Rio de Janeiro is an incredible city, with plenty to see and do. Visitors here easily fill their trip with sightseeing, hikes, beach trips, and, of course, the 24-hour party scene. And between the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, tourism is booming in this ciudad maravillosa (marvellous city). But Rio can get exhausting, and after a few days here visitors are often keen to seek out a relaxing break. Thankfully, the best Rio getaways are at your disposal.
1. Ihla Grande
Ihla Grande (which unimaginatively translates as “Big Island”) is one of the best Rio getaways, and it’s easy to see why. This peaceful island boasts beautiful beaches, a scenic mountain backdrop, and a chilled-out pace.
Most visitors stay in the town of Vila do Abraão, located along a sheltered bay. Boats drop passengers at the pier, from where a short walk will take you to just about anywhere in the town. There are no motorised vehicles anywhere on the island, which simply adds to its charm and tranquility. Vila do Abraão (often just called Abraão) is the largest urban centre on the island, though is still a small settlement, at just 3,000 inhabitants. Within the town, there are accommodation options to suit every budget, and there are also plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from.
There are no ATMs on Ihla Grande, and most places do not accept credit or debit cards, so bring the cash you’ll need. The island has weak phone signal and limited internet access. But this is all the more reason to switch off and enjoy a relaxing break on a tropical island!
Things To Do In Ihla Grande
Ihla Grande contains one of the richest ecosystems in Brazil, and is home to a vast range of plants and animals. Visitors should keep their eyes peeled for sloths, monkeys, and caimans, while birdwatchers stand a chance of spotting colourful parrots.
There are several kilometres’ worth of hiking trails snaking through the island. These trails depart from various points around Vila do Abraão, and vary from short easy walks to longer, more strenuous treks. Some of the longer trails lead through the mountains in the centre of the island. These trails are very isolated, so be sure that you bring what you’ll need, and that you’re fit enough for the challenge. One popular two-hour trail leads from Vila do Abraão to Lopes Mendes beach, voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Another popular route is the two to three hour hike to the beach of Dois Rios, where two rivers converge just before joining the sea. Once you reach you beach destination, you can take a boat back to your starting point (for a steep fee), or simply trek back the way you came.
A small number of tour operators offer guided trips around the island, taking in beaches, mountains, and waterfalls. Some of these companies offer complete packages, including transport to and from Rio de Janeiro.
One popular sight just outside the town of Abraão is the ruins of a leperosy hospital that later became a prison for political prisoners. A short walk inland from the town leads to the ruins of an aqueduct that is being consumed by vegetation.
Getting To And From Ihla Grande
Shuttles (combined boat and minibus trips) run between Ihla Grande and Rio, picking up and dropping off passengers door-to-door. Most accommodations can arrange a shuttle for you.
A cheaper option is to take bus from the Novo Rio terminal in Rio to the town of Angra dos Reis. This trip takes three hours and costs around R$54 (US$15) one way. From here, you can walk to the nearby port and catch one of the regular boats to Ilha Grande.
Image credit: Ailish Casey
Paraty (or Parati) is a picturesque town featuring beautiful colonial architecture. Most visitors come here to explore the historic centre, and stroll through quaint cobblestoned streets. But the surrounding area offers plenty to keep visitors occupied for several days. Paraty is not just for those who want to visit the historic town, but also one of the best Rio getaways for those who want to explore nature, too.
The town of Paraty dates back to 1667, when Portuguese colonisers settled an existing village. When these settlers discovered rich gold mines in the surrounding areas, they used Paraty as a port for gold trade.
In the 19th century, this port was revived as a transport hub for sugar cane and cachaça, a spirit used to make Brazil’s signature cocktail, the caipirinha. The town then began to trade in coffee, and, on a sadder note, slaves, before being largely abandoned.
Paraty was “rediscovered” as a tourist attraction in the 1970s. The old town is incredibly well preserved, and offers the perfect example of a colonial architecture in Brazil. The historic centre is a candidate for a UNESCO world heritage nomination.
