We might as well let you know, right at the beginning, that Jesus will not feature in this post.
Brazil's most famous icon was, of course, on our itinerary. However, a combination of bad timing and poor weather meant that on the day we planned to visit him, persistent fog and poor visibility meant we were not even allowed to take the bus up to the hill.
Thankfully, Rio de Janeiro offers more than enough for the curious traveller outside of the attraction which will be near the top of most people's South American bucket list and in every single other travel guide. Here are our favourite experiences in the city.
walking south america's most colourful steps
The Escadaria Selarón, or Selarón Steps, are an incredible piece of artwork in their own right. But, when the tragic story of their creator is thrown into the mix, a visit to the stairs takes on extra poignancy.
Chilean artist Jorge Selarón started his project in 1990, partly to redevelop the run-down neighbourhood in which he stayed. Over 2,000 tiles later and countless hours of work - the majority of it done by him personally - and a colourful mosaic across 215 steps was created. Selarón originally sourced many of the tiles on his own, as well as painting a number with his iconic pregnant black woman, but as the work grew in popularity fans would send or bring him tiles. That's why such an eclectic mix of emblems and logos, from the Scottish Tennent's Lager logo to family crests and Argentina football team logos, can be found.
Visit at any time during the day, and you will have no choice but to join hundreds of other tourists scrambling up the stairs or waiting in line to get the perfect souvenir shot. However, such fanfare - and inclusion in a Pharrell and Snoop Dog video - can feel a little jarring when one learns of what occurred on January 10, 2013.
On the stairs of which he once said "This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death", the artist was found dead. Controversy and suspicion still surround the circumstances.
The site is always busy but most people only hang around the first few flights, so you can appreciate the artwork (and get a picture with no crowds) if you make the extra effort to walk further up to the top.
discovering the city by bike
With large cities, it can often be overwhelming to understand the layout and difficult to get your bearings immediately - that's why we decided to spend our first full day in Rio on two-wheels.
Rio by Bike is a Dutch-run company aiming to bring a little of Amsterdam's cycling culture to the streets of Rio and we really enjoyed our four-hour Panoramic tour with them. Over the 26 km route, we ticked off a lot of the main sights (including some great views of Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer) whilst being treated to an explanation of the city's history and tumultuous present by our English-speaking guide.
In preparation for the Olympics, the city created a number of new (and many imperfect) cycle paths but we wouldn't have felt confident on our own given our propensity to get horrendously lost and the poor attitude of drivers towards cyclists; but we can happily recommend venturing out with these guys. They also offer ethical Favela tours, as well as three or seven hour bike tours and the guides are full of useful information about the city.
climbing sugarloaf mountain
Parts of Rio did disappoint us. As expanded upon below, we had safety concerns and places like Copacabana beach just didn't live up to our expectations. However, one landmark which certainly didn't let us down was Pão de Açúcar.
We'd highly recommend trying to make to the top in time for sunset, which casts the city below in a magnificent light. This is the view which drives thousands of tourists here each year, so savour every moment, even if it does get very crowded.
We followed the insider tips of Rio by Bike to save some money by hiking up Morro da Urca rather than taking the first or two cable cars - for a more detailed overview of the route, as well as some other great budget tips for Rio, check out their post.
hanging out in santa teresa
Santa Teresa is exactly our sort of neighbourhood.
Cute little cafés and bars, street art, beautifully restored and photogenically crumbling colonial architecture and narrow cobblestone streets - it definitely ticks all the right boxes for those in search of a boho/hipster vibe with a Cariocan twist.
It's perched atop Santa Teresa hill and the best way to reach it is from Rio's last (and recently reopened) streetcar, which is free with departures every 30 minutes (here's a map showing where to find the station). Open-sided, it brings you over the Lapa Arches to Largo dos Guimarães, from where you can hop off and either spend your time wandering the pretty streets, browsing artisan and boutique stores, taking in the great views or devouring some traditional Brazilian fare at the Espirito Santa. There are a number of nice little bars - we liked Cafecito and its upstairs terrace - and this is the perfect neighbourhood to spend a sunny afternoon seeing a different side to the beaches, favelas and big city vibe normally associated with Rio.
We do not recommend walking to or from Santa Teresa and, when wandering around the neighbourhood, do be aware of your surroundings and it is easy to aimlessly take a few wrong turns and end up in an area which is a lot less pleasant.
flying into santos daumont airport
This is the first time we've ever included the flight into a city as a recommendation - however it was simply stunning (and totally unexpected!).
If you've followed us on our two year journey in Latin America, you'll know we've pretty much exclusively travelled by bus. However with Brazil being so vast, flights actually make a lot of sense and are frequently cheaper than a bus journey covering the same route.
Our flight into Rio from Ilheus was in the late evening and we were both gobsmacked at how close we were to the endless city lights - the whole of Rio opened up below us and it felt as though we could reach out and touch it. And, as it turns out, the view from the plane window during the day is worthy of any bucket list - so you might just want to consider flying to Sao Paolo rather than taking the bus and making double sure that you grab a window seat
We didn't want to include a picture here and spoil the surprise - but check out this post if you want to see the stunning view on the flight in / our of Rio.
cooking the flavours of brazil
"Much more than your average chef, Simone is a true Carioca who bleeds Brazilian charm. Importantly, in a class where you do not create your own individual dish, she is captivating. Her country's history and present is somewhat chequered but this melting pot of cultures is what makes its food so unique. Every step has a story and she teaches us not just how to cook, but why every ingredient, every method, is just so.
As Simone says, 'to understand Brazil’s food you have to understand its people'."
Clearly, we loved the cooking class we took in Rio. Read the full article on the experience (and our newfound addiction to brigadeiros) here
a note on safety
We have to mention that, despite being the last stop on our two year trip, Rio de Janeiro was actually the city in Latin America where we felt most vulnerable. The huge social and economic divisions were present in most areas we visited and, despite being experienced travellers in this part of the world, neither of us felt entirely comfortable.
Some scenes we won't forget - like a homeless teenager in a doorway smoking a DIY crack-pipe on a busy shopping street - and it was not uncommon to walk five minutes in any direction before we would see a scene or group which made us think twice about proceeding that way or a local would warn us off. This unfortunately meant we took taxis back to a hostel after dark, rather spending time waiting for buses or walking to find the metro like we normally would, we were a little less adventurous or intrepid than usual and that our cameras stayed in our backpacks and not on our shoulders.
Therefore, please do exercise caution whilst you're in Rio and be sensible about where your wanderlust brings you. The city does have a myriad of problems and social justice is something which will take generations to deliver; for travellers this can mean a number of people viewing you as an opportunity to raise cash quickly, rather than a visitor to welcome.
If you'd like a very useful free eBook guide to the city, including locals' tips plus discounts for drinks and tours, then check out Rio for Partiers.