The Ultimate Guide to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Many of you legends asked me to write this and I’m sorry it’s taken seven months. I meant to write it after Carnival in February, but then I got swept up living life in Brazil, where I spent four months after the festivities finished (followed by getting swept up in the UK/Ireland Summer).
Carnival in Rio was the highlight of my 16 month trip around Latin America and I fell madly in love with everything about Brazil and when you go, you will too. This is a mega blog with everything I wish I knew before going to Carnival, including info on getting tickets to the samba parades, the best areas in Rio, accommodation, buying a sim card, safety, transport, and where to find colourful costumes and banging parties.
I’ve written this specifically for Carnival in Rio, but if you’re headed to another part of Brazil for Carnival, much of the same info will still apply.
Important note: I would like everyone to know the street parties in Carnival are called ‘blocos’. I did not shorten this because I’m Australian, it was the Brazilians!
Below is a hefty table of contents you’re going to need, let’s gooooo!
A bit about Carnival’s history
Carnival is a time when the city comes alive with parades and street parties at all hours of the day and night, with banging music, vibrant costumes and endless fun. Carnival started as a religious tradition, blending African and indigenous Brazilian customs for a wild pre-Lenten celebration of culture, dance and music. Both locals and foreigners from all over the world come to Rio to celebrate and the vibe in the city is truly insane. At any time of the day, you’ll see people wandering the streets in costumes, having a fabulous time dancing to Brazilian music.
You’ll need to have energy to party for days on end, so don’t go in with a soft heart. Some days, I was waking up at 5am, partying until 3 or 4pm, having an hour nap and getting back up to start again. These fabulous fun went on for two to three weeks, with some breaks on weekdays. But, don’t worry, as soon as you step out of your accommodation and into the buzzing atmosphere, you’re immediately shaken out of your hangover and ready to go.
Now, if you’re not big on being intoxicated in one form or another, or if giant crowds scare you, you’ll still enjoy Carnival. When you’re walking through the streets, there’s heaps of room around you and people aren’t packed in close. I went to Notting Hill Carnival in London and I felt like I was going to get crushed. Carnival in Rio isn’t this vibe. There’s space in the crowds and you can chill at the back of the parades where everyone, locals and foreigners, are kind and look out for each other. It’s quite beautiful and wholesome – Carnival is for everyone baby!
Dates and how long you need in Rio
The official dates for Carnival in Rio for 2024 are 9-17 February, but there are pre and post Carnival festivities you should stick around for. I would recommend a minimum of two weeks through this time (I spent three). You don’t necessarily need this long but my god, Rio is so damn fun in February and you’ll want to be there to experience it!
I recommend arriving at least three days before the official dates kick off so you can get to know the city and transport systems, learn some lingo and find your fave areas. Rio is massive, like London massive, with parties all over the city, so it’s a good idea to get there early and get acquainted.
I wouldn’t bother leaving Rio between Carnival weekends. The city is bursting with activities, and you’ll need all your energy for the celebrations. Instead of exhausting yourself visiting nearby islands, soak up Rio’s vibes and enjoy everything this awesome city has to offer.
Be warned, by the end of my three weeks, I was completely and utterly shattered. My body was broken. My voice was gone. My serotonin had disappeared. It took me two weeks to recover. Bring all the vitamins! Drink all the coconut water! Eat all the açaí! Do not go back to work straight after Carnival, give yourself a recovery period and go to a tiny Brazilian beach town nearby to rest up.
Customary kissing through Carnival
This one’s a bit random, but during Carnival, everyone kisses each other! It’s part of their culture and my Brazilian friends told me loads of locals either enter open relationships or break up so they can be single through Carnival, it’s wild!
If someone puts up half a heart with their hand, and you do it back to complete the heart, it means you want to kiss them, so you best be ready for a cheeky pash. Brazilians are some of the nicest and most respectful people I encountered in Latin America and this isn’t an excuse to be creepy, the half heart is symbolic of only a simple kiss! If you’re single and ready to mingle, I’d recommend you embrace this passionate culture because it’s fun as hell and Brazilians are exceptional kissers (maybe that’s why I lost my voice, who knows).
The best areas to stay
There are a few areas to stay in Rio I’d recommend, all offering different things. If you’re staying in Rio for a long time, you could bounce around different parts and get to know the city, but in peak Carnival times moving can be a pain in the ass.
