From the vibrant buzz of its megacities to quiet ranch retreats, secluded beaches to alpine hiking, there’s so much more to Brazil than Copacabana and Carnival
Brazil knocks many countries out of the park in terms of its natural appeal. Endless beaches, remote valleys, iconic cities and emerald rainforests are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Brazil’s major points of interest. Allow your awe to be struck by exuberant festas, eloquent cultural relics of the colonial era and by the Brazilians themselves. Your hosts are generally as open and fun loving as you’d expect. The natural diversity on display in Brazil is hard to beat too. There are a total of five ecosystems present, which translates to a huge variety of species scuttling, prowling, gliding and fluttering about in the many untouched corners of this vast nation. Mix up all the incredible things to do and places to visit in Brazil and the end product is a truly thrilling Brazilian holiday.
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The top things to do in Brazil
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this magical country. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in Brazil.
Experience buzzing Rio de Janeiro
Visit Rio de Janeiro and check off all the bucket list activities to do there... Take photos of the view from the feet of Christ the Redeemer, scale the colourful Escadaria Selaron, watch the sun set from Sugarloaf Mountain, admire the colourful street art and drink coconut water from Copacabana beach. The eclectic food scene also makes it well worth a visit for foodies, and if you want to visit in time for the carnival, then make sure you plan well in advance to ensure there is plenty of accommodation available.
Explore the Pantanal wetlands
Wildlife lovers must head to the Pantanal as this is one of the best places to see Brazil's most exciting flora and fauna. Whilst the Amazon is so thick it's almost impenetrable, the winding waterways here are open enough to spot caiman-hunting jaguars, blue macaws, capybaras (the world's biggest rodent) and more fascinating fauna. Taking a guided tour will increase your changes of spotting some of South America's most wonderful wildlife.
Admire the cascading Iguaçu Falls
See the spectacular Iguaçu Falls from all sides. Our expert local partner can arrange for you to visit the parks on both the Brazilian and Argentine sides. The waterfalls may steal the show, but the surrounding forests and the wildlife they house are equally wonderful. Trekking through the forest to the falls is the best way to experience the flora and fauna - keep your eyes peeled for countless colourful butterflies and birds, and keep your ears open for the distinctive calls of howler monkeys.
Discover the beating heart of Afro-Brazilian culture
Salvador do Bahia is a city bubbling with excitement and energy. Located on the coast alongside the Bay of Todos Santos, this intoxicating city enjoys a fabulous setting. The historic part of town, Pelourinho, sits high on a bluff overlooking the sea, packed with pretty cobbled lanes and brightly painted colonial houses. The streets are always lively with capoeira or drum performances, traditionally dressed traders and food stalls. When the Portuguese arrived in South America they established their first colonial settlement here, so there’s plenty of architecture to enjoy, but the most exciting aspect of Salvador is its cultural heritage. With the Afro-Brazilian mix of much of the population, the food, faith and lifestyle are distinct and compelling.
Go on an Amazonian adventure
When it comes to the Amazon, the statistics are mind boggling. 2.5 million species of insects crawling through over 40,000 species of plants in a forest 23 times the size of the UK - then a 4000 mile river winding through it. Despite its scale, it’s the little things that make a trip to the Amazon so special; fishing for piranha with the locals, sitting still and experiencing the sounds of the forest, or seeing a pink river dolphin raise its head. A highlight of the classic Amazon experience is seeing the ‘Meeting of the Waters’, where the dark blue flow of the Rio Negro meets the sandy waters of the Amazon itself.
Lesser-known things to do in Brazil
While there are many well-known things to do in Brazil, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Brazilian adventure.
Find heaven on earth in Fernando de Noronha
Want to know where beach heaven is located? About 200 miles off the coast of Northern Brazil. The 21 islands of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago are simply perfect. Only one of them is inhabited, and even then only by a few thousand people. The whole area is strictly protected because of its environmental importance, and dolphins and turtles abound in its waters. Anyone lucky enough to visit should count themselves very blessed.
Enjoy sublime views in Lencois Maranhenses
In the far north, on the Atlantic coast, an otherworldly landscape of rare beauty is waiting. An expanse of undulating white sand dunes shelter pools of sparkling fresh water, and at first sight the views over the gleaming white, scattered with blue, are simply amazing. The area is protected and remains perfectly pristine. No one is allowed to build or live in the park other than the handful of families who have lived there for generations. The pools are actually rainwater lagoons, only seasonally filled and usually at their most impressive from May to September.
