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An aerial view of Rio de Janeiro. In the foreground is the city. In the distance are mountains. Getty Images

The 25 best things to do in Rio de Janeiro if you love design

Beyond the beach

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While Rio is famous for its unparalleled natural beauty, what’s less known is the passion with which locals and tourists celebrate the city year round—not just at Carnival and for global events like the 2016 Summer Olympics. “Carioca” is the term for Rio’s residents and way of life: enjoyment of sun and sand, samba dancing, and traditional meals of feijoada and barbecue.

Beyond the beach, the city is the site of important modernist architecture, old colonial history, nature preserves, and world-class landmarks. As any Carioca will tell you, "you must go to Rio." And when you’re in Rio, these are the key sites, views, and activities to enjoy.

Points are ordered geographically, north to south and east to west.

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Museum of Tomorrow

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Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Tomorrow, part of a renewal project for the city’s old port area, opened in 2015 and was designed by architect Santiago Calatrava to use 40 percent less energy than a traditional building. Inside, one can view installations, exhibitions, and films dedicated to imagining the future in a world of global climate transformation. In front of the museum you can find new restaurants, shops, and long waterfront paths from which to take in the museum’s soaring, wing-like construction.

The exterior of the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The facade is white with a sloped design. Shutterstock

Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR)

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Rio de Janeiro’s flagship art museum comprises two buildings, one modern and one historic, conjoined by a floating canopy with a modern, wavy form. From the museum’s rooftop terrace visitors can view Rio’s renewed port, the Calatrava-designed Museum of Tomorrow, and the surrounding city. The museum features exhibitions of both historic and contemporary art, including a projected piece called “River of Images” that lets the viewer traverse Rio de Janeiro’s main avenue as it appeared in the past. The museum is free to visit on Tuesdays.

The exterior of the Museu de Arte in Rio de Janeiro. The building has a white facade with multiple levels and windows. Shutterstock

Monastery of São Bento

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This Benedectine Abbey, established in the 1590s, is perched on a hill near Rio de Janeiro’s old port, a short walk from the Museum of Tomorrow. The facade of the monastery’s church is built in the Mannerist style of the 17th century, and in contrast with its austere exterior, has a surprisingly Baroque interior covered in gold and elaborate carved wood.

The interior of the Monastery of Sao Bento in Rio de Janeiro. The walls are ornately decorated and there are rows of seats. The altar is gold. Shutterstock

Mangueira Samba School

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If anything is as important to Cariocas as the beach, it is dancing samba. At samba schools, teams of Cariocas called “blocos” practice year round for the week-long dancing holiday that is Carnaval. At Mangueira Samba School, one of the largest samba schools, people gather to dance from day into night, prepping for Carnaval.

Rua Primeiro de Março

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A stroll along the avenue Rua Primeiro de Março will bring you past many of Rio de Janeiro’s historic churches. Just off the avenue, on the bay side, are several galleries in historic 19th-century buildings, among them the Centro Correios Cultural, the Banco do Brasil, and the Casa França-Brasil. At Casa Franca Brasil, which occupies a neo-classical building, you can read in the design library and sip an Aperol spritz at the cafe in a courtyard that feels like a tropical Paris.

Praça XV de Novembro

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On the first Saturday of the month, the flea market at Praça XV de Novembro sells everything from vintage telephones to clothing to fine modern furniture. When you're done shopping, you can duck into the Old-Europe-style alleys next to the plaza and dine at one of the cafe tables that fill the narrow streets.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

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Attention, fans of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, contemporary art, or neo-futurism: Visit the town of Niterói to check out the Contemporary Art Museum, which rises on an elegant pedestal from Guanabara Bay like an earth-bound spaceport. The museum’s winding, sculptural entry ramp is often the scene of international fashion shows and other cultural events. The beaches near the museum offer excellent vantage points to view Rio de Janeiro from across the bay.

The exterior of the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. There is a red carpeted ramp leading up to a pedestal shaped building.

Cinelândia Metro Station Area

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A number of important historic cultural buildings, like the Teatro Municipal which was built in 1909 on the model of the Paris Opera, are located near the Cinelândia station. Two other highlights are the Biblioteca Nacional and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, which sits across from the Teatro Municipal.

