For first-timers, a five-mile stroll along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches — Rio de Janeiro’s two most fabled sand parentheses — will stir up feelings even in those who have long and unironically listed “walks on the beach” as a favorite pastime.
Such reactions may range from counterfactual nostalgia (“Imagine coming of age in a place like this”) to cultural aha moments (“Bossa nova makes so much sense now”) to medium-term reverie (“What are the rules on Brazil’s digital-nomad visa again?”).
More than 20 visits in, I still turn some kind of emotional every time I return to Rio and set foot on the boardless boardwalk where the vast majority of this stroll takes place. Brazilians call such a beachfront sidewalk the “calçadão,” but forget pronouncing it and focus on its official sound: a thousand flip-flops slapping the wave-patterned Portuguese pavement.
The route is simple: Walk along the first beach, cut inland briefly to skirt a rocky peninsula, and then walk along a second beach. Stop for refreshment at the countless kiosks along the way. As the desire strikes, turn left for a dip in the water or right for an urban foray.
Start midafternoon on a sunny day — the Rio beach scene under gray skies is like Italy during a pasta shortage. Weekends are good, December to February summer weekends are better, and Sundays are ideal, as the city closes the adjacent beachfront avenue for throngs and thongs of promenading locals.
Sneakers or flip-flops will do, but please no sandals with socks: Rio de Janeiro beaches accept all body types and locals are accustomed to touristy foibles like baggy bikinis and gringo skin broiled to the color of juicy shrimp, but even they draw the line somewhere. Take sunscreen, a credit card — wireless tap to pay is nearly ubiquitous, even at street vendors — and keep your smartphone buried in your pocket. (This is one stretch of Rio where tourists can walk by day in relative safety, but still.) No need for a step counter; keep track of progress by the lifeguard posts (postos) along the way, numbered 1 to 12.
Start at the northernmost end of Leme Beach (which soon becomes Copacabana), taking the time to stroll out to “Fisherman’s Path” along the rocks to say hi to the bronze statue of Clarice Lispector, one of Brazil’s great 20th-century novelists, or to actual, potentially more responsive, fishermen. Then pass the scene around Posto 1, with young people sunbathing and playing altinha, the show-offy, keep-the-soccer-ball-in-the-air game.
Posto 2 means you’re in Copacabana, at once touristy (because of the hotels) and diverse (thanks to public transportation). It’s crackling with energy, foot volleyball, sand sculptures and one notable non-sand sculpture of Ayrton Senna, the championship Formula 1 driver who holds near-Pelé status around here. Stop and stare at the Copacabana Palace, the French Riviera-inspired hotel, opened in 1923 and still classing up the beach.
Not far past Posto 6, your first beach comes to an end at Fort Copacabana. Cut across on Francisco Otaviano Street for three-plus blocks, ducking through a park to Arpoador Beach — known best for morning surfers and late-afternoon sunset applauders, but also home to a charming little peninsula-top park.
Between Postos 7 and 8 is your next bronze statue, the guitar-toting Tom Jobim, composer of (what else) the bossa nova classic “Girl From Ipanema.” If it’s a Sunday, detour one block to General Osório Square for crafts at the Hippie Market, then head toward the finely sculptured human specimens near Posto 9. This might be the time to take a break on the sand — a friendly neighborhood beach chair renter will magically appear.
If you haven’t left the beach yet, consider turning right on Rua Vinícius de Moraes (named for the lyricist of “Girl From Ipanema”) onto the posh Ipanema neighborhood’s main drag for either ice cream at Vero or an icy guava juice or grilled sandwich at Polis Sucos.
Then cut back to the beach and cross the canal and you’re in the mellower (even posher) stretch known as Leblon. From the end of the beach, climb the short but winding road to the lookout point or, even better, head inland to join the local crowd at Boteco Boa Praça and order a chopp: There’s a lot more of Rio to get to, but there’s no Rio at all without an icy, foamy draft beer at the end of a beach day.
Distance: Five miles
Difficulty: Easy, because it’s almost entirely flat, but you’ll get hot and sweaty on a sunny day.
Time to walk: Two and a half to three hours, with lingering.
Good for kids: Probably not the best bet for young children given the length, and the fact that they’ll probably be more interested in playing on the beach.