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Things to do in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Visiting with Your Family

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Our family just returned from a highly memorable trip to Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. Among the many places we visited during our time in the country, we spent five days in the Cidade Maravilhosa, the marvelous city, as its residents refer to Rio de Janeiro with pride and affection.

When we were preparing for our visit, it was clear that many of our friends at home do not consider Rio a travel destination suitable for families. Having just returned, I have to concur that Rio might not be at the top of my list of destinations for traveling with small(er) children. First, it is far, which means a long, overnight flight from the continental U.S. and second, it is a bustling, highly energetic city, which in my opinion is best suited for and better appreciated by older children (just like for example, New York City). That said, we found Rio to be quite kid-friendly and our experience was that Brazilians in general love children.

The other big concern of our well-meaning friends at home was safety. Perhaps we were lucky, but I felt that tourist safety problems in Brazil might be a bit exaggerated. (This view was shared by several other tourists we met while in Rio.) My biggest advice is to exercise common sense and be alert at all times, just as you would when visiting other big cities such as London, Rome, New York or our home town, Chicago! I’m pretty sure you would not plan to visit a risky neighborhood in any of these cities, especially at night, and especially with your children in tow!

With that in mind, the following are my suggestions for the top things to do in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil when visiting with your family:

The Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) Statue and the Corcovado Mountain

The iconic, 30 meter (about 100 ft) tall Christ the Redeemer statue stretches its arms to embrace the city at the top of the Corcovado Mountain. To get there, you have two choices: (1) You can take a taxi to the Cosme Velho Station where you board a train to take you up the mountain, or (2) You can book a tour (usually departing from the Copacabana beach area) and ride all the way up to the statue in a van. Truth be told, there is a third way, hiking up the mountain, but for safety reasons this one is not recommended, even for the most fit and adventurous types among us.

I very much recommend the first option, as it will allow you to have a more picturesque and exhilarating experience. It was very easy to take a taxi from our hotel to the above mentioned train station (everybody knows where it is) and then purchase combined tickets for the train ride and visit to the statue. Trains leave every 30 minutes and it takes about 15-20 minutes to get to the top. Once there, have your kids count the steps leading to the statue. (The correct answer is 222!) Aside from the excitement of visiting one of the world’s most famous landmarks and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, you will be rewarded with spectacular, 360° views of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.

A Few Tips:

  1. While planning our trip, I came across a suggestion that it is best to visit Rio’s other famous attraction, Sugarloaf Mountain, first, before heading to the top of the Corcovado, or it might strike you as a letdown. Having just visited both, I have to agree. Corcovado is much higher and in my opinion has the best view of the city, which includes the Sugarloaf.
  2. Try to go early in the morning because it can get very crowded. Also, the haze often sets in later in the day preventing you from admiring those fantastic views.
  3. I very much recommend taking the time to review the interactive digital information board on the main platform under the left arm of the statue. It contains fascinating information about its history as well as many other interesting facts.
Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro’s world famous landmark, Christ the Redeemer.

Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)

This second famous Rio de Janeiro attraction provides the thrill of riding up in not one, but two giant cable cars, rewarding you with yet another beautiful panorama of the city, assuming the weather cooperates. There are two stops on the way to the top. The first is at Morro de Urca, a smaller mountain, and the second is at the very top of the much taller Pão de Açúcar.

A Few Tips:

  1. We were forewarned about potentially very long lines for the cable car, which we luckily did not experience despite visiting Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup. Just in case, you may want to visit early in the day, similar to my advice about visiting Corcovado. However, we were told that one of the best times to visit Pão de Açúcar is in late afternoon in order to experience the sunset, which makes for stunning views. We’re definitely planning to do this on our next trip to Rio!
  2. After reaching the top of the Pão de Açúcar and spending some time there to admire the surroundings, I recommend taking a break at Morro de Urca before heading back to the bottom. There is a large patio with snack shops and gift stores on the top of both mountains, but I think the lower one, at Morro de Urca has a better and more authentic food selection. You should sample the delicious beef empanadas while marveling at the surrounding views and observing the crowds.
  3. If you’ve seen the movie Rio, you probably remember the little thief monkeys. This area is a great place to look for them. The monkeys, called sagui, can often be spotted on or around the patio or in the nearby treetops and branches.
Things to do in Rio de Janeiro - Ride cable cars on Sugarloaf Mountain

One of the most amazing things to do in Rio de Janeiro is ride the cable cars to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Rio de Janeiro Beaches

According to various guides, Rio de Janeiro is home to 23 beaches! I’m guessing like us, you probably won’t have time to visit each one of them, but you cannot leave Rio without at least a short stop at two of its most famous ones, the magnificent Copacabana and Ipanema. Both beaches stretch over several miles and various areas of the beach have their own characteristics and attract a somewhat different type of crowd.

Copacabana

Copacabana is obviously well known among adults, but it can be a great place for families and children as well. We found great pleasure in just strolling up and down the famous black and white mosaic sidewalk lined with casual restaurants and street vendors and taking in the entire atmosphere.

