We boarded the Rome-bound train at 5:45 a.m., and knowing we only had 23 hours to explore The Eternal City, we took a nap. The subsequent hours were spent wearing holes in our shoes as we walked from cathedral to cathedral and from the Colosseum to the Vatican — stopping only for gelato. After our 23 hours were up, we boarded the train back to Florence. The next weekend we would go to Munich and the following weekend to Lake Como. As 21-year-olds studying abroad in Florence, Italy, we stamped our passports and logged in our diaries about the many foreign cities we were lucky enough to visit. After that semester abroad, it would be another six years before I would leave the country again — and once I did, I couldn’t stop. I caught the travel bug. Within 12 months, I went heli-skiing in British, Columbia, sightseeing in London and pretended to be Parisian in Paris — not to mention state-side trips to St. Augustine, Eau Claire, Lexington and cities in between. The opportunities I have been granted have been generous, to say the least. But these trips took a lot of planning. I pinched pennies to afford them, and I worked overtime to make up for days off — as most people must.
When a friend from my Florence days called mere months before Memorial Day weekend and urged me to accompany her to Brazil, I said yes. No planning. No penny-pinching. No overtime built up. The long weekend allowed for 60 hours in Rio de Janeiro (plus 13 hours of travel — each way). And while it’s simply impossible to get to know a city the size of Rio in 60 hours, made harder by the fact that I am not fluent in Portuguese, I’m definitely glad I went.
Instead of telling you the best places to go, I will tell you where I went and where I’d go back. But moreover, I hope to inspire you to book the trip you have been wanting to take. While a 10-day vacation would have been amazing, I opted for what I could afford and took no time off work. This is how I did it!
HOW WE PREPARED
We exchanged a series of text messages, including but not limited to the following:
- I should learn some Portuguese.
- I’ll start transforming myself into Giselle Bündchen.
- We can simply focus on the beach and eating coconuts and just forgo food.
- Should I get rabies in case one of us wants to take home a rabid dog? We can have a designated dog handler.
- I am surprisingly comfortable with having no itinerary.
- If I die of typhoid fever, at least I made it to Rio.
- I will have to learn how to say, “Can you peel my açaí?” in Portuguese
- I want to teleport to the Belmond right now. I’m clicking my slippers. *There’s no place like a South American luxury hotel!*
We also got visas, vaccines and a Rio travel book that I put off reading until I boarded the plane. Plus, I purchased an international phone plan and let my credit card company know I would be traveling abroad.
HOW WE GOT THERE
There are two airports in Rio de Janerio: Galeao International Airport (GIG) and Santos Dumont Domestic Airport (SDU). My travel companion left JFK on Friday evening and arrived in Sao Paulo before taking a quick flight to SDU. After an even quicker 13-minute Uber ride, she arrived at Copacabana Palace, our home for the weekend. I flew from Nashville to Atlanta before boarding an overnight flight to GIG, where I called an Uber — a $40 cost and a 25-minutes ride. Throughout the weekend, we primarily traveled by foot and by Uber, but the cab system is reliable.
WHERE WE STAYED
As mentioned, Copacabana Palace was home for the weekend. A Belmond property on Copacabana beach, the landmark hotel opened its doors in 1923. The storied hotel overlooks the stretch of sand known as Copacabana. Locals and tourists mingle on the water’s edge, while behind them, bronzed bodies relax in the sand, soccer players vie for a win, and tourists sip coconuts and caipirinhas. Avenida Atlântica sits between the beach and the hotel, and on weekends is closed to traffic, making it ideal for biking, rollerblading and walking.
Outside the hotel, there is a bounty of beautiful spots, but the hotel itself is just as breathtaking. Art deco design marked by white marble interiors offers a glamorous setting for guests. The 245-room hotel boasts three restaurants and an outdoor swimming pool, which we readily took advantage of. Our morning routine consisted of a walk down the beach, followed by generous portions of the (included) breakfast buffet and a handful of hours spent by the pool. Framed by the French-inspired architecture of the hotel, the pool is often shaded. We’d start our morning on the west side of the pool and slowly rotate around until the shade crept across the opposite corner. For those looking to stay in the sun all day, there is a terrace, which overlooks the beach and offers cabanas with all-day sun exposure.