Wander the golden hills of Minas Gerais
Looking out across a landscape of rolling green hills and pretty whitewashed villages, you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually in rural Portugal, so evocative are the colonial villages of the region. Minas Gerais is an easygoing place to travel, laden with impressive art and historic architecture, but beyond that there is also the scenery, the renowned food and the famous coffee. The most memorable highlights of Minas Gerais are its historic cities, such as Ouro Preto and Diamantina. These towns grew up in the hilly landscape that surrounds them because of the search for gold.
Commune with nature in Chapada dos Veadeiros
The beauty of the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park is simply mesmerising. This pristine landscape in central Brazil is prime hiking country, with dramatic hills, great sandstone canyons and tumbling waterfalls. The parks borders are far reaching, so vistas across this almost primordial landscape are expansive, while glinting river pools offer a cooling dip after a day’s hike. The power of the area’s natural beauty has attracted a growing New Age community, and eco-tourism is the name of the game here… tread lightly.
When is the best time to visit Brazil?
Brazil has enough climatic variety to sustain travel throughout the year. Expect humidity in the equatorial north, with heavy rain in the Amazon basin from December until May when river levels rise significantly. The famous Amazonian pink river dolphin can be spotted – with a bit of luck – all year round.
Although the coastal regions northward are generally sunny, from Rio southward there are noticeable seasonal changes, with the coldest months from July until September. Temperatures can drop to 10°C (50°F) even at sea level in the far south.
Brazilian food and drink
One of the highlights of travelling to a new country is discovering the cuisine. Traditional Brazilian food is known for its vibrant flavours and fabulous fresh ingredients, and whether you splash out in high-end restaurants or grab a snack from a market stall, your taste buds won't be disappointed.
Dishes to try
There are plenty of exciting dishes to try, so here are a few to look out for as recommended by our lovely local experts.
Acarajé from Bahia are deep fried patties of mashed beans and onions which are often split open and stuffed with prawns. It's a popular street food with African roots.
Moqueca Capixaba, a tasty fish stew with the zing of coriander from Espírito Santo.
Coxinha is a national treat sold everywhere consisting of croquettes stuffed with chicken.
Farofa is another nationwide recipe based on toasted cassava flour mixed with various spices to create a tasty garnish for meat dishes. Each state (and even every family) prepares it a different way.
Açaí is a much loved fruit in Brazil. Many prefer to eat the pulp as a sort of ice cream dish, but where it's originally from, in the north, the original fruit is used for their açaí desserts.
Feijoada is the most well known Brazilian dish, and is originally from Rio,though is eaten all over the country. It's an earthy black bean and pork stew that has its roots in Portugal and is known as the national dish.
Pão de Queijo are little baked cheese rolls originating from Minas Gerais - they're a popular Brazilian breakfast food, or often eaten as an afternoon snack.
Cocada is a coconut dessert from the northeast, while Brigadeiro are smooth, chocolate sweets covered in chocolate sprinkles, popular at children's parties.
Tacacá is a traditional soup from the Amazon region, and Tapioca is the name given to a tapioca starch ‘crepe’ of sorts. It's a popular snack or breakfast sandwich, and is a street food in the northeast as well as in several towns along the coast.
One of our local experts, Poly, particularly recommends the food from her home state of Minas Gerais - her all time favourite being Feijão Tropeiro, a hearty mixture of beans, sausage, bacon, egg, manioc flour and collard greens. ‘Feijão Tropeiro’ means Cattleman’s Beans, so named because the ‘tropeiros’ - cattlemen - would take beans, dried meat and manioc flour with them as dry provisions on their long expeditions into inland Brazil.
You shouldn’t miss the chance to experience the Churrascaria - these ‘all you can eat’ restaurants are traditionally from the South of Brazil, always featuring lots and lots of meat. Something else that's worth knowing about is the Kilo Restaurant - a fun concept where there are long buffets of food for you to help yourself to whatever you'd like to eat, and pay by weight. Travellers usually like this type of restaurant because there's essentially something for everyone. There's always a big salad bar, rice, beans, pastas, and different cuts of meats and traditional side dishes.
Wherever you dine, look out for ‘Prato Feito’ which is the daily special, often available at small bars and bakeries as well as more high end restaurants, where you will find them called “Pratos Executivos”. A good way to sample the freshest of seasonal produce.
Drinks in Brazil
The national alcoholic drink of Brazil is the caipirinha, a cocktail made with cachaça - a spirit derived from sugarcane juice, mixed with lime and plenty of ice. There are also several Brazilian beers available, such as Antarctica, Skol and Brahma, and a burgeoning craft beer scene especially in the cities.
