We spent about a week in Rio for the 2009 New Year's celebrations and had the most wonderful experience. But read most guidebooks, travel blogs and forums and you would be forgiven for believing that Rio de Janeiro is the most dangerous city on the planet with gangs of muggers roaming the beaches and tourist hotspots, ready to pounce at any moment. Of course petty crime is a reality in most cities and tourists should always be on their guard; but anyone who has actually been to Rio knows that taking simple precautions can drastically lower the risk of mugging or theft.
First of all, despite all of the bad press, it really surprised me how many tourists walked around with expensive cameras and jewellery around their necks. When walking in Rio, if you need to take valuables with you then put them in a plastic bag. Plastic bags usually don't cause the same kind of excitement amongst potential muggers as a state-of-the-art digital camera does.
Secondly, always walk with a sense of purpose. You are more likely to get mugged in any large city if you look like you want to get mugged.
Thirdly, try to blend in with the locals. This is easier said than done (and sometimes impossible for pale Northern Europeans) but at least try to pick up a few words of Portuguese. It will be appreciated.
Before visiting Rio, we were a little concerned about some of the reports of crime on travel forums and blogs, but, while I am not so naive as to believe that crime cannot happen to me (I recently had an expensive camera stolen in Berlin), I believe that seasoned travellers should not be that concerned about visiting Rio. Anyone who has travelled (even moderately) should be fine here as long as they exercise common sense.
In fact, most tourists tend to stay around the beach areas and here you would be more likely to witness visitors commiting crime than local youths. Just ask these two British law graduates about their experiences!
I should also add that we thought the yellow taxis were perfectly safe. We used them frequently and not only did we save big bucks compared to the special pre-paid taxis from the airport (which incidentally are more likely to be targetted by criminals), we also met some very friendly taxi-drivers who provided us with so much information and tips about what to see in Rio.
And do please visit Centro! Many guidebooks say it's too dangorous but it we enjoyed this part of the city the most - exploring the narrow streets and old colonial buildings.
Rio is one of the the world's must see cities. Go there and don't let any crime reports put you off!