Rio de Janeiro’s History

two portuguese students hanging out in the botanical garden in rio de janeiro.

What do you know about Rio de Janeiro‘s history? Many people – travelers and cariocas alike – walk through the streets of Rio without a clue of what it took to get our beautiful city to where it is today. But we’ve got a rich and incredible past that dates back over four hundred years. So for today’s Dica, we’re going back to the roots of what it meant to be carioca. Let’s discuss the history of Rio de Janeiro and learn some interesting fun facts about its history, culture and lifestyle!

Rio de Janeiro’s History Timeline

Rio de Janeiro's History's Timeline. 1502 - The Portuguese arrive at Rio de Janeiro for the first time. 1555 - The French settle on Guanabara Bay. 1565 - Estácio de Sá founds the city of Rio de Janeiro. 1763 - Rio de Janeiro becomes the capital of Brazil. 1808 - The Portuguese royal family arrives at Rio de Janeiro. 1821 - Dia do Fico. 1889 - Proclamation of Republic. 1904 - Revolta da Vacina. 1910 - Revolta da Chibata. 1922 - Revolta dos 18 do Forte de Copacabana

1502 – The Portuguese arrive in Rio de Janeiro

History books often state that Brazil was discovered in 1500. But that doesn’t mean it was immediately colonized! In reality, most of Brazil remained free from the Portuguese for a few more decades, because Portugal didn’t see much value in exploring the country.

When the Portuguese first arrived in Rio de Janeiro in January 1502, they came to a simple conclusion. The Guanabara Bay was obviously the mouth of a great river! And so they named it accordingly: January River – Rio de Janeiro. Geography be damned, right? The poor Portuguese simply didn’t know that that wasn’t the case. And, afterwards, they just set sail and forgot all about the region for the next sixty years.

Now, surely, even though the Portuguese took no interest in Rio, that doesn’t mean it was entirely uninhabited. Initially, the natives who lived around the Guanabara Bay were of macro-jê origin, but sometime in the 11th century the tupi conquered the region. The first tribe to greet the traveling Europeans in Rio was the tupinambás (also known as tamoios). And they played a big role in the history of Rio de Janeiro.

1555 – The French settle in the Guanabara Bay

In the 1550s, the French docked in Rio de Janeiro. They settled themselves there, since they didn’t notice the Portuguese settlement. They befriended the tupinambás, exiled the other local tribes and built the first Fort in Rio de Janeiro: Fort Coligny.

The Portuguese weren’t happy to hear that France wanted a chunk of their territory – albeit an abandoned, non-colonized chunk, but a chunk nonetheless! And so they allied themselves with the temiminós, another tribe of the region. The battle for Rio de Janeiro was a fierce one, so Portugal decided to go all in. The Governor-General of Brazil then decided to send an army of his own to solve the issue.

1565 – Estácio de Sá founds the city of Rio de Janeiro

The city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, as it was called back then, was founded on March 1st, 1565 by Estácio de Sá, who disembarked somewhere between the mountains Cara de Cão and Pão de Açúcar. By 1567, however, the French were long gone. Unfortunately, so was our hero. Estácio de Sá died after an arrow wounded his face in the final battle for our city. Rio de Janeiro’s history is what it is because of him.

1763 – Rio de Janeiro becomes the capital of Brazil

By the second half of the 17th century, Rio de Janeiro was considered the most populous city in Brazil with about 30 thousand residents. This brought great importance to the city in the colonial era. When gold and diamands were discovered in Minas Gerais, the capital moved from Salvador to Rio in 1763 thanks to the Marques de Pombal. Rio then became an important port for commerce.

Rio de Janeiro remained the capital until 1960. By then, a new special city in the centre of the country had been planned and built to serve as the new capital: Brasília. Rio, however, remains a large and significant city in Brazil. It’s the second biggest city in the country, losing only to São Paulo.

rio de janeiro, also known as cidade maravilhosa, and guanabara bay.

