10 Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro in December

Sunny days, Christmas markets and outdoor events, that's what it's like to visit Rio de Janeiro in December. Here are the plans you can't miss!

Ana Caballero

Ana Caballero

10 min read

10 Things to Do in Rio de Janeiro in December

December in Rio | Alexandre Araujo

Rio de Janeiro is an exciting city that will be able to conquer you with its variety of proposals to end the year. In fact, December is a warm month, with pleasant temperatures ranging from 23° to 29°. It is the most awaited season for cariocas, as Christmas arrives and summer officially begins. Activities focus on making the most of the best things to do in Rio, such as plans in the favelas, the top of Christ the Redeemer and Christmas festivals.

If you are planning to travel to this Brazilian region, I recommend you to take advantage of the best activities in Rio de Janeiro that take place during these dates. You can get up close to the lighting of the floating Christmas tree, celebrate New Year's Eve with the Revellion party and explore the Christmas markets.

1. Attend the Christmas tree lighting at Rio de Janeiro Lagoon

Floating tree| ©Paulo Rezende
Floating tree| ©Paulo Rezende

For years, the lighting of the Christmas tree in Lagoa or Lagoon has been a much-anticipated event, as it officially kicks off the holiday season. It is a floating tree on the water that measures approximately 85 meters and has more than three million lights. It usually has a theme and each year it is inspired by different cultural elements of the city.

The best thing is that it can be appreciated from the main local viewpoints, such as the Sugarloaf, a rocky outcrop whose vantage point offers unparalleled views of Rio, so you can appreciate the lighting from a privileged and comfortable location. In fact, some years you can even see a Santa Claus hanging from the cable car rails. For all this and the incredible panoramic views of the city, I suggest you book your tickets to Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro in advance.

Buy a ticket for the cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain

2. Celebrate Christmas in Rio de Janeiro

Christmas decorations| ©Rodrigo Soldon
Christmas decorations| ©Rodrigo Soldon

Rio de Janeiro stands out for the warmth of its people, the open-air parties, the favelas and the colorful Christmas events. In this South American city Christmas is lived in a particular way: after the lighting of the tree in the Lagoon, the most beautiful season of the year begins. Between the sea and the mountains you can enjoy the joy and popular rhythms, as well as the peculiar celebrations and traditions that emanate from the influence of the native peoples and European colonies.

What is special about Christmas in Rio are the gift exchanges in the neighborhoods, the fireworks shows, the picturesque houses decorated with lights and nativity scenes, as well as the nightlife vibes. To celebrate New Year's Eve I suggest you go to the best restaurants to taste the traditional dinner that includes the star ingredient, better known as Bacalhau. It is a very tasty type of fish, with sweet and salty variations.

Local Christmas is family and fun oriented, so I recommend spending at least 3 days in Rio de Janeiro. Some of the activities you can enjoy are:

  • Visit the Lojas Americanas department store, to do your Christmas shopping.
  • Stop by the Rio de Janeiro Hippie Fair, which is held every Sunday of the year and has special events during Christmas.
  • Tour the most sought-after bars, which come alive after midnight on Christmas Eve.
  • Explore the city and climb Christ the Redeemer, which is a Brazilian monument that has a captivating energy at Christmas time.

Book a tour of Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf and Selarón

3. Take a stroll through Rio de Janeiro's Christmas street markets

Saara Market| ©aspicio
Saara Market| ©aspicio

In Rio de Janeiro, street markets are popular all year round, but in December they take on a unique atmosphere. When the Christmas spirit arrives to the city, these places are filled with music, smells and handicrafts of the season. You won't have to dress warmly, as the region's pleasant climate will accompany you as you sample local drinks and explore traditional dishes. The best favela tours in Rio de Janeiro will take you to less crowded popular markets. Some of the markets I suggest you visit are:

  • Lojas Americanas: a bazaar with a variety of Christmas items, especially decorative ornaments and gifts. You can also find street stalls to try seasonal dishes.
  • Saara Market: an inexpensive flea market located downtown, in December it is usually very crowded as there are all kinds of stores. The best tours in Rio de Janeiro usually take you to visit this kind of corners with fun Christmas proposals.
  • Hippie market in Ipanema: it is the ideal Christmas market to buy rare objects, unique gifts, local handicrafts and outdoor art.

