The mighty rivers of the Amazon, the pulsing Carnaval rhythms, bone-white beaches and footballing flair: almost everyone on the planet knows something about Brazil. Yet South America’s biggest country still holds plenty of surprises. Discover the rich culture and stunning beauty of this destination with our Rough Guide list of the best things to do in Brazil and get inspiration for planning your trip.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Brazil, your essential guide for visiting Brazil.
Climbing Mount Corcovado, where the image of Christ the Redeemer, with its breathtaking views over the whole of Rio and Guanabara Bay, is one of the things to do in Brazil you shouldn't miss.
The most famous of all images of Rio is that of the vast statue of Christ the Redeemer gazing across the bay from the Corcovado (hunchback) hill, and to visit Rio without making the tourist pilgrimage up the Corcovado is nigh on unthinkable, but do plan ahead, as you need to buy your ticket in advance.
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Step into a capoeira school, where you can watch the dance-like sparring of this distinctive martial art for free. Capoeira began in Angola as a ritual fight to gain the nuptial rights of women when they reached puberty; since then it has evolved into a graceful semi-balletic art form somewhere between fighting and dancing.
Displays of capoeira – often accompanied by the characteristic rhythmic twang of the berimbau – usually take the form of a pair of dancers/fighters leaping and whirling in stylized “combat”.
Walk through any market in Brazil to get a sense of the country’s natural abundance. São Paulo’s Mercado Municipal, crammed with produce from all over Brazil, is particularly impressive.
Apart from the phenomenal display of Brazilian and imported fruit, vegetables, cheese and other produce, the market is most noted for its enormous stained-glass windows depicting scenes of cattle raising, market gardening, and coffee and banana plantations.
The food stalls are particularly known for their especially tasty pastéis de bacalhau (saltfish pasties), and if you head up to the mezzanine, there’s a whole range of patio restaurants serving authentic food in a colourful setting.
Increasingly known worldwide as the best place for wildlife spotting in South America, the Pantanal is fed by rivers and inhabited by rainforest bird and animal species from the Andes to the west and the Brazilian central plateau to the north.
The region is a stunning blend of swamp water with gallery forest, savannah and lakeside scrub forest, and it is dissected by around 175 rivers into roughly seventeen segments, each with its distinctive landscape and micro-ecosystem. If you are a fan of wildlife, visiting this place should be high on your list of things to do in Brazil.
Our guide to visiting Brazil's Pantanal has the lowdown on everything you need to know about the country's top wildlife destination. And our tailor-made trip to North Pantanal & Amazonia will help you to discover the Pantanal in all its wild beauty.
If you can’t catch a show inside Rio’s sumptuous belle époque theatre, be sure to stop for lunch or a drink in its lavish, Assyrian-inspired café. The Theatro Municipal opened in 1909 and a dramatic example of Neoclassical architecture was modelled on the Paris Opéra – all granite, marble and bronze, with a foyer decorated in the white and gold characteristic of Louis XV style.
Since opening, the theatre has been Brazil’s most prestigious artistic venue, hosting visiting Brazilian and foreign orchestras, opera and theatre companies, and singers. Tours can be booked at the box office at the back of the building.
Explore the dramatic terrain of this enormous national park, which includes mesas, forest, river beaches, waterfalls and a kilometre-long grotto. Chapada Diamantina's dramatic, untrammelled landscapes incorporate swampy valleys, barren peaks and scrubby forest, punctuated by dazzling waterfalls, rivers, streams and over fifty species of orchid.
The park is one of Brazil’s major trekking destinations, but also offers plenty of opportunities for canoeing and climbing.
Churrascarias are traditional Brazilian steakhouses where meat is cooked on skewers over an open flame, also known as the "rodizio" style. They typically offer a wide variety of meats, including beef, pork, chicken, and lamb, as well as a salad bar and various sides.
The servers, known as "gauchos," come to the table with the skewers of meat and carve portions directly onto the diners' plates. Churrascarias are popular in Brazil, particularly in the southern regions where the gaucho culture originated.
