Though this city beckons temptingly with its beaches and sequins, Rio de Janeiro’s Portuguese-speaking expanse of more than six million people can intimidate the average traveler. Fear not! Though the city sprawls, the areas most tourists frequent are relatively well connected and easy to navigate, with excellent public transport and scenic walks between them. Better yet, taxis almost everywhere, ready to give lost travelers a lift. You’ll be fine!
1. Rental Car
While there are rental car companies in and around the airport, you’re much better off as a pedestrian while in Rio proper. Streets are jam-packed, chaotic and twisted precipitously around the mountains, while road rules are treated as “guidelines,” at best. Crime rates soar at night, so you’ll need to take cabs anyway. Just wait until you’re headed out of town to pick up a car.
Distinctive yellow cabs are the easiest way around the city. Taxi stands can be found all around town, or simply hail one on the street. Note that if you (or your hotel) call for a taxi, it will cost about 25% more, but will perhaps be safer and more comfortable. All taxis are metered and fairly inexpensive; ask at your hotel about approximate costs to a specific destination. Since very few cab drivers speak English, it’s always best to have the address written down.
The fastest and least expensive way around Rio is on the Metro, a clean, cool train line connects just about every tourist destination in the city. Thus far, there are only two lines, Line 1 (Downtown, Maracana, Quinta da Boa Vista) and Line 2 (Central Station, Cento, Gloria, Catete, Flamengo, Botafogo, Ipanema), so it’s still simple to navigate. If you like it, consider investing in a transit pass (which includes buses), that can be used up to eight times per day.
The Metro operates Monday to Saturday from 5am to 12am and on Sunday from 7am to 11pm. During Carnival and other festivals, it often runs all night.
Rio’s buses are considerably more difficult to navigate than the Metro, and should probably be attempted only by adventurous, experienced travelers with a bit of Portuguese. With more than 1,000 lines, several unmarked stops and other quirks, it’s often easier to take a taxi. But, trips start at only R$2.75 (US$1.36) that you pay upon entering the bus, and a transportation pass that allows eight trips per day (including metro rides) will save you time and money. The Va de Onibus website has route information in English, but your hotel may have more useful tips and information.
Minibuses, or vans, provide direct transportation between specific beaches and other popular destinations, such as Barra de Tijuca. These are easy to use, once a local points you toward a stop, but unregulated; ride at your own risk.
Guanabara Bay is home to more than 130 islands, some of them tiny and others quite large, such as Fundão and Governador. While bridges connect the biggest to the mainland, why not take an inexpensive ferry instead? For less than US$5, you’ll be able to spend some time on the water in-between islands. Paqueta and Niteroi are two of the easiest and most interesting to visit, with regular boat connections throughout the day.
7. Cable Cars
Rio is implementing a system of cable cars to connect the steeply pitched favelas with the city proper. Currently, there are two cable cars in operation: The touristy cable car to Sugar Loaf, and a locally oriented, six-station line running above the Complexo do Alemao favelas.
For such a huge city, Rio is surprisingly bicycle friendly, with dedicated bike lanes all over the city, particularly in the popular, touristy South Zone and along the beaches. Several rental agencies can hook you up with a ride – and you can also take a Rio de Janeiro Bike Tour: Flamengo Park, Sugarloaf and Copacabana Beach!