If Paris is a city of cafes, then Rio de Janeiro is a city of beaches, and Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches are justly world famous. While both are special, there are many other beaches that might steal your heart more, from the small and little known to the (justly) packed and popular.
But first here's how the locals like to enjoy the big name beaches: hire a bike or borrow a skateboard and cycle along the waterfront of Ipanema and Copacabana on a Sunday or a public holiday, when the road will be closed to traffic. On other days there is a bike lane so it's still nice, but when the city spills across the road it's special. Arpoador marks the meeting of the two beaches, and on weekends Cariocas like to go there to see the sun set behind the Morro Dois Irmãos (try also to watch the sunrise from the top of Morro Dois Irmãos). Beat the crowds by going on a weekday evening and you will quickly be able to see what all the fuss is about.
Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are lined with volleyball courts, and given that the waves are quite strong for swimming that's where many of the locals choose to enjoy their time at the beach. If you're into surfing or bodyboarding then try the waves at the near-side (coming from Vidigal) of Ipanema Beach, correctly called Leblon Beach, where there are regular waves. Whenever you enter the sea be aware of the strength of the currents; these beaches are open to the ocean and should be treated with caution. You can walk to Ipanema from Vidigal, or catch buses and micro-buses to both beaches from the entrance of the favela.
If you prefer gentler waters to swim in, or if you'd like to see one of the best sunsets in the city, then go to Pontal, where a 120 meter tall rock (a Pedra do Pontal) splits Pontal Beach into two, meaning that one side will always be calm and protected from the swell. Swimming at Pedra do Pontal resembles (on one side) swimming in a lake with a gently sloping shore and millpond waters, while on the other offers great surfing. You can hire a board or arrange a lesson at surfing schools that advertise close to the rock.
While very few foreigners make the hour-long journey to Pontal from the city center, it is a very popular beach with Cariocas, and gets very full on weekends. Climbing up the rock (involving a short ascent by rope) to see the sun begin to set is one of the great experiences available in Rio, but be careful to leave a little daylight to allow for your descent.
Further on from Pontal is Prainha Beach whose natural beauty draws huge crowds during the weekends, and whose difficulty of access demands giving a whole day to visiting it. The trouble of getting there is made worth it by the pure untouched surroundings and the clean waters, many visitors report having found that “Paradise exists!” It's a popular beach with surfers but care should be taken by swimmers, especially those with children. The waves are powerful and not to be taken lightly.
Joá Beach in Joatinga is, to the few people who know about it, one of the best beaches in the world. But like many of the best travelers' secrets, it's not easy to get there. While it's not far west of Vidigal it would be best to use Uber or take a taxi to Joá and walk from there or take the bus 557 at Vidigal. The beach is hidden by rocky headlands from the rest of the city, giving it the feeling of belonging to a remote island. Buy a caipivodka from the little shack and savor the tranquility and the soft sand. It's a good place for surfers and is perhaps the most photogenic of all the beaches in the city. It's worth visiting before the early afternoon as it tends to empty out by 4:30pm.
Another stunning beach that requires a bit of effort to visit is Itacoatiara Beach an hour's bus ride from Niteroi, across the Bay of Guanabara. Take a ferry from the port to Niteroi (around 15 minutes crossing), then catch bus number 38 to the beach. Itacoatiara is beloved by surfers and nature-lovers, and offers spectacular views from the hill at the far end. The massive rock formations provide areas of protected sea for families to swim in, while the open stretches are perfect for expert surfers.
The beach is a gateway to the Serra da Tiririca State Park, and is a bracing meeting place between pure ocean and untamed, cactus-covered mountains. The atmosphere is relaxed and although you can make a day trip of it travelling from Vidigal, it still feels like you're in one of the sleepy beach towns from the more remote stretches of the Brazilian coast.
No list of the best beaches in Rio would be complete without our own Vidigal Beach, made famous by the global hit City of God and offering a relaxed community beach within minutes of the hostel. The waves can be powerful and unless you're an expert think twice before body-boarding with the locals at the far end of the beach, but the nearer side has a lifeguard in attendance, plenty of shade below the trees, and a post-swim shower. This is the place to come to start your day off well, or to relax in the afternoon, and maybe see some of your new neighbors just hanging out with their families.