Here’s a little map to help you see the areas, sorry for my saved places making it look messy af:
Beach areas: Ipanema, Copacabana and Leme
Copacabana, Leme and Ipanema are considered the ‘safest’ neighbourhoods in Rio and are within walking distance of those palm tree lined beaches with sexy men playing beach volleyball and sipping caipirinhas (Brazil’s tasty cocktail you’ll get acquainted with).
Between these three areas, Ipanema is the nicest and ‘poshest’, but it’s further west and away from the centre of Rio, so I’d recommend Copacabana over Ipanema as it’ll be a minimum 30 minute Uber between them with traffic and road closures. But, you would be okay with either option and Ipanema is a nice safe haven for non festival times.
As for Leme, this quaint area is at the end of Copacabana. Leme is full of favelas, similar to ‘shantytown communities’ and some favelas can be more dangerous than other parts of Rio. But, the hostel I stayed at in Leme on two separate occasions was in a favela and I absolutely loved it. I felt safer there than in many other parts of the city.
Keep in mind, this isn’t to say all favelas are safe. Lonely Planet did a great write up on them if you want to learn more.
This is where all the nightlife is and it’s also in the north of Rio, but at night it can be quite unsafe. I didn’t find Lapa too pleasant to walk around through the day either, although the Selaron Staircase (famous steps) below are in in this area. In saying that, the nightlife is the best here and many of the Carnival parties start in Lapa. So, for transport, you’d be in the centre of the action for a lot, but for the safety and beach vibes, Lapa is less good (in my humble opinion).
Santa Teresa is in the North of Rio and it’s known for its bohemian charm, cobblestone streets, art-filled alleys and colonial mansions. It’s a super cute area, but it is away from the beaches and it can be a bit of a pain for transport through Carnival. You would be pretty central to many of the cool street parties though, so it’s not a bad option. If you have a group, it’d be good to be here so you don’t have to walk around alone at night.
Botafogo and Flamengo
These areas are nice and central, with a more local vibe than Copacabana or Santa Teresa. You’ll see the stunning cliffs, pretty beaches and gorgeous parks of Rio here. You’d have to get an easy bike or metro to the beach and to some of the blocos. I love this area to live, but for Carnival, most of your future friends would likely be in the above areas. But again, if you had an Airbnb with a group of mates, it’s a handy area.
Accommodation – Hostels, Airbnb and Hotels
You’ve got loads of options and my biggest piece of advice is to book something early. Things sell up quick and the later you leave it, the more expensive things get. Use Booking.com and book with free cancellation so you have something locked in if your plans aren’t confirmed yet.
The best hostels
If you want to make new Best Friends For Life, hostels are a great shout. I met many of my mates in hostels who I stayed with in the UK recently, so don’t rule them out even if they’re not usually your vibe. Many hostels organise special Carnival activities and parties too, making them a fab choice for immersing yourself in the festive spirit with like-minded legends.
I normally don’t say bad things about hostels on here, but I will say this – do not stay at ‘More Ipanema’. That place is an overrated, poorly built, expensive shit hole and you can do better.
Below are my faves:
Aquarela do Leme – Leme
This is by far my favourite hostel in Rio. They have cement box beds with curtains, incredible homemade breakfast, a lovely rooftop with a gym, friendly staff, a co-work room and plenty of comfy sofas for you to die a hungover death on. I spent eight weeks in total here and it was unreal. There’s no better hostel to be rolling in wearing a bikini and tutu at 7am, eating a home made breakfast, napping, then starting all over again a few hours later.
As above, do not let the fact it’s halfway up a favela scare you, I felt safer at this hostel than in any other part of Rio because the sense of community is beautiful. The hostel is up a giant hill but you get used to it and Ubers drive to the top.
Books Hostel – Lapa
I didn’t stay here but if you want to go absolutely nuts and party hard, this is the place to be. It’s located in Lapa and the owner is the nicest Brazilian who gets to know each and every guest, making sure to take care of everyone. One of my close mates met her now boyfriend there and I have friends who have gone back to work at Books since Carnival because it has such a beautiful family vibe. The facilities aren’t as bougie as Aquarela do Leme, but who needs them if you’ve got an amazing group of sesh-head friends for Carnival?
Selina – Lapa
Selina is a chain of hostels made for Digital Nomads (no, I did not stay there), it can feel more like a hotel but they do have great facilities and it’s in Lapa, where the nightlife is. It can be over priced and sometimes hard to meet people in Selinas, but if you’re with friends and want some cosy and safe digs for your stay, it’s a good option.
Mango Tree – Ipanema
This is more of a chill hostel but it’s located in Ipanema which is a fab location by Rio’s iconic beaches. You’d easily make friends and go to Carnival festivities together and have everything you need. Just beware transport might be a pain to some blocos from Ipanema.
