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Rio de Janeiro is a world-famous city not only for being breathtakingly beautiful but also culturally rich and full of amazing things to do. It is, without a doubt, one of the best places to visit in Brazil! You’ve come here in search of the best things to do during 3 days in Rio, and boy, are we going to deliver. We’ve spent a lot of time in Rio and are well-versed on the best things to see and do in one of our favorite cities in South America.
Sure, we’ve highlighted the “big hitter” attractions in this blog – infamous sights like Christ the Redeemer, Copacabana Beach, and Sugarloaf Mountain. But we’ll also peel back the layers so that you can experience the REAL Rio de Janeiro in all its captivating glory. We’ve included some off-the-beaten-path activities on this 3-day itinerary, too, such as a samba party at the historic Pedra do Sal and a wander through Tijuca National Park in an open-top jeep.
You’ll read about our favorite foodie spots in a city renowned for its food (hello Brazilian BBQ!), get an insight into the absolute best tours in Rio, and, in short, enjoy experiences that are not on most Rio itineraries. So let’s get started!
Don’t have time to read the full article? Three days in Rio de Janeiro is just enough time to scratch the surface of this vibrant city! Day one has you exploring the best beaches and hopping on a tour through the lush Tijuca National Park. On day two, you’ll tick off Rio’s top attractions, like Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf on a full-day-guided tour. And for your final day, we have a jam-packed itinerary starting with a helicopter flight over the city and ending with a samba show!
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Day 3
- Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
- Thanks for reading!
- Why We Book Tours with Viator
- Don't get Caught without Travel Insurance!
Morning – Visit Copacabana Beach and Ipanema Beach
Epic beaches and Rio de Janeiro go hand-in-hand, and this coastal city enjoys an 8-kilometer (5-mile) stretch of coastline that’s revered around the world.
So, start your Rio itinerary with a bang by checking out two of the city’s most popular and prettiest beaches – Copacabana and Ipanema. We’d even go so far as to say that both beaches (which are handily next to one another and just separated by a peninsula break) are two of the most famous beaches in South America. So, spending your first morning experiencing Rio’s unbeatable beach scene is a no-brainer.
A little less well-known than its more famous sister, Ipanema is a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) white sand beach that’s the perfect spot to relax before experiencing the hustle and bustle of Copacabana. It’s considered the “cooler” of the two by those in the know, and you’re likely to see more locals than tourists here.
Ipanema is the perfect spot to take a swim in its calm waters, join the locals for a game of volleyball, or just lay down your towel, bury your toes in the sand, and chill. Interestingly, the beach was made famous by the song “The Girl from Ipanema” by Stan Getz.
A 15-minute stroll along the wide paved promenade that connects Ipanema to Copacabana is next on your itinerary this morning. Referred to locally as the calçadão, it’s one of the most famous beach walks in the world!
The 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) Copacabana Beach is always abuzz with activity. Walking along its golden sand at any time of the day, you’re likely to see locals playing soccer, roving beach vendors selling everything from corn on the cob to churros, and tanned tourists chilling on the sand with a caipirinha (or beer) from one of the kiosks.
Copacabana (along with the Christ the Redeemer statue) has become the poster child for Rio de Janeiro lined with palm trees and the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. The striking mosaic pattern on the pavement that stretches the length of the beach is eye-catching, too, and this is a great spot to stretch your legs.
Depending on what kind of experience you’re after, relaxed or party vibes, there’s a different section of “Copa,” as the locals call it that you should head to. For example, if you’d love nothing more than a quiet first morning on the beach, head to the first stretch of beach. Party-lovers should head to the beach section opposite the Copacabana Palace.
Related Read: While you’re exploring these world-famous beaches, add some underwater exploration to your itinerary and check out our detailed guide to scuba diving in Rio de Janeiro!
Lunch – Churrascaria Palace
Your lunch plans today are at a classic Rio spot! Luckily, you don’t have to venture too far as Churrascaria Palace is just a few minutes walk from Copacabana. This is a Rio de Janeiro institution, so it’s THE place to sample famous Brazilian-style meats. I reckon every tourist who visits the city should have this super-popular restaurant on their itinerary.
It’s been around since 1951 and is considered Rio’s most traditional steakhouse. It’s most renowned for its “rodízio,” aka all-you-can-eat service, where waiters bring around meat and side dishes constantly. Honestly, you will be so full afterward. When you see all the mouthwatering meats, you won’t be able to say no. Our favorites from here were the butterfly picanha cut, and the prime ribs.
