This page contains affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.
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
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.
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.
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 (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
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.