Things To Do In Paraty
The historic centre is small enough to be explored on foot or by bicycle in a matter of hours. Horses and carts are also a good way to tour the centre, though all motorised traffic is banned. The town features beautiful examples of colonial architecture, including a number of churches, and two colonial forts. The buildings are immaculately preserved, painted pristine white, and decorated with splashes of colour and baskets of flowers.
There are a wide range of other sights and activities in and around Paraty. Try taking a boat trip around the bay, and relaxing on a beach on one of the hundreds of nearby islands. If you’re looking for something a bit more active, you can rent a kayak or paddle board.
You can explore the underwater landscape by booking a scuba dive through an operator in the town. Or you can simply hire a boat and snorkelling equipment, and just dive in!
The surrounding countryside offers a range of hiking trails through the rainforest, many of which include sunny beach trips and refreshing waterfall dips.
Both the historic centre and the surrounding area have a range of accommodation options and plenty of restaurants to choose from. Prices are cheaper outside of the historic centre. There are several bars and clubs that stay open late in the centre.
Getting To And From Paraty
You can get from Rio directly to Paraty by bus, which takes four and a half hours and costs approximately R$77 (US$22.50) each way. Paraty also has a small airport, which connects it to both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo through chartered flights only.
Image credit: Ailish Casey
3. Serra dos Orgãos National Park
Teresopolis and Petropolis are charming little towns just 100km and 68km from Rio respectively. The appeal of these towns lies in the fact that they are gateways to Serra dos Orgãos National Park, a stunning region of mountains and hiking trails. This is one of the best Rio getaways for those looking to cool off in the mountain air.
Serra dos Orgãos features incrediblely picturesque granite peaks. In fact, these peaks lend the park its name, as they resemble pipe organs (orgãos meaning “organs”).
Hiking In Serra dos Orgãos
Just a short (but steep) hike up the peaks offer fantastic views of the park, and of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Longer hikes begin and end at the park’s several entrances. You can even hike the 35km stretch all the way from the town of Teresopolis to Petropolis. Some trails are accessible independently, but for others you will need a guide. Check at the park entrance for information on which routes you can tackle alone.
For a more adventurous route, try the steep trip up Dedo de Deus (God’s Finger), a landmark peak featured on the state flag of Rio de Janeiro. Or tackle the park’s highest peak, Pedra do Sino, which stretches to a massive 2,263 metres!
In addition to spectacular mountains, the park also features lush green rainforest. It is home to a variety of animals, including armadillos, monkeys, and snakes, as well as a huge range of plant species.
Getting To And From Serra dos Orgãos
Visitors to Serra dos Orgãos park can stay in either Teresopolis or Petropolis. If you’d rather not stay overnight, the park also makes a good day trip, making it one of the most accessible of the best Rio getaways. Several tour operators offer day trip packages, or you can get here independently by taking a bus to Petropolis. The bus takes one and a half hours, and prices start from R$26 (US$7.60). Entrance to the park costs R$22 (US$6.40).
4. Região dos Lagos
Região dos Lagos is a coastal area of Brazil, which consists of the three beach towns of Búzios, Cabo Frio, and Arraial do Cabo. Each of these towns are worthy of a visit, and you can easily combine all three into a single visit. The proximity of the towns and sheer abundance of beaches makes it one of the best Rio getaways if you’re looking to explore several destinations in one trip.
You can reach any of the three towns by taking a bus from Novo Rio station in Rio de Janeiro. The journey takes roughly three hours and costs anywhere between R$49 and R$82 (US$14-24) each way.
Short bus trips connect the three towns of Região dos Lagos. Regular buses run between Arraial do Cabo and Cabo Frio, and between Cabo Frio and Búzios. Each journey takes just 10 minutes. Also, there are a few direct buses per day running directly between Arraial do Cabo and Búzios. This trip takes 20 minutes.
Here is an overview of each of the three towns that make up Região dos Lagos:
Arraial do Cabo
Beautiful beaches surround the town of Arraial do Cabo. As the town is fairly small, you can hop from beach to beach on foot.
One popular beach is Praia Prainha, a long stretch of sand filled with food stalls and picnic tables. From a more tranquil option, you can hike the short trail from the town to Praia Forno. This beach is calm and isolated, and looks like it has been lifted straight from a postcard. The short trail to Praia Forno starts by the harbour in Arraial do Cabo, and includes some steep steps.
