Aerial view of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro: The Brazilian City That Beats to the Rhythm of Samba

Carla Vianna

Carla Vianna

October 13, 2023

6 min read

Many Cariocas, as Rio locals are called, will tell you that to be born in Rio de Janeiro is a privilege: Between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the city is home to the most famous stretches of sand on the planet. 

While Rio is revered for its urban beaches and forest-clad mountains, the city that winds its way through this dramatic landscape is also rich in Afro-Brazilian culture. Here, in the birthplace of samba, the rhythmic beats will lead you down the hidden alleyways of Rio’s forgotten past, far beyond the polished seaside neighborhoods that tourists know about.

People on Ipanema Beach with Two Brothers Mountain in the background.

Where the beach is life 

There are more than 53 miles of sand in Rio, and the beach is at the center of the laidback Carioca lifestyle. As early as 6am, you’ll find the sidewalks near the beach bustling with joggers, bikers, and barefoot surfers. No matter the time of the day, sunbathers fill the city’s three most popular beaches: Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana. The first two share the same stretch of sand and the dramatic Two Brothers Mountain as their backdrop. Copacabana is easily the most famous, albeit the most touristy. 

For surf lessons, head to Arpoador Beach, set on a small peninsula between Ipanema and Copacabana. But beware: Rio’s coast is not for the weak. Ipanema and Arpoador are known for strong waves, and when a swell comes in, helicopter rescues aren’t unheard of. Even on a small day, getting wiped out by the waves is likely.

Don’t be alarmed by the beach vendors. They’re an integral part of the beach culture and keep locals fueled with coconut water, steamed corn, and the famous biscoito globo—airy biscuits made from cassava flour—all of which cost between $1 to $2. Rio’s most iconic vendors wear bright orange uniforms and carry giant metal barrels filled with mate, a super-sweet iced tea (unlike Argentine and Uruguayan bitter yerba mate) consumed on and off the beach.

Aerial view of mountain and coastline in Rio de Janeiro.

Rainforests and ridgelines 

Rio’s natural landscape makes it a very active city. People of all ages take to the surrounding mountains to bike, run, and hike on the weekends. At 8,300 acres (nearly 13 square miles), Tijuca National Park is the largest urban rainforest in the world and offers an abundance of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

The most famous peaks are located smack in the middle of the city. There’s Pedra Bonita, a 40-minute trek that ascends about 900 feet up the ridge that sits between the South Zone of the city and Barra da Tijuca, an expansive residential neighborhood along the coast. This is also where you can hang glide for an extra adrenaline rush. From the summit, the towering Pedra da Gávea stands in front of you. Climbing the 2,769-foot monolithic mountain is easily the most popular and toughest hike in Rio (hiring a guide is advisable).

You can also hike up Dois Irmãos, the two peaks seen from Ipanema Beach. While the hike is fairly easy and only takes about 40 minutes, it’s quite the adventure: You have to hop on the back of a motorbike and ride through a favela, a low-income community built on the hills surrounding the wealthiest neighborhoods, to get to the trailhead.

Samba at Pedra do Sal

Samba, the Brazilian dance and music genre, is an integral part of the country’s identity.

The genre was born from religious rituals and celebrations performed by enslaved Africans in Bahia and later evolved into the entertainment it is today in Rio de Janeiro.

Every Monday night, the pulsating rhythm of samba can be heard in a secluded alley in downtown Rio. It’s coming from Pedra do Sal, or Salt Rock, a historic site that once served as a prominent slave market. It was also where salt was offloaded from incoming ships, hence the name. 

Over time, the site became a haven for Rio’s Afro-Brazilian communities. Today, the free outdoor samba show attracts both locals and tourists. Everyone comes casually dressed, with a caipirinha or beer in hand, and surrounds the group of sitting musicians. While there are other places to catch a roda de samba, this is the most exciting.

Woman wears an elaborate costume on a float at Rio Carnival celebration.

Throw some glitter on it

Every year in the week leading up to Lent (generally in February), Rio erupts in a sea of glitter as revelers fill the street to celebrate Carnival. Carnival festivities date back to the 1700s and have evolved into a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture and the perseverance of the Brazilian people. 

The weeklong event is centered around an official parade in the Sambadrome, the avenue-like stage designed by Oscar Niemeyer. There, Rio’s 70+ samba schools compete to put on the best show. Each school spends the year creating sequined costumes and towering floats that reflect a strong message—often using irony and sarcasm to fight against political injustice and racism. The official parade happens over the course of a few days, always starting in the evening and going until sunrise.

