So you only have one day in Rio de Janeiro and you want to make the most of it?
There are so many incredible things to do in Rio de Janeiro that it’s almost overwhelming. But there are only a handful of must-see sites top the list, and the good news is that you can pack most of them into one very full day. You simply can’t visit Rio without making a stop at places like Sugarloaf Mountain, Ipanema and Copacabana, the Carnival parade route, Maracanã Stadium, and Corcovado Mountain, which is home to Christ the Redeemer.
It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to take taxis or public transportation to most parts of Rio. However, there’s a bit of risk involved—during peak season some of the best things to do in Rio de Janeiro can be extremely busy. Some people spend hours just standing in line to on the cable cars at Sugarloaf. For this reason, it’s a good idea to opt for a guided tour.
Pro tip: If you do decide to head to some of the top attractions on your own, consider buying a skip-the-line pass. Depending on the time of year of your visit, it can be a real time saver.
At first glance, it may seem like the cost of city tours in Rio is outrageous—it’s certainly much more than you would spend in other parts of the world. But once you start adding up the price of admission to the top sites, as well as cab fare to each one, you’ll realize the price is pretty fair. And leaning on the experts to get you to all the right places is invaluable when you only have one day in Rio de Janeiro. They know the best times to visit each place to guarantee you can see as much as possible. Even if you have more than one day to check out the sights, a city tour is a great way to kick off your trip to give you a feel for the area. Normally, I would recommend a hop on hop off bus to get acquainted with a city, but Rio de Janeiro doesn’t have one.
Pro tip: There are plenty of tour companies offering comprehensive city tours that you can pre-book, or you can ask your hotel for recommendations. At the end of the day, they’re all about the same price and visit the same places, so it’s often more convenient to buy your tour in advance of your trip.
If you’re ready, let’s begin looking at all of the things to do in Rio de Janeiro in just one day.
Since most city tours won’t do much more than take you for a drive past the infamous Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches, try staying someplace close by so you can take a morning stroll in the sand. For affordable elegance, the Best Western Premier Arpoador Fashion Hotel is a perfect choice. Located on a side street just a five-minute walk from both Ipanema and Copacabana, it’s ultra-contemporary and luxurious decor will make you feel like you’ve spent a fortune on a five-star hotel when you paid three-star rates. But if you’re looking to truly splurge on your visit to Brazil, nothing compares to the ultimate indulgence of the Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel.
The Best Western offers a delicious—and complimentary—breakfast spread of pastries, cereals, and made-to-order hot dishes that is sure to tickle your taste buds. Get up early to enjoy a quick bite at the hotel and then spend and hour in the soft white sand of Rio’s premiere beaches. If you’d like to try a local eatery instead, you’ll find plenty of full-service snack shacks beachside. You can watch the waves roll in as vendors set up stalls renting beach chairs and local “salesmen” peddle Brazilian sarongs called kangas.
Most tours offer hotel pick up and will likely arrive between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m., and while you won’t have a lot of time to take in both beaches, it’s still worth taking the time to check them out. Once you’re safely tucked into your seat on the open-top tour bus, you’ll be whisked through the streets of Rio toward the number one tourist attraction in the city: Christ the Redeemer. I’ve written all about what to expect when you arrive at Corcovado Mountain and make your way up to the statue of Christ in a separate post since it’s an experience in and of itself.
Depending on the type of tour you take, you can either take a bus, train, or car just about to the top of the mountain. For here, you’ll need to climb about 200 steps to the top (there is an elevator if you need it, but if you’re able, I recommend the walk). There are lots of great views on the way up. Regardless of your religion, Christ with his arms outstretched will take your breath away. When you’re done taking pictures of the exceptional views from Corcorvado, you’ll still have plenty of time to browse around the souvenir shops for a memento of your visit.
As you drive through the streets, you’ll catch a glimpse at the notorious and colorful favelas, or low-income shantytowns that take up a great deal of real estate in Brazil’s urban and rural communities. You’ll also drive by the massive Sambadrome where Rio Carnival takes place each year. As you stop at the side of the building for a closer look, you can almost hear the spicy samba beats and the thunderous roar of the 90,000-person crowd as the heavily adorned dancers and floats pass by. Well, maybe not quite since it’s pretty much a big, concrete park without the glitter and shine of the Carnival, but you get the gist. Touted as the biggest stage on Earth, the tiered seats offer an unparalleled view of the electrifying Samba Parade.
