I’m not that good when it comes to “must see” attractions and “best cities in the world”. While I appreciate them and in most cases enjoy I’m not completely crazy about them. But after really loving Cape Town last year I had my hopes for Rio de Janeiro slightly higher than usual. After all both cities seem to be similar: they have an incredible location where mountains meet the Ocean, they have difficult background and some of the most spectacular sights in the world. With that in mind I’ve been mildly optimistic but sadly Rio de Janeiro didn’t blow me away or gave me any reason to go crazy for it… It was just another pleasant city I’ve visited, nothing more.
Even before going to South America I knew deep down that it will be Buenos Aires that I will fall in love with. But visiting Rio de Janeiro was one of the highlights of my trip anyway. This Brazilian city makes it to all the list of world’s biggest attraction and I was willing to give it a chance to see what it is about. I’m very well aware that I’m partly to be blamed for not enjoying it properly and two and a half days I’ve spent there were not enough to get to know the place but at least I could get a glimpse of it to have my own opinion about the place.
I stayed in the downtown of Rio – since my budget was pretty tight that’s where I found the cheapest accommodation. But it actually turned out for the best: I was few steps away from the metro station (and that’s half of the success when getting around in Rio) and the area itself, usually overlooked by tourists was really charming. It was crazy busy as all the streets around Uruguaiana metro station were serving as a huge market where you could buy just about everything. But as soon as you look up above the stalls you could see beautiful, yet neglected houses dating to the beginning of 20th century or even earlier. That’s where I started discovering Rio de Janeiro and from the very first moment I was faced with the fact the city is completely different from what I’ve imagined. But it was a good surprise.
A short walk further took me to Santa Teresa – the most bohemian part of the city, full of even more beautiful houses and villas, cozy cafes, quirky little shops and lots of street art. In a nutshell: my kind of place! I could have spent hours in Santa Teresa, just being there and enjoying the place, but there were still so many places I wanted to see in Rio and my time was running out. Besides, no matter how awesome this area was it was also terribly empty and didn’t feel like part of the big city – that made me feel kind of awkward and I already had some safety issues anyway.
After a really good start in Rio I was ready to head to the beaches. Deep down I knew that I’ll hate the famous Copacabana (and as it turned out on the next day I was right) so my first choice was Ipanema which, on the contrary, I had a feeling I will love! Even if my first full day in Rio was cloudy and the surrounding mountains were hidden in clouds the beach took my breath away, and I’m not much of a beach person. The trembling sound of crashing waves, the smell of the Ocean, the long and wide stripe of the sand going all the way to the horizon where, at the very end, the favela of Vidigal dimly araised… It could be such a perfect place. Too bad the splendid beach is surrounded by busy street and high random blocks that take away all the beauty from it. I can imagine that living there, with this view to die for is a dream for so many people from all over the world – too bad it doesn’t really work the other way around and the look across the street can spoil the whole awesomeness of Ipanema.
The next morning I headed to Ipanema again. The weather was perfect and I just couldn’t resist seeing the place in a different light. The beach looked even better, the Ocean showed its true turquoise color and the s warm and sunny day brought lots of fans of swimming, surfing and sunbathing to the beach. I bought myself a coconut and while sipping the coconut water I just stared at the magnificent view in front of me, trying to take it all in, remember every detail. I finally started realizing why so many people are crazy about Rio, with the good weather it was pretty stunning!
I didn’t really want to leave Ipanema but the (in)famous and iconic Copacabana was just a short walk away and I wanted to see what it all is about, though I didn’t have my hopes too high. As it turned out all the bad things I’ve heard about it were true. The beach was narrow and crowded, I was constantly harassed by street vendors and overall I didn’t feel very safe. Again the place was surrounded by the busy street and random high blocks that probably offered an incredible view. Well, it’s a big city after all so I don’t know what I was expecting… Copacabana was the worst part of Rio for me, I managed to spend only some half an hour walking along the beach and all the pushing my way trough and constant cautiousness made me feel so exhausted. What’s more Copacabana didn’t offer such a spectacular views as Ipanema so I really saw no point staying there any longer and I quickly jumped into the maze of streets, finding my way to the nearest metro station. At least the Copacabana neighborhood turned out to be surprisingly pleasant, giving much needed shadow and the rest from the craziness of the beach…
I left the best for the end – a look at Rio from the above! Well, on the first day, when I visited Parque de Ruinas in Santa Teresa, I could already have a little preview of how amazing views Rio offer but I knew the highlight of my stay will be a visit to one of the most iconic viewpoints in the city. I had to choose between the Cristo Redentor and Sugar Loaf but since the famous statue of Christ was hidden in clouds there was no point going all the way up there and I went for the second option. I heard some horror stories of the long lines, sometimes you need to wait even few hours for the cable car that can take you to the peak. Luckily I experienced nothing like that, in 3 out of 4 cases the cable car was waiting for me when I was running late to catch it. That’s the bonus of off season travels.
Even with the small haze the view from the top of Sugar Loaf was breathtaking and as incredible as various pictures show! The sense of space and freedom was overwhelming, the busy, big city was just there, coexisting with nature. It was one of the most memorable views I’ve ever seen! And I think that is the biggest advantage of Rio de Janeiro – its location that leaves you speechless every now and then! Even when the line to the cable car is long it’s worth all the way as seeing the city from the Sugar Loaf is one of the greatest things one can experience in Rio!
The last remaining hours of the day I had were spent wandering aimlessly around to Botafogo metro station and then around the downtown. That’s often part of travelling I enjoy the most – visiting some random places to get the feel of the city, its vibe. And Rio was pleasant yet it lacked something crucial that would make me go crazy about it… Before going to the airport to catch my flight to Iguazu Falls I went for the favela tour that gave me a good background to understanding the city yet it wasn’t enough to change my perception of it.
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I totally can see why so many people are in love with Rio de Janeiro and how the city got its title of one of the most beautiful and worth visiting places in the world. It has everything that a tourist can wish for: breathtaking views, interesting background, iconic beaches, rich culture and fine cuisine. But that wasn’t enough for me! Rio got me really tired (and I’m a city person!), it pushed my senses to the maximum especially when it comes to safety (which, by the way, wasn’t as big problem as you hear). I enjoyed it (some parts much more than others) but overall can’t say I was really impressed. It was just another city I’ve visited during my travels, the one I’m not sure I would like to go back to. It was just fine and fine isn’t enough for me…
What’s your image of Rio? Would you like to visit it? Which famous place did disappoint you?
If you think of visiting Brazil or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it:
- Bohemian Rio de Janeiro – Santa Teresa
- Favelas in Rio – an inseparable part of the city’s scenery
- Stunning Paraty, Brazil in pictures
- and more!
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