What You Need to Do in Rio (Besides the Olympics)

Heading to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games? You can't leave without these essential experiences.

Travelers from all over the world will converge on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 5-21 for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The Olympics might be the main attraction, but the games don't go all day, every day, so what's a person to do in the downtime?

What's unique about Rio, according to the Brazilian Tourism Board, is how it brings togethers so many things that travelers want, all in one destination—ranging from beaches to mountains, culture, history, tradition, religion, art and more. Put the Olympics on top of that mix, and it's a perfect recipe for travel.

You can already feel the emotion and excitement building up, the board says. As of Aug. 5, Rio de Janeiro was one year away from the 2016 Olympics Games' opening ceremony. "Within a year, Brazil will be welcoming 10,500 Olympic athletes representing 205 countries. Seven-and-a-half million tickets will be sold for 28 different sports and 42 disciplines." 

The majority of events will take place in Barra da Tijuca. Other competitions will be held across Copacabana, Deodoro and Maracanã. Soccer matches will be played mostly outside of Rio, in the cities of Brasília, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, Salvador and Manaus. The gold-medal match will take place in Rio. For a look at all those cities, including which competitions will be played there, go here.

This is the first time the Olympics—and Paralympics Games—will be held in South America. Go early and you'll find Rio de Janeiro is already in the Olympics Games mode, with the Aquece Rio (Warm-up Rio) test events taking place until May 2016. During this period, 40 competitions will be staged in the city, providing a great opportunity to know the Olympic venues and to watch your favorite athletes.

And while you're there, whether for the Summer Games or the warm-up events, make sure explore beyond the stadiums. This passionate city has the power to enchant any traveler, from the beauty of the Copacabana Beach to the local color in the Santa Teresa neighborhood.

11 Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro (That Aren't the Olympics)

1. Hiking and trekking in Tijuca National Park: Tijuca National Park covers 15 square miles around Rio de Janeiro. "The conservation area embodies some of the best views of the city, including Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer and Pedra da Gávea—a steep rock that is a paradise for climbers," according to the tourism board. Tijuca National Park is the largest urban forest in the world, and hikers get hundreds of miles of trails, a variety of fauna, flora and wildlife.

Christ the Redeemer statue
Christ the Redeemer stands tall, overlooking Rio de Janeiro. It's guaranteed to be an Instagram moment. (Courtesy Tourism Office of Brazil)

2. Dancing time at Lapa: Lapa is one of the most bohemian neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, known for its lively social scene and cultural events. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy live Brazilian music and to break out some samba and forró moves. At the historic center of Rio's downtown, Lapadistrict has many restaurants, bars and clubs with an open-air-party vibe that brings the streets to life on the weekends.

3. Picnicking at Rio’s Botanical Garden: The botanical garden is home to rare species of flowers and plants, with a very important botanic collections recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. It's a great option for families with kids, according to the tourism board. "The Botanical Garden has picnic tables, playground, plenty of space to run around. Kids can have also the opportunity to watch our little monkeys and colored parakeets playing on trees."

4. Watch a game at Maracanã Stadium: Whether or not you are a soccer fanatic, watching a match at the famous stadium is definitely something not to be missed. What makes watching a soccer game in Maracanã Stadium a unique spectacle? The tourism board says it's the passion of Brazilian supporters, the drums, fireworks and colored banners waving to the sound of the team’s anthems. Maracanã Stadium was opened in 1950 to hold the World Cup and was renovated for the 2014 tournament. The stadium held the 2014 World Cup final match and will play host to the opening and closing Olympics ceremonies.

Maracanã Stadium
Maracanã Stadium will play host to the gold-medal soccer match in the Olympics. (Courtesy Tourism Office of Brazil)

5. Tour Rio’s Art Museums: Rio de Janeiro is home of many cultural institutions and museums that house collections from renowned international and Brazilian artists. Some of the most important are the Museu de Arte do Rio, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Niteroi (famous for it’s design by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer). Two more Museums are under constructions and should be open by the start of the Olympics. The Museum of Tomorrow, designed by the famous architect Santiago Calatrava, will be a science museum. The Museum of the Image and Sound is getting a new house at Copacabana beach and might transfer its collection to the new building in the beginning of 2016.

6. Surfing waves at Rio’s beaches 24/7: Just more than a 45-minute drive from downtown Rio, the beach of Prainha is known as one of Rio’s best spots, with breakers 12-15-feet high. For an urban ride, Arpoador beach, located between Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, is one of the most unique places. "Arpoador is known as the places where every night 'Silver Surfers' shed their business suits for wet suits and practice night surfing," the tourism board says. The beach is uniquely illuminated to allow surfers to see incomingwaves at night.

7. Blend in with the locals at the Rio Long Shores: From popular places such as Copacabana and Ipanema to a more hidden and tranquil beach like Grumari, a day on the white sand beaches of Rio can be a relaxing and cultural experience. Rio’s urban beaches are marked by “Postos”, and travelers will find many kiosks along the sand that sell cold beverages and food. Also, many vendors go around selling kangas, beachwear, iced tea, coconut water, and salgadinhos (salty snacks). 

8. Stretch your wings over Rio de Janeiro: "The sweet wind, the weather and the stunning hills and scenic views prime Rio for the hang gliding sport," according ot the board. The city offers flyers views of the ocean and lush forests. Pedra Bonita, in the Tijuca National Park, has a ramp where hang gliders take off toward Pepino Beach.

9. Savour the “essence” of Rio de Janeiro: "The carioca spirit cannot exist without its botequim [taverns] or botecos [pubs]. Hanging out with friends at their favorite bars, sipping icy cold draft beer, eating Brazilian appetizers makes this city so lively and friendly," the board says. You can find also many bar specializing in cachaças (a distilled spirit made from sugarcane), where you can taste the finest Brazilian production. Saturday is feijoada day in Rio, and it’s easy to find a place where you can taste the tradicional brazilian bean stew dish.

The Escadaria Selaron, Selaron Steps, in Santa Teresa
The Escadaria Selaron (Selaron Steps) in Santa Teresa are covered with colored ceramic, mirrors and tiles from all over the world. (Courtesy Tourism Office of Brazil)

10. Discover Santa Teresa: Go for a walk in the charming and quiet cobblestone streets of Santa Teresa. The neighborhood offers a collection of cafes, restaurants and art shops surrounded by 19th century architecture. Some highlights are: The Escadaria Selaron (Selaron Steps), a work by Jorge Selaron, who covered the staircase with colored ceramic, mirrors and tiles from all over the world; the Cultural Centre Parque das Ruinas, with its beautiful views over Guanabara Bay; and the Museu Chacara do Ceu, which shows works of renowned Brazilian artists such as Candido Portinari, Di Cavalanti, Volpi, Iberê Camargo and Manabu Mabe.

Bicycling in Rio
Touring Rio de Janeiro by bicycle is a great way to see the city. (Courtesy Tourism Office of Brazil)

11. Biking the City: Bicycling is a good way to explore Rio de Janeiro, and the bikelanes along the beaches and lakes offer spectacular views. Bike Rio—the orange bikes you can rent around the city—is easy to use, and a month pass costs about $3 U.S. and about $1.50 for a day pass. There also are other companies that rent bikes and offer bicycle tours around the city. Some of the routes can include mountain ride to Chinese View, Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer or trails in the Tijuca Forest.