Home to vibrant cities, wild and ancient rainforests, pristine white sand beaches, thundering waterfalls, and an intoxicating world-famous carnival, Brazil is a fascinating and diverse country. It’s also huge, occupying almost half of the South American continent – a landmass that’s bigger than Australia.
From a visitor’s perspective, Brazil’s size can be seen as its Achilles heel – because when you have so many beautiful places to visit and exciting things to do, deciding which ones to add to your travel itinerary can seem like an impossible task.
To help you out, here are our picks for 10 of the best things to do and places to visit in Brazil.
1. Rio de Janeiro
There can be little doubt that Rio de Janeiro enjoys one of the most stunning settings in the world. Sprawled between the foothills of lush, forested mountains and the shimmering azure sea, and with a backdrop of rocky mountains ringed with white sand, its dramatic beauty is breathtaking.
Home to 14 million people, this city pulses with life. Rio boasts many of Brazil’s best museums and galleries, remarkable architecture, an excellent food scene, and gorgeous beaches – particularly Copacabana. Whether you want to swim, surf, play volleyball, or simply relax on the golden sand, there’s a strong chance that you’ll be seduced by its charm.
Music is the lifeblood of Brazil’s most famous city, and no matter where you are, you won’t be far from a party. Samba’s infectious African-inspired beat will follow you throughout the city, though hip-hop, bossa nova and funk are heard all over town too. Head to the Lapa neighbourhood on the weekend to join the legendary street party, which attracts people from all walks of life.
To find out more about getting the best of Rio, head over to the Rough Guide.
2. Cristo Redentor and Corcovado
Of all the iconic images of Rio – and there are a lot! – the most famous of all is surely the statue of Cristo Redentor. Perhaps better known as Christ the Redeemer, the statue rises up from Corcovado hill and gazes out placidly onto the bay, arms outstretched as if to embrace the city’s inhabitants.
Standing 30 metres high and weighing 1145 tons, this Art Deco statue is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and a visit to Rio isn’t complete without heading to the top of Corcovado (hunchback) hill for a closer look. You can take the train or a bus up, or, if you fancy a challenge, you can hike up. The hill is part of Tijuca National Park, which is home to springs, waterfalls, tropical birds and monkeys.
However you choose to reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with views that will truly take your breath away. On a clear day, the whole of the city and Guanabara Bay unfolds beneath you, and the views of Sugarloaf Mountain are unrivalled. At night, the illuminated statue can be seen from everywhere in the south of the city, seemingly floating in the dark sky.
3. Iguazú Falls
Straddling the borders of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring sights – the mighty Iguazú Falls. Consisting of 275 separate cascades, there’s no doubt that Iguazú is the world’s most spectacular waterfall. Its sheer size and scale makes Niagara Falls look more like a trickling stream!
There’s a good chance you’ll hear Iguazú Falls before you see it, and the noise of the thundering water is something you won’t ever forget. Set among the lush rainforests of Parque Nacional Iguazú, the heart of the falls is Garganta del Diablo – the ‘Devil’s Throat’ – and witnessing the power of this awesome natural force is a deeply visceral experience.
The falls extend for almost two miles, so exploring this incredible attraction can easily take all day. Catwalks, towers, and bridges allow you to enjoy different perspectives, and after you’ve got your fill of the falls you can explore the national park, which is home to more than a thousand species of birds, and many mammals like deer, ocelots, and capybaras.
Brazil certainly isn’t short of beautiful beaches, but many of the best are located in the city of Florianópolis in Southern Brazil. Located mostly on Santa Catarina Island, Florianópolis boasts 42 gorgeous beaches, and if you’re looking for sun, sea, sand, and surf, there’s no better place to visit.
Famous for its pastel-hued sunsets, sun-kissed beaches, fresh seafood, and laidback yet lively ambience, Florianópolis has nearly 350 miles of dazzling coastline, and there’s a beach for every mood and occasion. If you like your beaches deserted, head to the south of the island, and if you like a party vibe, head to the north.
Aside from relaxing on the beach, there’s plenty to do here. If you want to get active, the region is known for surfing, mountain climbing, hang-gliding, rowing, windsurfing and paragliding, and the city of Florianópolis itself has all the cosmopolitan attractions you’d expect from a state capital. If you want to experience Brazil’s party spirit on a smaller scale than Rio, this is the place to head.
5. São Paulo
It might not be the capital, but São Paulo is easily Brazil’s biggest, most populous, and most powerful city. Home to more than 12 million people, the city isn’t only the business and financial capital of Brazil, it’s also the creative and cultural hub of the country – far more than a mere concrete jungle.
If you’re into the arts you’ll be spoiled for choice here, as São Paulo has a dizzying array of museums, cultural centres and art galleries, and boasts some of the best collections of fine arts in all of Latin America. If you’re into street art, be sure to head to the bustling Vila Madalena neighbourhood, in particular Batman Alley, a bohemian street that’s lined with seriously impressive art and graffiti.
São Paulo is also known for its gastronomic scene, so foodies will be in their element too! From gourmet restaurants and stylish bistros to simple-yet-delicious street food, there’s something for every palate here. The fusion of traditional Brazilian dishes with European and Asian cuisine ensures the São Paulo food scene is utterly unique.
If you’re fascinated by nature, you can’t come to Brazil and not visit Manaus. This small city is the capital of the state of Amazonas and is seen as the gateway to the Amazon. While Manaus itself is interesting – and the Teatro Amazona, its famous Italian Renaissance-style opera house is spectacular – people mainly come here for the rainforest, not the city.
