The undulating landscape that surrounds Rio de Janeiro is studded with wilderness-backed beaches, ancient sites and fascinating smaller-scale urban hubs.
But the fact of the matter is that public transport outside the city lacks efficiency. Trips to destinations that, on paper, appear potentially close – such as the cobbled streets of Paraty or the island charms of Ilha Grande – could well take most of the day, realistically requiring at least a night’s stopover.
With that in mind, here are five amazing day trips from Rio de Janeiro – three doable using public transport, plus two for those with their own set of wheels.
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1. Head to Ilha de Paquetá for an island escape
Travel time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Strolling the sandy simplicity of peaceful Ilha de Paquetá, it can be difficult to believe that a mere hour or so ago you were in central Rio. This small island of fruit trees, pastel-hued buildings and golden sand is but an hour-long ferry ride from Praça XV in the city center. The island is gloriously car-free, and the most popular way to get about is by bike; easily rent one from the main street in front of the ferry terminal.
A short cycle from the ferry is Parque de Darke de Mattos, a leafy public park whose trails lead to viewpoints such as Mirante Boa Vista, from which you can look back to Sugarloaf Mountain. One Sunday a month, the streets erupt with samba, the rhythmic festivities continuing well into the night.
How to get to Ilha de Paquetá from Rio de Janeiro:
Ferries leave every 90 minutes from near Praça XV (Quinze) de Novembro in Centro from about 7am.
Prainha beach is one of the more accessible coastal options from Rio © Getty Images / iStockphoto
2. Catch a wave at Prainha
Travel time: 1 hour
Heading west from Rio, the unfurling shoreline becomes wilder and increasingly more secluded. Those with time on their hands have endless swathes of rustic coast to explore, but if you’re looking to step out of Rio for a quick slice of tropical beachlife, Prainha beach is one of the more accessible options.
A wedge of white sand hugged by lush ascending greenery, its dramatic backdrop is matched by some seriously powerful waves. Prainha is a regular hangout for Rio’s more experienced surfers and its beauty is no secret – weekends and holidays see the cove fill with cariocas taking a break from the city. Large rock formations and strong currents make it advisable that only the most confident swimmers venture out of their depth; there are no lifeguards here. A scattering of rustic eateries provide simple refreshment.
How to get to Prainha from Rio de Janeiro:
Catch the orange “surf bus” that passes through Copacabana and Ipanema. or take a taxi. The beach is also accessible by bike.
3. Eat uber-fresh seafood in Niterói
Travel time: 10 minutes
A 14km-long (8.7-mile) bridge connects Rio with its little sister city Niterói. At just 10 minutes by bus or 20 by ferry, it makes an easy day trip.
Locally renowned fish market Mercado Sao Pedro on Av Visconde do Rio Branco sits a few blocks from the ferry dock and is frequented by many of Rio’s top chefs sourcing their menus. Upstairs, several small restaurants serve affordable seafood; for an agreed price, chefs here will also prepare fish you’ve purchased in the market.
Hiring a bike is a pleasant option in Niterói, and a 15-minute cycle from the market is the futuristically-formed Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói. This looming flying saucer of a museum was designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer; the contemporary exhibits can be interesting, but go for the sweeping architecture and panoramic views of Guanabara Bay.
How to get to Niterói from Rio de Janeiro:
Take a bus from Novo Rio Bus Terminal (Av Francisco Bicalho). Boats leave from Praça XV ferry terminal.
Known as the Imperial City, Petrópolis was designed by a German engineer and initially populated by German immigrants © Shutterstock / Diego Grandi
4. Explore Brazilian history in Petrópolis
Travel time: 1 hour 10 minutes
A little more than an hour’s drive north of Rio (traffic permitting), at a cooling elevation of 838m (2749ft), sits the city of Petrópolis. Known as the Imperial City, Petrópolis is a stately reminder of Brazil’s days of empire. Created under the instruction of Emperor Dom Pedro II and designed by German engineer Júlio Frederico Koeler, the city was initially populated by German immigrants.
Don Pedro’s chunky pink-and-white palace is now home to the Museu Imperial, where a collection of objects from his rule are on display. For contrasting architecture from the period, take a turn around the glass-and-iron Palácio de Cristal. Down the road is Brazil’s oldest brewery, Cervejaria Bohemia – swing by for a brewery tour and a swig (plus a limonada for the designated driver).
How to get to Petrópolis from Rio de Janeiro:
Take Elevado Professor Engenheiro Rufino de Almeida Pizarro in São Cristóvão from Av Pres. Vargas and follow the expressway Via Expressa Pres. João Goulart/Linha Vermelha and BR-040 to Av Ayrton Senna to Petrópolis.
Cabo Frio has stunning beach in plentiful supply, each with its own personality © Getty Images / iStockphoto
5. Find your perfect beach in Cabo Frio
Travel time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Some 150km (93 miles) east is the small coastal city of Cabo Frio – and, most importantly, its beaches. The intricately weaving shoreline means stunning strands are in plentiful supply, each with its own personality. Favorites include Praia do Forte and Praia das Conchas for their bright blonde sand and smooth turquoise waters; fans of surfing and other water sports flock to Praia do Peró and Praia das Dunas.
A short and shallow boat trip away is Ilha do Japonês (Japanese Island), around which paddleboarders and kayakers glide over shoals of colorful fish. For a more extended road trip with a hefty dollop of glitz, go less than an hour further up the coast to the resort of Búzios. This idyllic fishing village has been liberally injected with cosmopolitan chic; you’ll not want for swanky cocktails and sunset dining.
How to get to Cabo Frio from Rio de Janeiro:
Take Via Elevado da Perimetral in Caju from Túnel Rio 450 Anos and Via Binário do Porto. Follow BR-101, Via Lagos and RJ-140 to Rua Alex Novelino in Ville Blanche, Cabo Frio. Continue straight onto Rua Alex Novelino.