A Practical Guide to Visiting Rio de Janeiro

I’ve written “Your Guide to the Rio World Cup” for Forbes, so if you’re looking for a basic guide to visiting Rio de Janeiro then check that out. This, however, is not that kind of guide.

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My month anniversary for living in Rio has come and gone. While I’m not yet an expert on the city, I have managed to gather quite a bit of practical knowledge in those days. And as the media and soccer fans pour into the city for the month-long World Cup, I find myself wanting to help them navigate my new home.

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Since moving into my comfortable Ipanema abode, I’ve managed to settle into a groove. During that time, I’ve made mental notes of things I’ve found unusual, different, interesting, or just plain strange—things that those visiting Rio de Janeiro might just need to know. And with the attention of the world on Rio over the next month, I figured I might as well share them here.

Bikinis and Sungas Don’t Discriminate

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In case you’re unaware what a sunga is, it’s not quite a Speedo and nowhere near a board short. It is standard beach attire for men in Rio, no matter age or physique. A sunga on an exceptional physique will entrance you, while a sunga on anything short of spectacular is cause to divert your eyes. The same goes for the tiny strips of fabric Brazilians like to call a bikini. While I won’t be adapting the standard beach attire for Rio, I can’t help but admire the positive body image it takes to don a sunga or bikini without having a body like Camila Alves or Neymar Jr.

Pedestrians Don’t Have the Right of Way

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Don’t even entertain the notion that drivers in Rio will stop just because you’re in the road. The only time that pedestrians have the right of way is if the walk light is on. Step out in the street against the light and you’ll likely become someone’s new hood ornament.

Caipirinhas Will Mess You Up

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A Caipirinha is the national drink of Brazil. Traditionally made with lime, sugar, and cachaça, this drink is worth a try even for a dedicated beer drinker. Cachaça is a spirit derived from sugar cane, although it’s anything but sweet. Beware. The tartness and strength will punch you in the face on the first sip. Drink one and all’s right in the world. The second one tastes even better, although somehow it doesn’t taste as strong as the first. This, my friend, is a dangerous path, one that those visiting Rio de Janeiro flirt with too often. Keep throwing back caipirinhas all night and you’ll likely spend the night in a pool of your own vomit. On a more positive note, you’ll also find caipirinhas made with various other fruits, as well as vodka and sake.

Get Cash on a Weekday

Walk by an ATM or bank on Friday and you’ll see massive lines of people waiting to get cash. It’s payday for Cariocas, and they’re getting ready for the weekend. That alone isn’t an unusual occurrence. What is different, at least in the United States, is that the ATMs will often be out of money on Saturday and Sunday, and there ain’t nobody refilling that sucker until Monday. Just do yourself a favor and get your money Monday through Thursday.

Bob Barker Would Not Like Rio

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I’ve already noted what a pet-friendly city Rio is in my post, “The Dogs of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” What I didn’t mention in that feel-good piece is that that male dogs of Rio are packing. Let’s just say that Bob Barker’s message of “…help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered” didn’t quite make it to South America.

Rain Equates to Chaos

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On a clear day there’s organized chaos, but on a rainy day…

It doesn’t rain a whole lot in Rio, but when it does, the city forgets how to function. It’s like the little moist droplets from the sky are acid frying everyone’s brains. Traffic is unlike any city I’ve ever experienced, including Beijing. Find a cab? Forgetaboutit. You might as well grab an umbrella, because you’ll be able to walk to where you want to go faster than you can find a cab and take it through traffic.

The People in Orange

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When I first arrived, I couldn’t help but notice the men and women dressed in head-to-toe orange outfits around the city. My initial thought was that these were prisoners on work detail. After all, it’s very similar to what they wear in the USA. I thought, how trusting and progressive Rio is to allow their prisoners on the street without supervision. Yeah, obviously that’s not the case. These are city maintenance workers.

Don’t be an Arrogant English Speaker

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Do yourself a favor and learn some Portuguese prior to visiting. Once you get out of the JW Marriott and Sofitel, the average Carioca doesn’t speak English. Even jumping in a cab and saying Fogo de Chão often doesn’t cut it. I used to think I’d take to Portuguese given my Spanish background, but that was a misguided pipe dream. Some of the words are the same, but the pronunciation is different. Plus, the Cariocas add a lot of “shhh” sounds on the back end of their words that are not used in other parts of Brazil. In short: Portuguese is freakin’ difficult.