Non-alcoholic drink options include ‘vitaminas’, which is a sweetened smoothie made with a variety of fruits - one of the most popular being avocado - or coconut water drunk straight out of the nut itself which is very refreshing. “Caldo de cana”, a.k.a sugar cane juice, is also delicious and well worth a try. Guaraná soft drink is a local alternative to the global brands.
If you want to go on a foodie tour of Brazil, click take a look at our Taste of Brazil trip idea.
Top tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Brazil. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Make time for Sao Paulo…
"If your international flight lands in Sao Paulo, think about spending a few days in the city. Filled with great museums, bars, restaurants, and an incredible music and arts scene, it’s a real culture-vulture capital."
"‘Carnaval’ is probably the most widely celebrated event in the country, so don’t limit yourself to spending it in Rio de Janeiro, another great destination is Recife."
Welcome to Brazil…
"Brazilians are very affectionate people and will greet you with a hug and a kiss or two on the cheek. If you'd rather avoid this greeting you will not be considered rude, just get in quick with a handshake instead."
Interesting facts about Brazil
India is a fascinating, multi-cultural country. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
- There have been recent estimates that over 60 indigenous tribes who have never come into contact with the modern world remain in the remotest areas of Brazil.
- Brazil has borders with almost all the other South American countries - 9 out of 11. Only Chile and Ecuador do not share a border with Brazil.
- Ethnically, Brazil is a true melting pot – it is home to the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan, while Sao Paulo has more Italians than Rome, and a good portion of Germans too. There is also a huge population of African descendants.
Know before you go to Brazil
Kisses on the cheek to say hello and goodbye are normal. Ladies, do not be alarmed if someone you barely know greets you with a kiss on the cheek - this is quite the norm. In Rio, expect a kiss on each cheek for a greeting or a goodbye. Men can simply shake hands and perhaps clasp a shoulder in greeting if they choose.
You will probably be referred to as a “gringo” (men) or “gringa” (women) at some point. This is not an offensive term, so don’t worry at all. It simply means “tourist” or “foreigner” and is not meant as a personal slight.
Brazil can be expensive. On the whole, prices won’t blow you out of the water, but any imported goods, such as electronics, clothing or beauty products, can be surprisingly pricey, so bring these things with you where possible.
Tipping in Brazil
A 10% tip is usually included on the bill in Brazil. While it may be commonplace in other countries to add a tip to the bill when you’ve enjoyed the service, in Brazil a service charge is nearly always included. There is no legal requirement to pay it if you weren’t happy with the service, but it does help avoid mental arithmetic at the end of a pleasant meal.
What to read before you go to Brazil
'Heliopolis' by James Scudamore
Set in contemporary Sao Paulo, this novel by award-winning British writer Scudamore tells the story of a young favela boy transported to the high life in Sao Paulo. However, this is not a straightforward rags-to-riches story.
'The Violent Land' by Jorge Amado
This modernist classic written by acclaimed Brazilian author Amado in the 1940s, tells the story of a feuding pair of families under the wider setting of Bahia’s vast and contentious cacao plantations and industry.
'A Death in Brazil' by Peter Robb
Having lived there for twenty years, author Robb experienced a broad spectrum of contemporary Brazil. In this sparkling travelogue he combines history, culture and personal experience to great effect.
What to pack for your Brazil holiday
Bring lots of sunblock. The sun is gloriously strong in Brazil.
Bring insect repellent. There are mosquitos and other biting insects around in Brazil, particularly if you are heading to the Amazon or Pantanal. Your repellent should have at least 10% Deet or Picaridin, which are the main ingredients against the mosquito that transmits diseases like zika virus or dengue fever.
Pack comfortable shoes, as you are likely to be doing quite a bit of walking. In the big cities it's faster to walk than getting around in traffic, and in the smaller towns walking gives you the opportunity for interaction with locals and fabulous views along the way.
Day bags/purses with zips. Our local experts recommend cross-body bags for when you are out and about. This is to dissuade pickpockets. If you're coming for a holiday like Carnaval or New Year's Eve, be on high alert and leave valuables in your accommodation. Unfortunately, there are lots of pickpockets around these celebrations who take advantage of tourists.
Don't forget adapters... The electricity voltage can vary from state to state. For example, the voltage in Curitiba is 110-127V/60Hz, but in Brasilia it is 220-240V/60Hz. It is definitely worth investing in a good quality adapter before travelling (especially considering that electronics tend to be expensive), to save you from blowing out any of your electrical appliances.
Our Ultimate Guide to Brazil
If you like what you've been reading here and fancy some more inspirational reading in a downloadable, digestible format, then have a read of our free Ultimate Guide to Brazil. It's full of useful tips from our local experts as well as more extensive information on the highlights of this magical country.
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