Rio de Janeiro can broadly be divided into four districts: Centro (the city centre or downtown), Zona Sul (South Zone), Zona Oeste (West Zone) and Zona Norte (North Zone). Each district is made up of different barrios, or neighbourhoods. 

Expats have a wide variety of options when it comes to areas and suburbs in Rio de Janeiro. Where an expat chooses to settle will depend on their particular lifestyle, budget and preferences. Factors expats need to consider when deciding on a neighbourhood in Rio include proximity to work and schools, safety, and access to public transport and other amenities.

The city is built around numerous mountains and beaches with pockets of protected forest areas in between. Most expats in Rio live in apartments or condominiums in the more affluent Zona Sul area, which sits along the beachfront and is home to the world-famous neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Copacabana. Barra de Tijuca in the Zona Oeste is also a popular choice for expats in Rio.

Zona Sul

The Zona Sul is made up of Rio’s most affluent beachfront barrios. This is the most popular area for expats, including young professionals, singletons and families, to call home. In particular, Leblon, Ipanema and Lagoa are the most sought-after areas.

Accommodation in the Zona Sul is generally in the form of apartments in high-rise buildings. The area is home to many amenities, including shops, restaurants and, of course, Rio’s most famous beaches. The area also offers fantastic nightlife with many bars and clubs dotted around the neighbourhood. These are all generally within walking distance of each other.

The Zona Sul is home to some of the most popular tourist attractions in Rio. It can become quite congested and noisy, but it offers a great environment for those wanting to experience the beauty and beach lifestyle that Rio is famous for. However, the tourists also attract pickpockets and beggars, so expats should keep a close eye on their possessions when walking in the area. 

Zona Oeste

Located northwest along the coast from the Zona Sul, the Zona Oeste is a popular district with expats, particularly Barra de Tijuca (often just referred to as Barra). Home to pristine beaches and beachfront properties, Barra has been nicknamed the 'Miami of Rio'. Most accommodation is in the form of spacious apartments in high-rise buildings. However, expats will also find larger houses, some even with gardens and swimming pools. The relatively low cost and convenient amenities make the area popular with families. Barra also offers plenty of entertainment options for expats, with restaurants, shops and bars lining the streets.

Although the district is considered safe, several favelas have developed in and around the Zona Oeste. The area is also quite a bit further out and not well-served by public transport. Expats living in the Zona Oeste are therefore likely to need a car. However, many expats are fortunate enough to have their place of work within a short distance from home in Barra, as a number of multinational companies have a presence in the area. 


Centro is Rio’s city centre and commercial heart. The area is a mix of old and new with colonial architecture sitting alongside modern skyscrapers. Major corporate and financial headquarters are housed in Centro. This area is likely to be where most expats work. 

Although some parts of Centro have experienced a revival in recent years, the district is not a popular residential area. While it is buzzing during the day, parts of Centro can become quite deserted at night and are not safe to wander alone. However, the area does offer some popular nightlife spots. In areas like Lapa many clubs, bars and restaurants dot the streets. The area is also home to many of Rio’s historical buildings and museums, making it popular with tourists.

It’s relatively easy to get around Centro as it's well-connected by public transport, with the metro system travelling around the area. Buses also provide a convenient means of transport. 

Zona Norte

The Zona Norte is not a popular residential district for foreigners. The area is quite industrialised. Neighbourhoods such as Del Castilho, Bangu and Pavuna are residential but are bordered by many of Rio’s infamous favelas. Tijuca is the only reasonably safe middle-class neighbourhood in Zona Norte.

The area boasts some interesting tourist attractions, though, like the Maracana stadium and the Feira Nordestina São Cristóvão market. Unless going to a specific attraction, expats are better off avoiding the region.

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