The exterior of the Cinelandia Metro Station Area. The roof is blue with a domed portion over the entrance.
Teatro Municipal.
Shutterstock

Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião

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Fans of 1970s Brutalist architecture will appreciate Rio’s Centro neighborhood, which includes the monumental Metropolitan Cathedral and the Petrobras Headquarters. The Cathedral is designed as a heavy concrete take on a Mayan temple, and the Petrobras headquarters is an imposing stack of square forms that makes interesting use of columns and space. There are wide, cobblestone pathways around the buildings that make for a nice stroll, too.

The exterior of the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao. The building has a pyramidal structure. There are trees in front. Shutterstock

Rio’s best nightclubs are located in the Lapa district, near the arches of Lapa’s iconic Roman-inspired 18th-century aqueduct. In Lapa, Cariocas and tourists dance samba all night to live bands, or drink and dance on club rooftops to modern DJs. At night people spill out of the clubs onto the streets, and you can always find interesting varieties of street food served from bike carts near the clubs.

A white aqueduct in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A Roman-inspired aqueduct from the 18th century.
Shutterstock

Rio de Janeiro Museum of Image and Sound

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Long delayed, Rio’s Image and Sound Museum is set to open in 2019 on Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica. Already, the postmodern building designed by New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro establishes itself as a new Rio icon. According to the museum’s website, the building is a “reproduction of the famous Copacabana sidewalk folded into a vertical boulevard.” When opened, the museum will house exhibitions celebrating the music and art of Rio de Janeiro.

The exterior of the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Image and Sound. The building structure is geometric and consists of a mixture of glass and steel. Shutterstock

Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro

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Rio’s Modern Art Museum, opened in 1955 and designed by Brazilian modernist designer Affonso Eduardo Reidy, is a strong example of midcentury architecture and a place to catch exhibitions of modern Brazilian and international art. The second floor gallery offers panoramic views of Sugarloaf Mountain, the bay, and the nearby Monument to the Dead of World War II. On weekends, the park in front of the museum is a fun place to picnic, read, or watch skateboarders and bikers perform tricks on the museum's plaza. The breeze from the bay can be smelly in places so choose your picnic spot wisely.

Santa Teresa

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Founded in 1750, Santa Teresa is one of Rio’s oldest neighborhoods and the site of some of its most beautiful historic residential architecture, with lovely villas lining steep cobblestoned streets. The neighborhood’s bohemian character is apparent in its cafes and galleries, particularly around Largo dos Guimarães. One can ride the Santa Teresa tram from Carioca station up to Largo dos Guimarães, passing over Rio’s 18th-century aqueduct and enjoy fantastic views of the city.

An aerial view of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro. There are buildings and many gardens. Getty Images

Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar)

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The Sugarloaf, named for its distinctive shape, offers 360-degree views of the Cidade Maravilhosa and its surrounding islands. Rock climbers can scale many different routes up the mountain, but if you want to simply relax atop the mountain and take in the gorgeousness of Rio, a tram will whisk you up to the top.

A view of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. There is a tram making its way up to the top of the mountain. Shutterstock

Christ the Redeemer

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Rio's iconic, 100-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue was built in the Art Deco style in 1922 and is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It looks striking from any angle in Rio, but is particularly sublime when viewed from the platform where it stands atop Corcovado Mountain. From here, the large scale of the sculpture is made even more impressive by the thousand-foot drop to the green mountains, city, and ocean below.

Parque Lage

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Parque Lage is a beautiful tropical park that contains an Italianate villa, an art school, art galleries, walking trails through the Tijuca forest, and a courtyard cafe. In 1840 it was designed in the romantic English garden style by John Tyndale and areas of the park were renovated in the early 1900s in the Eclectic style by Brazilian captain of industry Henrique Lage. The park is a lovely place to relax, picnic, and view the Christ the Redeemer statue from below. The trailhead to Corcovado, where the Christ statue stands, begins in Parque Lage.

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

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Fans of tropical plants and succulents visit the Jardim Botânico for its vast array of flora. It’s also a destination for people looking to relax away from the bustle and noise of the city. In some areas you can even spot monkeys and other tropical forest animals.