If you are not hungry or interested in shopping, you can admire many impressive sand sculptures created by the local artists right along the walk. (They often invite kids to build along with them!) Then, you can rent some chairs and an umbrella and relax on this legendary beach while watching your kids create their own sand masterpieces or play in the surf.

On Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Our family, posing (and dressed to support the host country) on the famous Copacabana Beach during World Cup 2014.

Ipanema

Ipanema, which gained most of its fame from the Girl from Ipanema song, is located west of Copacabana, between Arpoador and Leblon. The beach and the surrounding area are generally regarded as one of the safest areas in South Zone of the city. We visited Ipenema several times during our stay and very much enjoyed its laid back atmosphere while admiring the view of two mountains you may recognize from tourist guides, called Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) on the west end. The beach is a great place to join in on impromptu games of beach soccer or volleyball and clap (as the natives do) when the sun goes down.

If you are a fan of the Girl from Ipanema song (“Tall and tan and young and lovely,…”) or bossa nova beats like I am, you must take time to visit the Garota de Ipanema restaurant, located at Rua Vinícius de Moraes 49, just a block in from the main avenue Viera Souto, which runs along the Ipanema beach. This is where the author wrote the famous song after spotting his muse who would walk by daily. The rest is history… This family friendly restaurant serves many typical Brazilian dishes such as picanha grill as well as other “international” fare in case you decide to get lunch or dinner after a fun day at the beach. Note that the surrounding area has many other great restaurants, shops, banks and a post office should you be looking for an ATM or a place to mail your postcards.

A Few Tips:

  1. The sections of the beach are marked by posts (lifeguard watchtowers) or postos in Portugese. If you find yourself at Ipanema Beach, look for Posto 8. There is a fun kid play area, particularly well suited for younger children. Older kids and teens can take paddle boarding lessons on Copacabana or surfing lessons at Arpoador Beach, the area where the Copacabana and the Ipanema meet. The Leblon Beach, just west of Ipanema, is known to be family friendly, especially around Posto 10.
  2. Be aware that the sea can be rough and the currents along the beaches are seriously strong. Exercise caution even if your kids are just playing in shallow water and low surf. Most hotels have a small pool, often on the roof top, where particularly smaller children can swim more safely.
  3. Part of Copacabana and Ipanema’s charming atmosphere are the beach vendors, selling anything from hats, bathing suits, sarongs, coconut water, and other types of food and drinks. There are many of them and they come by often, but are generally not too intrusive. A firm “no, thank you” shake of your head usually suffices to send them on to their next potential customer.
Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Early morning view of Ipanema Beach with the Dois Irmãos mountains in the background.

Because our family was busy with several World Cup related activities, we decided to save some things for our next trip. If you are looking for more family friendly things to do in Rio de Janeiro, you may want to consider:

  • The Botanic Gardens, another nice break from the busy and noisy Rio, especially if the weather is cloudy and you are looking for things to do as you postpone your visit to Corcovado
  • Jardim Zoológico, the Rio Zoo
  • Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Rio’s famous lagoon where, among other things, you can rent boat bikes (pedanlinhos) or bike on the path along the shore
  • The hilly Santa Theresa neighborhood where kids will enjoy the tram ride and you will love the views of the city, but for safety reasons, this area is best visited during the day.

Here are some additional things for you to consider if you are planning a visit to Rio de Janeiro with your family based on our recent experience:

Stay By the Beach

I recommend staying close to a beach, not just because beaches are fun and kids love them, but also because they offer a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was great to spend an afternoon relaxing in the sand by the ocean after a morning of touring and sightseeing. You might even want to consider reserving an entire day to do just that. Our family stayed right on Ipenema Beach and we could not have been happier with our location.

Have a Flexible Schedule

Assuming you will be visiting Rio de Janeiro over the course of several days, try to have a flexible schedule in terms of visiting the famous Christ the Redeemer statue as well as the Sugarloaf Mountain. The weather in Rio is not always clear and sunny as depicted in the Brazilian Tourism Board ads, especially in the winter season, which corresponds with our North American summer.

Additionally, both of these top attractions are located at higher elevations, so they can often be covered in clouds even if the beaches below are sunny. Check the weather forecast when you arrive in the city and then again on each morning, then schedule your planned activities accordingly, so that you can experience Rio in all its glory.

See the Movie!

If your family has not yet seen the animated movie Rio, I (in all seriousness!) recommend you do so before your trip. I always thought the movie was cute, but now that we have actually visited Rio, I have a new found appreciation for the authenticity and the creators’ attention to detail.

As we toured around the city, our kids had lots of fun recognizing the landmarks and the atmosphere portrayed in the movie. As I said earlier, those cute little kleptomaniac monkeys from the movie, said to live on the Sugarloaf Mountain, are really there. Make sure to watch your phones, cameras and jewelry or they might end up in the hands of the Monkey Chief! Just kidding on this one.

Wishing you fun times in Rio and please post any questions you may have!

Note: If you are looking for a Hilton hotel in Rio, the brand new Hilton Barra Rio de Janeiro is scheduled to open in October 2014.

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A native of Slovenia, Vera moved to the U.S. 20+ years ago after meeting her American husband. Together with their two children they live on the North…

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