1808 – The Portuguese royal family arrives in Rio de Janeiro

In 1808, Napoleon was conquering European countries left, right and center. And Dona Maria I, then queen, sure didn’t want to join the list of powerless and destitute monarchs. The solution? As Napoleon’s troops approached Lisbon, she simply took off to Rio de Janeiro. This was very important for Brazil. Now, hosting the royal family, it was no longer considered a colony, but an equal part of the Portuguese Empire – better yet, of the new United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. This made Rio de Janeiro the only city outside of Europe to serve as the capital of a European country.

1821 Dia do Fico

As the Portuguese royals migrated back to Portugal to deal with the insurrection in Porto, Prince Dom Pedro decided to stay back in Brazil. From the windows of the Imperial Palace in Rio de Janeiro, the people heard him say “Eu fico!” (“I stay!”). This day became known as the Dia do Fico. And it eventually led to Brazil’s Independence.

1888 – Lei Áurea

When was slavery abolished in Brazil? It may be sad to hear it, but the honest answer is very late. Slavery was only abolished in 1888 with the Lei Áurea. This law was signed by Princess Isabel in Rio de Janeiro, in the same Imperial Palace where her grandfather proclaimed he was staying in Brazil. You can read more about this part of Rio de Janeiro’s history in this Dica.

1889 – Proclamation of The Republic

Less than a century after Independence, Brazil would finally put imperialism and the monarchy aside. On November 15th 1889, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca proclaimed the Republic in downtown Rio de Janeiro. You can find out more about the Republic and Brazil’s Republic Day in this Dica.

1904 – Revolta da Vacina

Revolta da Vacina (Vaccine Revolt) took place in 1904 after a law was passed declaring that vaccination against smallpox was mandatory. People were terrified and untrusting of the government and their new campaigns to improve sanitation and health conditions in the city. They believed the vaccines were evil, and revolted against their obligatory nature. Sounds familiar?

1910 – Revolta da Chibata

Now, Revolta da Chibata (Revolt of the Lash) doesn’t quite fit the idea of civil unrest. It was a revolt that happened in 1910 within the Navy, due to the physical punishment of sailors. However, it had a racial aspect to it: low ranked sailors were whipped the most, and those positions were usually held by black and mixed race men. For that reason, this revolt is also a milestone in the fight for social justice and equality in Brazil.

1922 – Revolta dos 18 do Forte de Copacabana

Finally, the Revolta dos 18 do Forte de Copacabana (”Revolt of the 18 from Copacabana Fort”) was the first movement against the Old Brazilian Republic. At the time, elections were often rigged and dictated by the two most powerful states: São Paulo and Minas Gerais. The soldiers in the Copacabana Fort organized a protest, led by former president Marshal Hermes da Fonseca and his son. Due to the pressure from other military units, just 18 men marched on the Avenida Atlântica. And despite being unsuccessful, those 18 men sure are a big part of the history of Rio de Janeiro.

Rio de Janeiro Nowadays

Nowadays, Rio de Janeiro, also known as the Marvelous City, is the land of Samba, beaches, fun and beautiful people who exude happiness. The land of carnaval, the biggest party on Earth, and also host of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Oh, and of course, this is also where you can find our Portuguese school, Rio & Learn: the perfect place to learn Portuguese while having fun and learning about the Brazilian language and culture.

Interesting Fun Facts About Rio de Janeiro

band playing samba at pedra do sal in rio de janeiro neighbourhood.

We are going to learn now some fun and interesting facts about Rio de Janeiro, not only about our culture but also history.

Largest Art Deco Statue

The statue of Christ the Redeemer, located atop Corcovado Mountain, is not only an iconic symbol but also the largest Art Deco statue in the world. It stands at a height of 38 meters (125 feet) and was built in 1922. It offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city!

Copacabana Beach Mosaics

The famous Copacabana Beach is adorned with a unique patterned mosaic sidewalk known as “Calçadão.” The black and white waves of the pattern were inspired by the waves of the ocean and are a distinctive feature of the beach. It was first built in 1906, but renovated many times after it!

Birthplace of Samba

Rio de Janeiro is the birthplace of Samba, one of Brazil’s most popular music genres. Samba originated in the city’s neighborhoods, particularly in the vibrant and culturally rich area of Pedra do Sal, which dates back to 1800’s, and was a place of resistance during the slavery in Brazil. Since, it become an integral part of Rio’s identity and Carnival celebrations.