A path in the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. The path is surrounded by tall trees. Shutterstock

Copacabana Beach (Praia de Copacabana)

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The sweeping curve of Copacabana Beach is the site of several miles of beach kiosks, volleyball courts, joggers, and beachgoers tanning, swimming, and enjoying the sun. On any given weekend it can seem like much of the city is here. All along the water, stands providing beach chairs, umbrellas, drinks, and snacks will set you up with everything you need for the day; just bring friends and a swimsuit. The rippling black-and-white pattern of the mosaic boardwalk, designed by modernist landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, is its own landmark.

The Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The beach is adjacent to city buildings. Shutterstock

Fort Copacabana (Forte de Copacabana)

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Whether or not Army history is your thing, a visit to the Fort Copacabana can be a fun time. The fort, built in 1914, provides not only exhibitions of the history of the Brazilian army, but also unbeatable views of Copacabana beach, which you can enjoy while seated at tables in the fort’s several outdoor cafes. The fort also features a branch of the Rio de Janeiro pastry institution Confeitaria Colombo, which was first established in downtown Rio in 1894.

An aerial view of Fort Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. The fort’s facade is white brick and there is a courtyard.
Sunrise from the fort.
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Praia de Ipanema

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Like Copacabana, Ipanema is a major destination for beachgoers looking to tan, swim, see and be seen in Rio de Janeiro. But where Copacabana attracts families and tourists, Ipanema is more of a fashionable, bohemian beach, as well as a local beach for the tony residents of Ipanema and Leblon. Just as at Copacabana, kiosks will provide everything you need for a day at the beach, from chairs to savory pastries to beer. Vendors sell handmade bead necklaces and other jewelry from tapestries along the boardwalk. A few blocks in from the beach you will find some of Rio’s most stylish boutiques and bars.

An aerial view of Praia de Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the foreground is a sandy beach with colorful umbrellas and beachgoers. In the distance are mountains. Shutterstock

Moreira Salles Institute

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The 1951 modernist home of Ambassador Walther Moreira Salles was converted in 1999 into an institute featuring photography, art, films, and concerts. Along with the institute’s art collections, the home itself is worth visiting, as it features many hallmarks of Rio de Janeiro modern architecture such as undulating canopies, custom brises soleil, and gardens designed by Roberto Burle Marx.

In the foreground is an in-ground swimming pool. The pool is adjacent to trees and buildings. Shutterstock

Cidade das Artes

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The City of Arts complex, designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, is notable for the sheer scale of its modern architecture, which rises seven stories and the length of an athletic field from a park in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca suburb. Despite its size and concrete construction the building is remarkably buoyant in appearance. The building houses the largest musical theater in South America, and there are several exhibitions of work by Brazilian artists on display in the building’s galleries.

The exterior of Cidade das Artes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The facade is tan and the roof is flat. Shutterstock

Prainha Beach

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For Cariocas looking for a beach day away from the city, Prainha Beach is part of a protected ecological area and offers a more natural experience. It is known as one of the best surfing beaches in the Rio area, as well as a place for families to spend the day swimming, fishing, and grilling. It takes about an hour to get there from the center of Rio, so Prainha is best for day trips.

Museu Casa do Pontal

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The Casa do Pontal Museum is a collection of Brazilian folk art produced from the 1950s to today. The sculptures, paintings, and figurines depict everything from scenes of rural life and festivals to historical events and erotic myths. The museum is located west of Rio de Janeiro near Barra da Tijuca, so it is best for a day trip from downtown.

Roberto Burle Marx House

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Landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx designed the gardens and paths that surround many of Oscar Niemeyer’s and other Brazilian architects’ modernist buildings, as well as Copacabana’s famous mosaic boardwalk. Sitio Burle Marx was the designer’s Rio de Janeiro home, and has been converted into a museum dedicated to his work. At the museum, you can enjoy and be inspired by Burle Marx’s garden designs in a relaxing and intimate setting.

Museum of Tomorrow

The exterior of the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The facade is white with a sloped design. Shutterstock

Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Tomorrow, part of a renewal project for the city’s old port area, opened in 2015 and was designed by architect Santiago Calatrava to use 40 percent less energy than a traditional building. Inside, one can view installations, exhibitions, and films dedicated to imagining the future in a world of global climate transformation. In front of the museum you can find new restaurants, shops, and long waterfront paths from which to take in the museum’s soaring, wing-like construction.

