Best Cities in Brazil for a Weekend Trip From Rio
The Olympic Games are coming to Brazil this summer, and to help fans support their athletes the country has temporarily done away with its visa fee. That means it’s the perfect opportunity to cheer for your team and then go explore the vast and beautiful country.
Fans will have plenty to see in the host city of Rio de Janeiro—and can easily make a day trip to the idyllic coastal colonial town of Paraty—but to really maximize the visa-free travel, visitors should head somewhere under-the-radar. From the futuristic capital of Brasilia to the beachy vibes of Florianopolis or the wondrous Iguaçu Falls, Brazil has a lot to explore.
Here are a few of Brazil’s most fascinating, exciting, and ogle-worthy cities to visit to help you plan your itinerary.
The sheer scope of São Paulo’s urban sprawl is mind-boggling. The bustling city covers nearly 3000 square miles, which means there is plenty of space for something of interest for every traveler. There’s incredible street food, fresh produce at the Mercado Municipal, and haute cuisine, like chef Alex Atala’s D.O.M. Check out Chef Atala’s suggestions for dining in São Paulo here. There is fine art at the São Paulo Art Museum, the century-spanning collection at the Museu Afro Brasil, and street art lining the avenidas. Souvenir shopping ranges from the Sunday outdoor markets on Avenida Paulista to the luxury shops in the Jardins district. Escape from the concrete jungle by strolling through Parque do Ibirapuera, the largest green space in the central city, or get away from it all by climbing to the top of the Banespa building for a 360-degree view of the city (or just grab a cocktail at Hotel Unique’s Skye Bar).
As with other big cities, it pays to be mindful of crime in São Paulo—avoid wearing flashy watches or jewelry, pay attention to your surroundings, and be aware of anyone getting too close. But don’t let fear stop you from enjoying this urban gem.
Brazil’s capital city is sorely overlooked as a tourist destination, but has a lot to offer visitors who dig a space age 1950s feel. The city is an architecture lover’s dream filled with sites like Oscar Niemeyer’s spectacular National Cathedral, and his humble yet dramatic Igrejinha de Fátima. Visitors can spend their days in modernist dream world wandering through the Praça dos Três Poderes, where the prolific Niemeyer designed homes for the three branches of Brazil’s government. Take a tour of the Planalto Palace and for a new perspective on the Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge, rent a paddleboard and make your way across Lake Paranoá. To complete your designer tour, book a room in the Niemeyer designed Brasília Palace hotel.
Salvador de Bahia
Tucked into Brazil’s Northwest coast, Bahia was once the country’s capital—UNESCO protects its historic center as a World Heritage site— but it is now known more for its spiritual heart and its vibrant African-influenced music scene.
Wander through the colorful streets of the Pelourinho, also called the “Pelô”, to see some of the recently restored baroque architecture, and visit the many bars, shops, and restaurants that line the blocks. Pay homage to modern miracles at the Sala dos Milagres (Room of Miracles) at the 18th century church, Igreja NS do Bonfim. Marvel at the Elevador Lacerda, an art deco elevator that connects Lower and Upper Salvador, stroll along the pedestrian-only promenades in Barra, and stop in one of the city’s many restaurants to get your fill of the coconut milk-based moqueca stews. Be sure to visit Praia Porto da Barra beach, the picturesque beach that is book-ended by two 17th-century Portuguese fortresses, and grab a picolés (fruit popsicle) from a passing vendor. (If that spot is not to your liking, the city boasts miles of other beach options.)
While it doesn’t coincide with the Olympics, the city comes alive during Carnival when over the course of six weeks some two million visitors flock to Salvador to take part in a high-energy street party that rivals Rio's as the best in the world.
If visiting Brazil is a once in a lifetime trip, make the most of your South America adventure by tacking on a trip to one of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders—Iguazu Falls. The waterfall, which made Travel + Leisure’s list of awe-inspiring waterfalls to see before you die, is comprised of 275 individual terraced falls that is poured over by 375,000 gallons of water per second. Designated as a UNESCO world heritage site the falls are one of the wonders of the natural world and sure to wow even the most jaded traveler.
Hop a LATAM flight from Rio (or from Florianopolis or São Paulo, the closest big cities) to Foz do Iguaçu Airport. The national park that surrounds the Falls is expansive and filled with dazzling wildlife and spectacular vistas of the falls. Spend the day wandering the walkways that carry you up and through the falls and out onto St Martin’s Island and Devil’s Throat. There are boat rides to admire the falls from up close, too. For the full experience, book a room at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, which is the only hotel located within the Iguassu National Park, and just a two-minute from the falls.
Connected to the mainland by two bridges, the island of Florianopolis is a beach lover’s dream and it’s easy to understand why Brazilians call it the “island of magic.” Beach bums will want to head directly to Lagoinha do Leste, which is one of the best beaches in Brazil. Be warned that the beach requires a trek to visit, as you have to hike in, but is worth the effort. Surfers seeking world-class waves should head to Praia Mole on the island’s east coast or can just beach hop from Canasvieiras to Praia do Santinho to Praia Brava. Anyone seeking an eco-friendly retreat visits the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center in Barra De Lagoa. Stroll (or bike or run) down the Avenida Beira Mar Norte, get swanky in Praia da Rosa, the hub of Santa Catarina’s social scene, or visit stylish bohemian town of Lagoa da Conceição.
If you’re ready for a change of pace from Rio, head south to Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná and a shining example of urban planning in action. The city is a cultural hub thanks to the Wire Opera House, the Teatro Guaíra, and the visually stunning Oscar Niemeyer Museum.
The easiest way to get around is via bicycle. Bike paths crisscross the city, connecting neighborhoods to one another, and the government is adding more paths all the time, making it one of Travel + Leisure’s Best Biking Cities on Earth. If you’re more of a bus rider than a biker, 80% of the residents of Curitiba ride the city’s rail system, justifying its title as a visionary city for public transportation.
However you choose to travel, be sure to spend a day wandering the Botanical Gardens, a replica of a classic French garden with a modernist twist, filled with fountains, lakes, and an art nouveau greenhouse that glows at night. Head to the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets of the city’s remaining colonial center, Largo da Ordem, which is lined with beautifully restored buildings housing cafés and bars.
To truly get off the tourist path, take a trip through history in Diamantina, a well-preserved colonial town where centuries-old churches and traditional homes still stand. Located in a far-flung corner of the state of Minais Gerais, as the name implies, the town earned its name from the diamond mines that brought the region a great deal of wealth—and a great deal of suffering for the African slaves forced to work the mines. The town’s diamond history can be explored in the Museu do Diamante, which is filled with art, antiques, and other relics of the trade.
Stroll through the city’s historic center, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Visit the Casa da Chica da Silva, a colonial mansion owned by da Silva, a Brazilian woman with a nearly mythic reputation for her climb from slave to partner of one of the wealthiest men in Brazil. The town is also the birthplace of Juscelino Kubitschek, the former Brazilian president who founded Brasília and his home is now a museum.
For a different Diamantina, head to the canyonlands of Chapada Diamantina National Park in the state of Bahia, an easy daytrip from Salvador. The park is dotted with hiking trails that lead to pristine pools, impressive waterfalls, and surreal rock formations and forests teeming with wildlife.