Largest Carnival Celebration

Speaking of Carnival, Rio de Janeiro hosts the largest Carnival celebration in the world. The annual festival attracts millions of people from around the globe who come to witness the elaborate parades, colorful costumes, lively music, and infectious energy that fill the streets of the city. While the exact year of the first Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is unclear, it is believed to have started in the 18th century. However, the carnival as we know it today, with its parades, samba schools, and elaborate costumes, developed and gained prominence in the early 20th century.

Historic Tram

The Santa Teresa Tram, or “Bonde,” is a charming and historic tram system that dates back to the late 19th century. It winds through the picturesque streets of the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood, providing a nostalgic and scenic ride for both locals and tourists.

Maracanã Stadium

Rio de Janeiro is home to the famous Maracanã Stadium, one of the most renowned football stadiums in the world. It was built in 1950 and for a long time it was the largest stadium in the world! Now, it hosts several historic football matches and has a seating capacity of over 78,000 spectators.

Now it’s your turn!

After learning all about Rio de Janeiro’s history, culture and even some interesting fun facts, let’s practice! How about a little quiz? Practice your Portuguese by using what you just studied!

  1. Qual foi o nome original da cidade do Rio de Janeiro?
  2. Em que ano o Rio de Janeiro se tornou a capital do Império do Brasil?
  3. Qual é a famosa estátua localizada no topo do Morro do Corcovado?
  4. Em qual ano o Rio de Janeiro sediou os Jogos Olímpicos de Verão?
  5. Qual é o bairro conhecido por ser o berço do samba no Rio de Janeiro?
  6. Qual foi o evento histórico que levou a transferência da corte portuguesa para o Rio de Janeiro em 1808?
  7. Em qual década o Rio de Janeiro perdeu o status de capital do Brasil para Brasília?

That’s it, guys! Now we know a little more about the history and culture of Rio de Janeiro! What did you think about the culture of and historical fun facts about Rio de Janeiro? Which was the most interesting fact you learned today about Rio de Janeiro’s history? Tell us all in the comments, we would love to hear from you!
See you later!

 Click the links below to see more related Dicas
Carioca Meaning
Brazil Holidays
Carioca’s New Year
Royal Portuguese Reading Room


  1. São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro
  2. 1822
  3. Estátua de Cristo Redentor
  4. 2016
  5. Lapa
  6. Invasão francesa em Portugal
  7. Década de 1960

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Small classes, diverse accents, and engaging professors make Rio & Learn Online a fantastic choice! I've been thrilled with my experience at Rio & Learn Online so far. The small class sizes (around 1-3 others students) allow for personalized attention and plenty of opportunities to practice speaking. What's more, having different professors throughout the program exposes you to various accents, preparing you for real-world interactions. I opted for the full-time program, which involves 2 hours of daily learning from Monday to Friday. After just over 12 weeks, I can confidently say my Portuguese has improved dramatically. The professors are incredibly engaging and encourage students to utilize real-life examples, solidifying the learning process. While I'm only halfway through the program, I'm confident in recommending Rio & Learn Online to anyone seeking to learn Portuguese in a supportive and effective environment. I've gone from being a complete beginner (only knowing hi and bye) to holding conversations - and I'm excited to see how much further I can progress! I'll be back with another review after completing the program, but for now: Rio & Learn Online - highly recommended!
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Dominique Jacquin
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C'est vraiment fantastique...RioAndLearn. Les cours de portugais...ça vaut vraiment la peine. Les cours ont lieu du lundi au vendredi, (de 9h à 13h) et en après midi, ce sont des activités libres en groupe. (Soccer de plage, volleyball , excursions, visites des lieux touristiques, etc) Vendredi soir, on est allé à Lapa, un quartier nocturne de Rio. C'est quelque chose à voir! Des rues bondées de monde, des orchestres, des discothèques...Allô les décibels! L'apprentissage du portugais se fait en immersion, aussi bien en salle de classe que dans les activités extérieures organisées par Rio&Learn. On est plongé dans la langue portugaise et la culture Brésilienne.... Obligé de parler portugais....🫡 Je le recommande. Pierre Pedro, Montréal, Canada
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