If you’re coming with friends, get yourself a spacious Airbnb to recover and rest between partying because trust me, you’ll need it. Again, make sure you’re booking well in advance! If I were to go to Carnival again with friends I’d stay in an Airbnb, but I also loved staying with mates in hostels and doing things in giant groups, so definitely pros and cons to both!
I can’t comment on these too much, but if you have mates or need alone time (and you’re a bougie bitch) a hotel with nice facilities and a pool would be absolutely lush. You won’t need a kitchen as you’ll hardly be home to cook anything and street food is tasty and cheap.
How to find blocos, parties and events
Carnival in Rio has unreal blocos, where you’ll be following a band down the street as you sip your caipirinhas, dance and live your happiest life. Follow the Instagram account @blocosrj.oficial to find the schedules. Also, ask your hostel volunteers, locals and fellow travellers. They have all the info and everyone is so friendly and full of life at Carnival!
Transport to and around Rio for Carnival
Prices for flights to Rio through February skyrocket, so be a savvy saver and book your flight to São Paulo and stay there for a few nights first. São Paulo is a sick city, with cool street art, sexily dressed Brazilians, fun shopping and banging nightlife. From São Paulo, you can get a cheap 6-7 hour Flix Bus to Rio.
Now for transport around Rio through Carnival:
Rio has an extensive metro network connecting major neighbourhoods and the system is easy to navigate, even when you’re intoxicated. It’s a convenient, quick and reliable option to get around Rio, especially when traffic is rammed. Just tap your card or phone to get on and off.
Catching Ubers can be hard but even if it takes some time, you’ll get one. Sometimes you might need a taxi but I prefer Uber as it’s generally safer.
Carnival is a time when the streets come alive with vibrant energy. Many Carnival events, blocos and festivals take place within walking distance of popular neighbourhoods. So, get them comfy shoes on and start walking. Don’t be a dick and walk around late at night alone and then complain if you get robbed though.
How to buy tickets to the Sambadrome Parades
The Sambadrome is a spectacular parade of the best samba schools in Brazil competing in breathtaking performances. I genuinely stood in the stands from 6pm to 7am with my mouth wide open in shock about how absolutely insane the floats, dancing, costumes and music was. If you go to Carnival, it’s a must do. Spend the money on the good tickets, they’re worth every cent.
There’s two weekends of parades where different schools play on different days. The first weekend of carnival, on Friday the 9th and Saturday the 10th is when the Access Group (or entry level) schools perform.
Sunday the 11th and Monday the 12th is when the Special Schools perform and this is the parade I went to. It’s way better to spend your money on the parades with the Special Schools because they’ve ranked highly in the competition as they have the most extravagant floats, dancing, music and costumes. It’s honestly phenomenal!
Buy your tickets in advance online here. You need to make sure you’re buying them from partners called ‘Bookers.com’ as they’re the official ticket sellers. When you get to Rio, you’ll go to a hotel to pick them up. It’s self explanatory and they send you the details when you buy them.
Hot money saving tip:
Use Google Chrome in Incognito mode on a desktop and go to the Brazilian website. Keep the languages and currency to Portuguese and Reals (Brazilian currency), and use Google Translate manually to buy the tickets. I did this and saved $150 USD!
Staying safe in Rio
I am not one to fearmonger and I hate it when people tell me bad things about a place they’ve never been, so before you read the below, please know this is not my vibe.
Carnival in Rio was the most hectic experience I’ve had on my travels. While it’s absolutely incredible, everything people tell you about safety in Rio is true. Many people gave me the ‘oh my god it’s so dangerous’ speech when I’d tell them I was going to places in Latin America and in most cases, it was not half as bad as they made out and I was totally fine, but at Carnival it’s true, so don’t be a dickhead and listen.
Legit safety tips
- Use a money belt and tuck that shit into your pants. I didn’t use a money belt for any other part of my trip, but at Carnival you need to.
- Don’t get your phone out and be waving it around like a tourist twat, and if you do every now and then, like I evidently did, do it around your mates, have both hands on it and be super speedy.
- Everyone in Brazil has tap payments, even the local drink stalls at blocos, so bring multiple cards and leave them in different spots in your bag in case one gets blocked or stolen. I preferred using my phone to tap as it was one less thing to worry about, but one of my cards did get hacked, so it was lucky I had multiple!
- Bring a couple hundred Reals (Brazilian currency) in cash just in case.
