Most visitors to Brazil start or end their visit in Rio de Janeiro. A wise choice. There may be wider beaches in the north, higher mountains in the south, and larger jungles in the Amazon, but nowhere else on earth is there that wonderful combination of white-hot sand and tall green peaks, with a blaze of urban humanity filling all the spaces in between. Most people stay in the beachfront neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema. They're great places to soak up the sun and to people-watch. But even if your time is limited, it's worth making the effort to explore further. In the historic downtown neighborhoods of Centro, Lapa, and Santa Teresa you'll find narrow cobblestone streets, grand plazas, gold-covered churches, and buildings of the baroque, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco styles. Shoppers will be in heaven; browse the crafts markets for souvenirs or check out the small shops in downtown's pedestrian streets. Upscale shoppers will love the Rio Sul mall and the fancy boutiques in Rio's tony Ipanema. If you have the energy, Rio's stunning setting offers numerous recreational activities: Hiking, hang gliding, surfing, rock climbing, and kayaking are just a few options. Taking in a game of soccer is an adventure in itself. Nowhere are the crowds larger or livelier than at Rio's Maracanã stadium. The city's vibrant cultural scene comes to life in the evening and never disappoints: See some of the local samba bands in Lapa, or emerging talents at the city's many live music venues, or splurge to see a big national star such as Caetano Veloso.

Spectacular & Free Views

Rio's best two views -- from the Sugarloaf and the Corcovado -- are both ticket-charging attractions. But in a city with so much geography it's impossible to fence off everything. What follows are views you get for free.

Smack in the middle of Botafogo is the Mirante do Pasmado. It is walkable (enter off Rua General Severino, close to the Shopping Rio Plaza), although it would probably take you at least 30 minutes. A lot easier is to take a taxi up and then walk back down. The views of Sugarloaf, the bay, and the Christ are quite spectacular.

Just a short 3km (2-mile) drive uphill along Estrada da Canoa from the beach at Sao Conrado, the Canoas Lookout (Mirante de Canoas) provides a view of São Conrado, Rocinha, and the Pedra Dois Irmaos near Leblon, and looking back uphill, the 2,100-foot Pedra Bonita from whence the hang gliders launch. Carry on up the road for 2km (1 1/4 miles), then turn left on Caminho da Pedra Bonita, and you too can stand by the hang gliders as they launch.

The military fort in Leme offers the most spectacular views of Copacabana, the Bay of Guanabara, and Sugarloaf. At R$3, it's effectively free.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.