There are few cities of the world as visually astounding as Rio de Janeiro. Carved into to the hills of Brazil’s Southeast coast and home to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s a bucket-lister for travellers worldwide. This two-day Rio de Janeiro itinerary details how you can experience the highlights of the city in a flying visit.
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Can you see the highlights of Rio in 2 days?
The short answer is yes! It’s possible to see Rio de Janeiro’s major attractions in just a couple of days. We stayed in the city for two days and three nights, which we found was sufficient enough to see the highlights.
If you’re the kind of traveller who likes to really soak up the atmosphere of a place and get to know it, then it’s definitely better to plan a longer trip.
Rio de Janeiro is one of those rare cities that has it all. Stunning beaches, world-famous landmarks, beautiful architecture, intriguing history, great food and drink, lively nightlife, national parks, hiking trails, ocean, mountains – there really is something for everyone.
There’s enough to keep you entertained in Rio for as long as you care to stay. But if you’re lining up a whistle-stop tour, this guide will help you plan what to do in Rio in 2 days.
What is included in this Rio de Janeiro 2-day itinerary?
This itinerary for 2 days in Rio de Janeiro features a mixture of the city’s iconic attractions as well as some social activities. It includes:
- Christ the Redeemer
- Sugarloaf Mountain
- Parque Lage
- Downtown and Lapa walking tour
- Maracana stadium tour
- Ipanema and Copacabana beaches
- Churrascaria Brazilian BBQ experience
- Night out in Lapa
Rio de Janeiro itinerary
This itinerary is based on our own experience of visiting Rio de Janeiro. There’s a lot packed into a short space of time.
It’s a flexible and scalable itinerary, so feel free to adapt it to suit your needs. These activities could easily be stretched out over a few more days, and at the end I’ve added some extra ideas for things to do in Rio if you have more time
Day 1: Downtown, Lapa, Maracana and Sugarloaf
Morning: Rio de Janeiro free walking tour
There’s no better way to begin a city trip than with a walking tour, especially when time is tight. We took a tour of downtown Rio and Lapa with Free Walker Tours.
The energetic local guides are Rio born-and-bred, full of knowledge about the city and always helpful. Tours set off every day at 10:30am (except Sunday) from the Carioca Square clock, which is right next to Carioca metro station.
The tour begins in downtown Rio, visiting quirky spots like the Confeitaria Colombo bakery, classic architecture such as the Imperial Palace, National Library and Municipal Theatre, and the famous squares of XV and Cinelândia.
The tour finishes in the Lapa district. This bohemian neighbourhood is home to two of the city’s most photographed features: the white arches of the Carioca Aqueduct, and the colourful stairway of Escadaria Selarón.
Here are some alternative walking tours which you can pay to book in advance, if you want to see a different side of the city:
- Rocinha Favela with a local guide – a non-intrusive walking tour to learn about the lives of people in Rio’s favela communities
- Urban arts walking tour – a four-hour journey through some of the city’s most authentic street art and murals
- Traditional foods and culture tour – sampling foods in local restaurants and speciality shops in Lapa and Santa Teresa
Lunch: Bar e Restaurante Os Ximenes
When the walking tour concludes, you’ll be ready for some food. Bar e Restaurante Os Ximenes is a great spot to try local cuisine, and it’s located conveniently on the corner opposite Escadaria Selarón. We tried it out with a group we met on the walking tour.
The menu has a wide selection of Brazilian dishes at very reasonable prices. Try the feijoada, a delicious dark bean stew with pieces of pork and beef.
Afternoon: Maracanã stadium tour
The Maracanã of Rio de Janeiro is possibly the world’s most famous football stadium. It is the home of Brazilian football and has hosted two World Cup finals.
Guided tours of the Maracanã run every day from 9am to 4pm, except on match days, when they stop three hours before kick-off. You can book a three-hour behind the scenes tour in advance with free cancellation.
The stadium is easy to reach on public transport. From Lapa, you can walk to the Cinelândia metro station on line 2 and take line 2 to the Maracanã station.
If you want to see a live match for the full-on Brazilian football experience, it’s actually fairly easy to get tickets. Several of the Rio-based teams play in the stadium, and ticket prices begin as low as 20 reais. This article by Culture Trip explains in detail how you can see a match at the Maracanã.
Sunset view from Sugarloaf Mountain
For us, watching the sun go down over Rio from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain was the most breathtaking experience of our time in the city. If you must prioritise your sightseeing, put this on top of the list!
Check the sunset times before you set off to make sure you get the timings right. There’s no limit for how long you can stay on Sugarloaf Mountain, but it’s better not to be waiting around for a couple of hours (although you’ll probably get to witness several marriage proposals if you do).
To reach the top, the easiest way is to take the cable car, which run every 20 minutes daily from 8am to 9pm. This is split into two rides, each of which takes about three minutes. To save yourself time, you can book your official cable car ticket in advance.
