Rio de Janeiro Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors

Jess Moss, AOL Travel
Rio de Janeiro's famous sites like Copacabana Beach, Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue have been the stuff of postcards as long as people have been sending postcards. Whether you're traveling here for Carnival, scored 2014 World Cup tickets or are just taking a Brazil vacation, here are five first-timer tips for traveling to Rio:

Learn Some Brazilian Portuguese

If you're used to traveling in Europe and the United States, you may be surprised at how little English is spoken around Rio. Many cariocas (Rio natives) don't speak the language, and Spanish often won't help you either. Don't rely purely on a Portuguese translator app (especially because you don't want to be waving around your smartphone in some parts of town).

Your best bet is to learn some key words and phrases in Brazilian Portuguese before going: basic greetings and courtesies, how to ask where something is (and understand the directions), numbers and how to order and pay at a bar or restaurant. You'll then be able to navigate on the ground better, ask for help if you're lost and connect more with the locals.
Santa Teresa neighborhood Rio de Janeiro
Jess MossThe hilly Santa Teresa neighborhood has galleries and restaurants to explore during the day.

Get to Know the Neighborhoods

Rio's colorful neighborhoods spill over the mountains and hug the beaches and lagoon. Do some research before deciding where you're going to stay, as some parts are more visitor-friendly than others.

Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon are generally safe and easy to get around, though there's some petty crime on Copacabana Beach. Santa Teresa, an artsy hilltop neighborhood, is a great daytime destination for galleries and cafes, but it can be tough to get a cab to this neighborhood, making it a less convenient place to stay. Lapa, where most of the nightlife and dance clubs are, can be dangerous at night (and even feels a little seedy during the day), so exercise caution and take cabs. Favelas, the sprawling hillside neighborhoods, should be avoided unless you're with a resident or part of an organized tour.

Exchange Money in the Airport

In the age of credit cards, bitcoin and ubiquitous ATMs, it's easy to assume you'll have access to your money whenever you need it. That's not always the case in Rio. Credit cards are accepted at many major tourist attractions, but not always at restaurants, taxis and shops. ATMs in Rio often have trouble connecting to U.S. banks -- even if one worked for you yesterday it might not today.

After you go through customs exchange money or use the ATM in the airport, then keep it in your hotel safe and carry small amounts of cash with you each day. Once you're in the city, don't wait until you run out of cash to hit up an ATM -- you may spend a few hours trying to track down one that works.
Iguazu Falls Brazil side
Jess MossIguazu Falls cascades on the border of of Brazil and Argentina, a 2-hour flight from Rio.

Add on Extra Time to Your Trip

Rio's landscape and atmosphere are intoxicating, and you'll want to go back, but the reality is that for many Americans, Brazil is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Make the most of your time here by adding another stop to your itinerary.

Fly an hour to São Paolo to see how the financial and fashion capital of Brazil compares to beachy Rio. Or explore the cobbled streets of Paraty, a fishing village and World Heritage site that's a 3.5-hour drive or bus ride from Rio. Farther afield (a two-hour flight), but equally worthwhile, is Iguazu Falls, the majestic system of waterfalls that slices the border of Brazil and Argentina for almost two miles.

Don't Be Scared, but Do Be Safe

It's no secret that safety is a concern in some parts of Rio de Janeiro. Don't let that issue keep you in Copacabana the whole time. The best way to stay safe is to practice common city sense: be smart about what neighborhoods you're in and how you're getting around.

Don't walk long distances or up any hills at night; do take taxis to get around (tip: it's cheaper to hail them on the street than use the hotel cabs). Don't overdo it on caipirinhas and stumble around Lapa at night; do check out the neighborhood's lively samba clubs. Don't carry an expensive camera around your neck or an iPhone to your ear; do bring these in a discrete purse or bag and use them to document places like Sugarloaf or the Corcovado (Christ Statue). Don't go past the chopp bars onto the beach at night; do dive into beach culture during the day.

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