Afternoon – Explore Tijuca National Park
Would you be surprised to find a massive tropical rainforest lying in the heart of Rio? We couldn’t believe it either! But, Tijuca National Park, aka the biggest urban forest in the world, is nestled in the mountains surrounding the city. Visiting here is one of the best day trips you can take from Rio de Janeiro!
So, spend some time this afternoon wandering this massive rainforest, checking out a few waterfalls here (there are 30!), and snapping some photos of the epic city views below. Fascinatingly, Tijuca National Park is manmade. A successful reforestation project in the 19th century saw over 100,000 trees re-planted here after they were cleared in the 17th century for coffee-growing and livestock.
There are several ways to get to Tijuca National Park from Copacabana. If you want to DIY it – your options are to hop in a taxi for the 20-minute journey, drive yourself in your rental car, or head back into the city center to the Novo Rio bus station and catch the 301 or 645 bus. But a guided tour is the best and most hassle-free way to get to the park. While it will cost a bit more, you’ll learn about this unique rainforest and get taken to the best viewpoints.
This Tijuca Forest Tour is a 5-hour small group tour of 6 people, allowing for a more personalized experience. Plus, it includes pick-up from most hotels in Copacabana (as well as several pick-up points in the city center). It leaves at 1 pm, giving you more than enough time to enjoy Copacabana and Ipanema and have a delicious lunch before taking off.
You’ll get to visit all the best spots in the park in an air-conditioned vehicle and, of course, get to hop out and snap some beautiful photos. You’ll also get to hike to some of the waterfalls in the park, and even swim in them if you need to cool off! Not only do you get to experience the beauty of the park, but it’s also a great way to learn about the history and significance of the area. Book this well-rated tour here for $89 USD per person.
An alternative to the above is a jeep tour like this one, which will drive you through the park in an open-top jeep. That means you’ll be more likely to spot animals like monkeys, sloths, raccoons, and toucans. You’ll also spend a short section of the tour hiking some of the scenic trails here. Toward the end of the tour, you’ll stop by Cascatinha Taunay, a 35-meter (115-foot) waterfall.
It’s worth noting that if you take this tour between Monday and Friday, you will get to see the Vista Chinesa, a traditional Chinese pagoda on the mountainside that offers panoramic views. From this prime vantage point, you’ll get to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon, and the Rio skyline.
This tour also departs at 1 pm and lasts for 4 hours. You can arrange pick-up from Copacabana, Ipanema, and other select points in the city. The tour is super reasonably priced, too, starting at $54 USD per person. Book this tour here to access the 24-hour cancellation deal in case your plans change!
Why We Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Night – Pedra do Sal
It’s your first evening in Rio de Janeiro, and boy, do we have a treat in store for you. This evening, we suggest heading to Pedra do Sal (aka Salt Rock) in the Saude neighborhood. It’s known as the birthplace of samba. So, if you’re a fan of this ballroom dance or just want to party with the locals, this evening’s activity will be the cherry on top of an awesome day! Dare we say, it’s one of the best things to experience in all of South America.
This historic and religious site comes alive at night when hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of locals descend on the small area to experience the most traditional samba in Rio. Grab a seat on the slippery steps that are carved into the massive “Salt Rock” and watch the show. But before you do, grab a Capriniha or beer from one of the many tents, or if you’re hungry, there are many street food stalls. The food looked and smelled delicious when we were there, but we were still full from our massive lunch.
Samba night happens every Monday in Pedra do Sal, and the fun starts at 8 pm. The musician usually continues playing until midnight. After that, you can make your way to the main square to party with the locals until 2 am!
There’s also another, smaller samba night that happens every Friday night in Pedra do Sal. However, as I said, it’s not as famous and is run by a different group than the Monday night event.
Getting to Pedra do Sal is easy, you can either jump in a taxi or Uber. Or, if you want to save some money, you can get the Metro to Cinelandia station and exit via Exit C (Pedro Lessa Street). Then, hop on the tram heading in the direction of Praia Formosa and jump off at Parada dos Museus. You’ll hear the music from here, so follow your ears to the best party in Rio de Janeiro.
If you want to experience Pedra do Sal but are a little anxious about going on your own, then taking this Samba Night at Pedra do Sal guided tour is a great alternative! Your local guide will meet you right at the entrance of Pedra do Sal and take you all around the area, sharing the history and culture of samba. When the party starts, your guide will teach you some dance moves and will always be on hand if the crowds get to be too much.
You’ll have hours to have fun and feel secure with your guide and the 10 other people in the group. This tour is a fantastic option for solo backpacking in Brazil! It includes a welcome drink, and I’m sure you’ll work up an appetite from all that dancing so bring some money for the food stalls. You can book this tour for $39 USD per person.
