Rio de Janeiro,
Welcome to the Cidade Maravilhosa, or the Marvelous City, as Rio is known in Brazil. Synonymous with the girl from Ipanema, the dramatic views from Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain, and famous Carnival celebrations, Rio is a city of stunning architecture, abundant museums, and marvelous food. Rio is also home to 23 beaches, an almost continuous 73-km (45-mile) ribbon of sand. As you leave the airport and head to Ipanema or Copacabana, you'll drive for about 40 minutes on a highway from where you'll begin to get a sense of the dramatic contrast between beautiful landscape and devastating poverty. In this teeming metropolis of 12 million people (6.2 million of whom live in Rio proper), the very rich and the very poor live in uneasy proximity. But by the time you reach Copacabana's breezy, sunny Avenida Atlântica—flanked on one side by white beach and azure sea and on the other by condominiums and hotels—your heart will leap with expectation as you begin to recognize the postcard-famous sights. Now you're truly in Rio, where cariocas (Rio residents) and tourists live life to its fullest. Enthusiasm is contagious in Rio. Prepare to have your senses engaged and your inhibitions untied. Rio seduces with a host of images: the joyous bustle of vendors at Sunday's Feira Hippie (Hippie Fair); the tipsy babble at sidewalk cafés as patrons sip their last glass of icy beer under the stars; the blanket of lights beneath the Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) morro; the bikers, joggers, strollers, and power walkers who parade along the beach each morning. Borrow the carioca spirit for your stay; you may find yourself reluctant to give it back. When in Rio, don't be afraid to follow the tourist trail—the major attractions really are "must-sees." Contrary to tourist-board images, the sun doesn't always shine on the city, so when it does, make the most of it. If the skies are clear, waste no time in heading for Cosme Velho to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain, or to Urca to make the cable car ascent to the peak of Sugar Loaf. Time-pressed travelers will find that whistle-stop city tours are a good way to see many attractions in one day, while those lucky enough to spend a week or more here can afford to take a more leisurely approach. Cloudy days are a good time to visit the attractions of leafy Lagoa and Jardim Botânico and the breezily bohemian hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. The historic buildings, museums, and cultural centers of Centro, Catete, Glória, and Lapa are ideal rainy-day options.
Rio de Janeiro is world famous for its churrascarias (grilled-meat restaurants) but there's more to its dining scene than sizzling cuts of meat: the city embraces all types of cuisine, from traditional set meals of meat, rice, and black beans to upscale French cuisine. Unlike the states of Bahia and Minas Gerais, Rio doesn't have an identifiable cuisine, though its coastal location ensures that fish and seafood dishes are a staple of many menus here. Vegetarian cuisine has become more visible over the past half-decade. Non-carnivores can feast on a vast range of vividly colored fruits and vegetables at a number of health-food spots. Don't leave Rio without enjoying a relaxed meal and drinks at a traditional boteco (casual bar-restaurant), or taking your pick from the heaping buffets at a comida-a-kilo (pay-by-weight) restaurant.
Rio's accommodations are among the most expensive in the world, with beachfront lodgings in particular charging a premium for their enviable locations. Expect hotel rates to be the most expensive during high season (from December through February), especially during Carnival and New Year's, and for special events such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics. For stays during these times it would be wise to book ahead as far as possible. The low season (from March to November) sees prices fall across the city.
As for the types of lodgings available, there are some excellent luxury options on the beachfront—most notably the Copacabana Palace and Ipanema's Fasano Rio—as well as standard chain hotels. Ipanema and neighboring Leblon are more expensive than Copacabana, but they are also safer and more pleasant to walk around at night. Rio's expanding boutique-hotel scene centers largely around the Santa Teresa and Gávea neighborhoods, while Botafogo and Flamengo offer some decent mid-range options.
Rio supports a rich variety of cultural activity and cutting-edge nightlife. The classic rhythms of samba can be heard in many clubs and bars, and on street corners, but it's possible to find something to suit every kind of musical taste almost every night of the week. Major theater, opera, ballet, and classical-music performances are plentiful, and smaller, more intimate events happen in most neighborhoods. Arts enthusiasts should pick up the bilingual Guia do Rio published by Riotur, the city's tourist board. The Portuguese-language newspapers Jornal do Brasil and O Globo publish schedules of events in the entertainment supplements of their Friday editions.