Take a tour of the Santa Marta favela

4. Don't miss the seasonal activities on the Olympic Boulevard.

Olympic Boulevard| ©Riotur.Rio
Olympic Boulevard| ©Riotur.Rio

The Olympic Boulevard is a renovated space near the seaport, which you must visit during your stay in the city. In December a Santa Claus sleigh usually stops here to hand out goodies to the little ones. There is also a public park for children with activities such as robotic dolls, artificial ice areas, toy factories, candy houses, fantasy make-up booths, acrobatic shows and outdoor theater. If you plan to stay at least 3 days in Rio de Janeiro, you will have enough time to enjoy

The entrance fee to the park is approximately 2 euros. In addition, from this place you will be able to appreciate the fireworks show at Christmas and New Year, in a comfortable and clear location. On the other hand, it is close to important monuments and fun attractions, such as the XV Square which is an architectural jewel, AquaRio which is the largest marine aquarium in South America and the City of Samba where the Rio Carnival parades are prepared.

Book a tour of the Olympic Boulevard

5. Visit the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and experience the local Christmas atmosphere

Santa Teresa Favela| ©AHLN
Santa Teresa Favela| ©AHLN

The favelas have become mythical corners of Brazil, where colorful little houses, open-air samba wheels and street food stalls abound. The largest is Rocinha and the most important is Santa Marta, when visiting them you should keep in mind that they are communities with problems such as social inequality, crime and police clashes. It is safe to visit them, but never on your own as you have to take certain precautions.

I recommend taking advantage of the best tours of Rio de Janeiro's favelas, especially in December. At this time of the year there is a Christmas atmosphere, in fact barbecues are organized to celebrate Christmas. In addition, families joyfully welcome foreigners showing their Carioca traditions. The most touristic favelas are:

  • Favela Rocinha: it is inhabited by peasant communities that migrated to the mountains to be closer to the city. You can walk through the narrow alleys, get panoramic views of the city and see artistic murals.
  • Favela Santa Marta: a very popular neighborhood that you can access by cable car, to appreciate the colorful houses and the statue of Michael Jackson.
  • Favela Vidigal: it is currently one of the favelas with the best reputation, as it is safe for visitors. Its inhabitants are friendly and there are guesthouses where dinners are organized for all audiences, as well as traditional inns.

Book a tour of the Rocinha favela

6. Climb Christ the Redeemer and take advantage of the early summer

Christ the Redeemer| ©Mílton Jung
Christ the Redeemer| ©Mílton Jung

December is the beginning of summer, so it's the perfect season for hiking and enjoying unobstructed views in the main viewpoints of the city. I recommend you to climb Christ the Redeemer, an emblem located at the top of Corcovado hill, which can be seen from different points. It is ideal to visit at Christmas time, as every year different activities are organized for the holidays.

Tours to Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro are an experience not to be missed, as it is an emblematic monument known worldwide. The statue is a religious symbol, which, according to Carioca traditions, provides protection to the city. Tickets start at 6 euros and children under four years old do not pay admission. To get there you can use the Corvado Train, a minivan or take advantage of the outdoor trails.

Buy tickets for the Christ the Redeemer Rack Train

7. Tour the nativity scene exhibition at the Festival de Presépios in Rio de Janeiro.

Rio de Janeiro Presepios Festival| ©Claudio Lara
Rio de Janeiro Presepios Festival| ©Claudio Lara

The Festival de Presépios de Rio de Janeiro is a massive event that takes place at Christmas. It holds the Guinness Award for the largest outdoor nativity scene exhibition in the world. As such, it brings together art, culture and history in a single space. The participants use different types of materials and techniques, so it is worth a detailed tour. It is the largest display of Rio's Christmas spirit, which has its own style during the nativity season.