Related Read: The most famous party in Rio is Carnival, aka, the country’s biggest celebration. You can read all about celebrating Carnival in Brazil here!
Morning and afternoon – Full-day tour in Rio
There’s a lot to see during your tour of the city today as you visit Rio de Janeiro’s top sights. You’ll recognize the names of the iconic sights you’ll see on today’s full-day tour as they are some of the most famous attractions in the world! Today you’ll get to experience the Christ the Redeemer statue, Sugarloaf Mountain, the Maracanã soccer stadium, and the colorful Escadaria Selarón.
This full-day guided tour is one of the most booked tours in Rio de Janeiro, so expect great things – we promise you won’t be disappointed! The tour is 8 hours long, and in the morning, you’ll travel through Tijuca Forest (remember it from yesterday?) to Paineiras, where you’ll board the train to the top of Corcovado. This is where the Christ the Redeemer statue is located, which stands at a massive 30 meters (98 feet) tall. It’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a necessary addition to your 3-day Rio itinerary!
You will then visit another iconic Rio location, Maracanã Stadium aka the most important soccer stadium in the whole country. Soccer is like a religion in Brazil, and touring this massive stadium, which can hold almost 79,000 people, will be a dream come true for any sports fan.
The two major soccer teams in Rio are Flamengo and Fluminense (the locals call them Fla and Flu). There’s an intense rivalry between the two, and this is where they play their games. You won’t get to see a game today, but your guide will teach you about the chants and culture of both sides.
Your next stop on this incredible guided tour is the brightly colored Escadaria Selarón, aka the Selaron Steps, in the Lapa Neighborhood. These mosaic steps are Insta-famous and were created by Jorge Selarón, a Chilean-born Brazilian artist whose purpose was to add color to this once gray and dull area. The art project quickly garnered popularity, and tourists from across the world started bringing him tiles from their home countries. Today, there are tiles from over 60 countries integrated into the steps. So cool!
For lunch, you can feast on another Brazilian BBQ – there are a lot of famous joints in Rio, so hit as many as you can during your short stay! You can opt to include the price of lunch in your tour fees or not, but I always feel like it’s easier just to have it included so I don’t have to worry about extra fees within the day.
Your final stop is yet another classic Rio de Janeiro site, so get ready for impeccable views! You’ll be transported to the wealthy neighborhood of Urca, where you’ll hop on the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. We’ve been lucky enough to experience many cable car rides during our travels, and I must say the journey up Sugarloaf is one of the most scenic! At the top, you’ll have a bit of time to wander around and drink in the views.
Whew, what a tour that is! It’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular tours in Rio de Janeiro. As I said, you can book this awesome tour here for $162-$176 USD per person, depending on the day you book. That’s for the all-inclusive option, which includes lunch and your entrance fees for Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer. Pick-up and drop-off from most hotels in Rio are included, too.
Night – Party at Rio Scenarium
It’s party time again, but tonight is a completely different vibe from the evening before. We like to mix it up on our itineraries.
The multi-level Rio Scenarium nightclub in the Lapa district is our suggestion for night two. This kooky, eclectic nightspot is a famous venue for samba shows, but it’s also a museum of sorts for film props, costumes, antiques, and other historical artifacts. You can get up and join in the samba dancing – the locals will show you how it’s done! Or, if you’re not big into dancing, sit down at the on-site restaurant and just take it all in.
The Guardian listed it as one of the top 10 bars in the world, and if samba isn’t your thing, you can listen to other music genres, like Brazilian Popular Music, in one of the other rooms.
If you’d like a more immersive experience, check out a guided tour to Rio Scenarium that also includes dinner! This is a great way to meet new friends, as the group can accommodate up to 20 people, and learn all about the history of this eclectic place from your local guide. They offer hotel pick-up and dinner (get ready for more Brazilian BBQ!) before you head to the show!
You’ll have about 3 hours at the Rio Scenarium to dance, enjoy the music, and have fun with your new friends. This tour includes dinner, entrance to the show, and transportation so you can simply relax and enjoy the evening out. The tour is only available on Saturdays and you can book in advance for $150 USD.
Morning – Helicopter ride over Rio
Your final day may be the most exciting day of this 3-day Rio de Janeiro itinerary. And while yesterday you ticked off Rio’s top attractions – this morning you’ll get to see them from “the best seat in the house.” Yup, for the morning of day three, we suggest booking a helicopter tour. It’s, in our opinion, one of the best things to do in Brazil!