However, despite knowing very little Portuguese, I’ve managed to communicate at a rudimentary level in Rio using lots of hand gestures, as well as iTranslate and Word Lens apps on my iPhone. However, here are some essential phrases you should know before coming to Rio:

Bom dia = Good morning

Boa tarde = Good afternoon

Boa noite = Good night

Obbrigado = Thank you

Como vai? = How are you?

Você fala inglês? = Do you speak English?

Keep Your Purse and iPhone Close

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Alright, you didn’t think I’d have a practical guide to visiting Rio de Janeiro without some sort of mention of crime, did you? Rio has a reputation for being a dangerous, crime-ridden city. Yeah, so they’ve come by some of that honestly, but I think the hype surrounding it is exaggerated, at least in the tourist zones. There are places in Houston, London, New York, and Paris that I wouldn’t go because perceived danger, and the same goes for Rio.

I could mention instances of robberies at gun and knife point, kidnappings, and rape, but the odds are that’s not going to happen when you visit Rio. In the past week, I’ve seen a massive increase in police and military around Lagoa, Copacabana, and Ipanema. Three-by-three, officers are patrolling where tourists {and thus the criminal element} frequent. This, by no means, should give visitors a false sense of security.

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Pickpocketing and petty crime happen in every major city, and Rio is no different. The key is to not be a complete dumbass. Be aware of your surroundings. If you carry a bag, keep it zipped, buttoned, and close to your body. Don’t strut around with your Louis Vuitton or flashy jewelry. Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket. DO NOT walk around with your phone or camera casually in your hand. It will be ripped from your grasp faster than you can text, “WTF?”

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So, whether you’re coming to Rio for the World Cup, Carnival, 2016 Olympics, or just for pleasure, take note. And if you’ve spent time in Cidade Maravilhosa, what do you think first-time visitors should know? Sound off in the comments.

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  • Loz in Transit
    June 9, 2014

    Most travelers aren’t even aware Brazilians speak Portugese so people generally carry on saying “Gracias” from their time in neighboring Countries. Caipirinhas are great, they go down easy and hit you hard. The encantadors of Brazil know this so don’t drink over your head 😉
    Worth knowing “nossa” or “legal” (meaning: Wow, cool) as you’ll probably be saying it in Brazil.

    • Leah Walker
      June 9, 2014

      Great point about Spanish vs Portuguese. Just going to Buenos Aires for a few days and I came back speaking Spanish. It’s a difficult transition, especially since most Americans are far more acquainted with Spanish.

  • rebecca
    June 9, 2014

    Fantastic article! The tips that everyone really needs to know. Never would I of thought to get cash out on a Wednesday… I’m bad for not getting cash out and replying on paying with card, if this something I should forget about?

    Also agree with the positive body image around the beaches, I think its fantastic.

    • Leah Walker
      June 9, 2014

      You can pay with a card, but you need cash for taxis, the beach vendors, and other things like that. I rarely use my credit card, except in nice restaurants. A friend who’s lived here for three years has had his credit card cloned several times. That’s not unique to Rio, however. I had mine cloned in London. It’s just a good idea to have cash.

  • Geri
    June 10, 2014

    Brazil and Rio are totally new universe for me. So, your article is great introduction. Thank you for all practical tips!

    • Leah Walker
      June 10, 2014

      Brazil is so massive, it’s sort of its own universe. Much like the United States, it’s such a diverse place and thus difficult navigate. Enjoy Rio if you ever get here. It’s truly marvelous.

  • I went to Rio for the first time recently and completely agree about trying to learn a bit of Portuguese – I really knew very little and struggled and was so embarrassed for not knowing more – it was really nothing like Spanish so I couldn’t get by with my basic Spanish knowledge! We went to see a football game at Maracana and my tip would be to invest in a football shirt if you’re going to go – I’ve never stood out more as a tourist being in my normal clothes whilst everyone else was dressed in proper football shirts!

    • Leah Walker
      June 10, 2014

      GREAT tip about the soccer shirt. Everyone is sporting the green and gold here, if not their favorite professional team.

