I Went To Carnival In Brazil For The First Time And Highly Recommend You Add It To Your Travel Bucket List

Buda Mendes/Getty Images

There are some things in life you don’t even realize you would love to experience until the opportunity presents itself, and that’s how I felt when an invitation to visit Rio de Janeiro during Carnival arrived in my inbox. The Brazilian celebration is an extravagant display of bright colors, rhythmic drumbeats, and beautiful people that takes place every year beginning the Friday before Ash Wednesday and leading up to the day which marks the start of the Catholic season of Lent. Some two million participants take to the streets each day for the festivities, and it’s an event that can be enjoyed by anyone, even if you don’t know the first thing about doing the Samba.

I Went To Carnival In Brazil For The First Time And Highly Recommend You Add It To Your Travel Bucket List
Courtesy of the subject

That said, a trip to the largest country in South America during this time of year is indeed a large undertaking, but one well worth the time and the price. Read on for what you need to know to plan your voyage to Carnival next year, starting with where to stay.

The Hotel

If you’re the luxury girl in the group who always has to convince her friends that a hotel is more than where you lay your head at night, the Fairmont Rio de Janeiro Copacabana will plead your case for you. With a location right on the world-famous Copacabana beach and exclusive experiences offered only to guests (see below for more on that), a stay here should soothe any stresses regarding space, safety, and satisfying your appetite.

The five-star property was designed to invoke the vibes of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous era, the 1950s, with its modernized retro architecture, furniture, and design, starting with the cumaru wood floors leading you to the check-in on the sixth floor of the property. Positioned between the hotel’s two pools, the large open space is the embodiment of the Carioca spirit and a necessary reminder for workaholics that it’s time to put the laptop and the emails away. (Note: there is free wi-fi throughout the grounds should a work emergency arise.)

I Went To Carnival In Brazil For The First Time And Highly Recommend You Add It To Your Travel Bucket List
Fairmont Rio de Janeiro Copacabana

The Rooms: The Fairmont Rio has a total of 375 rooms, including 68 suites, all of which come with a balcony. I’d recommend the one-bedroom suite for anyone staying at the hotel because it’s such a treat to have enough space in a room to make it feel like home, but at 755 square feet, it’s especially perfect for group travel.

The suite has a separate living room with two balconies, a 55″ TV and minibar, and a king-sized bedroom with an additional TV and two balconies. My suite overlooked the beach from which you will be awakened by drumbeats and music in the mornings – remember it’s Carnival. There are also two closets with ample shelving and drawer space offering enough storage for pairs, should you fancy a couple’s trip, and the spacious marble bathroom provides all the modern-day amenities, from a standup shower with a rain showerhead to a toilet bidet and full-size toiletries.

The Restaurants: When people think of Brazilian food, they think of meat and Marine Restô lives up to the expectation. Here you can get a deliciously cooked tomahawk steak table side that will be flame grilled with butter and basil for half the cost of this top cut in the U.S. And please do yourself a favor and order a side of the pureed potatoes to go with it. I also highly recommend the empanadas and fried calamari, and the ginger foam on the Moscow Mule will make it hard for you to have this cocktail any other way again.

If you like your food seaside, head to Tropìk Beach Club, which is right across the street from the property and serves fresh Mediterranean-inspired cuisine from sunup to sundown. Take a dip in the ocean and come back for seconds of the shrimp or kebab rice. If you’re the type who can’t start your day without a fresh cup of Joe, stop by Coa&Co in the lobby on the way out for a taste of real Brazilian coffee.

The Spa: I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a variety of spas in my lifetime and Willow Stream Spa now sits among the top locations. I decided to book a hot stone massage for the first time and my curiosity about the method did not steer me wrong, neither did opting for a 90-minute treatment. What I loved most was that the experience began with the therapist washing and massaging a scrub onto my feet as she applied pressure to various touchpoints along my calves, which are notoriously tight. A weighted heating pad of sorts was also draped around my shoulders at this time, and I’m not sure if it was done because I asked for special attention there or if it’s standard, but I do know it felt absolutely amazing. From there, the massage only made the experience better, and I appreciated being led to a relaxation room immediately after where I was treated to a tea of my choice and encouraged to take as much time as I desired to rest or enjoy the other amenities like a sauna and steam room.

The Gold Lounge: Fairmont Gold members’ exclusive experience begins with check-in in the private Gold Lounge on the fourth floor of the property. The large sun-lit area features a breakfast buffet, happy hour, and all-day snack and drink service. You can order from the hotel menu and enjoy a meal at a table in a quieter environment or relax with a cocktail in front of the TV in an area with plush couches. Gold members are also treated to 24-hour butler service and an exclusive manager and concierge who’ll text you throughout your stay to make sure you have everything you need and give you updates on things like car transfers to the airport and tours you might book while in Rio.