The exterior of the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The facade is white with a sloped design. Shutterstock

Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR)

The exterior of the Museu de Arte in Rio de Janeiro. The building has a white facade with multiple levels and windows. Shutterstock

Rio de Janeiro’s flagship art museum comprises two buildings, one modern and one historic, conjoined by a floating canopy with a modern, wavy form. From the museum’s rooftop terrace visitors can view Rio’s renewed port, the Calatrava-designed Museum of Tomorrow, and the surrounding city. The museum features exhibitions of both historic and contemporary art, including a projected piece called “River of Images” that lets the viewer traverse Rio de Janeiro’s main avenue as it appeared in the past. The museum is free to visit on Tuesdays.

The exterior of the Museu de Arte in Rio de Janeiro. The building has a white facade with multiple levels and windows. Shutterstock

Monastery of São Bento

The interior of the Monastery of Sao Bento in Rio de Janeiro. The walls are ornately decorated and there are rows of seats. The altar is gold. Shutterstock

This Benedectine Abbey, established in the 1590s, is perched on a hill near Rio de Janeiro’s old port, a short walk from the Museum of Tomorrow. The facade of the monastery’s church is built in the Mannerist style of the 17th century, and in contrast with its austere exterior, has a surprisingly Baroque interior covered in gold and elaborate carved wood.

The interior of the Monastery of Sao Bento in Rio de Janeiro. The walls are ornately decorated and there are rows of seats. The altar is gold. Shutterstock

Mangueira Samba School

If anything is as important to Cariocas as the beach, it is dancing samba. At samba schools, teams of Cariocas called “blocos” practice year round for the week-long dancing holiday that is Carnaval. At Mangueira Samba School, one of the largest samba schools, people gather to dance from day into night, prepping for Carnaval.

Rua Primeiro de Março

A stroll along the avenue Rua Primeiro de Março will bring you past many of Rio de Janeiro’s historic churches. Just off the avenue, on the bay side, are several galleries in historic 19th-century buildings, among them the Centro Correios Cultural, the Banco do Brasil, and the Casa França-Brasil. At Casa Franca Brasil, which occupies a neo-classical building, you can read in the design library and sip an Aperol spritz at the cafe in a courtyard that feels like a tropical Paris.

Praça XV de Novembro

On the first Saturday of the month, the flea market at Praça XV de Novembro sells everything from vintage telephones to clothing to fine modern furniture. When you're done shopping, you can duck into the Old-Europe-style alleys next to the plaza and dine at one of the cafe tables that fill the narrow streets.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

The exterior of the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. There is a red carpeted ramp leading up to a pedestal shaped building.

Attention, fans of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, contemporary art, or neo-futurism: Visit the town of Niterói to check out the Contemporary Art Museum, which rises on an elegant pedestal from Guanabara Bay like an earth-bound spaceport. The museum’s winding, sculptural entry ramp is often the scene of international fashion shows and other cultural events. The beaches near the museum offer excellent vantage points to view Rio de Janeiro from across the bay.

The exterior of the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. There is a red carpeted ramp leading up to a pedestal shaped building.

Cinelândia Metro Station Area

The exterior of the Cinelandia Metro Station Area. The roof is blue with a domed portion over the entrance.
Teatro Municipal.
Shutterstock

A number of important historic cultural buildings, like the Teatro Municipal which was built in 1909 on the model of the Paris Opera, are located near the Cinelândia station. Two other highlights are the Biblioteca Nacional and the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, which sits across from the Teatro Municipal.

The exterior of the Cinelandia Metro Station Area. The roof is blue with a domed portion over the entrance.
Teatro Municipal.
Shutterstock

Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião

The exterior of the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao. The building has a pyramidal structure. There are trees in front. Shutterstock

Fans of 1970s Brutalist architecture will appreciate Rio’s Centro neighborhood, which includes the monumental Metropolitan Cathedral and the Petrobras Headquarters. The Cathedral is designed as a heavy concrete take on a Mayan temple, and the Petrobras headquarters is an imposing stack of square forms that makes interesting use of columns and space. There are wide, cobblestone pathways around the buildings that make for a nice stroll, too.