There are even living nativity scenes and exhibitions with giant figures. In addition to the nativity scenes, you can enjoy traditional music shows, children's shows and representations of the Carioca culture. This event is part of the Brasil Natal Fest, which is a set of events that bring Christmas to life, and includes the following festivals:

  • Vila do Papai Noel: is the Santa Claus Village that includes outdoor attractions for children, with music, games and fantasy make-up.
  • Festival de Noéis: is an artistic and cultural exhibition that is installed on the Avenue of the Americas in Rio de Janeiro, to show various sculptures of Santa Claus.
  • Sabor de Natal: is a gastronomic festival that takes you to taste the flavors of the Christmas season in Rio de Janeiro. Stalls usually offer colorful rice, panettone, farofa, shrimp in large quantities and more.

8. Welcome the New Year at the annual Réveillon party on Copacabana beach.

Reveillon| ©Claudio Lara
Reveillon| ©Claudio Lara

To leave the old year behind and focus on the new energies of the coming year, the citizens of Rio de Janeiro sign up for a fun party until dawn known as Reveillon. It is an annual event, whose main attraction is the fireworks display at midnight.

Specifically, it takes place on Copacabana beach and it is important to comply with the dress code: all clothing must be white, so keep this in mind when packing your suitcase. This is due to an ancient Brazilian tradition that augurs good luck to those who welcome the year in this way.

During the party there are outdoor concerts in Copacabana, as well as in nearby locations including Flamengo, Ilha de Paquetá, Parque de Madureira, Sepetiba, Guaratiba, Ramos and more. Admission is free, but bars in the area offer VIP locations away from the crowds whose cost varies by establishment. It is one of the best activities in Rio de Janeiro, as the countdown takes place, at the same time in honor of Carioca traditions flowers are given to Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea.

9. Take advantage of the Christmas events for foreigners organized by societies and embassies in Rio de Janeiro

Cocacola Christmas Parade| ©José Roitberg
Cocacola Christmas Parade| ©José Roitberg

If you are traveling alone and plan to be in Rio de Janeiro for 3 days or more, you probably don't want to be bored or spend the holidays alone. To create a safe social space, major embassies and international societies organize events just for foreigners. For example, the Commonwealth Society (BCS) every year organizes fun activities, such as themed parties, snacks and concerts for Brits. The International Club of Rio (InC) organizes events for all types of foreigners, such as plays, New Year's parties, food fairs and more.

If you are traveling to Rio de Janeiro from the United States, I suggest you take advantage of the plans offered by the American Society of Rio de Janeiro (AmSoc Rio), which offers outdoor picnics, fireworks shows, happy hours, group tours and other festive events in December. Some are free, but you should check in advance which ones require payment and reservations.

10. Enjoy the cultural shows at the Municipal Theater and the surrounding area

Reveillon| ©Mercado Viagens
Reveillon| ©Mercado Viagens

The Municipal Theater is an ideal cultural building to enjoy Christmas shows in Rio de Janeiro. It has an imposing presence, with its ancient architecture and variety of statues. It is an excellent place to learn and be entertained, which will amaze you with its luxurious facilities. It hosts ballet shows, opera concerts and Christmas events, varying every year.

It is located very close to the Selarón stairs in the bohemian neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, a popular and picturesque location where open-air samba dances are organized. In the area you can find Christmas-inspired bohemian handicrafts and take a gastronomic tour of the surrounding street stalls or restaurants.

Tips for visiting Rio de Janeiro in December

Getting to know Rio de Janeiro| ©sandeepachetan.com
Getting to know Rio de Janeiro| ©sandeepachetan.com
  • Avoid walking through desolate areas, as Rio can become an unsafe city if certain precautions are not taken.
  • Never visit the favelas on your own, it is better to take advantage of tours through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as they are communities with a complicated history, where it is advisable to move carefully.
  • Do not imitate the Carioca dress, it is considered disrespectful.
  • Take the opportunity to try the typical gastronomy of the Christmas season, it is completely worth it as it is varied and tasty.
  • If you are planning things to do in Rio de Janeiro at night, preferably move around by cab as it is the safest option.
  • Plan in advance how many days you will stay and the activities to do, in December there is so much to do that I recommend you to book at least 3 days in Rio de Janeiro. Don't forget to buy in advance the tickets to the most popular attractions, as this month corresponds to the high season.