Rio de Janeiro: Stay in Santa Teresa or Leblon?

When we were planning our trip to Rio, most people recommended staying in Santa Teresa or the Ipanema/Leblon areas. We couldn’t decide, so we spent time in both!

Now, where you stay in Rio will have a big impact on your experience there, so choose wisely! The city unfortunately isn’t particularly walkable, and being a city of over 11 million people, it’s huge. That means long taxi rides for you if you’re not staying in the right area!

And, as you may have noticed if you’re planning your trip, most of the news out of Rio these days isn’t great. We’re rarely concerned about our safety on trips (as peoples’ fears of crime and kidnapping are usually borderline paranoid), but in Rio it’s unfortunately something you need to consider. Except in a few areas, walking around at night (read: after ~5-7pm since you’re in the tropics!) might not be a great idea – the streets empty out after dark. It’s not just the tourists concerned about crime! If anything, locals seemed even more worried. Just check out the variety of crime-tracking apps that are made just for Rio!

Santa Teresa – perhaps overrated?

So, where to stay? We started out in an awesome, open-air Airbnb in Santa Teresa, with a view of downtown Rio and the ocean (by open-air we mean it had 3 greenhouse-like walls and one side completely open!). Just steps from the famous Escadaria Selarón. Sounds amazing. It was. Also only $50/night!

Beautiful airbnb in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro!
Pretty much a perfect semi-outdoor Airbnb overlooking downtown Rio!

But… when we walked outside of our beautiful home, we were somewhat less thrilled. Basically the area is quite sketchy and at night not somewhere we really wanted to be. Those famous stairs are unfortunately also famous for robberies after dark. We were rather surprised at this given the glowing recommendations that we’d read of Santa Teresa all over the blog-world… maybe Rio has changed in the last few years.

In any case, that meant taxis for us. Or, really, Uber – since without speaking Portuguese, good luck calling a cab! But, one of Santa Teresa’s attractions is its cobblestone streets and alarmingly steep hills. Mix that with a thunderstorm or two and you’ve got streets that are 1) confusing and poorly mapped on Google, and 2) extremely slippery! No joke, one of our Ubers literally slid backwards down the hill up to our Airbnb! My Uber rating took a hit during our time in Santa Teresa, since the drivers were not happy when they saw where we were staying!

So, our overall feeling about Santa Teresa: disappointed. We couldn’t really figure out if the area had changed dramatically in recent years, if we somehow stayed in the wrong part of it (I don’t think so), or what. But if we returned to Rio, we wouldn’t stay here.

Leblon – Fancy, but probably the place to stay

After a few days “vacation” in Paraty, we came back to Rio and this time stayed in an Airbnb in downtown Leblon, maybe a 3 minute walk from the beach. Leblon is the Rio that most people probably imagine – a beautiful beachfront city.

Beautiful Leblon beach in the evening
The Leblon beachfront in the evening

With tons of cafes, restaurants, bars, and the beach — not to mention plentiful Airbnbs — Leblon (or Ipanema, just a short walk up the beach) is where we’d recommend most people stay in Rio. Especially if it’s your first trip.

You might worry that it’s too touristy. Fair concern! But, the odd thing is that there are really very few tourists in Brazil – around 6 million per year, a similar number as visit the Dominican Republic! Since Brazil is gigantic, this means that you just don’t see that many foreign visitors. The beach is mostly full of Brazilians, as are the restaurants and bars!

One of our favorite things about this area is that you can walk for miles up the beach – from Leblon to Copacabana is perhaps an hour walk, right along the beach. There are people out fairly late into the evening, which makes the area seem much more lively and less creepy – not like in Santa Teresa, where we’d look up and down the street at 7pm and see no one.

Our experience in summer 2018 gave us a clear answer to where you should stay in Rio – get an Airbnb in Leblon, right on the beach. It’s the most expensive part of Rio, but our (very nice) Airbnb was maybe $45/night, and there are plenty of hostels around that are much cheaper. So stay on the beach, and go visit Santa Teresa in the day time!

What other Rio neighborhoods are great to visit? Let us know in the comments!

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