If it's your first time in Rio, you can't pass up relaxing and people-watching along the shores of Copacabana or Ipanema. But don't spend all of your time at the shore; the Marvelous City has more spectacular natural beauty to offer with sites like Tijuca National Park and Sugar Loaf. Venture into charming neighborhoods like Santa Teresa and Lapa, to get a real taste of what it means to be a Cariocas (native Brazilians born in Rio de Janeiro).
Christ the Redeemer: This iconic landmark is a must-see attraction in Rio. Recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, this statue of Jesus Christ stands with arms outstretched to the city from above Corcovado Mountain's staggering 2,330-foot elevation.
Jardim Botânico: Spread out across more than 340 acres, this botanical paradise awes its visitors with more than 6,000 indigenous and exotic species of flora. This serene garden hosts everything from orchids to jasmine-mango heliconias.
Tijuca National Park: Outdoorsy types love exploring this expansive green rainforest. Covering 8,300 acres, Tijuca National Park is the largest urban rainforest on the planet. The natural beauty of the park can't be understated: it features varied terrains, waterfalls, more than 1,600 plant species and more than 350 different species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
Ipanema Beach: Made famous by the well-known bossa nova song, "The Girl from Ipanema," this beach has drawn tourists since the 1960s. The 2-mile stretch of sand boasts gorgeous mountain views, beautiful Brazilians and cobalt waters. While sunbathing, you'll observe wildly entertaining games of futevolei (the Brazilian version of volleyball without hands) and smell fresh shrimp grilling nearby on skewers.
Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar): Standing high above Rio's bustling metropolis at 1,299 feet, Sugar Loaf Mountain cascades over the picturesque Guanabara Bay. From Praia Vermelha in the residential Urca district, you can take a three-minute cable car ride up to Morro da Urca and then hop on another cable car up to the top of Sugar Loaf. From the glass-enclosed bondi (tram), you'll get a dazzling view of the city.
Lapa: If you come to Rio to revel in samba, Lapa is the place for you. This festive neighborhood ignites at night, when locals swing their hips and sip on delectable cocktails. Brimming with rows of tapas bars, clubs and live music venues, Lapa's seductive night crawl certainly isn't lacking excitement or charm.
Prainha: Known as Brazil's "little" beach, this remote paradise sits about 20 miles west of Ipanema Beach, but is well worth the jaunt. Prainha's magnificent shoreline features a backdrop of rolling hills and verdant rainforest. Surfers covet the killer waves, while beachgoers marvel at the gorgeous sunsets. The shore empties out during the weekdays (particularly during Brazil's winter — June to September), making Prainha a great alternative to other tourist-laden beaches. However, swimmers and surfers take note: currents are strong and there are no lifeguards.
Copacabana Beach: One of Rio's most popular shores, Copacabana is a public beach located in the heart of the luxurious Zona Sul neighborhood. The beach is marked by postos, or lifeguard stands, that offer changing rooms and restrooms for a small fee. Copacabana's 2.5-mile stretch of sand runs from Posto 1 to Posto 6, where you'll find a peninsula that houses the Historical Museum of the Army and Copacabana Fort.
Santa Teresa: This hilly bohemian district boasts an eclectic array of art and architecture. Strolling along Santa Teresa's cobblestone streets, you'll be enchanted by sidewalk mosaics, palatial mansions and artsy galleries. Conveniently situated just southwest of Lapa, this neighborhood offers traditional Brazilian restaurants, bars and craft stores.
Barra da Tijuca: Barra da Tijuca's expansive 11-mile stretch of coastline and adjacent shopping center, known to Cariocasas "Barra," is popular among locals. Recent travelers say it has a more relaxed environment than the sands at Copacabana and Ipanema. Visitors enjoy the clean waters, as well as its ideal conditions for water sports like windsurfing and bodyboarding. Along the shore, you'll find plenty of inexpensive shops, bars, clubs and restaurants, as well as kiosks selling coconut water.
Grumari Beach: You won't find beachfront restaurants, luxurious hotels or plentiful kiosks here. Without them, you'll have space to stretch out on the nearly 2 miles of white and red sand. Part retreat for sun-seekers, part environmental reserve, this lovely beach is a ways away from the swooning tourists at Copacabana and Ipanema.
Ilha Fiscal: Set apart from the bustling sights and sounds of central Rio, this remote neo-Gothic castle rests on a tucked away island in the Guanabara Bay. Completed in 1889 and once a prime location for Brazilian Custom Service, Ilha Fiscal now serves as an illuminated city gem. Inside the castle, you'll find hardwood mosaic floors, elaborate stained glass, as well as the transformed Ceremonial Room that's now used for Navy formal events.