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Many people don’t realize how big Brazil really is and how many alluring destinations they are to choose from. As the largest country in South America, it’s only slightly smaller than the entire U.S., which means narrowing down the best things to see and do for your trip is no easy task. To help you with your planning, consider these top things to do, all highly rated by visitors and locals alike.
Join in on Rio’s non-stop party
If you’re looking to tick off local experiences in Brazil, head here during Carnival to experience the mayhem and fun of one of the world’s wildest parties. While the entire country comes to a complete standstill for an entire week in February, Rio is the best place to enjoy it, with colorful processions through its downtown Sambodromo, though there are fancy dress balls, samba school parties and more to be found all over the city. If you need a break from the hordes of people, you can take in the scene from above by heading to the foot of the Christ the Redeemer statue, or catching a cable car up Sugarloaf to watch a sunset before the city lights begin to sparkle below. If that’s not high enough, consider soaring above the landscape on a tandem hang-gliding flight from Pedra Bonita in Rio’s Tijuca National Park where you’ll have a spectacular bird’s-eye view over the city, coastline and the forest.
Explore the Amazon
Floating through the rainforest on the Amazon River is one of the greatest experiences any traveler can have. The largest rainforest in the world is fed by 10 of the world’s 20 largest rivers, including the Amazon itself, the biggest river system on the planet. There are literally hundreds of boats, from budget to luxury, offering a range of cruise options for passengers. Smaller, tourist-standard boats can even navigate narrow tributaries of the Rio Negro and the Amazon to take you deep into the forest. These tranquil tributaries are home to all sorts of aquatic life, including river dolphins, giant otters and piranha. Look into the trees and you’ll spot sloths, tamarins and squirrel monkeys as well as birds like herons, macaws, kiskadees and oropendolas.
Discover an Island Paradise
There are thousands of breathtaking islands and beaches along the coastline of Brazil, with countless isles sprinkled between Sao Paulo and Rio off the Costa Verde alone, but the ultimate island paradise is Fernando de Noronha, an archipelago of 21 islands that sit 330 miles off the northeast coast. Some of the beaches here are considered to be among the very best in the world like Baia do Sancho. The pristine jade waters are loaded with marine life, including dolphins, sea turtles and a multitude of colorful fish. Not surprisingly, the brilliant waters are considered to be superb for snorkeling and diving. On land, you’ll find cascading waterfalls, natural swimming pools, jagged cliffs and caves.
Step back in time in Ouro Preto
One of the country’s most beautiful towns, Ouro Preto is a 17th-century colonial city nestled at the foot of the Serra do Espinhaco. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a hilly jumble of colorful homes, baroque churches and traditional plazas. There are 23 churches that tower above the valley along the ridge at the top of the town, and while it’s a steep climb to get there, the incredible views are well worth the effort. The region is also famous for its gems, in fact, this is the only area in the world that produces Imperial Topaz – the orange/gold variety that’s often tinged with pink. In the trade, it lives up to its exalted name. When you’re ready for a bite to eat, you’re sure to find not only outstanding cuisine but a fabulous atmosphere with many of the restaurants set within grand colonial buildings.
Browse the Romantic Backstreets and Alleys of Paraty
This coastal, historic town on the Costa Verde is charming, laid-back and beautiful. It grew rich on the 18th-century gold trade, and its wealth can be seen today in the gorgeously preserved colonial buildings like Santa Rita Church. From the horse carriages to the mismatched cobblestones, it looks almost like it did in the 1700s when it was part of the country’s Gold Trail. When the routes to transport gold were moved to more convenient routes, Paraty was basically left untouched, and not rediscovered by tourism until the 1970s. As it’s a popular destination for schooner cruises, you’ll find lots of boutique hotels and gourmet eateries too. Tables are scattered in the streets to take advantage of a late night breeze, while music and dancing are enjoyed well into the night. Just a short drive away are hidden waterfalls and white sand beaches.
Dance the Samba like a Local
You can learn how to do the samba, Brazil’s most popular dance, in Rio de Janeiro. If you want to blend in with the locals during Carnival rather than being like every other tourist and watching instead of participating, visiting one of the many private samba schools in the city and joining in is a great way to do it. Samba dancers not only have a ton of passion for the dance, but they also enjoy passing on the knowledge of its rhythms and intricate moves to others. On specific nights of the week, the schools, like Mangueira, Salgueiro, Mocidade and Bejia-Flor, welcome visitors to the party with lots of dancing and fun.