This massive stone mountain is renowned for the shade of blue it seems to turn at dawn and sunset. Some 45km west of Domingos Martins the Belo Horizonte Highway passes the most remarkable sight in Espírito Santo, a towering, bare granite mountain shaped like a thumb and almost 1000m high – the Pedra Azul, or “blue stone”.
During the day sunlight does strange things to it – it does look blue in shadow – but the time to see it is at either dawn or sunset when it turns all kinds of colours in a spectacular natural show.
Candomblé, a popular Afro-Brazilian blend of Christian and African religious beliefs, permeates Salvador. Its followers often dress in white and worship together in ecstatic dance rituals accompanied by lots of drumming and singing, or otherwise communicate with and make offerings to the Orixás spirits – personal protectors, guides and go-betweens for people and their creator-god Olorum.
A candomblé cult house, or terreiro, is headed by a mãe do santo (literally “holy mother”) or pai do Santo (“holy father’”), who directs the operations of dozens of novices and initiates. The usual objective is to persuade the spirits to descend into the bodies of worshippers, which is achieved by sacrifices, offerings of food and drink, and above all by drumming, dancing and the invocations of the mãe or pai do Santo.
The Parque Nacional Chapada dos Veadeiros in the north of Goiás is the heart of the planalto, its stunning natural scenery is among the most beautiful and distinctive in Brazil. Hiking the hundreds of square kilometres of wild and sparse vegetation, extraordinary geological formations, cave systems, waterfalls and hiking trails make this one of the best things to do in Brazil for ecotourism.
A few hours north of Brasília and easily accessible by bus, the park has good local support for tourism, and apart from the occasional holidaying diplomat up from the capital, it is still remarkably unknown as a destination to foreign tourists.
About 300km from Rio is Costa Verde’s main attraction, the town of Paraty. The town centre’s narrow cobbled streets (closed to cars) are bordered by houses with inner courtyards full of brightly coloured flowers and hummingbirds. The cobbles of the streets are arranged in channels to drain off stormwater, allowing the sea to enter and wash the streets at high spring tides.
Although businesses in the historic centre are overwhelmingly geared toward tourists, the wider community has not been engulfed by wealthy outsiders. It’s a great place to wander around, each corner bringing another picturesque view, small enough that there’s no danger of getting lost, and safe at any hour of the day or night.
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Head to the island capital of Santa Catarina state, where kilometres of beaches include treacherous surfing spots and calm waters for safe swimming. Beyond the city of Florianópolis, Ilha Santa Catarina is noted throughout Brazil for its beaches, Mediterranean-like scenery and traditional fishing villages – the fishing boats, lacemakers, folklore, cuisine and colonial architecture add to the allure.
The island has a subtropical climate, rarely cold in winter and with a summer heat that is tempered by refreshing South Atlantic breezes. Nevertheless, don’t expect an untouched paradise. The island is peppered with resorts and holiday condos, and is surprisingly built up, with its mostly narrow roads often clogging up with local traffic regardless of tourists – this is one of the richest parts of Brazil and it looks it.
Explore the diversity of Brazil's beaches with our guide to the best beaches in Brazil.
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The most enchanting of all the colonial towns in Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto lies 100km southeast of Belo Horizonte at the central hub of the Estrada Real, its narrow, cobbled streets straddling impossibly steep hills topped with Baroque churches and lined with an assortment of candy-coloured eighteenth-century homes and mansions.
Unsurprisingly, the town is also the most visited in the region, but it’s far from becoming a giant museum. Touristy shops and restaurants dominate the centre, but this remains a working town with a population of over 70,000 – get up early on a weekday and you’ll see locals drinking coffee on the way to work, smell smoke from wood fires and hear church bells ringing for the faithful.
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Long regarded as one of Brazil’s poorest areas, the Northeast is now a region with a modern economy and a continuously growing tourism business. There are major cities along the coast: some, such as Recife, Olinda, São Luís and Fortaleza, have a deep colonial heritage; others, such as Maceió and Natal, have developed mostly in recent decades.
