Finding your way around Rio is really not all that hard, even for first-timers. Most of the attractions are on the South Side of the city. The beaches, Guanabara bay and the lake are excellent references. In areas from Ipanema to Downtown you can use the subway stations for orientation.
Walking is one of the best way to explore South Side neighborhoods. Pick out the right hotel and walk your way to the beaches, excellent restaurants, shopping, movies, theaters, concert halls, and all other conveniences. Invest on a good pair of walking shoes, and a sun hat. A stroll along thebeach on Sunday is almost mandatory. One of the lanes is closed to cars, and pedestrians take over in grand style.
Bicycle & skates
There are bicycle lanes connecting all South Side neighborhoods, from Leblon to Leme and beyond. Go across the tunnel connecting you to Botafogo and reach the Flamengo reclaim one of the biggest urban parks in the world. There's another bicycle lane around Lagoa that is also very scenic. Many locals go two wheels, sharing the lane with rollerbladers, skaters and joggers. You may rent a bicycle at Ipanema Beach or Copacabana Beach on Sundays.
You don't have to go far to find a taxi in Rio - they are everywhere. And hard to miss, too - taxis are a bright yellow, blue stripe on the sides. Yellow taxis run by the meter. The initial fare is R$2.70, and the meter starts ticking as soon as you get in. After 9 p.m. and on weekends fares are a little higher (the meter is set to bandeira 2). You do not need to give fat tips: R$1 is plenty enough. Some taxis are air-conditioned at no extra charge.
A word to the wise: do not agree on pre-paid deals with yellow taxis. They are illegal, and probably mean the driver is trying to take advantage of you. Hail the next cab. We've heard of taxis trying to pull this dirty trick right at the door of a couple of 5-star hotels, the bus station, domestic airport, and even a shopping mall in Botafogo. To give you an idea of rates, a ride from Ipanema to Copacabana or Leblon is about R$5; to Downtown about R$15-20; to the international airport or Barra about R$30.
A more sophisticated alternative, radio taxis may be white, blue or red. Cars are bigger and usually air-conditioned. Call one of the companies providing this kind of service and tell them where to pick you up, where to drop you off, and at what time. Some radio-taxis charge by the meter, others charge flat rates. Ask for all details first. They will need from you a a contact phone to call you back and confirm the ride.
Rio's subway is still relatively small, but it is very safe, comfortable and reliable. It is especially useful to take you from Copacabana to Botafogo, Flamengo, Gloria and Downtown. You can use the subway as reference if you decide to explore Downtown on your own. The subway does not yet reach Ipanema, Leblon, and Barra. Cars stop running at 11 p.m., and on weekends. One-way tickets are about US$1.50. If you have a chance, stop at the Cardeal Arcoverde Station, in Copacabana. The color scheme on the walls is supposed to relax you, and includes a rainbow of exquisite shades of Brazilian granite. Before you make your way down the escalators, don't stop looking up until you discover Batman's vent. Seriously. There is one huge air conduct where they actually put a giant black metal bat symbol (as in Gotham City). Another proof of the unique Carioca sense of humor. Use the map below for orientation.
Locally known as frescão (fresh-caun) - the fresh guys - air-conditioned buses can be hailed, just like taxis. They run along the beach, and connect South Side neighborhoods to each other, downtown, the airport and Barra. They do not have a fixed schedule posted on the street, though. As they are not as frequent as regular buses, you may have to wait for a few minutes.
Beach corners and the right in front of lifeguard stations are the informal stops. Take a ticket from the lady sitting in the front, and choose a seat. Later she will charge you and give your change. You may ask the driver to drop you off anywhere along the way. This service is available only during the day. Standard buses now also offer an air-conditioned version that is cheaper than the frescão. You pay as you pass the turnstile, and they stop at the regular bus stops.
Rio's most popular means of transportation, yet the trickiest to master. A ride on a circular line bus is less than R$2. There are bus lines connecting the whole city, and you do not need exact change. There is a professional known as cobrador sitting behind a turnstile to collect your money, and give you change.
Buses are not air-conditioned, and at rush hours they may look more like sardine cans. Safety is an issue to consider. Sometimes pickpockets and petty thieves take advantage of crowded buses to prey upon commuters. Someone alone with a US$2,000 camera looking out the window mesmerized by Rio's natural beauties spells victim all over. If you take regular buses try to look like you belong, do not carry valuables, nor wear jewelry
While you are waiting for a bus or taxi chances are a van will stop, and offer to take you to your destination. These vans are not completely regulated, yet they are tolerated by authorities. This means if anything goes wrong, you do not have where to complain. We cannot recommend this kind of service until it is legalized. This does not apply to licensed vans that work together with travel agencies to take you on tours, theater, and other events.
With a new driving code and heavier fines and penalties, drivers in Rio de Janeiro are starting to act almost civilized. Now many cars actually stop at red lights, at least during the day, and drivers and passengers do wear a seatbelt. Hidden cameras forced speedsters to slow down in roads like the Red Line (connecting to the airport), and at other problem areas.
You do not need a car to get around the South Side, but it makes sense to rent one if you choose to stay in Barra, São Conrado, or take short trips Off-Rio. As parking is not very easy in Rio, consider staying in an all suite hotel - a parking spot is often part of the package. To secure the best rates available rent your car online, and pick it up at the international airport or in Copacabana. A compact with insurance and unlimited mileage will cost you about U$70 a day.