Spend time in the Unique Desert Lake Oasis of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
Every year during the rainy season, Lençóis Maranhenses National Park treats visitors to an amazing sight that’s a must to experience if you’re here between June and September. The sand dunes stretch for miles and miles – they’re so strikingly white and vast that it’s easy to see how the park got its name, which means “bedsheets of Maranhao,” the northeastern coastal state where the national park is found. At first glance, it looks like any other desert, but it’s not. The area is slammed with torrential rainstorms during the rainy season and the rain pools in the valleys between the dunes to create thousands of crystal clear lagoons. At their peak in July, some are more than 300 feet long and ten feet deep.
Play in Chapada Diamantina National Park
Chapada Diamantina, located in the state of Bahia a few hours from the historic city of Salvador near the town of Capao, is home to mountain peaks that span for miles, underground lakes, waterfalls, forests and cave complexes with brilliant blue clear water. One of the most popular spots for outdoor adventures, visitors can go cliff climbing, hiking, river rafting and more.
Experience the Vibes of Salvador
The colorful capital of the northeastern coastal state of Bahia, Salvador, is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, founded in 1549. The historic pebble streets of the Pelourinho, or Historic Center, are lined with dozens of brightly-colored colonial-era buildings. The neighborhood served as the city center during Portuguese colonialism and received its unfortunate name from the whipping post in the central plaza where slaves were publicly punished. Despite its grisly past, today the area is incredibly charming, and its restoration about two decades ago resulted in a number of cafes, restaurants, shops, cultural centers and art schools. The city is one of the most culturally vibrant in Brazil – not only does it host one of the country’s best Carnivals, but it’s also spawned some of the best-known artists, writers and musicians.
Feel the Spray of Mighty Iguazu Falls
One of Brazil’s most popular attractions, these magnificent falls on the border with Argentina along the Iguazu River, stretch across two miles of rain-forested cliffs and include an astounding 275 individual waterfalls, making it one of the most jaw-dropping treasures in the world. In fact, when taking in the view for the first time, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!” The highest fall, the Garganta do Diabo, plunges 230 feet, one-and-a-half-times the height of Niagara Falls. The best opportunities for viewing are centered at Parque Nacional do Iguaçu. If you want to feel more than just the spray, take the Macuco Safari ride, where you’re guaranteed to get soaking wet.
Watch a Traditional Capoeira Dance
Capoeira is a traditional Brazilian dance dating back to times of slavery. It started out when, taken from their homes against their will and kept in slavery, the captive people began inventing fighting techniques for self-defense. To cover their inside combats from their prisoners, African slaves used their traditional music, singing and dancing. It’s developed over the years to become a martial art that combines elements of fight, acrobatics, music, dance and rituals in a very elegant and magnetic way. The movements resemble a fight, but it’s incredibly beautiful and unique to Brazilian culture. Demonstrations can sometimes be seen in the squares of the bigger cities as well as the occasional impromptu display on the beach.
Visit Wineries and Explore the Historic Mission of Rio Grande do Sul
Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sol offers a myriad of adventures that include hiking and four-wheeling as well as the opportunity to view more gorgeous waterfalls. But as the state is considered the chief winemaking region in Brazil, wine enthusiasts won’t want to miss visiting a winery. Italian immigrants brought their love of wine to the country, and it’s growing on vines in Canela and Gramado. A descendant of an Italian winemaker carries on the tradition today at Ravanello in Gramado – tours and tastings are available. History buffs in the meantime, should be sure to visit the ruins of the 300-year-old Sao Miguel das Missoes, the only survivor of the 30 Jesuit missions that once stood in southern Brazil.
Hit Sao Paulo’s Cultural Hotspots
Many would argue that Sao Paulo rivals Rio when it comes to nightlife, art, restaurants, live music and even football teams. Sao Paulo has a wealth of exciting attractions to explore, including museums, like MASP, an amazing art museum that holds the finest collection of Western art in Latin America, and on Sundays, the area around it hosts two great outdoor markets, including a huge antique market and a handicrafts market which includes fantastic street food. The city is one of the best in the world when it comes to creative street art, with its street filled with many wonderful examples, especially in the city center and in the area of Vila Madalena. The historic municipal theater, Theatro Municipal de Sao Paulo, which opened in 1911, is one of the city’s great architectural treasures and cultural attractions, a gem inside and out with Art Nouveau, Renaissance and Baroque styles, stained glass, mosaics and marble. It also offers outstanding performers from Brazil and across the globe.
Catch a Football Match at the Maracanã
Football, or soccer as it’s called in the U.S., is by far the most important sport in Brazil and Maracanã Stadium is one of Rio’s most important landmarks. With fans dancing, singing and pounding drums amid the clouds of colored smoke, you can experience the carnival atmosphere on the terraces that sometimes even rivals the game itself. Catching a match here is a great way to immerse yourself into the culture, and get to know some of the most passionate fans of the game.