All of these cities have their city beaches plus more idyllic and deserted resorts hidden up and down the coast. The Ilha de Fernando de Noronha, hundreds of kilometres offshore, is one of the finest oceanic wildlife reserves in the world – expensive, but perfect for ecotourism.
This impressive expanse of Mata Atlântica is crisscrossed by shaded trails and features refreshing waterfalls and spectacular views across Rio. Looking up from the streets of Zona Sul, you’ll see that the mountains running southwest from the Corcovado are covered with exuberant forest. This is the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, an area of some 120 square kilometres.
Today the park serves as a remarkable example of the potential for the regeneration of the Mata Atlântica. Fauna has also gradually been reintroduced, making the forest once again home to insects, reptiles, ocelots, howler monkeys, agoutis, three-toed sloths and other animals. Most successful of all has been the return of birdlife, making Tijuca a paradise for birdwatchers.
This guided tour to the Tijuca Rain Forest in an open-top jeep will provide you with a unique overview of the delicate balance of a tropical jungle located in the heart of a large, thriving urban area.
Oscar Niemeyer’s Museu de Arte Contemporânea, more commonly just MAC, opened in 1996 on a promontory south of central Niterói by the Praia da Boa Viagem. The flying-saucer-shaped building offers a 360-degree perspective of Niterói and across the bay to Rio and hosts a worthy, though not very exciting, exhibition of late twentieth-century Brazilian art, as well as temporary exhibitions, which are rarely of much interest.
Instead, the real work of art is the building itself, whose curved lines are simply beautiful. The views of the headland, nearby beaches and Guanabara Bay as you walk around inside are breathtaking.
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If you are looking for things to do in Brazil for your cultural experience then take a tour of the many contemporary architectural monuments. Whether it looks like a futuristic dream or a modern-day nightmare, Brazil’s contemporary architecture is often otherworldly. There are many notable examples of contemporary architecture in Brazil. Some examples include:
Take a slow boat along the Amazon for close-up views of the mighty river and its wildlife. In Amazônia, rivers have been the main highways for centuries, and the Amazon itself is navigable to ocean-going ships as far west as Iquitos in Peru, nearly 3000km upstream from Belém. In all the large riverside cities of the Amazon – notably Belém, Manaus and Santarém – there are hidroviárias, ferry terminals for waterborne bus services.
Amazon river travel is slow and can be tough going, but it’s a fascinating experience. On bigger boats, there are several classes; in general, it’s better to avoid cabinet, where you swelter in a cabin, and choose primeiro (first class) instead, of sleeping in a hammock on deck. Segundo (second class) is usually hammock space in the lower deck or engine room.
Colonial Rio refers to the period in Rio de Janeiro's history during the 18th and 19th centuries when the city was a colony of Portugal. During this time, the city's architecture was heavily influenced by the Portuguese colonial style, which is characterized by the use of simple geometric forms, white-washed walls, and tile roofs. Some examples of colonial architecture in Rio de Janeiro include:
Snorkel among some thirty-odd species of fish in the crystalline waters of this marine sanctuary, or spy on them from above in a glass-bottomed boat. The Aquário Natural complex is justifiably Bonito’s next most popular attraction. Located at the source of the Baia Bonita, the Aquário is an incredibly clear spring that is full of fish.
Visitors are encouraged to put on a floating jacket, mask and snorkel, and get into the water with the 35 or so species of fish – mainly dourado and 35cm piripitanga fishes – a ticklish experience with no danger from piranhas, which never swim this far upriver.
Looking for relaxing things to do in Brazil? Then head to the amazing Rio beaches. The most renowned of Rio’s beaches, Copacabana beach was originally an isolated area, cut off from the city by mountains until 1892, when the Túnel Velho link with Botafogo was inaugurated. Copacabana is amazing, the over-the-top atmosphere apparent even in the mosaic pavements, designed by Burle Marx to represent images of rolling waves.
West of the Forte de Copacabana, the lively waters of the Praia do Arpoador are popular with families and the elderly as the ocean here is slightly calmer than at Ipanema beach, which is further along, with Leblon beach beyond that. The beaches here are stupendous, and much more tranquil than in Copacabana.