The first cable car takes you to Morro da Urca, a peak part-way up, which has some spectacular views of its own, as well as souvenir shops and refreshments. It’s also possible to hike this first part as an alternative. The path is well-paved, about 2 kilometres in length and climbs an elevation of 220 metres.
The second cable car takes you from Morro da Urca up to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. The platform at the top provides 360 views across Rio de Janeiro, its beaches, the hills beyond, and out across the ocean the other side. It’s simply spectacular.
The sunset behind the Christ the Redeemer statue is the pièce de résistance – a truly special sight.
Evening: Rio pub crawl
Remember the fun guys I told you about who run Free Walker Tours in Rio? Well, they also organise an awesome pub crawl in the city’s hip Lapa district. You can book a place on it here.
We met some fantastic, friendly people on the pub crawl, and experienced the heart and soul of the city’s nightlife. In addition to the conventional pub and bar hopping we joined the Lapa street party, with stalls selling caipirinhas and samba music playing.
Day 2: Christ the Redeemer, beaches and Brazilian BBQ
Morning: Christ the Redeemer statue
If you went on the pub crawl, you’ll probably want to take your time getting up. Don’t leave it too long though. We did the pub crawl on our last night in Rio, and nearly missed our flight the next morning, oops…
Once you’re up and active, it’s time to see one of the New Seven Wonders of the World up close: Christ the Redeemer. The legendary statue stands atop Corcovado, a mountain that towers over the city.
As with Sugarloaf Mountain, there are different options for visiting Christ the Redeemer. One is to take the mountain train, Trem do Corcovado. This is the option we chose.
It’s best to buy your train tickets online in advance to avoid having to queue or wait for an available slot (note that you need to create an account the website before you can book). The train runs every 20 minutes from the station at Cosme Velho. At high season, slots during the middle of the day tend to get filled several days in advance.
Try and get a seat on the right side of the train for the best views going up (and, of course, the left side on the way down). The train stops briefly half-way up, and local kids appear at the windows selling bottles of water.
There are two more options to reach the top. The most scenic and rewarding is to hike, which we would have done with more time on our hands. The route, a fairly challenging one that takes a couple of hours, begins at the rear of Parque Lage and ascends through the lush Tijuca rainforest, passing waterfalls and wildlife along the way.
If hiking, you need to bring cash for the entrance fee. Be cautious with your valuables, however, as tourists have known to be targeted by robbers on the route.
A final option is to take a van, which depart regularly from Largo do Machado and Copacabana. This is slightly cheaper than the train (although it’s not as visually pleasing) and can also be booked online.
The platform area at the top is fairly small. Be prepared to grapple with crowds of tourists for the best viewpoints, but be patient… it’s worth it! The panorama, which provides the opposite perspective to Sugarloaf Mountain, is fabulous.
The morning is the optimal time to visit Christ the Redeemer. This is when the sunlight covers the city best, and illuminates the face of the statue. As the afternoon sets in, the sun dips towards the inland horizon and casts hilly shadows over Rio.
Midday: a walk in Parque Lage
Parque Lage is a beautiful public park and gardens located at the foot of Corcovado. If you choose not to ascend the mountain to the statue, this is one of the best spots to see it from the ground.
The park is a tranquil setting to explore by foot, and has numerous pathways to explore. At its heart is an old mansion with a large rectangular pool at the middle of its interior. Today the building houses a visual arts school and a café.
Despite the close proximity, the park isn’t the easiest to reach by either foot or public transport from the train station at Cosme Velho. To visit straight after taking the Corcovado train, it’s quickest to take a taxi, which is a fairly short ride. Or, if you prefer, head straight to the beach…
Afternoon: relax on Ipanema Beach
Rio de Janeiro has no shortage of beautiful sandy beaches. One of the most picturesque is Ipanema, lined with palm trees and offering a mountainous vista along the coastline.
Rio’s beaches are demarcated by 12 ‘postos’, lifeguard stations that are posted around the coast. Postos 8, 9 and 10 are located on Ipanema. This beach is always lively and attracts a young and diverse crowd. Even so, it’s cleaner and less crowded than Copacabana, and it’s easy to find bathing spots.
As an alternative, to keep the day’s activities a little closer together, you could spend the afternoon on Copacabana Beach instead.
Evening: Brazilian BBQ and caipirinhas on the beach
No visit to Rio de Janeiro would be quite complete without eating in a churrascaria restaurant to sample an authentic Brazilian BBQ. I had eaten in churrascaria restaurants in other parts of the world before I set foot in Brazil, but there’s simply nothing like the experience in Rio.
The concept is simple. You take your seat, help yourself to a salad buffet, and then you are served various cuts of meat until you can’t manage any more.
Churrascarias tend to be fairly expensive. We ate at Churrascaria Palace in Copacabana which had a more moderately priced menu, and it didn’t disappoint.