Arraial do Cabo also offers some excellent scuba diving and snorkelling, with an abundance of sea life, including sea turtles and dolphins. However, before getting into the sea, be warned; although the beaches are warm and sunny, the water can be surprisingly cold.
Image credit: Ailish Casey
Officially called Armaçao do Búzios, but usually referred to as Búzios, this town is massively popular. It’s one of the best Rio getaways for Brazilians and foreigners alike.
Image credit: Ailish Casey
This popularity dates back to 1964, when screen icon Brigitte Bardot declared the town to be a favourite holiday spot of hers. Since then, Búzios has become a must-visit destination of Brazilians and international travellers. The town celebrates Bardot with a commemorative statue on the seafront.
The beaches of Búzios offer something for everyone. The west coast beaches are calm and quiet, perfect for a relaxing day of sunbathing. While those on the east coast have rougher waters, and are more suited to surfing and other water sports. Finally, the beaches to the north of town feature a coral reef that’s great for snorkelling (If these directions seem confusing, it’s worth remembering that Búzios is a peninsula!).
The town itself is as attractive as the surrounding beaches. Cobblestoned streets wind through picturesque buildings and colourful trees. Many of the streets see little traffic, and instead people choose to get around on foot.
While the centro area offers a range of accommodation, those on a budget will likely base themselves in residential areas such as the Geriba neighbourhood. From here, it is easy to get a collectivo (minibus) to the centre of town. These collectivos run regularly throughout the day and night.
In the centre, you’ll find a variety of beachfront restaurants and bars. The town boasts a far better nightlife than Arraial do Cabo or Cabo Frio, with bars and clubs that continue well into the night. Most of this nightlife is based along Rua das Pedras (Stone Street) in the town centre. The centro area also has a collection of boutique shops selling clothing and artisan goods.
Image credit: Ailish Casey
The town of Cabo Frio is not all that interesting or attractive. Many visitors find it their least favourite of the three towns of Região dos Lagos, while others skip it altogether. But the beachfront area makes this town worth adding to your trip.
A car is needed to reach the further flung beaches of Praia dos Conchas and Praia do Peró. But right by the town lies the long and beautiful Praia do Forte. This beach boasts sand as white and as fine as baking powder, and a tranquil turquoise sea.
Praia do Forte is a good place to relax and sunbathe during the day. Though it’s called Cabo Frio (Cold Cape) for a reason- the water here is freezing!
At night, people gather along the beachfront of Praia do Forte to eat at one of the many restaurants that share a seating area. It’s also a good area to grab some drinks and listen to some live music.
If you fancy getting away from the beach at night, head to Boulevard Canal for bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.
The town of Cabo Frio is the largest and most developed of the three Região dos Lagos towns. It’s a good place to go shopping and pick up some holiday essentials, particularly swimwear along Gamboa street (also known as Bikini Street).
Image credit: Ailish Casey
Tips for the Best Rio Getaways
Book ahead for both buses and accommodation when planning to reach the best Rio getaways, particularly in the high season of December to March.
You can book bus tickets ahead of time either at the bus station or online at Buscaonibus.
Renting a car will let you visit each of these best Rio getaways without having to keep to bus schedules. However, you don’t need a car unless you really want to get off the beaten track.
The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. However, in tourist areas, English is widely spoken, and it is possible to visit each of the best Rio getaways as an English-speaker (though learning some of the local language is always a good recommendation in any country!).
Some of the best Rio getaways, such as Ihla Grande and Serra dos Orgãos, involve hiking trails. Always be sure to check which trail is suitable for your fitness level, and also ask how long the trail should take (including whether you will have to come back the same way). Lastly, never embark on a hike without bringing plenty of water and sunscreen.
Brazil has a bad reputation for safety, but the best Rio getaways are generally safe for tourists. That said, always take precautions, and don’t walk alone at night.
Looking for some more trips outside of the big city destinations? Try our guide to the best day trips from Paris. Or, if you simply can’t get enough beaches, we recommend the beautiful Green Sand Beach in Hawaii.