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Planning a 3 day Rio de Janeiro itinerary can be slightly challenging. It’s a HUGE city that offers so much to do and see, and you need to find a balance between experiencing as much as you can and taking your time to enjoy things. But don’t worry, because I’m here to help you plan the best 3 days in Rio de Janeiro.
Can I be honest with you? I did not expect to fall in love with Rio as much as I have. I visited Rio after about five perfect weeks in Argentina (Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and the Iguazu Falls are seriously dreamy), and I didn’t know why, but I felt hesitant arriving in this city. So I’m thrilled to say that Rio has completely won me over, and there’s really no other place like it.
Although the locals’ life is far from being perfect, they always seem to be happy and smiling. The entire city has that vibrant vibe to it, but it also feels super chilled and relaxed at the same time. This city has given me some pretty memorable moments, and I know that even with only 3 days you can have the best time in Rio too.
3 DAYS IN RIO – GENERAL NOTES
- This itinerary is unsuitable for carnival time in Rio. The carnival has its activities, and the city is so crowded that you wouldn’t be able to do and enjoy some of the attractions on this itinerary. If you do plan to visit during carnival time, here’s the beginner’s guide to Rio’s carnival!
- A word on safety: don’t be panicked about it (as I was) because that’s not going to help, BUT be sure to keep basic safety rules. Always walk in a group and stick to popular areas at night. Plus, only carry a small amount of money with you and try to place your phone in a hidden pocket instead of wandering around with a bag. You’ll walk around with confidence instead of looking hesitant or like you have something to hide.
- You can easily get around most of Rio’s popular areas by Metro.
RIO DE JANEIRO ITINERARY – DAY 1
FULL DAY CITY TOUR
When you only have three days in Rio, you should definitely take a full-day tour to see the city’s main landmarks. Normally, I would prefer to go sightseeing by myself, but in a big city like Rio, the tour I had taken was a great value for money (but you can also browse other full day city tours here).
It includes hotel pickup and drop-off, saves you time moving around between the different parts of the city, and covers all major sights without rushing. Plus, the guides are super informative and you’ll learn a lot about Rio’s history and current state. Here’s what the tour covers.
Tijuca Forest and Christ the Redeemer
Perhaps Rio’s and even Brazil’s most famous landmark, the statue of Christ the Redeemer is not only a religious symbol but also a place where you can find the most amazing viewpoints of the city.
The 30-meter (98 feet) monument was built between 1922 and 1931, about 70 years after the first suggestion to build a Christ statue in Rio. Since it’s one of the New7Wonders of the World and the city’s most significant symbol, you can comprehend why it’s a Rio must-see.
Now, visiting this monument on the tour saves you the headache of buying tickets and getting there on your own. It’s not impossible, but it is such a popular place that anything that can make your visit easier is helpful. Plus, the bus route through the Tijuca forest all the way to the Corcovado mountain’s peak is super scenic.
Mirante Dona Marta
If you’ve ever seen a classic Rio postcard, the photo was most likely taken in this lookout point. The views from Mirante Dona Marta are jaw-dropping, and guess what? It’s a lot less crowded than up there at Christ the Redeemer. So get ready to take your cameras and phones out and feast on Rio’s most iconic views.
There’s no staircase more famous and beautiful than Escadaria Selaron. The artist, Jorge Selaron, dedicated the last years of his life to make this staircase a colorful work of art. While the steps are green, yellow, and blue as a tribute to the city, the sides and the walls of the steps are mostly red.
The steps also feature tiles that were sent to Selaron from around the world as his project became famous. Learning about the entire story of the artist and the history of this place during the tour was amazing. It gave a lot more meaning to my visit instead of it being just another photo spot.
Address: Rua Manuel Carneiro (Cinelandia Metro).
If you love street art as much as I do then Mural Etnias will blow your mind. This incredible mural was completed just before the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and up until 2017 (when the artist broke his own record), it was the largest spray paint mural by a team.
It showcases five colorful portraits of native people from the continents competing in the Olympics and tries to convey the message that we are all connected (isn’t that beautiful?).
Address: Avenida Rodrigues Alves, 241.
When you have the chance to visit Rio’s biggest favela with a local guide, you cannot refuse. During the tour, you’ll get in-depth explanations of the locals’ life and the history of the favelas. The guide is a local that grew up in this favela and will only take you to the safe areas. Getting to know other ways of life is always fascinating, and this is an amazing experience you do not want to miss.
