Yes, it’s only Brazil’s second city – but thanks to its riotous New Year celebrations and truly epic carnival, Rio de Janeiro is the party capital of the world.

Add 40 miles of golden beaches and the breathtaking backdrop of Sugarloaf and Corcovado mountains – the latter topped by its towering statue of Christ the Redeemer – and it’s easy to see why Rio de Janeiro tops so many bucket lists. If you’re stopping over for a day on your South America cruise, here’s three different ways to spend a day in the vibrant capital, from the best beaches to cultural hotspots.

First Time

9am
Instead of “Have a nice day,” Rio folk greet each other with “Boa praia” (have a good beach). So, take the hint, grab one of the city’s yellow cabs and head for Zona Sul (South Zone, around a 20-minute ride). Start your day the Carioca way at Avenue Ataulfo de Paiva, three blocks back from Leblon beach, where you’ll find an array of tempting cafés serving up pão de queijos, cheesy dough-balls. For these and other pastry treats, try Talho Capixaba or Cafeina.

10am
It’s time to hit the beach – but which one? From Leblon, the sands run almost uninterrupted to Leme, some five miles to the east, via the legendary Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. The whole stretch is divided by lifeguard towers (“postos”), numbered one to twelve from east to west, and each intervening section has a character of its own. Postos five and six on Ipanema are popular with families; postos eight and nine are the LGBT zone, while 10 to 12 appeal to the city’s young, rich and beautiful.

Palms and Two Brothers Mountain on Ipanema beach Rio de Janeiro
The world-famous Ipanema beach

 

1pm
Time for lunch. Veggies have nothing to fear in Rio (try Bio Carioca, just back from Copacabana beach, for irresistible feijoada bean stew) but carnivores will be in heaven – especially at the city’s traditional churrascaria barbecue restaurants, where you pay a fixed price and waiters bring choice cuts to your table until you beg them to stop. One of the oldest and best-loved is Churrascaria Palace (churrascariapalace.com.br) on Rua Rodolfo Dantas.

3pm
Take a cab to Rua Cosmo Velho and board the rack-and-pinion railway, Trem do Corcovado (tremdocorcovado.rio), that winds its way up through the Tijuca rainforest to the 2,330ft peak of Mt Corcovado. Here, towering a further 124ft above you, is Christ the Redeemer, the giant Art Deco statue that has symbolised Rio since 1931, and directly in front, a breathtaking panorama of the city.

Christ the Redeemer in Rio
The famous Art Deco statue is iconic to Rio

 

6pm
Ready for a sundowner? Locals gather each evening to admire the sunset from Arpoador Rock, which sticks out into the Atlantic between Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Following this, begin your evening with a caipirinha (Brazil’s national drink). One of the Belmonte chain of bars is a great place to start (branches at Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana), while Bar Astor at Ipanema offers a trendier alternative. If you’re up for an immersive Rio experience – and you’re overnighting in port – check out the samba rhythms at Carioca da Gema at 79 Avenida Mem de Sa (barcariocadagema.com.br), where there’s live music and dancing.

Been There? Go Here!

10am
If you can’t be in Rio for carnival week, you can still get a taste of the world’s greatest street party at the Sambadrome (sambadrome.com), where the city’s samba schools start rehearsing their moves each December. Those incredible costumes don’t come out until the final week or so, but the samba rhythms will have you jumping out of your seat. Admission is free, and it’s only a mile from the cruise dock.

12pm
Need a break from the buzz of downtown Rio? To the north of Leblon and west of the lagoon lies the city’s Jardim Botanico (en.jbrj.gov.br), an oasis of green and (at least on weekdays) tranquility. Featuring more than 6,000 plant species, this 250-acre site is a horticulturist’s heaven. The outstanding feature – literally – is its grand avenues of 100ft palm trees, but there’s also a pretty Japanese garden and a world-class orchid collection.

Rio's Favela neighbourhood is worth a visit
Rio’s Favelas are worth a visit if you have time

 

2pm
Rio’s sprawling, densely packed slums – the favelas – have a fearsome reputation. They are still some places tourists shouldn’t explore independently, but a massive law-enforcement effort is paying dividends and several operators now offer supervised tours. Take a tour (favelatour.com.br) with Marcelo Armstrong and you’ll be led through the winding alleyways of Rocinha, visiting schools, craft centres and stopping at a local bar. Worth noting, most operators will return a percentage of profits to the neighbourhoods you visit.

Family Fun

11am
Rio’s beaches are world-famous as an adult playground, but for kids the water is simply too rough. If yours are tiny, you’ll appreciate Baixo Baby, a large enclosed playground, packed with toys, at posto 12 on Leblon beach. For primary-age kids, a great alternative to the beach is Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (visit.rio) – Rio’s huge and peaceful urban lagoon (also a perfect picnic spot), where you can hire a giant swan pedalo and take the whole family out on the water.

The cable car to Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain
The cable car to Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain

 

1pm
For a truly memorable thrill-ride, it’s difficult to beat the famous cable car from Praia Vermelha to the 1,299ft peak of Sugarloaf Mountain. The views from the top equal those from Corcovado, and you can look down on planes taking off from the city’s Santos Dumont airport (just don’t remind anyone of that tussle between 007 and Jaws in Moonraker).

3pm
When it rains in Rio, it pours, especially in summer, so it’s good to have an indoor attraction up your sleeve. The suitably futuristic-looking Museum of Tomorrow (museodoamanha.org.br) has a green message that children will respond to, and with masses of interactive exhibits it’s an excellent outing for the whole family. What’s more, it’s right next-door to the cruise terminal.