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Rio de Janeiro Do's and Don’ts: 10 Unwritten Rules That Every Carioca Knows

Breeze through the tropical streets of Rio de Janeiro in true Carioca style with these essential do's and don’ts for your next trip.
Hi, I'm Sarah!

Sarah Brown is a British journalist based in Brazil where she covers mostly travel and environmental news. Her writing has appeared in Mongabay, the BBC, and Time Out, among others. When not writing, Sarah is out running, hiking, or exploring Brazil’s incredible forests and wetlands.

Nicknamed Cidade Maravilhosa (the “Marvelous City”) for its miles of coastline, rich culture, and tropical forest, Rio de Janeiro is a destination unlike no other. It’s a city brimming with energy and the sound of samba drifting around every corner, a place to have fun and see where the flow takes you. The friendly Cariocas will make sure you’ll have a great trip no matter what, but you can still cruise through Rio like a local with these essential tips.

Do enjoy long, leisurely beach days

A surfer checks out Ipanema Beach at sunset.
Surfers on Ipanema beach.Bildquelle: Jefferson Bernardes / Shutterstock

A day at the beach is a social ritual for Cariocas.

Head to the beach early, rent a parasol and chair from one of the many beach stalls, and settle down for a day in the sun like a true local. Order drinks and food throughout the day from the stall and pay the tab only when you’re ready to leave. Keep in mind that the beach isn’t the place for a holiday read—instead, join in a game of volley, chat to fellow beach-goers, or just bask in the sun till sunset to the sound of some nearby Brazilian music.

Don’t be shy speaking the local lingo

Diners enjoy eating by the Atlantic in Rio.
Diners enjoy eating by the Atlantic.Bildquelle: Cesar Lima / Shutterstock

Just remember it’s Portuguese, not Spanish.

Brazilians tend to love it when tourists try to speak their language, but don’t make the rookie mistake of trying to speak Spanish. While you may be understood—Spanish and Portuguese are quite similar—Brazil is the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese, so brush up on your Portuguese basics to help you make the most of your time in the marvelous city. It can be tricky finding English-speakers in Rio, but Cariocas in general are happy to help despite the language barrier, and most restaurants and bars have a menu in English.

Do go to a samba

A samba dancer performs in the street in Rio.
A samba dancer performs in the street.Bildquelle: Brastock / Shutterstock

Nothing says Carioca quite like a samba.

When the sun goes down, the socializing on the beach wraps up and is taken to another Carioca favorite pastime—beers at a samba. A live samba show is easy to find and you’ll probably hear it before you see it, especially at the beach kiosks in Copacabana or the bars in Lapa, Rio’s nightlife hub. Everyone from Carioca teenagers to older citizens sing and dance along to the music. Just bring a smile and some enthusiasm and you’ll fit right in.

Don’t miss out on the local drinks

A cocktail on a Rio beach gets held up to the camera.
Cocktails on the beach are always fun.Bildquelle: Alexandre Rotenberg / Shutterstock

But be careful not to overdo it.

The classic drink in Brazil is a caipirinha, which is a cocktail made of cachaça (a sugarcane-based spirit), sugar and lime or other fruits. They are refreshing and sweet, but can be potent—so take care as the effect can creep up on you unexpectedly. While Cariocas love a drink, especially on a hot day accompanied with a barbecue or a samba, it’s rare to see a local stumbling around drunk or completely blacked out. Getting too wasted is a big no-no in Rio.

Related: Travel the World with These International Cocktails

Do visit a favela

A colorful Rio favela in the sun.
A colorful Rio favela in the sun.Bildquelle: Skreidzeleu / Shutterstock

Respectfully, of course.

Tourists tend to be fascinated by favelas and visiting one is worth doing to shatter the many preconceptions about them. However, do it with care. You can head to Vidigal to do the Two Brothers hike and enjoy the bars at the top for incredible views, or take a reputable guided tour around Rochina. Just remember to stick to the main paths and don’t wander around taking photos. The favelas are, after all, communities of people’s homes.

Don’t go topless

Sunbathers enjoy Ipanema Beach in Rio.
Sunbathers enjoy Ipanema Beach.Bildquelle: Thomas Wyness / Shutterstock

“Free The Nipple” elsewhere.

Going topless is frowned upon in Brazil and could cause confrontation with the police if you decide to do it. For Cariocas, having tan lines is desirable—so keep the bikini top on and get your tan marks like a true local. If you’re determined for an all-over even tan though, head to Praia do Abricó, which is one of the state’s only nudist beaches. There you can whip off your clothes without any issues.

Do let go of body hang ups

Sunbathers enjoy Ipanema Beach.
The beach is for everyone in Rio.Bildquelle: lazyllama / Shutterstock

The beach is for everyone.

The Brazilian string bikini or classic tight-fitting speedos may be daunting for some, but the shores of Rio are no place to have body hang ups. You’ll see all sorts of bodies on the beach, and Cariocas celebrate their figures no matter their shape and size. Remember, the beaches in Rio are free from judgment—no-one is looking and no-one cares about anything other than having a good time. Just don’t forget the sunscreen to avoid burning in the Southern Hemisphere’s hot sun.

Don’t just stay in the South Zone

Christ the Redeemer looks out over the city in Rio.
Christ the Redeemer looks out over the city.Bildquelle: Antonio Franco / Viaator

There’s a whole other world of fun waiting.

The South Zone of Rio is the tourist hotspot where many of the city’s best-known landmarks are found, including the famous Christ the Redeemer and the Sugarloaf Mountain. But venturing out to other areas in Rio means discovering new neighborhoods typically off the regular travel itinerary, where you can enjoy some of the city’s most secluded tropical beaches, traditional Brazilian food, forest hikes and waterfalls, and authentic samba jamming sessions.

Do keep it casual yet colorful

Visitors enjoy the views in Rio on a blue-sky day.
Visitors can dress colorfully to blend in.Bildquelle: Antonio Franco / Viator

Leave the neutral tones at home.

Rio tends to be a casual city where it’s not uncommon to go straight from the beach to the bar. By all means, if you want to get dressed up, go for it. If you want a look that fits in though, think simple—natural hair, low-key makeup, and flats rather than heels. Subdued and dark tones are not really Rio’s style, whereas bright and colorful pieces mesh well with the city’s vibe and tropical surroundings.

Don’t skip Brazilian food

A meat-carver serves up food to Rio diners.
Brazilian food is second-to-none.Bildquelle: Antonio Franco / Viator

There is something for everyone.

Thanks to Brazil’s rich history, food in Rio is varied and has influences from African, Italian, and Japanese cuisines. In a country known for its meat and barbecue, recent years have seen a rise in vegetarian and vegan options across the city, meaning you can usually find something for every taste. If you don’t like the local cuisine though, keep your opinion quietly to yourself—locals are proud of their food and may feel offended if you say you’re not keen on it.

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