Admittedly, we spent most of our time at the hotel making the most of the breakfast buffet or sitting by the pool, but there is so much more offered. The hotel’s three eateries — MEE, Ristorante Hotel Cipriani with Piano Bar and Pérgula, and Pool Bar — all receive high praise. In addition to the swimming pool, you can pamper yourself at the Copacabana Palace Spa, get moving in the fitness center or test your skills on the rooftop tennis court.
WHAT WE SAW
The big decision of the trip was whether to make our way up to Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf Mountain. Upon realizing we had already seen a few of the wonders of the world together, we decided to add another to the list. I would not say I regret our decision, but I would say I would probably change my vote if I could do it again. Cristo Redentor, as it is in Portuguese, is a statue of Jesus Christ that sits atop Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park. A tram will take you to the top of the mountain, where you will find the statue, which is nearly 100 feet tall. Created by a French sculptor, the art deco statue was completed in 1931. Spectacular up close, for me, it was just as moving to see him looking down on me from the beaches of Rio.
Worth repeating is a walk around Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. A short stroll from Copacabana, the lake is lively with locals. Runners, rowers and bikers take advantage of the 7.2-kilometer path that runs around the lake, as well as the water itself. We also walked along the beach from Copacabana to Ipanema, another popular spot that is home to beautiful beachgoers soaking up the sun in paradise. In between the beaches, Copacabana Fort is a favored attraction. We peeked through the gates but opted not to go inside.
Escadaria Selarón, the Selaron Steps, is an eye-catching public art project in Santa Teresa. Brightly colored mosaic tiles from around the world cover a 215-step staircase that sits between Santa Teresa and Lapa, two Rio neighborhoods. This is a must do!
WHAT WE ATE
Mostly, we ate pão de queijo. The Brazilian cheese bread, made with tapioca flour (gluten-free folks, rejoice!), accompanied just about every meal we had — and we even stuffed a few into our backpacks to snack on during the day. While that was our primary source of nutrition for the weekend, we also explored a few of the city’s culinary offerings. We filled up at the hotel’s breakfast buffet each morning and sipped from coconuts through the afternoon. Forgoing lunch for treats such as açai bowls, gelato, daiquiris and cocktails served in coconuts, dinner was the main meal of the day. Our first night, we strolled to Ipanema and stumbled upon a vegan café, Teva. While it wasn’t a spot that served the meat Brazil is famous for, it was delicious — and just what we wanted. Yes, I would go back. But first, I would go back to Aprazível, a restaurant with a setting as stellar as the food. Tucked in the trees at the top of Santa Teresa, Aprazível offers unbeatable views of the city. As the sun was setting, we took our seats in one of the open air, treehouse-style dining areas and placed an order of cachaça cocktails, pão de queijo (of course), açai guacamole and entrées to share.
HOW WE MADE IT HAPPEN
By booking overnight flights, not only did we save two nights of hotel costs, we didn’t have to take any time off work. Landing Tuesday morning and proceeding to work an entire day was exhausting, to say the least, but it was worth it. Airline costs will vary depending on where you’re flying from, but this is the time to take advantage of saved up miles or pay full price because you’ll build miles for your next vacation. By adding additional stops to the trip, you can likely cut costs, but for me, it was worth a few hundred extra dollars to have a shorter travel time.
Lovers of food, we made the difficult decision not to make this a food-centric vacation. We took advantage of the hotel breakfast, which was included in the price of the room. After three plates of food each morning, we stayed fueled for the majority of the day. Since we traveled to Rio during their winter, we also had early dinners. Meaning, we could survive on snacks between breakfast and dinner, instead of paying the price of a large lunch. Aside from one late-night minibar raid, we limited excess spending on food.
Opting to walk most places, we also avoided the cost of transportation. When we did need the safety or convenience of a ride, we called Ubers, which didn’t put a big dent in our wallets.
Sitting by the pool, strolling the streets of the city and putting our feet in the sand came free of cost!
It was an active 60 hours, but I have zero regrets. I hope you’re inspired to book a fantastic weekend trip, too!
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