Are you dreaming of getting away from the wet and windy winter days at home for your next Christmas break? Perhaps you’re wondering how the festive season is celebrated in a city as dazzling as Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, and how a tropical city like Rio gets into the Christmas spirit in the middle of summer. What should you expect at the world’s biggest outdoor New Year’s Eve party soon after?
Our Marketing Executive Lewis Freeth spent Christmas and New Year in Brazil’s holiday capital in the sun, and tells us what there is to experience over the festive period in this merry South American metropolis.
Although at first the blue skies, beach activities, and samba culture of this part of the world don’t exactly scream ‘classic Christmas’ to a seasoned European traveler, Rio is perhaps one of the best places anywhere to celebrate the birth of Christ. This city’s larger-than-life iconic statue overlooks its gleaming harbour by day and beams like a glorious beacon at night.
Standing proudly at nearly 100 feet tall, Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor in Portuguese) reigns supreme at the top of the Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park. It’s reachable by train or by road, and these routes provide a scenic view on the way up to the gates of Rio’s heavenly vista.
Visitors can also reach the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain by taking a day trip on a two-stage cable car journey, just as I did on a clearer day in the hope of getting better sunset photo opportunities. The first cable car takes you to the top of Morro da Urca, a lower peak, and the second one continues to the sumptuous summit of Sugarloaf itself.
Though thoroughly modernised nowadays, the cable car system was inaugurated in 1912, making it one of the oldest in the world, and its journey provides a unique perspective on landmarks like Copacabana Beach, the Cristo statue, and Rio’s picture-postcard bays.
Although it can certainly get busy in peak season, this is a must-do day trip for any budding photographer or sightseer with their heart set on capturing Rio’s uniquely formed mountainous cityscape.
Other worthy sightseeing options include the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, which is one of the top five botanical gardens in the world and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The garden is located at the foot of Corcovado Mountain in the southern part of Rio and covers an area of approximately 140 hectares. The botanical garden is home to a vast collection of plants from Brazil and around the world. It includes over 6,500 species, including a diverse range of tropical and subtropical plants, orchids, palms, and rare and endangered species.
The Palacete Parque Lage, officially known as the Escola de Artes Visuais (School of Visual Arts), is a historic mansion located in the Jardim Botânico neighbourhood, which I visited, and loved the architectural façades enshrouded in bright greens.
Another vibrant visit on your list should be the Selarón Steps. These colorful mosaic steps are a popular attraction in Rio and are considered a work of art created by the Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, and can be found in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood. The steps are covered in brightly colored tiles from over 60 countries, creating a mosaic that spans around 215 steps. The artist used a variety of materials, including ceramic tiles, mirrors, and glass.
No visit to Rio would be complete without spending a fair amount of your holiday at the Brazilian speciality of the beach, and these are some of the most famous stretches of sand on the continent!
The legendary Copacabana Beach, one of the most famous beaches in the world, stretches for about 4km along the Atlantic Ocean. It is known for its lively atmosphere, iconic wave-patterned promenade, and the Copacabana Palace, a luxurious historic hotel. The sand sculptors dotted along the beach edges make fantastic monuments to both traditional and Brazilian notions of Christmas!
Down on Ipanema Beach, which gained worldwide fame with Frank Sinatra’s hit song “The Girl from Ipanema,” you’ll find the beach is divided into different segments, each with its unique vibe. Posto 9 is known for attracting the trendy crowd, and beach games like volleyball and football thrive long after the sun has gone down.
Pedro do Sal is a neighborhood in the central part of Rio de Janeiro, and it is particularly famous for its role in the development of samba music and its vibrant nightlife. “Samba da Pedra” is a traditional samba gathering that takes place on the streets of Pedro do Sal, attracting locals and tourists alike who come to enjoy live samba music, dance, and a lively atmosphere. Cold drinks are served from vendors in every corner, and a great time is had by all!
It’s a balmy 30 degrees Celsius outside and it’s the 25th of December… Merry Christmas, or ‘Feliz Natal’ as the locals say!
Christmas dinner in Rio is a festive and varied affair, reflecting the country’s diverse culinary traditions. Brazil is known for its barbecue culture, so it’s not uncommon to find roasted meats as the centerpiece of a Christmas feast. Bacalhau is a traditional Portuguese dish that is widely consumed in Brazil during Christmas. It is often prepared in various ways, such as Bacalhau à Brás (shredded salted cod with potatoes and eggs) or Bacalhau com Natas (cod with cream).
Given the warm climate in Rio de Janeiro, Christmas dinners often feature refreshing salads and tropical fruits. Various Brazilian sweets and desserts are common during Christmas. Brigadeiros (chocolate truffles), beijinhos (coconut truffles), and bolo de rolo (rolled sponge cake) are just a few examples. Rabanadas, also known as “French toasts” or “Spanish torrijas,” are a popular Christmas dessert in Brazil. The dish originates in Portuguese cuisine and has been adopted and adapted in various forms across different countries. In Brazil, rabanadas are often made with a special touch to suit local tastes. And I have to say they certainly suited my tastes!
It’s a tradition in Brazil for people to wear white attire on New Year’s Eve. White is believed to bring good luck and symbolise peace for the upcoming year. Many people participate in the Candomblé and Umbanda traditions, making offerings to Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea. Flowers, candles, and other offerings are placed on the beach as a way of seeking blessings for the new year.
On the 31st of December, Copacabana Beach hosts one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations, known as “Réveillon.” Millions of people gather on the beach to watch the fireworks and enjoy the music and dance festivities. The highlight of the night is the spectacular fireworks display over Copacabana which are launched from boats in the ocean, creating a breathtaking show that illuminates the sky and reflects off the water.