners.
Cariocas and, to a lesser extent, Brazilians have been struggling for more than 50 years now to catch up with the trends set on the streets and sands of Ipanema. The hippies and surfers of the late 60s and early 70s were joined by the fitness-obsessed and the bougie snobs in the 80s.
Cue in the stoners, folks from working-class neighborhoods, and the LGBT+ community. In our days, all of them share the strip of sand with the well-off crowd that actually lives in Ipanema.
19. Barra da Tijuca
Unlike most of Rio, which developed according (at its best) to a typically European urban conception, Barra da Tijuca — or Barra, for short — resulted from a (more or less) careful planning that turned it into the city’s first American style suburb.
Well, sort of. The highways and the shopping malls are there, but so are residential towers, a national obsession. Fifty years after Barra’s grid plan was adopted, the district is still the fastest-expanding in town.
Barra’s the location of the main cluster for the 2016 Olympic (which currently sits empty) and where the nouveaux riches usually move into. At 14.4 km (9-mi) long, it’s also home to the longest stretch of beach in Rio.
The fact four of the 28 most stunning Brazilian landmarks are in Rio shouldn’t come as a surprise: as amazing and huge as Brazil is, the city is dotted with natural wonders and architectural gems.
Let us know in the comments below which of the unusual features that Rio is known for you can’t wait to see for yourself!