The South Zone of Rio de Janeiro contains most of the main attractions including Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Maracanã stadium, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Sugarloaf mountain, and the famed Cristo Redentor statue (aka Big Jesus) with its welcoming arms atop Corcovado mountain.
This area is where most tourists stay and I didn’t feel like going against the trend. I was able to experience most of the beach neighborhoods as a result of (unintentionally) moving to a different accommodation every few days. I ended up staying 4 nights in Ipanema, 1 night in Leblon, and 2 nights in Copacabana.
Below I only listed what landmarks I visited, but Zona Sul has plenty more to offer including islands, forts and sprawling botanic gardens.
As the weather was fairly dreary, I did not actually spend much time on the beach. At most, I probably spent a couple hours walking the Portugese-influenced black and white mosaic paths that line all the beaches. The beaches are kept incredibly well-groomed; I was amazed how pristine and clean everything was for a massive urban beach.
There were people peddling all sorts of goods on the beach including bikinis, sarongs, fresh coconuts, beers, massages, and even photo opportunities of beautifully crafted sandcastles.
The beaches are divided up by numbered Postos (lifeguard posts) and a Carioca did provide some insights about the stereotypes of beach inhabitants. According to him, Postos 1-7 tend to overcrowded with the elderly and tourists, 8 is the gay beach, 9 has the high surfers, 10 is where the beautiful people go, and 11-12 is full of families with babies.
I spent most of my time wandering the tranquil, tree-lined streets of this neighborhood trying to pretend I was the girl from the famous song.
This is considered the more upscale neighborhood and certainly as you walk cross the canal from Ipanema, the stores get fancier.
This famous beach is full of luxurious hotels and Cariocas and tourists of all ages jogging, swimming, biking, and playing volleyball on the white sands.
This beach serves as a landing platform for the hanggliders and paragliders. I went hanggliding on the first sunny day and it was thrilling way to take in Rio’s gorgeous scenery.
Flights last around 5 minutes and costs range from R250-350. It is so worth it!
Situated in Urca, this unique-looking mountain is a sight to behold — and the 360 panoramic views from on top are equally marvelous.
You can get to the top via cable cars; the first goes from Praia Vermelha to Urca Hill, and the second from Urca Hill to the Sugarloaf (round trip cost R53,00). I decided to hike the trail up Urca Hill (30-45 min) and just take the second cable car (R26,50).
The trail is not very well marked and I almost ended up circling the entire mountain… But one boon of my inadvertent trip were all the cute little marmoset sightings!
This mountain situated within the massive Tijuca Forest is home to the famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). The 125 ft statue was elected one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
The panoramic views here are spectacular, especially on a clear day. Tickets cost R36,00. Most hostels will offer this as part of a standard tour of the city, including visits to São Conrado beach, Tijuca forest, Santa Teresa, and Lapa. I found it to be decent value as the Cristo Redentor ticket itself is almost half the tour price.
One last note to mention are the favelas, which is the term for the shanty towns in Brazil’s urban areas. The first favelas appeared in Rio during the late 19th century; homeless soldiers were the first to build them. The favelas experienced explosive and unchecked growth by the 1940s. As they started to appear in the metropolitan of Rio, their existence took public notice and favelas began to be perceived as a problem for society. Government attempts at removal campaigns were ultimately unsuccessful as police had little control in these areas. Most recently, there have been new urban development programs for the favelas (especially ahead of the World Cup and Olympics) but whether it will result in progress is yet to be seen.
Today, favelas have become a city within a city; some even have running water and electricity. However, favelas are still associated with extreme poverty and often ruled by drug traffickers. Favelas are a very interesting part of Rio’s culture and history, and there are even tours you can take to visit the favelas. I felt the idea was a bit awkward to intrude into someone’s home that way, but I heard from other travellers the tours were very insightful. I think as long as tourists remain respectful of the living space and support the community with some sort of purchase, it could be a great experience.
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