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“On the eighth day, God created Rio.”

It doesn’t take long to understand why cariocas love to say so. Palm fringed beaches bookended by iconic granite morros, the world’s largest urban forest, and one infamous statue of Christ perpetually watching over the city. One of the most geographically blessed cities I’ve had the privilege to visit, it’s hard not to believe that whatever or whomever created this universe, they had a soft spot for Rio de Janiero.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

And so did I, long before I first set my own eyes on the city. When I was cleaning out boxes of old college notebooks and projects last summer, I came across detailed ramblings about a fantasy semester in Brazil scribbled in the margins of many a class note. More recently, my mom took on a similar project purging my sister and my’s grade school stockpiles, and came across a report I’d done when tasked with researching any continent – I’d lovingly selected South America. For years, when asked what destination topped my bucket list, I barely had to hesitate.

For as long as I’ve loved travel, Brazil was a tornado force of a desire, with Rio at the eye of the storm. That’s a lot for one city to live up to, regardless of how marvelous it may be.

Sunset at Sugarloaf

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Itinerary

Originally, as this dream began to take shape in reality, I hoped to spend two full weeks in the city. Later, as I negotiated with Heather, my travel copilot, and accepted how much else of the country I wanted to see, that time was pared down to just one week.

I was determined to make the most of it.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Sunset at Sugarloaf

By the time we arrived in the Cidade Maravilhosa, we had partied at Tomorrowland in Itú, fallen for the biggest baddest city in Brazil in São Paulo, been charmed by Paraty, and got lost in wild Ilha Grande. We were ready for Rio.

After careful consideration, Heather and I had chosen to split our time in Rio between two different digs – kicking things off at a hostel in Botafogo (which has since shut down), and then later moving to an Airbnb near Copacabana Beach (get  booking!) We bit off a lot before we’d even arrived, booking several tours and creating an exhaustive itinerary. We were so excited we were practically powerless to do otherwise, despite being fully aware of how burnt out we’d be by the end of the week. We even skipped one tour we’d pre-payed for, a favela nightlife tour – pretty much unheard of from this penny pincher — because we were too exhausted and hungover to make it.

Santa Marta

In one week, we crammed in a sunrise tour of Cristo Redentor, a DIY photo safari of Lapa and Centro, hang gliding over São Conrado, a sunset at Aproador, a walking tour of Santa Marta favela, a night out in Ipanema, a street art tour, a trip to Jardim Botânico, two beach days, and sunset at Pão de Açúcar. We literally loved every single one of these activities and I’ll be writing in more detail about each of them.

Even so, we left with much not crossed off our lists.  Rio is a big, sprawling city with so much to see and do — it could take weeks, or months, or a lifetime to explore. I think one of the biggest struggles for any do-and-see-it-all-er heading to Rio will be accepting that in this city, that would be an impossible mission.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Hang Gliding in Rio

Impressions

There’s a famous comparison that Rio is Brazil’s Los Angeles and São Paulo, Brazil’s New York. After being well and truly and very unexpectedly swept off my feet by São Paulo, I couldn’t help but see why.

While what I loved about Rio did remind me of what I love about Los Angeles — the beach! — a lot of what I didn’t like about Rio reminded me of what I don’t like about Los Angeles – namely, urban sprawl and charmless seediness.

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

The rivalry between the Cariocas (people from the city of Rio de Janeiro) and Paulistas (residents of São Paulo) is an intense one, just like that between residents of the US’s largest east and west coast cities. To state the obvious, Rio wins by a landslide when it comes to setting. The city’s natural beauty is unrivaled, and the ocean it’s surrounded by is its number one draw.

Sunrise over Sugarloaf

Experiencing this city’s unique beach culture was the highlight of my time in the city, so much so that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to it coming up — stay tuned! While we were visiting in Brazil’s autumn, we found the beaches pleasantly buzzing.

The weather, our busy itinerary and a few unexpected wrinkles in our plan (hello, last minute work assignment and Heather going to the hospital) meant we spent less time there than we would have liked to, and so I dream of returning one day in the summer to spend a whole week doing not much more than beach bumming.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Beaches aside — and I admit, it’s a rather important factor to put aside — I was surprised to find myself favoring São Paulo in many other categories. Through my eyes, São Paulo had an undeniably chicer, hipper vibe. The art scene was a bit more sophisticated, the restaurant scene a bit more diverse and trendy, and transportation was more accessible (though traffic in both cities was insane).

The more I travel, the greater emphasis I have placed on food. After really swooning over the restaurant scene in São Paulo, especially for Heather as a vegetarian, we were a little disappointed in Rio’s — though I . That said, we did find a few gems. We fell in love with hip  in Bogafoto (we went for both dinner and Sunday brunch – with a bubbles bar!) and bohemian  in Ipanema, and made three different trips to cute . Yet overall, we were super grateful for the kitchen in our Airbnb – it meant we could cook a few meals, eat takeaway in comfort and not rely on eating every meal out at a restaurant.

