Few people are in a hurry in Rio de Janeiro – after all, it is a city widely known around Brazil for its carefree attitude and beach-centric lifestyle. It is here where the jovial words, “Boa praia!” (“Have a good beach!”) are as commonly heard on a Monday as a Saturday. Usually, tourists like to do as locals do – milk the city’s sun-soaked atmosphere for all it is worth.

If you find yourself with a 24-hour stopover in the cidade maravilhosa, there is no shortage of distractions. So drop your bags at left luggage (guarda-volumes) – your perfect day in Rio starts here.

Head straight for the Zona Sul, home to many of Rio’s upscale neighbourhoods and the bulk of its famous beaches, including Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. First order of business: caffeine! Do as Brazilians do and pair a cafezinho (little espresso) with a pão de queijo (cheese bread).  There is an excellent café in Leblon called Cafeína to do just that. 

Amped and refreshed, it is time to stake your spot on Rio’s postcard-perfect sands, but do so carefully. Rio’s Zona Sul beaches are lined with lifeguard posts, each known for the specific microclimate it attracts. The best beaches are Ipanema and Leblon. Here posto (post) nine is where you will find Rio’s mauricinhos and patricinhas (the rich, bronzed and beautiful), with a section in front of Rua Farme de Amoedo that draws the LGBT crowd; posto 11 is for families. Choose accordingly and let the beach caipirinhas (Brazil’s national drink, with cachaça, limes and sugar) commence. Until lunch, it is all sizzle, sun and samba.

Once hunger sets in, there are a few must-sees nearby, depending on your mood. A favourite beach day lunch is açaí, the purple, iron-and-antioxidant-rich berry that is usually blended with honey, granola, bananas and guaraná, a natural Amazonian relative of caffeine, into a refreshing, über-Brazilian treat. There is no better than Bibi Sucos‘. Alternatively, a quick and scenic taxi ride down Avenue Atlântica – one of the world’s most famous beachfront thoroughfares – lands you at Cervantes, a Copacabana institution famous for its filet mignon, cheese and pineapple sandwiches. Lastly, for those with deeper pockets and bigger appetites, a visit to one of Brazil’s all-you-can-eat churascarias (steakhouses) is in order. Here an endless onslaught of perfectly-grilled meats is brought to your table until you cry uncle. Esplanada Grill (Rua Barão da Torre 600, Ipanema) is one of the city’s best.

Reserve your afternoon for sightseeing, when the sun can become relentless on the beach anyway. Make your way to Cosmo Velho, where the slightly unnerving cog train to the 710m-high peak known as Corcovado ascends through protected Tijuca National Forest to the Cristo Redentor, one of the most impressive monuments and urban views on earth. So impressive in fact, that is was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

Afterwards, gauge your mood: feeling edgy or artsy? The former should book a favela tour. No, it is not dangerous. Yes, it is absolutely fascinating. A tour through Rio’s notorious shantytowns is both eye-opening and inspiring, leaving you with a far better sense of the intricate socioeconomic struggles of Rio’s complicated urban fabric. Marcelo Armstrong’s Favela Tours is a pioneer. The latter should book a tour through historic Santa Teresa, Rio’s hillside bohemian neighbourhood, full of historic mansions, interesting museums and artsy shops and galleries. Santa Teresa Tour offers fascinating walking tours.

They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but Rio does not get much shut-eye either. Begin your evening with Brazilian-slanted tapas and creative cocktails at Botofogo hotspot Meza Bar before heading to Lapa, Rio’s gritty but excellent nightlife district. A lot of samba clubs have opened here in the last decade, resurrecting a dilapidated district into Rio’s most interesting option for cultural nightlife. Both amateur and professional samba bands turn up here nightly, offering hip-shaking samba to a wildly mixed crowd. It is ridiculously good fun. The three best spots are Carioca Da Gema, Estrela da Lapa and Rio Scenarium. Rio Scenarium is the most touristy but with the biggest wow factor – each of its three cinematic floors is lavishly decorated with some 10,000 movie set props and abundant antique furniture. Go ahead, take a load off on that 18th-century Victorian divan. You need some rest.

The article 'A perfect day in Rio de Janeiro' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.