The exterior of the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao. The building has a pyramidal structure. There are trees in front. Shutterstock

Lapa

A white aqueduct in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A Roman-inspired aqueduct from the 18th century.
Shutterstock

Rio’s best nightclubs are located in the Lapa district, near the arches of Lapa’s iconic Roman-inspired 18th-century aqueduct. In Lapa, Cariocas and tourists dance samba all night to live bands, or drink and dance on club rooftops to modern DJs. At night people spill out of the clubs onto the streets, and you can always find interesting varieties of street food served from bike carts near the clubs.

A white aqueduct in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A Roman-inspired aqueduct from the 18th century.
Shutterstock

Rio de Janeiro Museum of Image and Sound

The exterior of the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Image and Sound. The building structure is geometric and consists of a mixture of glass and steel. Shutterstock

Long delayed, Rio’s Image and Sound Museum is set to open in 2019 on Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica. Already, the postmodern building designed by New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro establishes itself as a new Rio icon. According to the museum’s website, the building is a “reproduction of the famous Copacabana sidewalk folded into a vertical boulevard.” When opened, the museum will house exhibitions celebrating the music and art of Rio de Janeiro.

The exterior of the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Image and Sound. The building structure is geometric and consists of a mixture of glass and steel. Shutterstock

Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro

Rio’s Modern Art Museum, opened in 1955 and designed by Brazilian modernist designer Affonso Eduardo Reidy, is a strong example of midcentury architecture and a place to catch exhibitions of modern Brazilian and international art. The second floor gallery offers panoramic views of Sugarloaf Mountain, the bay, and the nearby Monument to the Dead of World War II. On weekends, the park in front of the museum is a fun place to picnic, read, or watch skateboarders and bikers perform tricks on the museum's plaza. The breeze from the bay can be smelly in places so choose your picnic spot wisely.

Santa Teresa

An aerial view of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro. There are buildings and many gardens. Getty Images

Founded in 1750, Santa Teresa is one of Rio’s oldest neighborhoods and the site of some of its most beautiful historic residential architecture, with lovely villas lining steep cobblestoned streets. The neighborhood’s bohemian character is apparent in its cafes and galleries, particularly around Largo dos Guimarães. One can ride the Santa Teresa tram from Carioca station up to Largo dos Guimarães, passing over Rio’s 18th-century aqueduct and enjoy fantastic views of the city.

An aerial view of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro. There are buildings and many gardens. Getty Images

Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar)

A view of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. There is a tram making its way up to the top of the mountain. Shutterstock

The Sugarloaf, named for its distinctive shape, offers 360-degree views of the Cidade Maravilhosa and its surrounding islands. Rock climbers can scale many different routes up the mountain, but if you want to simply relax atop the mountain and take in the gorgeousness of Rio, a tram will whisk you up to the top.

A view of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. There is a tram making its way up to the top of the mountain. Shutterstock

Christ the Redeemer

Rio's iconic, 100-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue was built in the Art Deco style in 1922 and is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It looks striking from any angle in Rio, but is particularly sublime when viewed from the platform where it stands atop Corcovado Mountain. From here, the large scale of the sculpture is made even more impressive by the thousand-foot drop to the green mountains, city, and ocean below.

Parque Lage

Parque Lage is a beautiful tropical park that contains an Italianate villa, an art school, art galleries, walking trails through the Tijuca forest, and a courtyard cafe. In 1840 it was designed in the romantic English garden style by John Tyndale and areas of the park were renovated in the early 1900s in the Eclectic style by Brazilian captain of industry Henrique Lage. The park is a lovely place to relax, picnic, and view the Christ the Redeemer statue from below. The trailhead to Corcovado, where the Christ statue stands, begins in Parque Lage.

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

A path in the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. The path is surrounded by tall trees. Shutterstock

Fans of tropical plants and succulents visit the Jardim Botânico for its vast array of flora. It’s also a destination for people looking to relax away from the bustle and noise of the city. In some areas you can even spot monkeys and other tropical forest animals.

A path in the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. The path is surrounded by tall trees. Shutterstock

Copacabana Beach (Praia de Copacabana)