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Getting around in Rio was a bit of a struggle at times. Traffic was intense and destinations were quite spread out. Due to the language barrier we used Uber exclusively for cab needs — get a free ride of up to $20 with Uber  — but even then we did run into some issues with drivers getting lost and taking ridiculous routes. We spent ages attempting to use the city’s municipal bike program but it requires a local SIM card to unlock the bikes. Heather had one but I didn’t, and so that was out.

The best thing we did for ease of movement was simply splitting our time in two different areas of the city and creating a logical itinerary around those two bases. This allowed us to walk quite a bit, which is always my favorite way of getting around a new city. Next time, I’d love to try using the metro.

Cristo Selfie

One of the pleasant surprises of Rio was how comfortable we felt as two women traveling alone. While we were constantly — like literally, constantly — warned by everyone we encountered to be careful with our cameras, we were vigilant and cautious and had zero issues and really felt surprisingly safe and secure throughout our time in the city.

Frankly, overall we felt this was all throughout Brazil, but it was most poignant in Rio, where multiple viewings of City of God had prepared me to be relieved of all my belongings within moments of stepping onto the streets. It was a nice surprise.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Ideas

Bottom line? We had a blast. But we were also so busy – and rounding the corner of travel burnout – that we didn’t leave much time to just soak up the magic of the place, which Rio requires quite a bit of.

I look forward to returning someday and putting less emphasis on tours and attractions (only because I’ve now seen them – I don’t regret a single one) and focusing instead on soaking up the beach culture, my absolute favorite aspect of the city, enjoying some of the nightlife, which we regretfully missed out on aside from one over-indulgent night, and attempting some of the beautiful urban hikes and beginner surf breaks I learned about in the area.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

I hope I don’t have to wait too long for that return. In the meantime, I can’t wait to share more details from our week in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you been to Rio? Did it live up to your expectations? What part of my trip are you most excited to read about?

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Many thanks to  for the beautiful portraits she took of me throughout this post!

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38 Comments...
  • Dominique
    January 29 2017

    I’m in love with the views of Rio! The photo with the cablecar is absolutely stunning! Those hills in the sea are as well! Rio has not really been on my travel list due to the relentless warnings from people about how unsafe it is. It just never appealed to me. Your photos make me think otherwise though – I can’t wait to hear more about this city!
    Dominique recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      I’ll definitely share more about the safety aspect of Rio since it is IMPOSSIBLE how prolific the warnings are, but overall we were gobsmacked how comfortable we felt! It was a nice surprise!

  • Tammyonthemove
    January 29 2017

    I love Rio. I have been twice-the first time I did all the touristy stuff and the second time I came for football World Cup, so just soaked up the atmosphere and football madness. I loved it!
    Tammyonthemove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      This was definitely my tourist week 🙂 Would love to return for more atmosphere absorbing, at some point!

  • Cate
    January 29 2017

    Rio looks like a fantastic city! Ive always been wary of the crime there, and guilty of being a tourist with so much money there whilw there are countless impoverished, but you have opened my mind up! The beach looks beautiful, and I cant wait to hear about the hang gliding!!

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Rio really is the city that EVERYONE knows for crime. I can’t overstate how many warnings we received before and during our trip. We exercised plenty of caution but after a few days we definitely started to feel like most of the nerves we felt were all in our heads.

  • Kendal
    January 29 2017

    I’ve never held much interest in Brazil. As exciting and beautiful as your other Brazilian stories/photos are, I wasn’t begging to visit. That has officially changed; Rio, I might be seeing you sooner rather than later!

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Now that I like to hear 🙂 Just wait until you see the rest of my posts!

  • Polly
    January 29 2017

    Loved Rio. I was only there for five days, and like you, ran out of time to do everything I wanted to do. I did get to watch the world cup final by the beach in Leme and track down my dad’s old house, both of which are some of my favorite travel moments. Can’t wait to read about hang gliding!
    Polly recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Wow, both those do sound special — especially your dad’s old house! How magical!

  • Jo-Anne the crazy woman
    January 29 2017

    Wow what an awesome place

  • Kacy
    January 29 2017

    I agree with you. I love Rio and would happily return (and, truly, live there) but I loved SP as much if not more for many of the same reasons you mentioned. LOVE Zaza, and can’t wait to read about your tours! For transportation, I found the bus system to be fairly reliable if not a bit slow, but Uber was my mode of choice after dark.
    Kacy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Uber was definitely the best option for us, speaking none of the language and basically never knowing where we were going, ha. We did have a frustrating experience a few times (I requested Uber refunds for the first time in my life on this trip!) but considering our alternatives, we were super happy to have it.

