16 Realizations about Rio de Janeiro: Life as an Expat

After a little over a year in Rio de Janeiro as an expat, here are my top realizations about the city that I wouldn’t have picked up on as a tourist. Some are silly, some are serious, and some were just plain frustrating.

A trip to the federal police will take the majority of your day, even if you plan ahead and arrive before it opens. The bureaucracy in Brazil is ridiculous, and no amount of time, energy, or thought on your part will change it. Don’t fight it, and the only thing that can help is proper preparation and being sure you have all the necessary documentation. Bring a book, laptop, snacks, and settle in for the long haul.

Brazilian Visa Form Receita STN

one of the many Brazilian visa forms (and fees)

If you make eye contact (even accidental) with a guy, he is WAY more likely to hit on you, shout at you, or try to grab or touch you. One of the best ways to minimize sexual harassment is (unfortunately) to avoid eye contact.

There are WAY more beaches than Copacabana or Ipanema. Leme ended up being my favorite, but Sao Conrado was amazing as well.

Rio de Janeiro Leme Beach

Leme Beach

You will always hug and kiss upon greeting and when saying goodbye – including strangers. That habit might stick with you (I accidentally cheek kissed my dad for the first time ever last week). But is it 2 kisses or 1?!

There are hikes hiding in plain sight, and walking distance from the tourist district. Morro da Urca and Morro do Leme are two of the easiest to reach, and extremely safe (with amazing views).

Morro da Urca view

on the hike up Morro da Urca

Princesa Isabel supermarket is not cheaper than Zona Sul, though it looks much crappier and the quality and service is worse.

Renting one of those orange bikes is cheaper and easier than you’d imagine.

BikeRio Bike Share Review Rio de Janeiro Bicycle

Everyone is late. An hour or more. Just plan on it, don’t ever be early, and if you can’t force yourself to be late as well – bring something to do.

Portuguese is so much harder than Spanish for me. I’ll never ever be able to properly pronounce the difference between nasal pao (bread) and pao (penis). Even though I loved my language school, it was almost impossible (and I just suck at languages).

Rio de Janeiro Casa do Caminho Party

one of the many events held at Casa do Caminhos

Solid dish soap looks weird but actually works much better than liquid dish soap with the cold kitchen sink water.

Drink fewer caipirinhas than you’d assume for your liquor tolerance. They are potent, the drunk creeps up on you, and they are the WORST hangover.

Maracuja Caipirinha Rio de Janeiro Leme Brazil

maracuja caipirinha 

In Rio de Janeiro, it’s all about that (b)ass. The glorious glorioso (buttocks) reigns supreme, on the beach and especially in the gym. Trainers tend to focus on looks and not on strength, and tailor their workout plans around improving physique. A trainer I’d worked with told me that he’d never before had a woman ask to be stronger. Mostly, they want to increase the size of their butt. Unfortunately, my butt didn’t make any major gains as I only trained for a few months before moving to Mexico.

Rio de Janeiro has the BEST sweets and snacks. But the majority of the food is really not healthy. Good god I craved for a decent salad not covered in cream dressing or cheese.

Rio de Janeiro Churro

Everything (not just the federal police) takes way longer than you’d expect, and way longer than it should. Whether you’re getting an AC installed, visiting the grocery store, or having an appointment – bring a kindle or book everywhere. You’ll reflect on your weeks and realize you’ve spent hours wasted waiting otherwise.

Bring a canga to the beach and little else. A towel makes you look like a tourist.

Cangas and Havaianas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

canga and havaianas? you’re set for the beach!

It’s not just your appearance that will make you look like a foreigner, it’s your attitude. Adopt the confidence of locals to fit in better, or at least stick out less.

Rio de Janeiro Jiu Jitsu

learning some confidence, Brazilian style, with jiu jitsu!