There really is no better way to see Rio than from high above, and this specific 30-minute helicopter flight is operated by one of the city’s best and safest tour operators, Rio2Fly. They are a newer specialized company that carefully follows all the maintenance procedures suggested by aircraft manufacturers and by the ANAC (National Civil Aviation Agency). So, rest assured you’ll be in safe hands for the 30-minute flight.
During the flight, you’ll pass over Rio’s top landmarks, like Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches, and the Maracanã stadium. It’s truly a bucket-list-worthy way to start your final day in this wonderful city!
The best part of all is that you can book this incredible tour at a very competitive price of around $331 USD per person. You will need to make your way to their office at Avenida das Americas and there are various departure times to choose from.
Lunch – Go sailing on a yacht
After a morning flying high above the city, this afternoon, it’s time to see it in a different light – from the water. This afternoon’s recommended activity is a sailboat tour to Guanabara Bay, where you’ll get to take in views of Rio’s skyline, Sugarloaf, and Christ the Redeemer.
This yacht is 12 meters (40 feet) long and fits just 20 people, so you can be assured of a peaceful, more personalized experience. Along the ride, your captain will relay some fascinating commentary about Rio’s history and geography. You’ll also be treated to some snacks and a welcome drink.
The cost per adult to book this well-rated tour is $65 USD, but pick up and drop off to/from the dock is not included in the price. So, you will need to make your way to pier A2 (the blue cabin left of the waterfront) for the start time of 11 am. This can be seen when walking down from the taxi drop-off area at Marina da Glória.
Related Read: Another one of the most popular tours from Rio is a trip to Ilha Grande, aka Brazil’s most beautiful island. You can read all about visiting Ilha Grande in our detailed guide here!
Afternoon – Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro
There’s been a lot happening so far on this trip, so we advise taking it easy this afternoon with a walk through the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro. As you can imagine, it’s a peaceful and scenic spot to explore in the southwest part of the city. And it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on your awesome trip thus far, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, the lush gardens are home to over 6,500 species of plants. The gardens depict the diversity of local and tropical flora from the area as well as international plants collected from across the world. One of the most impressive sections of the garden for us was the extensive line of giant royal palms, which fascinatingly were all generated from the same mother plant.
Other worthy sections to wander through here include the sensory garden, Amazon garden, Japanese garden, desert garden, and the orchid house. There are also a series of small exhibits and museum spaces to enjoy.
Considering you just had snacks on the sailing cruise, you may be feeling a little hungry by now. Well, luckily for you, there are several lovely restaurants dotted around the gardens in the Jardim Botanico neighborhood. We loved La Bicyclette, located on-site, a French restaurant that serves up heavenly French desserts and pastries.
You can keep on your guided tour style and visit the Botanical Gardens with a local guide. The guide will spend 3.5 hours leading you around the gardens and explaining the fascinating biodiversity here, as well as the history and cultural significance of the Botanical Gardens. It’s a very interesting tour, especially if you have an affinity for plant life, this place will blow you away! The private tour starts at 2:30 pm, which is perfectly timed after your yacht lunch, or a good alternative if you choose to skip the previous activity.
If you choose to visit on your own, the Botanical Gardens of Rio de Janeiro are located about 12.8 kilometers (8 miles) from where you’ll hop off your sailing cruise in Marina da Gloria. The entrance fee for foreigners to visit the gardens is around 60 BRL (around $12 USD) and it is cash only. The gardens are open daily from 8 am to 5 pm and are closed Wednesdays.
Night – Samba show
It’s your last evening in Rio de Janeiro, and tonight, it’s time to get your final fix of samba with a samba show. We’re going to recommend two different shows, and which one you choose will depend on the day of the week you plan to do it.
If you’re visiting on a Thursday or Saturday, then you should head to see the renowned Ginga Tropical Show at the Leblon Theater. This interactive Brazilian Samba and Folklore show has been delighting audiences for five years, and it’s essentially a storytelling of Brazilian culture via dance and music.
During the 1.5-hour-long show, the performers will combine Capoeira, frevo, and other dance forms before breaking into their Carnival-inspired finale. During the memorable finale, audience members are invited to join the performers in the samba. Tickets for this unforgettable show can be purchased here for $60 USD per person. Remember that the Ginga Tropical Show only happens on Thursday and Saturday nights.
If you’re in Rio any other night of the week (except for Mondays), your best option is this Rio Bar and Food Tour. Accompanied by a local, you’ll go off the beaten path and wander through some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, stopping into a few traditional bars along the way. Your knowledgeable guide will explain the history and culture behind each bar.