      And rock on Sao Paulo!

  • Leah Davis
    January 29 2017

    Glad I finally get to see Rio photos! It looks so beautiful, I hope to make it there someday 🙂
    Leah Davis recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Many more headed your way soon 🙂 Regardless of any other opinions on Rio… it is hands down one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever been and I can’t see how anyone would argue!

  • I was so excited when I saw this! It sounds like Rio was a blast, even if it was super packed with activities. As always, I love the photos!

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Thanks Megan! Yes we had an action packed week but like I said we just couldn’t help ourselves, ha ha. Three activities in a day? Why not!

  • Ijana Loss
    January 29 2017

    Can’t wait to hear details! I imagine I would like Sao Paolo better but I’ve always wanted to explore Rio too. Good to hear that it takes some time to explore thoroughly cause I probably would’ve guessed completely wrong and only given myself a few days in the city when I visited xD

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Yeah, Rio definitely requires a chunk of time, in my opinion! Especially if you are a do-and-see-it-all… and also go to the beach ;-)… kinda girl!

  • Allen R
    January 30 2017

    Very lovely story. Outstanding photography. very eye pleasing. Loved it:)

  • Breanna
    January 30 2017

    I’m so excited for this portion! Love Love Love Rio!
    Love It!
    Me and my best friend from Brasil have had many discussions about São Paulo vs. Rio. We came down to São Paulo being that guy every girl friend zones but is the right choice once you get to know them and Rio is that bad boy love affair everyone needs to have.

    I still would choose Rio a hundred times over though. I can also totally relate to the not enough time and too much to do. My last trip there was for 3 days, I felt let down by Rio but it was just because hangovers, and lack of time.
    Anyways did i tell you yet I’m pumped to read about your Rio adventures?

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Ah! I love that comparison 😉 Ugh we definitely lost like, a day and a half to one of the worst hangovers of our lives in Rio. At 8pm we were like… should we go to the hospital?! We were dying. Considering how rushed we felt in Rio, it definitely hurt to lose a day!

  • Flavia Peixoto
    January 30 2017

    I love Rio and thanks for writing about my city!!

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      You are so welcome Flavia! You have a beautiful home!

  • I had zero expectations, went for a week in 2008 on an assignment for Newsweek, and LOVED it. I’d really love to go back now and have more time (and not be working). Your trip looks dreamy!
    Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Oh believe me… I remember that trip 😉 LOL. If only I could have been your travel companion!

  • Megan Indoe
    January 31 2017

    Not only are your photos beautiful but I love the storytelling you’ve done here. Rio is one place I’ve heard mixed things about so it’s so great to hear how safe you felt traveling with just another female. I am hoping we can make this trip happen in the spring when we are scheduled to visit a friend in Central America!

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Thanks Megan, that’s a lovely compliment! I always hesitate to talk about perceived safety as it can be so anecdotal, but considering how unavoidable a topic it is in Rio… well, all I can share is my own experience and yup, it was overall a positive one!

  • Marni
    January 31 2017

    Your photos are gorgeous! Rio is a city that – while I find beautiful to look at in pictures – has never really appealed to me in terms of actually going there. Who knows – your posts may change my mind!
    Marni recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      So interesting to read how many of my readers were never that interested in Rio… silly me, I thought everyone wanted to go there. Ha! Well, maybe I’ll convince you all by the end of this 😉

  • Kay
    February 1 2017

    Rio is my favorite city in the world! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Meihoukai. Looks like you had a lovely time and the weather treated you well 🙂 I’m going back this June and I can hardly contain my excitement!
    Kay recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      I loved reading your Rio posts in anticipation of my trip, Kay! They were fabulous. How exciting you’re heading back… what’s on the agenda?

  • Steph
    February 1 2017

    So excited to read your Rio posts!!

    AGREED on the Rio versus Sao Paulo debate, especially as a vegetarian concerning the food. I <3 SP

    Your photos are so gorgeous though that they make me want to give Rio another chance… even if just to try Meza (bubbles bar, count me in)!
    Steph recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Oh man, you would have loved Meza! Heather certified it very vegetarian friendly 🙂 We were glad for your warnings overall though, as it’s definitely not a city I felt like I could just wander the streets and be guaranteed to find good food, like here in Thailand for example! We did however LOVE the beach snacks. Oh, I could sit on the beach all day and graze!

  • That photo at dusk/dawn from the tram is print-worthy! Your photos certainly make Rio look good – I will live vicariously on this one – there are so many other spots (Buenos Aires for starters), I can’t say I’ll ever get to Rio.
    Leigh | Campfires & Concierges recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2017

      Never say never… just wait till I finish all my posts 😉 Just kidding, I know everywhere isn’t for everyone!