- Do not leave your stuff alone on the beach. Many people had stuff stolen, even when they were next to it, so always keep a literal hand on your bag.
- Lock the doors in taxis and Ubers and don’t use your phone obviously in them otherwise a wee Brazilian might snatch it off ya.
- Don’t get so intoxicated you become a liability to yourself or your mates, it’s unsafe and annoying.
- Bring a burner phone if you have one. I was fine with my good phone but I would’ve been less stressed going out if I didn’t care about it. But hey, gotta get content to write blogs like this for people like you, right?
- Cover your drinks when you’re walking through crowds and don’t accept drinks from anyone. I know a few people (male and female) who got drugged and it sounded fucking dreadful.
This isn’t to scare you, so don’t be afraid! If you look after yourself and listen to these helpful and wise tips, you’ll be fine. You’ll fall in love with Rio like I did and end up spending months on end in Brazil.
Where to find fun outfits
Carnival is a celebration of colour, creativity, hot girls in bikinis, hot men in speedos, face painting, tutus, costumes, hot people everywhere, and body confidence for all shapes and sizes – so you best get amongst it!
If you have the space, bring some festival outfits from home, but there are loads of vibrant stalls and markets lining the streets of Rio so you can easily pick stuff up when you arrive.
Here’s a few hot tips for your outfits and the best place to get stuff:
- The best market to get everything you need for Carnival is the Saara Market in Centro. It has loads of festival gear, glitter, face paint, outfits, make up etc for cheap. Be a bit cautious of pick pockets walking around though.
- The Gloria Market is my one of my favourite markets in Rio. It’s only open on Sundays and it’s more of a hand made market with food stalls and outdoor drinking, it’s a fab day out! You can get all types of fun clothing, jewellery and headpieces, for both carnival and non carnival life.
- Bring comfortable shoes, some days you’ll be on your feet all day and no one wants to hear you whining about your feet because you wore dumb shoes to look cute.
- Wear light or minimal clothing. Holy shit it gets sooo hot, like 30 + degrees with full sun. Bring sun protection, a hat, a light shirt if you’re a pasty bastard and wear nada like the Brazilians baby.
Non-Carnival things to do in Rio
While Carnival takes centre stage, Rio de Janeiro has heaps of fun activities beyond the parties, blocos and nightlife and it’s a fun, bustling city you should get to know. Here are my top fave things to do:
- Hike Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers in English).
- Grab a bargain at the flea markets on a weekend, I got so many cool clothes here!
- Stroll around the Gloria markets on a Sunday eating and browsing with the locals.
- Party your heart out in Lapa and take in the vibrant nightlife.
- Visit Christ the Redeemer! Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s bloody massive and I actually loved it.
- Ride a cable car up Pão de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain in English) and take in the stunning scenes of Rio’s coastline and cityscape.
- Embark on a hike or jeep tour around Tijuca National Park. It’s the world’s largest urban rainforest with stunning waterfalls and hidden trails.
- Wander around Santa Teresa and grab a coffee in one of many cute cafes.
- Take a cute photo with your fake girlfriend on the famous steps (Escadaria Selarón) in Lapa.
- Visit the Botanical Gardens.
- Check out the Museu do Amanhã and the Museu de Arte Moderna.
Useful tips on sim cards, CPF numbers, etc
- You’ll often need a CPF number (like a tax number) to buy things. Use this CPF generator to get a fake one.
- Drink the cans of alcohol called ‘Beats’. They’re caffeine and alcohol in one, perfect for breakfast at 7am before a day sesh, yum yum!
- Buying a sim card can be painful and Claro is the only provider who lets foreigners buy and activate one without a CPF. You’ll need to take your passport with you when you go to the store front. Otherwise, a local with a legit CPF number can help you.
- Download Google Translate and learn the basics of Portuguese like hello, what’s your number you are so hot, thank you, please, are you single, why are you so hot, etc.
- Also, download Google offline maps, reception can be crap and you need to know how to get around.
- Wear a goddamn money belt.
- For all you weed lovers, Brazil is THE BEST. They bloody love it and often smoke instead of drink. You’ll smell it everywhere, at the club, on the beach, at lunch, 420 blaze baby!
- Card is widely accepted, even on the beach and with street vendors. Locals prefer it because there’s a lot of fake currency getting about so again, bring multiple cards.
Holy hell, this was a massive blog but oh my god I hope it helps you! If you still have questions after this, holla at your girl. But, surely I’ve covered everything, right?!
Yours in kissing one million people at Carnival,