Every Question You Have About Rio de Janeiro Answered

By Kathryn Walsh

Making plans for the Marvelous City

Every Question You Have About Rio de Janeiro Answered

There's nothing subtle about Rio de Janeiro. From its crowded favelas to its massive Christ statue and wild five-day Carnival, everything about the city is over the top – except, perhaps, for the barely-there swimwear favored by some of the locals who gather at Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Rio is not the place to go for a quiet, restful vacation. But if you're looking for action, excitement, loud music and tons of color? Rio's waiting.

Q: What does Rio de Janeiro mean?

A: Rio de Janeiro means "river of January" in Portuguese. The city's name is believed to date back to January 1502, when Portuguese explorers arrived at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, where Rio is now located. They believed the mouth of the bay led to a river, and the name was born.

Q: What language do they speak in Rio de Janeiro?

A: Portuguese is the official language of Brazil. Visitors who don't speak the language will find some English speakers in central parts of the city, but it's less common to encounter English speakers when you move away from the parts of Rio that typically attract tourists. Some Rio residents also speak Spanish.

Q: What is Rio de Janeiro known for?

A: Rio is famous for its beaches, including the Copacabana and Ipanema, and for the scantily-clad people who gather on them to relax and party. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the city is also known for its favelas, or crowded shantytowns. It's estimated that one quarter of Rio's residents live in favelas. The city's most famous landmarks are the massive Christ the Redeemer statue, which stands on a mountain overlooking the city, and the distinctive peak called Sugarloaf Mountain.

  • Copacabana is perhaps the world's most famous beach. Located in Rio's South Zone, the nearly 3-mile-long beach is lined with vendors selling food and drinks. 
  • Ipanema is located next to Copacabana, with the Copacabana Fort separating the two. Ipanema is probably Rio's trendiest beach, where wealthy people and the fashion-forward crowd congregate.
  • Christ the Redeemer is a massive Art Deco style statue of Jesus Christ. It was completed in 1931 and is visible from many parts of Rio.
  • Sugarloaf Mountain stands not far from Copacabana beach on a piece of land that juts into the mouth of Guanabara Bay. Visitors can get to the top of the mountain by cable cars leaving from Praia Vermelha. 

Q: How big is the statue in Rio de Janeiro?

A: Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor, in Portuguese) is 38 meters tall, which equals about 125 feet.

Q: How many airports are there in Rio de Janeiro?

A: Rio is served by two major airports. Galeao International Airport (GIG) is the larger of the two and is located on Governador Island, north of the city center. Many international airlines fly in and out of GIG, including Delta and United. Santos Dumont Airport (SDU) is located near the center of Rio but operates only domestic flights. If you book a flight that includes a layover elsewhere in Brazil, you may be able to fly into SDU. Any nonstop international flight will arrive at GIG.

Q: What is the weather like in Rio de Janeiro?

A: Rio's climate is tropical, so it's warm year-round. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, Rio's seasons are the reverse of North America's. December through March is the hottest part of the year and daily temperatures average around 85 degrees F during that time. In winter – June through September – average highs are in the high 70s. However, Rio's quite humid, so the air may feel hotter than the temperature indicates. Summer is the rainiest season.

Q: When is the best time to visit Rio de Janeiro?

A: It depends on your weather preferences. If you like things hot and sultry, visit Rio between December and March. You may want to plan your visit around Carnival, when the city turns out to party. But if you hate sweltering weather, visit during spring or autumn. Rio's still plenty warm then, but not oppressively so.

Q: When is Carnival in Rio de Janeiro?

A: Carnival is Rio's most famous event, and it blows all other carnivals out of the water. It's a massive five-day party. Carnival is timed to end 40 days before Easter. That means the starting date changes each year, but the event always happens in February or March. Over the five days of Carnival, millions of Brazilians and visitors gather to attend street parties and costumed balls, to dance to samba music and to watch parades featuring extravagant floats. All of Rio is focused on Carnival when it happens, so don't plan to do a lot of sightseeing during that period.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.