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16 realizations about rio de janeiro life as an expat

Necessary Details: Rio de Janeiro

What Else to Do in Rio de Janeiro
Check out my full guide to Rio de Janeiro here, which includes the best suggestions for hiking (including my favorite Morro do Leme hike), where to eat, weekend getaways from the city (including Buzios), and the best beaches.
You can read every article I’ve ever written about Rio de Janeiro (and there’s a lot: I lived there for almost two years!) here.
Viator offers a bunch of different Rio de Janeiro tour options, including for visiting Christ the Redeemer, and provides excellent customer service and refunds if anything goes wrong — much more than local operators would do.
Where to Stay in Rio de Janeiro
If you have around $100 per night to spend, you can’t get a better value than Rio 180 hotel — each room is a suite and has its own private hot tub along with incredible views!
For a wider range of pricing options, check here
How to Arrive to Rio de Janeiro 
You can take the bus into Rio de Janeiro from many destinations within Brazil, but most people choose to fly. While Copa Airlines isn’t my favorite carrier, they do usually offer the cheapest flights. To check the latest low prices on airfare to Brazil, try Skyscanner , or if you have some date and/or destination flexibility and want to score the absolute lowest prices, try Kiwi.com.
Visa information for Brazil and Visa Renewal in Rio de Janeiro
I’ve written an extensive post (along with Q&A about the topic in the comments) here

Do you have any realizations about Rio de Janeiro to share, or about any other city you’ve lived in as an expat?


A short vacation in Thailand turned into a life abroad with a canceled ticket home. Nearly a decade later and after living in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Puebla, and Puerto Vallarta, Steph is on to her next adventure and living back in beautiful, cosmopolitan Mexico City. She is living, traveling, and working (both as an expat therapist and an international health insurance representative) around the world to find the beautiful, inspirational, and interesting while sharing it with you!

Find me on: Web | Instagram | Facebook


  1. August 12, 2018 / 12:38 pm

    Great article! I definitely agree, that Portuguese is harder than Spanish :-/

  2. Jessica Sankey
    September 5, 2018 / 3:30 am

    Hello Steph!! 🙂

    I’m a teacher, currently living in Bangkok. I’ve also lived in Bulgaria and Scotland, as well as my native England. My dream is to live in Rio! I would love to be able to chat to you about how you’d compare Bangkok and Rio, and ask a few wee questions, if it would be possible please.

    Great article btw!

    Thank you!
    Jess 🙂

    • Steph
      September 6, 2018 / 9:48 am

      Hi Jess! Of course, I’d be happy to help, please just send me an email 🙂 steph@joyandjourney.com
      Or post here, if the questions aren’t too private or you think others would benefit from the answers.

      • Jessica Sankey
        December 19, 2018 / 9:00 pm

        Thank you Steph. I only just saw your response – sorry! I am looking just for general comparisons of Bangkok and Rio. I will send you an email actually because I want to ask some more specific questions and describe what I struggle with in Thailand. Cheers.

  3. Mike Battaglia
    October 4, 2018 / 11:41 pm

    Hello Steph

    What a great article. I’m moving to Rio on Christmas day, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve been to Rio four times in my life, so it won’t feel nearly as foreign as it should. It’s the cultural differences and how to go about getting thing you need where most of the shock will come from. That’s why I enjoy your articles so much. It gives me an idea of what to expect (and helps keep the butterflies in my stomach from going too berserk).

    Thanks for the (wonderfully written) information.


    • Steph
      October 31, 2018 / 11:45 am

      I hope you enjoy your move! I’d love to hear how you find it.

  4. Jorge
    January 11, 2019 / 9:07 am

    Hi Steph, many thanks for the great articles about Rio. Please let me know why Leme is yout favorite neighborhood. Saludos desde Perú!

    • Steph
      January 11, 2019 / 10:17 am

      Hi Jorge! I think Leme has a bit of what all the other beachside neighborhoods offer, while not being overly touristy and at a much more reasonable price.

  5. Karl Luttinger
    February 24, 2019 / 2:29 am

    One main difference between Bangkok and Rio is street crime.

    • Steph
      February 24, 2019 / 9:20 pm

      Hi Karl,

      Yes definitely, as well as violent crime and sexual violence against women, both of which are much higher in Rio.

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