Unconventional Perspectives of Rio de Janeiro

by Kay Rodriguez

Almost everyone knows Rio de Janeiro by name, and what usually comes to mind are the city’s beautiful beaches, posh hotels, and the towering Christ the Redeemer statue. In reality, though, Rio is a city of music, of hidden gems, and of deeply rooted culture of which most tourists only scrape the surface. To truly delve into the heart of Rio de Janeiro, open your eyes and pay particular attention – in addition, try taking an innovative approach to exploring.

A day at the beach at Rio de Janeiro.
A day at the beach at Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Troy Peden

On the streets of the city, busking sambistas walk the streets playing traditional Brazilian instruments as onlookers munch on churrasquinho from street grills. Capoeira demonstrations fill the city’s plazas as buses, cabs, and cars zoom by. Street vendors sell artwork, electronics, and pirated DVDs as scents of fresh fruits drift through the air from the nearby juice stands. These hidden facets of Rio are, in fact, right in front of you. 

Adopting one of these unconventional perspectives during your visit can help you capture the local culture and take advantage of everything the “marvelous city” has to offer.

On Foot

Although Rio de Janeiro is a geographically large city, many areas are best seen on foot. For example, the roads bordering the beaches are closed on weekends, offering locals and tourists alike the opportunity to walk the streets and enjoy the beach without worrying about traffic. Similarly, the city is famous for its natural beauty, and is home to dozens of plazas, gardens, and parks with tropical plants and beautiful artwork. Some amazing green spaces to explore include Jardim Botânico, Parque Lage, and Quinta de Boa Vista.

Open-air markets, called feiras, are situated in many areas, selling everything from knockoff iPhone accessories to artisan works to fresh vegetables and everything in between. A few of the most famous markets: 

  • Uruguaiana, a market located in Centro which sells cheap clothing, electronics, and souvenirs, 
  • São Cristovão, a northeast Brazil-infused market with many cheap and delicious food options, 
  • The hippie fair at General Osorio plaza on Sundays, which sells local artisan craft work,
  • The food markets at General Osorio on Tuesdays and Nossa Senhora de Copacabana on Sundays,
  • The night market on Copacabana beach every weeknight.

It’s definitely worth it to check out at least one of these walking areas during your stay – not only will you gain a different perspective of the city, but it costs nothing and is fantastic exercise too.

From A Bird’s Eye View

Because of its unique location between striking rock formations, sandy beaches, and tropical forests, Rio has a beautiful skyline with an even more beautiful bird’s eye view. The city’s numerous hills, mountains, and rocks offer many opportunities for hiking and rock climbing. A few of the most frequented trails are Dois Irmãos, Pedra da Gavea, and Tijuca Forest, which all give incredible views of the city from up above. It is important to note, however, that you should always do these hikes with a guide and in the morning. Rio de Janeiro gets extremely hot during the day and in order to avoid heat exhaustion, these extensive hikes are safest during the early morning. Many are difficult to access, so having a local guide to follow will allow for easy and quick access to the trails.

Visitors who would rather see the city without the strenuous hike can choose to visit plenty of landmarks with amazing views. Many of these can be accessed by tour or on the city’s public buses. The city’s tourist attractions with the most notable views are the Christ the Redeemer statue, Vista Chinesa, and the Pão de Açúcar rock formation, which tourists can access by cable car.

For daredevil travelers, there is also an option to see the city by flying. Sounds insane, right? It’s true – for a few hundred reais, adventurous visitors can hang glide over the city alongside a professional guide. These tours are fairly expensive and only last around 10-15 minutes, but they are certainly an irreplaceable experience unmatched by any other tourist attraction within the city.

By Immersion

Communicating with locals can be fairly difficult if you aren’t familiar with Portuguese language, but immersion is fairly easy if you turn to certain avenues. One of the best ways to immerse yourself in both Brazil’s and Rio’s culture is to attend a soccer game at the Maracanã stadium. Brazilians are always fired up about soccer, with die-hard fidelities to national soccer teams and fight songs for every game. Watching one of these games alongside the Brazilian fans can help you feel the sense of community and excitement within the city, as perfect strangers hug each other and people stand and jump and cheer after each and every goal. Soccer is one of Brazil’s greatest prides, and one that you can easily participate in during your stay. There is nothing quite like watching Brazilian soccer alongside Brazilians!

Another way to immerse yourself in the daily life here in Rio is to learn the jeitinho carioca, or the way of the people in Rio. People who live in the city have a style of greeting each other and speaking that is very different than anywhere else in Brazil, or in the world. Learning the implicit rules of Brazilian kissing culture, the tiny swimsuits seen on the beaches, and the spoken greetings can help you reach out and get to know locals, even with very little Portuguese knowledge.

Through Your Taste Buds

Many visitors know about Brazil’s famous churrasco-style food, but not many know about the culture of hole-in-the-wall lanchonetes that are prevalent throughout the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The typical Brazilian meal consists of a meat dish, rice, beans, and a grain called farofa. Of course, the pricy churrascarias carry this cuisine in an all-you-can-eat setting, but in order to get a feel for the true local dining experience in Rio, eating in lanchonetes is the way to go. Not only are these locally owned establishments a lot cheaper than brand-name, tourist-ridden restaurants, but you are much more likely to interact with local cariocas and taste the foods that normal people in the city eat. While you’re at these little restaurants, try tasting a caipirinha, Brazil’s famous lime cocktail, or an açai, a famous spoonable dessert made from the sweet berry with the same name, grown in the Amazon.

By Giving Back

Rio de Janeiro is home to various favelas, which is the word for the city’s slums located on steep hillsides, including the largest in Latin America, Rocinha. These favelas are featured in some famous Brazilian movies, including Tropa de Elite and Cidade de Deus. Many NGOs and volunteer organizations are located within these favelas and provide educational resources, public health seminars, and English lessons to residents free of charge. Volunteering is arguably one of the best ways to get to know the city of Rio de Janeiro, its true culture and its inhabitants. Giving just one day of your time can help you interact with locals, learn about life in the poorer areas of the city, and familiarize yourself with the favelas, which are the birthplaces of samba music and the ever-so-famous Carnaval every spring.

There’s a reason why volunteering in Rio de Janeiro is one of the best ways to experience the city; it combines all of these different perspectives into one meaningful immersion experience – one you’re bound to learn from and cherish for many years to come.