Sugarloaf Mountain (optional)
At this point, the bus can either take you back to your accommodation or drop you off at Sugarloaf Mountain, another popular lookout point in Rio. From there, you can take the cable car to the peak and enjoy the views (be sure to purchase your lift tickets in advance online as the lines can get quite long).
The company hosting this wonderful tour is called Brazilao, and during high season, it requires at least three people (in total) to register for the tour. Contact Brazilao to book your Rio city tour here or send an email to muchiler[at]brazilao[dot]com.
If you don’t want to take a full-day city tour, you can book individual tours for some of the sights:
RIO DE JANEIRO ITINERARY – DAY 2
DOWNTOWN RIO (CENTRO)
Downtown Rio is where modern and traditional come together. On one hand, you can see skyscrapers and modern cafes, and on the other hand, you can discover narrow streets full of historic buildings. You can definitely explore the neighborhood and its landmarks by yourself, but consider taking a free walking tour.
Who says you can’t include some shopping time on a 3-day Rio itinerary? Besides, markets are one of my favorite ways to get to know the local culture.
At Uruguaiana Market you’ll find just about anything from clothing and jewelry to Carnaval masks and souvenirs. It can get quite crowded there, but it’s worth an hour or two of exploring.
Address: Next to Uruguaiana Metro station.
PEDRA DO SAL
Rio is the city of Samba, so what’s better than visiting the square where Samba was born?
In the 17th century, African immigrants that came from the state of Bahia to Rio settled in the area around Pedra do Sal. Initially, it was a large slave market, and later on, it became a meeting point of the neighborhood’s residents and where Rio’s Samba was developed. If you want to soak up some Samba vibes, the place hosts free live performances every Monday evening.
Address: R. Argemiro Bulcão.
AFTERNOON AND EVENING AT THE COPACABANA BEACH AND PROMENADE
After a long day of exploring, the Copacabana beach and promenade are the perfect places to spend a tranquil afternoon and evening. To get a better understanding of the area, know that beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema are a part of an 8 km coastline. The beaches are separated by 12 postos which are numbered lifeguard stations. People often use these numbers to mark the location of activities, events, accommodations, etc.
Take your time and walk along the promenade which is an iconic thing to do in Rio. After that, you can do a little bit of shopping. The night market in front of Posto 5 sells souvenirs and clothing, items that are also sold by vendors along the promenade (and you can definitely bargain).
Another fun thing to do at the Copacabana at night is to enjoy some live music. Walking along the promenade, you’ll notice that it’s full of small open-air resto-bars. Some of them host performances by locals, so you can enjoy great music while having dinner or sipping caipirinhas (or natural juices that are to die for and only cost about 1.5$).
RIO DE JANEIRO ITINERARY – DAY 3
I thought I would never do this, but hand gliding turned out to be one of the biggest adventures of my life. I admit, in the first couple of seconds when you practically need to jump off a cliff, I might have damaged my guide’s hearing with my screaming. But then you get to see the most stunning views of forested mountains and a beautiful coastline right beneath you. So if there’s ever a place to overcome your fears and engage with something extreme, this is it.
Company details: I had chosen Rio Asa Delta. With professional, English-speaking guides that make you feel safe and calm, transfer from and back to your accommodation or any other place, videos, and photos, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
*Check with the company to see when is the best time to hand glide on that specific day. Since it depends on the weather, there could be a situation where noon would be a better time to hand glide than the morning and vice versa.
Your Rio de Janeiro itinerary would not be complete without spending some time at one of Rio’s most iconic beaches, Ipanema. There are plenty of other beaches in Rio, but if you don’t have a lot of time in the city, you can stick to the classics. I also found Ipanema beach a lot more pleasant than Copacabana. So if you’re not sure about which one to spend your time, I’d definitely go with Ipanema.
After a couple of hours at the beach, you should explore the neighborhood itself. It’s one of the most expensive places to live in Rio and probably the trendiest when it comes to shops, cafes, and restaurants. If you’re here on a Sunday, you can also check out Ipanema’s hippie fair where you’ll find food, clothing, and all kinds of artisanal goods.
SUNSET AT ARPOADOR
If there’s an iconic place in Rio de Janeiro to watch the sunset, it’s the Arpoador peninsula. Located right between Copacabana and Ipanema, both tourists and locals love to spend their afternoon and evening there, and it’s very clear why. The sun setting behind the Dois Irmãos cliffs is a magnificent sight and a perfect ending to your last day in Rio.
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