If you want to go all-out, then try Fogo de Chão in Botafogo – I visited this place once on a work trip a few years back. It’s a lot more expensive, but you get what you pay for. The waterside setting is amazing, and the quality of meat just incredible.
Churrascaria Palace is a short walk away from one of the liveliest stretches of Copacabana Beach. In the evening, the beach bars offer cheap deals for 2-for-1 caipirinhas, and many have live music. It’s the perfect way to digest all of that Brazilian BBQ.
Along the beachside you will also find pop-up stalls selling cheaper caipirinhas (but no less tasty), and various clothing, arts and crafts.
Rio in 3 days: more things to do
If you are staying in Rio a little longer and seeking more ideas for things to do, below are some more activities you can try.
Morning run on Copacabana Beach
Copacabana feature a running path between the beach and the road. If you get up in time for sunrise, there are few more beautiful morning jogs you will ever find.
Rio is home to over 800 shanty towns known as favelas. Although they have developed a dangerous reputation, several are safe for tourists to visit and learn about the city’s culture. You can visit one of the most famous favelas, Rocinha, with a local guide.
Museum of tomorrow
This futuristically designed science museum is located on Rio’s downtown waterfront. Its exhibitions explore the biggest social and environmental challenges for the future of humanity. Full-price tickets are 30 reais, or you can book a combined experience which includes Olympic Boulevard and a history tour.
Tijuca National Park
Tijuca is Rio de Janeiro’s urban tropical rainforest, and covers some 32 square kilometres of the city. Declared a national park in 1961, it is full of options for hiking, exploring biodiversity and waterfalls, and viewpoints of the city. For an organised trip, you can take a full-day guided hike in the forest or the half-day waterfalls circuit.
Tours to add to your Rio itinerary
If you’re still looking for ideas, here are a few more tours and activities you could consider booking for Rio:
- Copacabana four-hour Brazilian cooking class – learn to make seven classic local recipes
- Fast boat tour to Angra dos Reis and Ilha Grande – some of the most beautiful islands near Rio
- Best beaches boat tour with free drinks – stopping by some of the city’s most gorgeous coastal spots
- Full-day boat tour to Búzios – a scenic coastal town north of the city
- Pedra do Telégrafo hike and beach full-day tour – one of the city’s top viewing points
Safety in Rio de Janeiro
There are very few cities in which I have not felt safe as a tourist. Unfortunately, Rio de Janeiro numbers among them.
It’s important to remember that some 5 million tourists visit Rio every year, and most come to no harm. But at the same time, there is a risk of crime in the city and it’s prudent to be cautious.
First and foremost, follow the most basic common-sense rules to avoid becoming a target. Do not flaunt wealth; do not have any valuables on show. Avoid walking around after dark, or into areas you don’t know.
Places to stay in Rio de Janeiro
For a city that has literally hundreds of hostels, guest houses, hotels and self-catered apartments, we found it surprisingly hard to choose somewhere to stay in Rio! To help you cut through the noise, we’ve done extensive research and picked out the following great options for a range of budget options:
- Budget: Mambembe Hostel, Discovery Hostel, Books Hostel
- Mid-range: Casa de Gente, Pousada Favela Cantagalo, Pousada Oasis Do Barral
- Luxury: Hotelinho Urca Guest House, Gerthrudes Bed & Breakfast, O Veleiro Bed and Breakfast
If these don’t suit, you can find a wide range of accommodation options in Rio de Janeiro to suit any travel style on booking.com.
Self-catered apartments in Rio de Janeiro
Alternatively, there are fabulous self-catered apartments all over the city, which will give you your own space to enjoy and relax in. Here are three awesome places we found for couple or solo travellers in some of the best spots around the city:
- Block from Copacabana Beach – large, light and airy studio apartment
- Stylish studio in Botafogo – good budget option in outgoing neighbourhood
- Charming loft in Leblon – renovated apartment in popular Leblon close to Ipanema Beach
When is the best time to visit Rio de Janeiro?
Rio is great to visit all year round, but the optimal time really depends on what you like doing.
The summer months from December to February are typical very hot, humid and prone to heavy rainfall. The rain tends to hit in short spells, however, so beach-going isn’t badly affected.
The Carnival festival takes place 40 days before Easter, usually in February. It’s one of the biggest celebrations in Brazil, and Rio, like many cities, turns into one big party. It’s the ultimate experience if you like big parties, but avoid it if you dislike crowds!
Between March and May the temperature cools down, the rain subsides and the crowds disperse a little. The spring from September to November enjoys similar, more moderate conditions. These are good times to visit to enjoy nice weather without the intensity.
Rio de Janeiro itinerary map
The map below shows the locations of the attractions and activities detailed in this article:
Are you visiting Florianópolis during your Brazil trip? Check out our guide to the best beaches on the island.
If you’re heading to Iguassu Falls, read our comparison of experiences on the Brazil and Argentina sides of the famous falls.
Did you use our Rio de Janeiro itinerary? We’d love to hear from you – share your thoughts in the comments below.
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