The Rio de Janeiro "Don't Miss" List

From hang gliding over Tijuca National Park to sharpening your samba, you can't leave Rio without these 7 experiences.

The beaches has to be on your on must-visit list, but Rio is more than a beach town. If you've been inspired by the 2014 FIFA World Cup to visit Brazil, plan for at least a few days in Rio, and then follow our guide to making the most of your trip with seven perfect, unique things to do in Rio.

Watch a Match at Maracana

Even though Brazil (and its fans) came back down to earth with a bump at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, after being beaten 7-1 by German in the semi finals, there’s no doubt that the tournament reminded us why the nation is home to such a dynamic and charismatic soccer culture. Rio is a huge hub and the Maracana stadium, Rio's footballing 'cathedral', has been home to around 80,000 buoyant fans since opening in 1950. In 2013 it enjoyed a major makeover. Head to a match—both CR Flemengo and Fluminense FC play their league matches here. Although it may not have the same significance as the World Cup final held here, you can guarantee that you’ll still see noisy, unadulterated sporting passion.

Head to the Beach

Volleyball on Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro
Early morning volleyball action on Ipanema Beach (©Visit Brasil)

The legend is right: Every trip to Rio deserves at least one beach day. When the sun is up, the population heads for the beach, wearing nothing but tiny Speedos, colorful shorts or bikinis. Here they surf, play beach volleyball or football, or soak up the rays between occasional dips into the waves, with the working day just a brief interruption. The ever-popular Copacabana beach has a broad, mosaic-patterned Avenida for promenading, and you'll find countless beach kiosks. Famed Ipanema beach, lined by up-market hotels, has plenty of people-watching opportunities. If you prefer something more active, indulge in watersports on the white sands of Arpoador beach.

Ipanema Beach
Ipanema Beach (©Catarina Belova/Shutterstock)

Sample the Cachaca

When in Rio, drink like a Cariocas. Cachaca is the main brew here, a local spirit distilled from sugarcane and produced since the 16th century. In the past it was seen as a simple tipple, rough and rustic. That’s changed now, with more sophisticated bars celebrating its ice-cold qualities, blissful on a hot Rio night. 

Hike (or Helicopter) to Sugarloaf Mountain

Distinctive monolith, Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain
Distinctive monolith, Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain (©Visit Brasil)

Rio's world-famous monolith, Sugarloaf Mountain, sits in a dramatic sea and jungle surround. So how will you ascend? The easiest trip is by cable car, but if money is no object, take a helicopter ride to see it from above. The walk meanders along pathways with surrounding rocks hiding secluded little beaches, forest and small colonial suburbs. There's a paved walking track at Praia Vermelha, along the waterfront around the foot of the rock, with a path winding its way through the forest to the top of Morro de Urca where you can hop on the cable car. For the hardy mountaineer, the best way up is to climb the Caminho da Costa, a path to the summit of the Sugarloaf; one 10-meter stretch requires climbing gear. And to really grapple with Sugarloaf, consider this: There are 35 documented rock-climbing routes up this massive boulder.

Visit a Rainforest: Tijuca National Park

Rugged landscape of Tijuca National Park, Rio
Rugged landscape of Tijuca National Park (©Dabldy/iStock/Thinkstock)

At 3,300 hectares, Parque Nacional de Tijuca, is one of the world’s largest urban rainforests, and is a perfect destination for peaceful wildlife watching. Tijuca is home to around 200 species of birds, numerous small mammals and even primates, along with hundreds of species of endangered Atlantic coastal rainforest plants.

For a little adventure, tour it on foot. There are numerous hiking and trekking routes of differing difficulties, from a 50-minute "express hike" to a big circuit that takes in peaks and waterfalls.

For more adventure, sign on with one of the park's jeep tours, or for some real thrills, book a hang-gliding ride. If you have the nerve, you will hop in a tandem hang glider (with an experienced guide) and soar from the Pedra Bonita take-off ramp over the forest.

Dance To Rio's Musical Beat

Watch the experts, learn a few steps and get into the rhythm of Rio; it’s hard not to be caught up in the music. Top troupes perform at venues like the opulent Theatro Municipal, which stages opera and ballet. For a local sound, look out for free summertime concerts on Copacabana beach. But if you really want to get immersed in the rhythm, head to Rio Scenarium, which champions Brazilian music and dance, including samba, forro and garieira. It’s a laid-back, vast venue with a treasure trove of antiques, where locals and foreigners get on the dance floor to well-known bands. For more, head to the Lapa neighborhood, a popular area for nightlife; you will stumble across many tucked-away music and dance clubs, especially on Friday nights when the clubs come alive.

Travel tip: If you’re in Rio between September and Carnaval in February, look out for samba school rehearsals.

Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro
Grandiose Theatro Municipal (©Visit Brasil)

Rio's Shopping Scene: Beach Shacks and High-end Malls

Rio's shopping scene spans from beach vendors laden with multi-hued swimwear and sarongs for a no-frills, wear-it-today purchase, to luxurious finds at up-market malls and designer boutiques. Well-heeled Cariocas head to Sao Conrado Fashion Mall, a sophisticated collection of domestic and international names (think Prada and Armani). In Ipanema, the shopping destination is Rua Garcia D’Avilia, akin to NYC’s 5th Avenue and known for its top jewelry stores. Nearby, Avenida Visconde de Piraja is a classic high street where independent little shops are nestled beside high-end emporiums.