6 amazing Rio beach towns
Ipanema and Copacabana get all the attention, but the state of Rio de Janeiro has dozens of other beautiful beaches that are definitely worth exploring. Here are six of the best spots to get out of the city and enjoy the sun.
After watching all the Rio Olympics coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that Copacabana and Ipanema are the only beaches in Brazil (and that everyone in Tonga looks like that flag-bearer, but that’s a different story). While these crowded strips of sand are the city’s most famous—and likely the only ones with songs written about them—they’re not the only places in Cidade Maravilhosa to soak up some rays.
The coast of Rio de Janeiro state is divided into three sections: the Metropolitan Region (Região Metropolitana), which includes the city of Rio and the greater metro area around Guanabara Bay; the Costa do Sol/Lakes Region (Região dos Lagos) to the north; and the Costa Verde to the south. Whether venturing north, south or west, you can’t really go wrong. The best part? All beaches are public under Brazilian law, so you don’t have to worry about getting shut out of the shoreline—unless you get there too late to find a parking spot!
1. Búzios - Região dos Lagos
Sleepy-looking Búzios hit the international spotlight back in the mid-60s, when Brigitte Bardot visited with her Brazilian boyfriend. Since then, this peninsula two hours north of Rio has earned a reputation as the Brazilian St. Tropez, drawing A-listers to its cafes, clubs and, of course, more than 20 nearby beaches.
Locals and long-time visitors all have their own opinions on the best beaches surrounding this peninsula, as well as the prime places to cool off with a cocktail after all that time in the sun. But just about everyone agrees the tiny neighboring beaches of Azeda and Azedinha are worth a visit, with calm waters so green they match the limes in your caipirinha. Closer to the mainland, Geribá is popular with surfers, the selfie crowd and paparazzi on the hunt for celebrities. If you’re looking to get your heart rate up, rent a kayak at Ferradura or head to Praia José Gonçalves, where the coast is rockier, the water more blue and the waves a little more exciting.
2. Arraial do Cabo - Região dos Lagos
Southeastern Brazil’s answer to the Caribbean, the town of Arraial do Cabo sits slightly past Búzios to the north of Rio. Famous as one of Brazil’s top spots for snorkeling and scuba diving, the coastline's clear waters make for stellar underwater exploration of historic shipwrecks and submerged caves. But don't say we didn't warn you: These topaz waters are deceptively chilly, so if you don’t have a wetsuit, prepare to admire them from the comfort and vantage point of dry land.
Arraial do Cabo's prize beach, Praia do Farol has the highest effort-to-reward ratio. Consistently ranked one of the best beaches in Brazil, the area is accessible only by boat and controlled by the Brazilian Navy, which enforces strict limits on the number of visitors and amount of time they can stay there. Still, it’s worth the early rise to see for yourself why Brazilian researchers once declared Farol the country’s most perfect beach.
If you’re not so concerned with perfection, head to the popular Praia do Forno, which is accessible by boat or a short hike. Or, make the trek out to the gorgeous Prainha do Pontal do Atalaia, where limited space and an access route that requires walking down more than 250 steps gives the beach an air of exclusivity.
3. Cabo Frio - Região dos Lagos
Close to other north coast locales and about a two-hour drive from Rio, the 400-year-old town of Cabo Frio gets less attention than its flashier, high-ranking neighbors, so it’s a great place to head if you’re trying to veer off the typical tourist path. True to their name, the Cabo Frio waters stay refreshingly brisk year-round, but the consistent waves at places like Praia do Forte and Praia do Peró make them a hotspot for surfers, divers and other aquatic athletes. At the curving, shell-shaped beach known as Praia das Conchas, you can follow up a snorkeling session with some of the region’s best local seafood, while Praia das Dunas is the go-to spot for surfing (or just watching other people who are way better at surfing than you).
4. Itacoatiara - Região Metropolitana
You don’t have to go far from the city to find sandy nirvana—Itacoatiara sits about 20 miles from downtown Rio, just across the bay in the city of Niteroí. This beach is the most accessible of all the spots on this list, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less beautiful. The iconic granite mountains that give Rio its unique topography are here, too, shooting up on each end of the beach to frame the sand below, while the Atlantic tides keep a steady rhythm of waves rolling in, drawing surfers from around the city. If you’ve only got one day to spend at the beach, why travel any farther out of the city than necessary?
5. Paraty - Costa Verde
Even if lovely colonial Paraty were miles away from any coastline, it would still be worth a visit: The town’s historic center, under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage status, rests on cobblestone streets threading between 200-year-old homes with colorful doors that now house artist galleries, ateliers, cafes, excellent restaurants and shops selling the region’s famous cachaça, a distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice.
Let’s not forget the beaches, though! Paraty, about four hours’ drive west of Rio, is surrounded by a bay with more than 60 islands offering plenty of space for snorkeling, swimming, sailing and maybe even a glimpse of golden lion tamarin monkeys. Nearby Praia Vermelha is easily accessible if you don’t want to lose any potential beach time to hiking, and Praia do Sono is the place to go for surfing. You can head to Praia de Cachadaço to take an outdoor bath in the natural pools formed by rocks lining the beach, then swing through the jungle village of Trindade on your way back to Paraty. If you’re willing to work a bit harder for your relaxation, the secluded stretches of Antigos and Antiguinhos, surrounded by Costa Verde jungle, are a short hike from Praia do Sono.
6. Isla Grande - Costa Verde
The star of the Costa Verde, Isla Grande is one of the top spots that cariocas, or Rio natives, recommend to visitors hunting for the idealized version of Brazilian beaches. Isla Grande looks more than a little like Neverland, and appropriately, it was once used by pirates who lay in wait for passing ships. Though the pirates are long-gone, the absence of cars or ATMs on the island does make it feel like a place that’s perfectly happy living in the past.
According to locals, there’s no “bad” beach on Isla Grande—just head for the water and you can’t go wrong. Photo-seekers may want to aim for Aventureiro, one of the island’s best-known beaches and home to the “coqueiro deitado,” a palm tree bent at an impossible angle over the sand, which has become the star subject of countless postcards and Instagram photos. The purists among you are best off going to Praia Lopes Mendes, which "Conde Nast Traveller" named one of the top 20 beaches in the world. With a two-mile stretch of sand, translucent waters and no vendors or beachside restaurants to interrupt your sunny reverie, it’s easy to see what earns Lopes Mendes all those accolades. Getting there requires a short boat ride from the town of Abraao and a 20-minute hike, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
To reach Isla Grande, you can take a bus from Rio to Angra dos Reis (three hours) and a ferry across to the island (one hour), or arrange direct transport from Rio, ferry included.
If all those background shots of smiling surfers and rolling waves from this year’s Rio Olympic Games inspired you to start planning a Brazilian adventure, make sure you give yourself time to flee from the city tourists and pricey caipirinhas. Head to some of the state’s other stunning beaches instead, because trust me—there’s no shortage.