Santa Teresa: An Alternative Side to Rio

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Everyone told us that Ipanema was the place to stay in Rio de Janeiro: the beach was long and beautiful, and it was much safer that the infamous Copacabana beach. But this wealthy area of soulless high rises just didn’t seem like our kind of place, and we prefer our beaches wild and deserted anyway.

When I heard about the historic, hilltop area of Santa Teresa, home to artists and beatniks, I knew that this was the place for us.

Ipanema is the easy option in Rio, but Santa Teresa is a bit trickier. There’s no airport bus so we had a nightmare getting there by taxi on a rainy night. But as soon as we headed out along the windy cobblestone streets to the picturesque European-style square of Largo das Neves we knew we’d made the right choice.

Reasons Why We Love Santa Teresa

Colourful Santa Teresa houses

Atmospheric Architecture

Santa Teresa is a place where just wandering the streets is enough entertainment. We loved the cobblestone streets, colourful colonial buildings and crumbling mansions. It’s a little ramshackle but that’s part of the charm – it isn’t perfectly preserved like a Disney town. The history here is real and lived in.

Quiet, Green and Leafy Streets

Where else can you wake up in a city of over 11 million people and hear no traffic noise? Santa Teresa is amazingly quiet with a small town vibe that’s feels a world away from the busy centre and southern beaches. The streets are green and tree-lined, and we watched birds and even a monkey in the banana trees next to our guesthouse.

Steep cobblestone streets of Santa Teresa
Largo das Neves, Rio
Bar in Largo das Neves, Santa Teresa

Lack of Tourists

The area isn’t undiscovered by tourists but it’s a lot more low key that the popular beach areas. It feels like a real neighbourhood, with local people going about their lives. For a really authentic experience stay near Largo das Neves like we did – you won’t come across any other tourists except for the few staying in your guest house. There are no English language menus and souvenir shops here.

Largo das Neves

The pretty square of Largo das Neves is our favourite part of Santa Teresa. A tiny white washed church and a couple of bohemian, open-sided bars surround the sleepy plaza. Hours can be passed sipping beer and people watching.

Colourful GraffitiThe high concentration of artists living in the area is evident from the vibrant graffiti adorning Santa Teresa’s walls. The creative works add even more interest to a stroll around the neighbourhood.

The Bonde The bright yellow trams of Santa Teresa run along the last true tramway operation in South America. Providing easy access to Rio’s centre and wonderful views of the city, they are the iconic image of the area. The creaky streetcars are usually packed, but if you can grab a spot hanging outside, your ride will be free.

Bonde getting stuck in Santa Teresa

Easy Access to Lapa

Lapa is the centre of Rio’s nightlife scene, and only a 10 minute walk down a few hundred stairs from Santa Teresa (take a taxi at night though). Here you’ll find the famous samba clubs and the huge Friday night street party.

Villa Leonor, Santa Teresa
Villa Leonor Hostel

Villa Leonor (Update November 2019: now permanently closed)

Rio is expensive and I searched hard to find a double room in a hostel that didn’t cost a fortune. Luckily I hit hostel gold with Villa Leonor. The crumbly but pretty early 20th century Portuguese villa isn’t by any means luxurious but it’s certainly an atmospheric place to stay.

There are only six rooms so it has a friendly, intimate vibe. British owner Paul is welcoming, relaxed and helpful, and took us all out in Lapa one night. The setting is tranquil with a chilled out verandah surrounded by banana and mango trees and with great views of the centre . A double room with private bathroom cost us 80 reais.

The Downsides to Santa Teresa

Bar do Gomez, Santa Teresa

For us there was only one problem with Santa Teresa – transport links. Buses only take you to Lapa or the centre, and we found it difficult to work out the routes. The worst thing is that taxis often refuse to take you to Santa Teresa, especially when it’s raining as they don’t like braving the steep cobblestone streets. Unfortunately it rained a lot while we were there. This left us in a tricky situation of having to walk home up the steep hills, which isn’t the best idea at night.

If you want to spend every day in Rio on the beach then Santa Teresa isn’t the best area for you (although do visit on a day trip), but if you are looking for an alternative view of this crazy city then we highly recommend this beautiful neighbourhood.


  1. came across your post while researching Santa Teresa graffiti. Great post! As Guy said, there are similarities to Bo Kaap, which was where we were last week (we’re also on an extended RTW journey). We’re staying in a house on Largo dos Neves and the weekend parties go on into the wee hours. Safety has apparently improved a lot, but still mon touristy, which is great.

  2. Hi, came across your article as I’m in Rio and planning to visit Santa Teresa tomorrow, Thursday. I understand it only gets busy on weekend afternoons?

    Anyway, reason I’m writing here is to wholeheartedly agree and confirm that Rio is simply amazing. But unfortunately, you’re also right about it being expensive. I’m Malaysian, which makes it worse because my currency is nearly half that of the real. Nevertheless, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Rio.

    • Santa Teresa is busier on the weekends. Mostly it’s really quiet, but we liked that too. Thanks for sharing your experiences of Rio – it is a great place despite the expense.

  3. Hi Erin, hi Simon!
    Just found your blog and I’m loving everything about it so far!
    The design is beautiful, congrats!
    It’s not common to find people including Brazil in their travels, being Brazilian I think it’s a shame.
    Love your perspectives about Rio, I have been there several times and it’s always hard to leave. Specially because I’m living in New Zealand now and it’s cooooolllld here. hehe
    Well, keep up, I look forward to reading more of your stories. :)

    • That´s so sweet of you to say – thank you! Brazil is a fascinating place but it is pretty expensive for budget travellers (especially Rio) so that’s probably what keeps a lot of people away. We’d like to go back and explore the Northeast when our income is a bit more secure.

  4. Oh la la, so synchronistic! I’m going to be in Rio again next week and decided at the last minute to stay in a hotel in ST. I was not sure whether or not to do it, but went with my gut. Now after reading this post I’m sure I made the right decision. Do you have a restaurant or bar that you recommend? Great photos and write-up!
    .-= Andi´s last blog ..imgp2629 =-.

  5. Some parts of that have me reminiscing about Bo Kaap in Cape Town.
    You are not just a tourist but an explorer.

    • We’ve been thinking of spending some time in Cape Town at some point so that sounds like a good area to explore.