Rio shopping is most famous for its incomparable beachwear and gemstone jewelry, both of which are exported globally. Brazil is one of the world's largest suppliers of colored gemstones, with deposits of aquamarines, amethysts, diamonds, emeralds, rubellites, topazes, and tourmalines. If you're planning to go to Minas Gerais, do your jewelry shopping there; otherwise stick with shops that have certificates of authenticity and quality. Other good local buys include shoes, Havaianas flip-flops, arts and crafts, coffee, local music, and summer clothing in natural fibers. With lots of low-quality merchandise around, the trick to successful shopping in Rio is knowing where to find high-quality items at reasonable prices.
Ipanema is Rio's most fashionable shopping district. Its many exclusive boutiques are in arcades, with the majority along Rua Visconde de Pirajá. Leblon's shops, scattered among cafés, restaurants, and newspaper kiosks, are found mainly along Rua Ataulfo da Paiva. Copacabana has souvenir shops, bookstores, and branches of some of Rio's better shops along Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and connecting streets. For cheap fashion finds and Carnival costumes, head to the maze of shopping streets behind the Uruguaiana metro station.
The colorful handicrafts street fair takes place on Sundays between 9 am and 7 pm. Shop for high-quality jewelry, hand-painted dresses, paintings, wood carvings, leather bags and sandals, rag dolls, knickknacks, furniture, and samba percussion instruments, among many other items. It's fun to browse here even if you're not looking to buy anything.
The award-winning designers at H.Stern create distinctive contemporary pieces—the inventory runs to about 300,000 items. The shops downstairs sell more affordable pieces and folkloric items. Around the corner at the company's world headquarters, you can see exhibits of rare stones and watch craftspeople transform rough stones into sparkling jewels.
Museu Carmen Miranda
This tribute to the Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda is in a circular building that resembles a concrete spaceship (its door even opens upward rather than out). On display are some of the elaborate costumes and incredibly high platform shoes worn by the actress, who was viewed as a national icon by some and as a traitor to true Brazilian culture by others. Hollywood photos of Miranda, who was only 46 when she died of a heart attack in 1955, show her in her trademark turban and jewelry. Also here are her records and movie posters and such memorabilia as the silver hand mirror she was clutching when she died. Guided tours are given by appointment, but the guides do not speak English.
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes
Works by Brazil's leading 19th- and 20th-century artists fill the space at the National Museum of Fine Arts. The most notable canvases are those by the country's best-known modernist, Cândido Portinari, but be on the lookout for such gems as Leandro Joaquim's heartwarming 18th-century painting of Rio. (a window to a time when fishermen still cast nets in the waters below the landmark Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro). After wandering the picture galleries, tour the extensive collections of folk and African art.
Palácio do Catete
Once the villa of a German baron, the elegant, 19th-century granite-and-marble palace became the presidential residence after the 1889 coup overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Brazil. Eighteen presidents lived here. Gaze at the palace's gleaming parquet floors and intricate bas-relief ceilings as you wander through its Museu da República (Museum of the Republic). The permanent exhibits include a shroud-draped view of the bedroom where President Getúlio Vargas committed suicide in 1954 after the military threatened to overthrow his government. Presidential memorabilia, furniture, and paintings that date from the proclamation of the republic to the end of Brazil's military regime in 1985 are also displayed. A small contemporary art gallery, a movie theater, a restaurant, and a theater operate within the museum.
Pão de Açúcar
The indigenous Tupi people originally called the soaring 396-meter (1,300-foot) granite block at the mouth of Baía de Guanabara pau-nh-acugua (high, pointed peak). To the Portuguese the phrase seemed similar to pão de açúcar, itself fitting because the rock's shape reminded them of the conical loaves in which refined sugar was sold. Italian-made bubble cars holding 75 passengers each move up the mountain in two stages. The first stop is at Morro da Urca, a smaller, 212-meter (705-foot) mountain; the second is at the summit of Pão de Açúcar itself. The trip to each level takes three minutes. In high season long lines form for the cable car; the rest of the year the wait is seldom more than 30 minutes. Consider visiting Pão de Açúcar before climbing the considerably higher Corcovado, as the view here may seem anticlimactic if experienced second.