As the largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon itself seems almost mythical. Home to a vast and mysterious jungle and an enormous winding river, it’s known for its unique and otherworldly wildlife, and you may be lucky enough to spot river dolphins, caiman, jaguars, monkeys, sloths, tree frogs, snakes, and tropical birds.
There are many ways to discover the beauty and diversity of the Amazon. You can canoe through flooded forests, take a boat along the narrow waterways, or trek through the dense rainforest during a guided hike. You can even stay in a jungle lodge, where you can fall asleep to the sounds of howler monkeys and wake up to uplifting birdsong.
For more about planning your Amazon adventure, check out this guide by Lonely Planet.
7. Salvador da Bahia
Once Portugal’s colonial capital, Salvador da Bahia is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, and if you’re into history and culture, you can spend weeks here and not get bored. Now the pulsing heart of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian community, Salvador is also known as the capital of happiness, and this vibrant city marches to the beat of its own drum.
Located on the mouth of the astonishingly blue Todos os Santos Bay, Salvador enjoys a truly splendid setting, but the city itself isn’t short of beauty. The Historic Centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and colourful colonial buildings, ornate, gold-bedecked churches, and open-air caipirinha bars line these charming cobblestone streets.
Also boasting beautiful beaches and soaring skyscrapers, Salvador is the perfect blend of old and new. Architecturally rich and culturally diverse, no other place in the western world has managed to better preserve the culture of the first enslaved people brought from Africa – and from music and religion to food and dance, there’s nowhere else on earth quite like Salvador.
For more on exploring Salvador da Bahia, head over to Rough Guide.
8. Chapada Diamantina
Brazil is home to more than 70 national parks, but one of the most magnificent is Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina – a vast, virtually untouched wonderland that spans nearly 600 square miles. About a six-hour drive from Salvador, it’s packed with deafening waterfalls, deep canyons, rocky mountains, mysterious caves, and shimmering natural pools.
There’s so much to see and do here, but the most famous attraction is the Fumaça Waterfall, which is one of the tallest waterfalls in the country. At 340 metres tall, the thundering waters evaporate into a fine mist before they reach the ground. The dark waters of Poço do Diabo (Devil’s Pool) are also popular, as is the huge sandstone-and-quartz Lapão Cave.
The park takes its name from its steep plateaus and the diamonds that were once found here, and many of the hiking paths follow trails that were carved by diamond hunters. The park is perfect for climbing and canyoning, though photographers will be in their element too. Don’t miss the flooded caves of Poço Encantado and Poço Azul, where the crystal clear waters shine electric-blue.
Flanked by steep, jungle-cloaked mountains and backing onto an emerald-green sea, Paraty is breathtakingly beautiful, and this historic town is known to be one of the world’s best examples of Portuguese colonial architecture. However, Paraty’s stunning natural surroundings make it a haven for nature lovers, too.
Studded with 65 islands, the bay seems tailor-made for boat trips, and you can swim and snorkel in these clear waters, or kick back on one of the 300 beaches within easy reach. The jaw-dropping Costa Verde mountains offer some of southeastern Brazil’s prettiest coastal views, and the Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina has exceptional hiking trails.
The city itself has the status of a national monument and is a joy to explore, and the old cobblestone streets are home to exquisitely preserved 17th- and 18th-century colonial buildings that were built during the Brazilian Gold Rush. From galleries to cafes to cooking schools, there’s plenty to do here, and there’s a picturesque view seemingly around every corner.
To find out more about getting the most out of Paraty, head over to Laidback Trip.
10. Ilha Grande
As you’ve probably already gathered, Brazil is a paradise for sunseekers and beach lovers – but if you love the idea of an island escape and blissful beachside solitude, one place should absolutely be on your travel itinerary: Ilha Grande. This is a fabulously tropical and tranquil island retreat not far from Paraty.
The uncultivated nature of Ilha Grande is in part due to its rather unsavoury history – first as a pirate’s lair, then a leper colony and prison, all of which kept developers at bay. More recently, however, the whole island has been declared a state park (99% of it is covered in rainforest), with cars banned and development limited.
This is a place where you can unwind on empty white sand beaches and hear nothing but the soft crashing of the waves. With miles of mountainous jungle and historic ruins, there’s lots of adventure to be had too, but people come here mainly to relax. With only one laidback small town, Vila do Abraão, Ilha Grande is truly a natural paradise – and one you won’t want to leave.
For more on the delights of Ilha Grande, head over to Lonely Planet.
Brazil might be most famous for its love of festivals and football, but visiting this unique country can help you find a new love for life itself. Enormous, dazzling and diverse, this is a country of carnivals and capoeira, rainforests and rivers, white sand beaches, and wonderful wildlife.
Brazil’s cities are packed with history and culture, and its beaches are lined with beautiful people filled with joie de vivre. Whether you want to relax and unwind, seek adventure in the great outdoors, or make like a local and enjoy the revelry of Carnaval, Brazil’s astonishing diversity means there’s truly something for everyone.
The only downside to visiting Brazil is that because it’s so huge, you can’t even attempt to see most of it – but that just means there’ll always be so much to discover if you return. And there’s a very good chance you’ll want to…
For more ideas and inspiration for your next adventure, why not visit the travel section of our website?