On this tailor-made trip to Breathtaking Brazil, you will explore the lively city of Rio de Janeiro, home to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches; experience the stunning Foz do Iguaçu National Park and see the world’s largest waterfalls system.
The power and beauty of the falls are quite simply astonishing, only rivalled by the tranquillity of the Mata Atlântica behind. The Iguazu Falls are, unquestionably, one of the world’s great natural wonders.
But it’s not the falls alone that make Iguaçu so special: the vast surrounding subtropical nature reserve – in Brazil the Parque Nacional do Iguazu, in Argentina the Parque Nacional de Iguazú – is a timeless haunt that even the hordes of tourists fail to destroy.
This tailor-made trip to Paraty & Iguazu starts in the colonial town of Paraty, Costa Verde's main attraction. Jeep rides, beaches, and a lot of cultures are part of the program. Afterwards, fly to Foz do Iguaçu and see the falls from both Argentina & Brazil.
For a memorable experience, take in the most important of Brazil’s festivals, celebrated in notably grand style in Rio, Salvador and Olinda. Carnaval is celebrated in every Brazilian city, but Rio’s party is the biggest and flashiest of them all. From the Friday before Lent to the following Tuesday, the city shuts up shop and throws itself into the world’s most famous manifestation of unbridled hedonism.
Carnaval’s greatest quality is that it has never become stale, thanks to its status as the most important celebration on the Brazilian calendar, easily outstripping Christmas and Easter. In a city riven by poverty, Carnaval represents a moment of freedom and release. And at the end of the very intense long weekend, there’s a brief collective hangover before attention turns to preparing for the following year’s event.
São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state and home to its biggest city, is Brazil’s economic powerhouse. As well as being responsible for nearly half the country’s industrial output, it also has an agricultural sector that produces, among other things, more orange juice than any single nation worldwide. Ibirapuera Park, southeast of Jardins, is the most famous of São Paulo’s parks and the main sports centre for the city.
Oscar Niemeyer designed most of the buildings and Roberto Burle Marx produced impressive designs for landscaping. Inside the park, attractions include the peaceful and unusual Bosque de Leitura (reading woods) – where on Saturdays and Sundays you can borrow Portuguese books from a small outdoor library and sit among the trees reading them – and several of the city’s museums.
Also, you might find some attractive accommodation options in our expert guide to where to stay in São Paulo.
The staggeringly beautiful and environmentally protected archipelago of Fernando de Noronha lies in the equatorial Atlantic some 545km from Pernambuco and 350km from Natal and should be on your list of things to do in Brazil for diving and snorkelling.
Boasting sixteen stunning beaches, it’s also hard to beat for snorkelling and scuba diving – its clear water stretches down to a depth of 40m in places, with a white sandy sea bottom, plenty of coral, crustaceans, turtles, dolphins and a wide range of fish species and shoal types. There’s just one small catch – visiting Noronha is extremely expensive.
Cruise through the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago and discover the natural beauty of the 21 islands that make up this UNESCO World Heritage Site on this 5-hour catamaran tour.
Ilha Grande comprises 193 square kilometres of mountainous jungle, historic ruins and beautiful beaches, excellent for some scenic tropical rambling. The island is a state park and the authorities have been successful at limiting development and maintaining a ban on motor vehicles. The main drawback is the ferocity of the insects, especially during the summer, so come equipped with repellent.
Ilha Grande offers lots of beautiful walks along well-maintained and fairly well-signposted trails, but it’s sensible to take some basic precautions. Be sure to set out as early as possible and always inform people at your pousada where you are going – in writing if possible.
Embark on a scenic adventure through nature on the beautiful Ilha Grande. Take a private guided trek through its best beaches and reach Feiticeira Waterfall, then enjoy some cocktails or soft drinks.
Ready for a trip to Brazil? Check out the snapshot of The Rough Guide to Brazil. If you travel further in Brazil, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in Brazil. For inspiration use the initiaries from our local travel experts. A bit more hands-on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Brazil without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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