  • Greg | Travel Blue Book
    June 10, 2014

    “Bikinis and Sungas Do Not Discriminate Against Age or Size” HA! This, literally, made me laugh out loud. Thanks for the great tips! Your photos make me want to get to Rio right away…but I think I’ll wait until after the World Cup…and maybe the Olympics too.

    • Leah Walker
      June 10, 2014

      Yes, I’d wait until after the World Cup as well. I’ve been in Rio during Carnival, so I’m sort of nervous about how the city will be like during the World Cup. I sort of like it with just a regular level of chaos.

  • Joshua | Engineer on the Road
    June 10, 2014

    I definitely agree about the swimwear. It’s something to embrace and the ethos really boosted by self esteem when I bared all on Ipanema beach (the post I wrote about it is still one of my most popular, although it could just be the picture of me that shows up on google image search 😉 ). I love Rio and will always gladly go back at any time. The laid back lifestyle is so laid back and you’re definitely right about just being aware of the quirks and doing this like the locals to do, so you have an even better experience.

    • Leah Walker
      June 10, 2014

      I’d click on your picture if I saw it in Google, too. No wonder it’s one of your most read. 🙂 Come see me any time!

  • Vid
    June 10, 2014

    haha Leah ! “People in Orange” section was the funniest 🙂

    So good to see that you are settling in so well. Have heard so much about Rio all our lives that we can’t wait to visit. Hopefully you will be around when we do and you can show us around 😉 (without us getting mugged haaah)

    • Leah Walker
      June 10, 2014

      Imagine how dumb I felt when I figured out who these people actually were. It was certainly lost in translation. I hope y’all get to Rio when I’m still here, too. I can only imagine all the colorful outfit pictures you’d get with the dynamic Rio background. Marvelous, I’m sure it will be!

  • Jenna
    June 10, 2014

    Lots of good tips here. One I would add to the language section is that “Obrigado” is used only by men, and women need to change it to “Obrigada.” I also completely agree with your point about security. I don’t take my nice camera out in Sao Paulo and my husband always reminds me to keep an eye on my purse. I’ve never had a problem in my 10-ish visits there.

  • Priscilla
    June 10, 2014

    Makes me want to go there, and I agree about the safety issues. They are everywhere. The pickpockets in Paris are everywhere!

  • Felipe Bairros
    June 12, 2014

    I’m a new reader of your blog. I live in south of Brazil and I’m learning a lot of new things about my own country with your posts. Yes! I live in Brazil, and here is really different from Rio.
    I have been Rio few years ago and was a amazing trip. Obrigado and good luck for you!

  • Traveling Ted
    June 12, 2014

    Great guide for people coming to Rio and Brazil. It never is fun to learn the hard way.

  • Gerard ~ GQ trippin
    June 15, 2014

    Yup. Looks like you covered the basics! Another thing is that if you know Spanish, it may not help you as much as you think it would in Brazil (even though it’s in S. America). Learn that Brazilian Portuguese!

  • Erin at The World Wanderer
    June 15, 2014

    I can’t believe you’ve been there a whole month already! I really must get to Rio! I’ve wanted to for so long, and your posts are making me want to even more.

    I had a best friend from Brazil growing up, so I learned a little Portuguese, but we were young, so I learned silly words, like the slang term for butt. Apparently, it’s not a very nice term either. 😉

  • Fiona Hilliard
    June 16, 2014

    Great tips Leah – you’re so fortunate to be in Brazil right now!

  • Suki F
    June 16, 2014

    Interesting! Not your average guide to some place. It actually has lots of useful tips. Thanks for sharing. I’ll keep these in mind.

  • Lance | Trips By Lance
    June 18, 2014

    One of my college Spanish professors was Portuguese, so she actually taught us a few words. Not that I’d remember any of it. It’s good to know that in general English is not spoken. Americans, and I think Brits, tend to assume English is spoken everywhere.

  • Craig Zabransky
    June 27, 2014

    some great advice in here… I always told people, RIO has an edge, people think it is paradise and at no doubt it is at times….but it was a city with an element of keeping few items of value on you and keep them close…

    As for I always remember giving a thumbs up and saying “tudo bom” and then they’s say “tudo ban” as a greeting… but you are correct Portuguese is difficult and not as close to Spanish as I was led to believe…

    stay drinking caipirinhas, Craig

  • Penny Sadler
    July 7, 2014

    Omg! I laughed a lot. Ok, good advice too! 😉


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