For sports enthusiasts, the tour makes a quick stop at Maracanã Sium, which was originally built to host the 1950 FIFA World Cup. At the time, it could hold nearly 200,000 people, making it the world’s largest stadium. However, a renovation completed in 2013 decreased its capacity to fewer than 80,000. Still, as the largest stadium in Brazil, it’s an impressive site. It’s at about this point in the tour that the bus will pull up outside a recommended souvenir shop so you have a chance to pick up gifts for friends and family back home.
By now, the better part of your morning will be over, and your tummy will be starting to grumble. What better wait to sate your stomach than to head to a Brazilian barbecue? And don’t worry if you’re not a meat-eater—I’ve been a pesco pollo vegetarian for more than 20 years—there are plenty of other foods on the menu, including a plethora of salads and side dishes. I promise you won’t leave hungry.
For the carnivores in the group, you will be treated to an experience like no other. From the moment you’re seated, a revolving door of servers carrying ready-to-carve meats of every kind will start to approach from every angle, and they won’t stop until you’re walking out the door. Lamb, chicken, pork, beef—you name it, and they have it. And they are careful to also include vegetarians in the experience, bringing specially crafted cheesy buns and fried bananas for you to much on. Many tours include the cost of the meal in your ticket price. The only reason you’ll have to pull out your wallet is if you want to buy a beverage.
With your tummy taut from all the delicacies you enjoyed, it’s time to get rolling. After all, there’s no time to spare when you only have one day in Rio de Janeiro. For the next leg of the tour, you’ll spend some time driving around the city and taking in the sights from inside the motorcoach.
Pro tip: There’s often limited space on the top, or outdoor, part of the bus, which is the prime viewing location. At each stop, aim to get back to the bus a little bit earlier than prescribed so that you can be first in line to get one of the outdoor seats. It’s dog-eat-dog when it comes to these things.
From here, you’ll head toward the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian. Constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, the church looks like something out of an apocalyptic comic book. Inside, the floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows are a true work of art, lending a sense of beauty to the otherwise unusual structure that is almost reminiscent of a Mayan temple in its shape and design.
The penultimate stop of the tour takes you for a drive past the Lapa Arches en route to the Selaron Steps. Not every tour includes this stop, but our thoughtful and knowledgeable guide, Julio, thought we might enjoy a quick pit stop here, and it turned into one of the highlights of the trip. Designed as a tribute to the people of Brazil by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, the 215 colorful steps are covered from top to bottom in a mosaic of tiles and mirrors. Street vendors and souvenir shops line the sides of the steps, which are abuzz with crowds of people. There’s also a great souvenir shop where you can taste a local liqueur as well.
After a short break at the cathedral, it’s back on the bus for the final stop of the tour, the highly anticipated Sugarloaf Mountain and its high-speed cable cars. If you’re afraid of heights, there’s a lovely green space just before the entrance to the cable cars where you can wait for the rest of the party. You find a few kiosks offering kitschy souvenirs and churros, among other street food. You can even walk down to the nearby beach to watch the surfers ride the waves.
For the adventurers who choose to ride to the top of the mountain, you won’t be disappointed. The views are incredible and well worth the whopping six-minute ride—that’s right, I said six minutes. Honestly, no matter how severe your fear of heights is, you can do anything for six minutes. In the blink of an eye, you’ll be there. And if you time it right, you’ll get to see the sunset over Christ the Redeemer on the other side of Rio. It’s majestic, and you can read all about the experience in a separate post I wrote on Sugarloaf Mountain and the cable car ride. There a plenty of places to eat and shop at Sugarloaf, so don’t worry if you haven’t found a special token to remind you of your time in Rio. You’re bound to find something at Sugarloaf.
The sun goes down fast in Rio de Janeiro, so by the time you get back on the bus, it will be just about nightfall. You’ll get back to your hotel between 6:30 and 7 p.m. And if you’re up for it, a fun way to spend the night is at the Plataforma Samba Show. Filled with music and dance, each night performers our their hearts and souls into a high-energy cultural performance. And for the icing on the cake, the performers showcase some of the recent Carnival costumes. It’s a fun way to cap off your jam-packed day in Rio.
I’ve been to hundreds of cities and towns in more than 50 countries on 5 continents, and I can truly say that none compare to Rio de Janeiro. Its beauty is unrivaled. There are so many things to do in Rio de Janeiro that I can hardly wait to return and take in even more. But if you only have one day in Rio de Janeiro, this guide provides the perfect way to make the most of your time.
Have you been to Rio? What’s your favorite thing about it? What other sights would you put on your must-see list? Leave a comment and let us know.