Rio de Janeiro is a gigantic city – according to a google search I did it has a population of 6.2 million (UN data). Now I’m from New Zealand, a country with an entire population of 4.4 million, so a city of 6.2 million is still new to me. Needless to say it was a bit overwhelming – especially when it came to trying to get my bearings of the city.
Trying to book accommodation was an extremely daunting task. If you’ve ever tried to find accommodation in Rio and you haven’t been there before then you’ll understand what I mean. If you haven’t then this post is here to help you.
The city itself is split up into many neighbourhoods, kind of like Manhattan I guess with the Upper East/West Side, SoHo, Tribecca etc etc; however with the Rio neighborhoods I had never heard of any of them before…except Copacabana.
So I went to google and did a trusty map search. This is about what I got back:
My only starting point was Copacabana. I knew we wanted to stay within easy distance from any nice beach, but I also knew that we planned on exploring the city a bit, doing the Christo statue and Pao de Acucar. Looking at this map it looks like almost all the edges of the city could be a beach, and where even is downtown? I mean, in hindsight Centro is a bit of a hint but even then, is downtown safe? Do we want to stay in the middle of the city? By a beach? So many questions.
Rio is often ranked as one of the top 10 dangerous cities in the world and I was definitely conscious of this as I was searching for accommodation. I didn’t want to book us a hostel in a favela (ghetto), or an area that had particularly high crime rates.
Long story cut (kind of but not really sorry) short we ended up staying in Copacabana (for the first time we visited anyway); but that isn’t to say there aren’t other perfectly good areas to stay in. In an attempt to try and help anyone else who might be thinking of going to Rio and is just as overwhelmed and confused looking at the google maps as I was, here’s my version of a guide to Rio’s neighbourhoods, starting with Copacabana.
Copacabana is one of the most famous neighborhoods of Rio…or at least the beach is famous. Golden sand, blue water, Copacabana palace, Pao de Acucar at one end and Fort Copacabana at the other. As much as I would have liked to have stayed in a beach front hotel that kind of luxury was definitely not in our budget.
An important thing to know, especially if a beachfront hotel isn’t in your budget is that the blocks are not that big. We stayed 4/5 blocks back from the beach, which on the map I was worried would be kind of far, but it was definitely only a 8 minute walk or so – depending on how quickly you walk.
Other things to know about Copacabana:
- The beach is great but it is very long. Make sure you get your bearings of what end of the beach you want to stay at. Although the blocks back from the beach aren’t so long, if you stay at one end it can easily take you 20-30 minutes to walk down to the other.
- The beach is also full of people trying to sell you things; seafood, hot food, sandwiches, water, alcohol, swimsuits, jewelry, sunglasses – you name it, someone is walking up and down the beach trying to sell it to you.
This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, it’s just something to be wary of. It wasn’t so bad for us because my boyfriend is Brazilian, but often many of these people will jack up their prices if they think you are a tourist.
A lot of the food was great and I would definitely recommend buying yourself some caipirinha’s – which are a Brazilian national drink and they’re delicious. Traditionally, they are made with lime juice but you can find all kinds of flavors along the beach. Again, be wary – I think we paid about 10R on average each time we bought one, with the cheapest we ever paid being 8R. If someone is trying to sell you one for much more than that then don’t accept it – either go somewhere else or try to haggle the price down. But if you drink, then I highly recommend buying yourself a caipirinha and drinking it on Copacabana – it’s a beautiful beach drink and makes for a great day/evening.
- Something out to definitely check out are the kiosks that line the beach. The majority of these are restaurants and they have everything from Japanese to Italian and everything in between.
These are great and I would highly recommend taking one night to spend just wandering around them. They are right on the beachfront and many of them have live music playing. You can kiosk-hop between different ones and make a whole night out of it.
We spent one Tuesday night doing just this and it was incredible. Because it was a Tuesday and we were there after the main dinner rush (after 9:30/10) and during the winter, we found a completely empty kiosk that had lounger chairs facing out to the sea – and we got a discounted price on 2L of beer and a full sized pizza.
If you don’t want to commit to drinking this much beer in one place, then the beach also has no open container laws, which means you can also just buy a bottle – either from a kiosk or byo and walk along the beach with a beer in your hand.
Again super peaceful and a great way to finish off the evening. I will say that the sand does get cold after the sun goes down. I was there in mid-July which is the middle of the winter so maybe in summer the colder sand might actually be nice, but for us it was a bit too cold to be able to comfortably sit down and hang out. I mean, it was still shorts and a t-shirt weather but we probably could have done with a blanket if we wanted to really picnic on the beach at night.
- Something else that is cool about the beach is that the edge is lined with a ton of sand-sculptures. It’s definitely worth just taking a stroll along the sidewalk and checking them out. Do beware that if you spend too long at one then the artists can get mad/aggressive if you don’t leave any money. Maybe we just had a one-off bad experience but again it’s just something to have in the back of your mind.
There are a lot of people all over this neighbourhood (and the city in general) trying to sell things or asking for money. Like in any big city, don’t feel like you have to give them anything, but it is something that you should be mentally prepared for. I know for me it was really hard a lot of the time to just walk past and ignore some of these people. It’s not that you can’t and shouldn’t buy from them but you have to be prepared that you aren’t going to be able to, or want to buy from everyone.
Overall I loved Copacabana. It’s definitely famous for a reason, and worth spending a day or an evening there. I actually preferred the times we were on the beach at night rather than during the day: because it is so famous, everyone who is visiting Rio wants to go there so the beach can get overcrowded quickly. Coming from New Zealand, the amount of people on the beach was completely new too me (and apparently it wasn’t even busy compared to being there in summer).
We didn’t do this at Copacabana, but you can hire out chairs and umbrella’s for the day – again make sure that you get a fair price for these. Some places they even had wifi hot-spots that you could pay for if you wanted.
You do have to be careful with your belongings on the beach. It’s not a place you can just leave your stuff alone and go for a swim – it’s likely that you would come back to find your valuables gone. This is a bit of a pain if you are traveling in a party of two like we were.
Copacabana is one of those places that I would recommend going to just so you can say that you have. My top things to do if you go would be to get yourself a caipirinha and some food on the beach in the afternoon, and then spend the evening and night walking along the beach/beachfront and checking out the kiosks.
For the actual beach itself I preferred Ipanema (you can check out my post on this part of the city here) but Copacabana is definitely a great neighbourhood to stay in and worth allocating some time to checking out.
It’s also easily accessible through buses or Metro, which is super handy.
Have you been to Copacabana? What was your favourite part of the neighbourhood? Let me know if you have any tips or tricks that I’ve missed as I plan to be heading back to Rio this summer!