Meanwhile, street parties called blocos' fill each neighborhood of the city. For those who don’t want to attend the official parade, there are endless options for free outdoor parties. It’s not hard to find one; simply walk outside and follow the music.

Aerial view of colorful favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Into the favela

As much as a quarter of Rio’s 13 million population lives in a favela. These vibrant, but under-resourced, communities operate like a city within a city. While most are illegally built and lack basic public services like working water and sewage systems, they’re teeming with local businesses, restaurants, and bars.

Favela tours can be controversial—some have been characterized as “exploitive human safaris”—but tourists should be careful entering these communities on their own. If you’re curious to explore a different side of Rio, make sure to find a local, favela-born tour guide who is working to benefit their community. Many guides are using these tours to give residents a stage to share their own narratives, changing the negative image people have about favelas. Avoid tours run by a big company, which often don’t give anything back to the community.

Vendor stands with his cart selling drinks and snacks at the beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Caipirinhas and fried snacks

The caipirinha—a sugary drink made with a stiff shot of cachaça, lime, sugar, and ice—has become a symbol of the carioca culture. Cachaça (similar to rum) is a spirit distilled from fermented sugarcane juice. The exact origins of the sugar-and-lime-concoction are unclear: Some say it was derived from a medicinal beverage to treat the Spanish flu, while others say it was created by well-off farmers in rural São Paulo, who served it at high-end events.

Today, the world-famous cocktail can be found in every restaurant, bar, beach kiosk, and sidewalk in the city. It’s often paired with fried snacks like pasteis (crispy empanadas stuffed with gooey cheese), coxinhas (croquettes made of pulled chicken and cheese), and bolinhos de bacalhau (cod fritters stuffed to the brim with salty fish).

Read about açaí, Brazil's superfood

Pé sujos, Rio’s “dirty feet” bars

Modern, Instagram-worthy bars dot the city’s posh neighborhoods—but they almost always share a block with a pé sujo. This translates to “dirty feet,” as Rio’s quintessential dive bars are called. These hole-in-the-wall establishments are local mainstays, permanent gathering places for locals to come as they are, sometimes shirtless and almost always donning flip-flops.

They can be gritty in appearance but never intimidating. In the morning, you can stop for coffee. Then return in the afternoon for a “stupidly cold” glass of beer, or “chopp,” as Cariocas like to say. It’s not uncommon for a samba circle to break out in the evening.

Good to Know

Is Rio de Janeiro expensive? 

It is tougher to visit Rio on a budget than other big cities in South America. Zona Sul (the tourist zone) is one of the most expensive areas in the country. However, there are ways to do Rio on a budget. 

You can expect to spend $20 for dinner and drinks at most restaurants in Ipanema and Leblon. However, there are plenty of more affordable options, like local sandwich shacks and botecos (low-key bars), where you can have a full meal for about $6. 

Accommodations run about $35 per night for a three-star hotel to about $280 per night for a luxury hotel. 

Best time to visit Rio de Janeiro

It’s best to visit Rio de Janeiro from December-March (Rio’s summer). The weather is warmest then, hovering around 85°F during the day; plus, you can enjoy two of Rio’s biggest celebrations: New Year and Carnival. 

What languages are spoken in Rio de Janeiro?

The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. Staff in many restaurants and hotels speak English, but it's wise to learn a few words of Portuguese for basic greetings, pleasantries, and things like ordering food or taking a taxi.

Rio de Janeiro with kids

Rio de Janeiro is very family-friendly. With dozens of miles of coastline, there is plenty of room to spread out and play at the beaches (just beware of big waves and rough water). You can also get a taste of Rio’s diverse and colorful flora and fauna at places like Tijuca National Forest and the botanical gardens.

Rio de Janeiro public transportation

Rio de Janeiro has a metro and city bus system. Public transportation can take you to the majority of Rio’s big attractions, such as Copacabana Beach and Barra da Tijuca, and costs about $1.37 for a one-way ticket right now. 

Is Rio de Janeiro safe?

Brazil ranks #130 out of 163, according to Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index. In Rio, be cautious with your valuables when walking around, and always be aware of your surroundings. Muggings are not uncommon near the beach, but most tourist sites are quite safe.

Brazil also ranks #14 with a score of 82/100 for LGBTQ+ equality, according to Equaldex's LGBT Equality Index.

Getting to Rio de Janeiro

More South American destinations: 

Carla Vianna

Carla Vianna

Freelance Writer

Carla Vianna is a Brazilian-American travel writer and photographer living in Rio de Janeiro. She grew up in Miami, but left in 2017 to backpack around the world. Before moving to Rio, she covered the dining scene for Eater in New York.

Published October 13, 2023

Last updated December 19, 2023

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