Watch for Wildlife in the Pantanal
Often called the world’s largest wetland, this spectacularly rich ecosystem in southwestern Brazil is one of the best places in the country to spot wildlife. Its home to reptiles, big cats like jaguars, monkeys, anteaters, conti, hundreds of exotic birds and much more. As the vast wetlands have wide-open savannah, unlike the dense rainforest of the Amazon, the wildlife can be seen much easier. The dry season, April through October, is the best time to visit as the animals often cluster around waterholes.
Ride a beach buggy
Riding beach buggies is very popular in Brazil’s northeast regions, which is home to lots of towering sand dunes that are ideal for riding. It’s a great way to have fun and explore the country’s beautiful beaches. The long coast from Natal to Fortaleza is one of the last places left on the planet with hundreds of miles of unobstructed sand. You can make the four-day journey in a buggy and never once leave the beach. This stretch of coastline is one of the most stunning and unspoiled in the country, with cliffs of colored sands, rolling dunes, palm-lined beaches, beaches with freshwater lagoons, salt flats, reefs, small traditional fishing villages and more. In total, there are nearly 100 beaches along the way.
Listen to Bolero at Sunset in Cabedelo
One of the most popular things for tourists to do is head to Cabedelo, located in the state of Paraíba in the northeast region of the country, to watch the sunset and listen to a saxophonist play Maurice Ravel’s Bolero while being paddled down the Rio Paraiba in a canoe. While it is very touristy, it’s classic Brazil, and worth doing even for those who generally oppose the kitsch.
Go to a Churrasco
A Churrasco is basically a Brazilian barbecue. It usually means spending the day with a group of friends, grilling meat while listening to music, and eating that meat with Brazilian black beans, known as feijoada, and toasted cassava flour mixture (farofa) with Brazil’s favorite drink, caipirinha and local beer. If you don’t happen to have friends that live in Brazil, there are a number of great restaurants that host Churrascos. Sao Paulo may be one of the best places to do just that, where you can sample the country’s barbecue tradition at all-you-can-eat “rodízios,” where waiters circulate with multiple cuts of beef, along with lamb, pork and wild boar, slicing it straight from the cut onto your plate; or à la carte, picking out just one prime cut.
Sip Caipirinha Cocktails at Velosa Bar in Sao Paulo
While you’re in Sao Paulo, head to Velosa Bar where you can sample Brazil’s most famous cocktail, caipirinha, which is made with Leblon cachaca, lime and pure sugar cane syrup. It’s incredibly refreshing during the hot summer months, but enjoyed year-round. You can find them anywhere in the country, but Velosa has a reputation for mixing some of the best. Be aware that these drinks are surprisingly strong, so it’s best to enjoy them at a time when you know you won’t have to drive or do anything that requires a level of responsibility.
Catch the Glorious Sunset at Jericoacoara Beach in Ceara
This virgin beach is hard to reach but it’s even harder to leave. Set within a remote natural park at the northern tip of the eastern coast, it still preserves the simplicity of its old fishing village. Acclaimed as one of the ten best beaches in the world, and considered to be the very best beach in the country by Brazilians themselves, while it’s quite the journey to get there, it’s more than worth the effort. You’ll not only find spectacular sunsets, but great surf, soft sand, a host of activities and plenty of creative types around.
Go to a Festa Junina
If you visit in June, be sure to attend a Festa Junina, or June Party. Especially big in the northeast region of Brazil, the festival lasts for the entire month of June. People enjoy eating traditional fare like corn and dishes made from corn like corn cakes, canjica (a porridge made with white de-germed whole maize kernels that are cooked with milk, sugar and cinnamon until tender), pamonha (a paste made from sweet corn and milk, boiled wrapped in corn husks, and turned into a dumpling), and much more. You’ll see dance presentations with dancers donning traditional costumes, bonfires and bands that play Forro, a type of Brazilian music that originated in the northeast.
Get a Fita do Bonfim
Senhor do Bonfim wrist ribbons, known as fitas (fita means ribbon) are an institution in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. Senhor do Bonfim means “Our Lord of a Good End,” which is one way that Bahianas refer to Jesus. The ribbon is considered a lucky band, and it’s used on the wrists or ankles. You’ll find it in a variety of colors with the message “Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia” or in remembrance of the savior of Bahia. The tradition is to knot it three times. Each time the knot is tied, a mental wish is made. It’s said that once your band naturally breaks, your wishes will come true.