What’s great is that all alcoholic drinks and snacks are included at the price of $99 USD during the weekdays and $109 USD on the weekends. Book this highly-rated tour here, it is 3 hours long and starts from the Atlantic Hotel in Copacabana, so you’ll need to make your own way there.
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
As you can imagine, Rio de Janeiro is filled with unique places to stay all over the city. However, the three most popular areas to stay in are Copacabana, Ipanema, and Lapa/Santa Teresa. Each location offers its own unique stay, with Copacabana and Ipanema being close to the beach and Lapa and Santa Teresa in the more historical part of the city.
Budget travelers will love Pura Vida Hostel. It’s clean and social with lots of space to party just like a local, and dorm beds start around $22 USD per night. It’s only 2 blocks away from Copacabana Beach and a 15-minute walk to Arpoador which has plenty of restaurants, supermarkets, and pharmacies. The staff is warm and welcoming and makes your stay even more fun with their social personalities! You can book a room on either Hostelworld.com or Booking.com.
If you can spend a little more, Nacional Inn Rio Copacabana is a popular choice that’s a few blocks from the beach and has a pool with an excellent view. Although the rooms are on the small side that shouldn’t matter too much if you plan to spend most of your time outside of the hotel. They offer a fresh breakfast with bread, meats, cheeses, and fruits. There’s an on-site bar and a sauna to take advantage of.
Luxury travelers should stay at PortoBay Rio de Janeiro. It’s a 4-star beachfront hotel with a rooftop pool, gym, spa, and sauna. You can book a room with a sea view for around $200 USD. It is within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and popular bars. The on-site La Finestra restaurant serves really delicious Brazilian dishes as well as other international cuisine. The complementary breakfast buffet has fresh fruits, juices, and hot and cold choices.
Ipanema Beach House is the best budget option with dorm beds starting at $16 USD in a very safe neighborhood of Rio. It’s only 2 blocks to reach the beach and also has a pool at the Ipanema Beach House just a block from the main building which is also where the metro station is if you need to use it! The other more popular beaches aren’t as close, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away. It’s also easy to book on either Hostelworld.com or Booking.com.
For medium-budget travelers, Arena Ipanema Hotel is a beachfront property with stunning views, a restaurant and bar, and a rooftop pool with lots of lounge chairs to work on your tan. There is a fitness center and sauna that all guests are welcome to use as well as a 24-hour help desk if you need anything. For the price of $180 USD a night, it’s a great value.
Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro is another fantastic option for luxury travelers. You can’t get any closer to the water and with a rooftop pool and all the facilities you’d expect such as a wellness center offering massages with a gym and sauna, a fine-dining Italian restaurant, a sunroom, and a nightclub – it’s perfect! A bed here will set you back $630 USD but your room will have modern furnishings, a minibar, robes, and a TV. Some even have a seating area and a bathtub.
Lapa and Santa Teresa
I love the Selina Lapa Rio de Janeiro for budget travelers. This chain hostel is trusted all around the world for being clean and having a modern vibe with excellent facilities. Rooms are air-conditioned and you can choose a dorm room for around $20 USD or a standard private room for $70 USD. The property is close to nearby happening bars and restaurants but Selina’s restaurant is loved by its guests for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or for coffee from the coffee house – give it a try! You can reserve a room on Hostelworld.com or Booking.com.
The Mansion Aline is located in Santa Teresa and would suit the medium to high-end budget. The hotel has a rooftop jacuzzi as well as breathtaking views over the city. The deluxe suites have their own spa baths, a patio, and a private kitchen with a minibar and coffee maker. All rooms have a view of the city and river/garden views. One night here will average $169 USD.
Don’t get Caught without Travel Insurance!
We never travel without travel insurance! We’ve had a few instances during our travels when one of us has ended up in the hospital, and travel insurance has saved us thousands of dollars over the years!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance, we both have policies with them whenever we travel.
They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!)The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!) While most travel insurance companies left people stranded, SafetyWing fully reimbursed us for our last-minute, pricey flights!
Also, because it is so affordable, there really is no excuse not to take out a policy. Check prices and get a quote online here with SafetyWing (you can even take out a policy if you’re already traveling!)
Thanks for reading!
And that’s a wrap, as they say, on this bucket-list-worthy 3-day itinerary for Rio de Janeiro! You’ve learned about its fascinating history, ticked off its top attractions, and danced a lot of samba! You will have so many epic stories to tell your friends and family back home – we sure did!
As you continue to plan your travel adventures, check out all of our South America blogs. If you loved this guide, then be sure to jump over and check out all our other Brazil travel guides here or these related articles below!