Last visited: February 2010 (4 days)
Places to stay:
When I visited, I stayed in the Arpoador B&B. It's a very small place, only two rooms - I stayed in a twin room, bathroom in the hallway (but not shared) while the other room had an ensuite bathroom and a Queen-sized bed. I had a pretty good experience here, the location is excellent and the area quite safe. But you would have to try and ensure that you're in the main B&B because I met some people who were staying close by in a different apartment who didn't seem to like it as much. Arpoador is between Ipanema and Copacabana, so it's pretty ideal. Maybe five minutes in any direction and you'll hit one of the beaches. Plus you're super close to Arpoador beach which is quite nice and a bit hidden. I think this is the area where sufers go.
While staying in Arpoador was fine, if I were to return to Rio I would almost definitely stay elsewhere, I think Botafogo might be ideal for me. Botafogo seemed to be in the middle of all the different areas I visited. The samba bars seemed more concentrated over in Lapa / Santa Teresa, but that area is a bit more dodgy and transit a bit less convenient. But Botafogo is a quick taxi ride from either there or Ipanema / Copacabana. Basically, it seemed to me like Botafogo has places to eat, stuff to do, was pretty safe and is convenient to the more popular areas. Haven't actually stayed there though, so can't say for sure.
You could stay in Santa Teresa, but getting around seems a bit annoying if you want to get out of Santa Teresa. And you can actually stay in a favela - the Maze Inn is well-established and quite popular. I don't think I'd recommend it for a first visit because Rio is massive and it's nice to be centrally located to get your bearings, but I would totally want to stay here on a future visit.
How to get around:
You can get around quite easily and effectively by using the subway system. Buses and mini-vans are a bit more complex but dirt-cheap and depending on where you're going can be convenient. Taxis aren't very expensive - probably your best option when going out at night.
We didn't have any trouble with any of the transit options when we visited. Once we hopped on a bus going in the right direction but we didn't have an actual destination, we were just going to ride until we saw something we felt like stopping for - but the conductor and driver were really nice and kept checking on us to make sure we hadn't missed our stop. Also, everywhere I went, either by myself or with my friend, people were quite happy to call a taxi for us and talk to the driver to make sure they took us to the right place. We never actually asked them to call the taxi for us, but the guidebooks do indicate that radio taxis are safer than hailing a taxi on the street.
Oh and take the bonde (tram) up or down Santa Teresa, just because it's awesome. I guess this can be classified as "things to see" also. If you haven't seen Black Orpheus yet, it's worth watching - plus, you can actually go into the bonde museum and see some of the old trams like they had in the movie (up in Santa Teresa). Umm, again, I guess this is actually "things to see."
Things to see:
Cristo Redentor - ride the little train up all the way to the top. Sit on the right-hand side (away from the mountain) for a better view. Take entertaining photos with the big Jesus.
Sugarloaf - I wound up going twice. First time up, the clouds covered everything but then started parting to show ridiculously awesome views of Rio. Then I went up again, but only halfway, and it was a clear day and the views were again ridiculously awesome. Sometimes, in the summer, they have parties or movies up here.
Helicopter ride - This is the reason I was halfway up Sugarloaf. I was by myself and needed at least two more people to get on the helicopter ride and the Sugarloaf heliport is the busiest. THIS IS TOTALLY WORTH THE MONEY. Even just going on the shortest ride is worth it. I also got stuck with the crappy middle back seat with no window and it was still worth it. That photo above? Yep, taken from the helicopter. Seriously, this is one of the most awesome things I've ever done. Best seats are either next to the pilot or behind the pilot. Behind the pilot is probably best if you want photos (at least on my flight, that's how he circled Cristo Redentor). And my seat was actually better than the person sitting to my right (back seat, away from the pilot) because the lady sitting there barely got to see Cristo Redentor lol.
Hang gliding - I didn't do this but there are lots of options for it, just google. If I had more time, I probably would have tried it. And fyi, I thought that you get to hang glide around Cristo Redentor, but that is not at all true, you are actually pretty far.
Favela tour - Up to you to decide the relative merits of this, just do some googling to make sure you're going with an organization who are actually working to improve things instead of just setting up a tourist trap. Zezinho is a good guy.
Shopping - Shoes! Shoes in Brazil are reasonably priced and amazing! Well, for girls at least. Not sure for guys. And you can get custom-made Havaianas also, you pick the colour of the shoe base and the part for your toes and can also pick pins to stick on it.
Football - This was so awesome! I went on a football tour my first night with Robert Shaw (brazsoc @ hotmail dot com) and it was fabulous! He's a British ex-pat football journalist and gives you not just background on the teams and players but also gives you a mini-tour around Rio. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. You can go to the matches by yourself pretty easily but it's a lot more fun going on this tour because you get so much info. Just email Robert to see if he's running a tour when you want to go.
Places to eat:
I can't remember where we ate. Which is unfortunate because we ate somewhere really good in Ipanema, it's just off the main street, on a corner, halfway through Ipanema (or slightly closer to Arpoador) and had a bunch of different salads and stuff you could pick. Anyway.
You can eat at "por kilo" places - choose, weigh, pay, eat. And you can eat at rodizios - all you can eat meat or all you can eat sushi. Or you can eat at small places that serve a variety of dishes on the menu. WARNING - after a while in Brazil, I noticed that a lot of dishes are meant to be shared. So like, you might pick something from a menu and it's a giant plate of fish nuggests. Knowing Portuguese will help you avoid this.
YOU MUST EAT ACAI. Acai is everywhere. But you must pick the frozen acai. And then select delicious toppings such as granola or bananas for it. And if you see a street vendor selling it, go up and just nod to all the toppings. I miss acai. Eat as much of it as you can before leaving the country.
Love the nightlife? Got to boogie?
Be prepared to stay up late. Like, until dawn. I went to the Carnival winners parade and it started at 9pm and went until 6am. Pretty much what you'd expect, people eat late and go out even later. Google is your friend for event listings but you can also find flyers and booklets while you're there. Samba is amazing, go find a good club and park yourself in there one night. There are other options too, but I'm not sure what because we pretty much just kept going to samba clubs (well and it was right after Carnival so there was Carnival stuff too).
It comes up as a big issue when reading guidebooks and stuff about Brazil, but we didn't have any issues. As mentioned before, I found that people actually went out of their way to help us get to our destinations safely. Just use some common sense and you should be fine. We didn't have an SLR, so that's the only thing you might want to be careful of since they're kind of gigantic and obvious. I think maybe someone tried to pickpocket my friend once in the metro, but I don't remember if that was in Rio or Sao Paulo. He didn't lose anything. I was with a friend half the time and spent the last few days by myself, no issues either way.
Learn some Portuguese (I mean really, I would argue that it's a bit rude going to any place if you don't learn to at least say hello and thank you). Spanish can help you squeak by. If you're only in town a week or less you should be fine even with mostly English since you'll likely be in well-touristed areas. Rio is really big.