I Went To Carnival In Brazil For The First Time And Highly Recommend You Add It To Your Travel Bucket List
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – FEBRUARY 12: A member of Mangueira performs during 2024 Carnival parades at Sapucai Sambodrome on February 12, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

The Parades

For starters, get your rest. Carnival is a nighttime event that goes into the wee hours of the morning. It’s recommended that you arrive at the Sambadromo no later than 9 p.m. so you’re in position for the first school to present at 10 p.m. The last school will likely wrap around 6 a.m. so take a nap, hydrate, and do whatever you need to do to make sure you don’t miss a moment.

The Schools: As I write about this year’s Carnival, which just wrapped on February 17, the Samba schools have likely already begun planning for 2025. Though in the past, general themes were set for Carnival, now each school gets to decide what story they want to tell during their performance, and they have a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes to do so from the minute they touch down on the stadium floor until they reach the end of the arena, which holds 90,000 people.

Between 3,500-5,000 people participate in each school, bringing the total number of performers on any given night to nearly 20,000-30,000. This includes the men who push the ornate floats on which men and women sing and dance, to the drum players, and the queens of each school whose decadent costumes and precise samba moves mesmerize onlookers. And if you’re confused why everyone in the crowd knows the songs but when you Shazam them in the stands nothing comes up (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience), each school’s songs are chosen by vote in a songwriting contest, which then allows the audience to learn the lyrics ahead of the big night.

I Went To Carnival In Brazil For The First Time And Highly Recommend You Add It To Your Travel Bucket List
Courtesy of the subject

The Costumes: As a spectator, you, sadly, won’t have a need for a costume as elaborate as the beloved samba queens, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still join in on the decorating fun. Whether you’re rocking a top from a private company that’s invited you to be a guest in their suite or attending with friends in the stands, this is the time to pull out your inner fashion designer. I saw women turn T-shirts into sparkly halter dresses, skirts, and all sorts of bedazzled creations. The more glitter and feathers, the better, and that goes for your hair and makeup too. The only rule is to have fun (and make sure that the company logo is still visible if you’re an invited guest).

What Else to See

Christ the Redeemer: It’s impossible to use words to describe what seeing this sculpture of Jesus Christ is like in person. The work of art, considered one of the seven wonders of the world, was built by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, in collaboration with French engineer Albert Caquot, and it completely took my breath away. Two million people visit the monument, which sits atop Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca National Park each year, so you can imagine the depth of the crowds on a daily basis. Through Fairmont, however, groups can book a private sunrise breakfast on-site to see the statue before it opens to the public. It’ll cost you a pretty penny, and that 3:30 a.m. wakeup call won’t feel fun in the moment, but the experience is more than worth it.

Sugar Loaf Mountain: It’s possible you may have a view of Sugar Loaf from your hotel room at the Fairmont, but there’s nothing like seeing the mountain peak that sits at the mouth of Guanabara Bay up close. Your first cable car stop will take you to the top of Urca Hill, 220 meters above sea level, and from there to the top of Sugar Loaf for a 360-degree view of the city 396 meters below. After snapping a few pictures, you can grab a beverage at the café or have lunch at a mountaintop restaurant.

I Went To Carnival In Brazil For The First Time And Highly Recommend You Add It To Your Travel Bucket List
Courtesy of subject

Maracanã: If you’re a soccer fan, you know how famous the Maracanã football stadium in Rio is, but as someone who just watched their very first match there, even I was impressed with the history and the fanatic energy within the complex. You can catch a game on a Wednesday night or Sunday afternoon with other eager fans or take an official tour where you’ll see paraphernalia from past players and iconic games to appreciate what makes Maracanã Maracanã.

Feira Hippie de Ipanema: This market is only open on Sundays so if you happen to be in the city this day, the Hippie Fair is worth a visit. Here you’ll find arts and crafts like clothes, jewelry, and paintings made by locals, which make the perfect souvenirs for friends and family. You can also taste traditional Bahian cuisine from street vendors. If you’re looking for more upscale works of art, there’s also a concept store in the lobby of the Fairmont Rio where you can peruse more pieces to take home with you.

I spent a total of five days in Rio, which I’d say is a good length of time to hit the highlights and still have some downtime. If you want to have a lazy pool day or squeeze in additional cultural tours, a seven-day stay might better suit your needs. Considering the country’s distance from the U.S., you definitely don’t want to cheat yourself out of exploring all there is to see. And be sure to bookmark Riocarnaval.org to periodically check back for updates on #RioCarnival2025.

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