Rio's iconic Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue stands arms outstretched atop 690-meter-high (2,300-foot-high) Corcovado Mountain. There's an eternal argument about which city view is better, the one from Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) or the one from here. In our opinion, it's best to visit Sugar Loaf before you visit Corcovado, or you may experience Sugar Loaf only as an anticlimax. Corcovado has two advantages: it's nearly twice as high, and it offers an excellent view of Pão de Açúcar itself. The sheer 300-meter (1,000-foot) granite face of Corcovado (the name means "hunchback" and refers to the mountain's shape) has always been a difficult undertaking for climbers.It wasn't until 1921, the centennial of Brazil's independence from Portugal, that someone had the idea of placing a statue atop Corcovado. A team of French artisans headed by sculptor Paul Landowski was assigned the task of erecting a statue of Christ with his arms apart as if embracing the city. (Nowadays, mischievous cariocas say Christ is getting ready to clap for his favorite escola de samba.) It took 10 years, but on October 12, 1931, Christ the Redeemer was inaugurated by then-president Getúlio Vargas, Brazil's FDR. The sleek, modern figure rises more than 30 meters (100 feet) from a 6-meter (20-foot) pedestal and weighs 700 tons. In the evening a powerful lighting system transforms it into an even more dramatic icon.There are three ways to reach the top: by cogwheel train, by minibus, or on foot (not recommended without a guide for safety reasons). The train, built in 1885, provides delightful views of Ipanema and Leblon from an absurd angle of ascent, as well as a close look at thick vegetation and butterflies. (You may wonder what those oblong medicine balls hanging from the trees are, the ones that look like spiked watermelons tied to ropes—they're jaca, or jackfruit.) Trains leave the Cosme Velho station (Rua Cosme Velho 513, Cosme Velho 021/2558–1329 www.corcovado.com.br) for the steep, 5-km (3-mile), 17-minute ascent. Late-afternoon trains are the most popular; on weekends be prepared for a long wait. After disembarking you can climb up 220 steep, zigzagging steps to the summit, or take an escalator or a panoramic elevator. If you choose the stairs, you pass little cafés and shops selling film and souvenirs along the way. Save your money for Copacabana's night market; you'll pay at least double atop Corcovado. Once at the top, all of Rio stretches out before you. Visit Corcovado on a clear day; clouds often obscure the Christ statue and the view of the city. Go as early in the morning as possible, before people start pouring out of tour buses, and before the haze sets in.
The 340-acre Botanical Garden contains more than 5,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants and trees, including 900 varieties of palms (some more than a century old) and more than 140 species of birds. The shady garden, created in 1808 by the Portuguese king João VI during his exile in Brazil, offers respite from Rio's sticky heat. In 1842 the garden gained its most impressive adornment, the Avenue of the Royal Palms, a 720-meter (800-yard) double row of 134 soaring royal palms. Elsewhere, the Casa dos Pilões, an old gunpowder factory, has been restored and displays objects pertaining to the nobility and their slaves. Also on the grounds are a museum dedicated to enviromental concerns, a library, two small cafés, and a gift shop.
If you visit one place in Centro, make it the Municipal Theater, modeled after the Paris Opera House and opened in 1909. Now restored to its sparkling best, the theater boasts Carrara marble, stunning mosaics, glittering chandeliers, bronze and onyx statues, gilded mirrors, German stained-glass windows, and brazilwood inlay floors. Murals by Brazilian artists Eliseu Visconti and Rodolfo Amoedo further enhance the opulent feel. The main entrance and first two galleries are particularly ornate. As you climb to the upper floors, the decor becomes simpler, a reflection of a time when different classes entered through different doors and sat in separate sections, but also due in part to the exhaustion of funds toward the end of the project. The theater seats 2,357—with outstanding sight lines—for its dance performances and classical music concerts. English-speaking guides are available.
Praia de Copacabana
Maddening traffic, noise, packed apartment blocks, and a world-famous beach—this is Copacabana, or, Manhattan with bikinis. Walk along the neighborhood's classic crescent to dive headfirst into Rio's beach culture, a cradle-to-grave lifestyle that begins with toddlers accompanying their parents to the water and ends with silver-haired seniors walking hand in hand along the sidewalk. Copacabana hums with activity: you're likely to see athletic men playing volleyball using only their feet and heads, not their hands—a sport Brazilians have dubbed futevôlei. As you can tell by all the goal nets, soccer is also popular, and Copacabana has been a frequent host to the annual world beach soccer championships. You can swim here, although pollution levels and a strong undertow can sometimes be discouraging. Pollution levels change daily and are well publicized; someone at your hotel should be able to get you the information.Copacabana's privileged live on beachfront Avenida Atlântica, famed for its wide mosaic sidewalks designed by Roberto Burle Marx, and for its grand hotels—including the Copacabana Palace Hotel—and cafés with sidewalk seating. On Sunday two of the avenue's lanes are closed to traffic and are taken over by joggers, rollerbladers, cyclists, and pedestrians.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; walking.
Praia de Ipanema
As you stroll this world-famous beach you'll encounter a cross section of the city's residents, each favoring a particular stretch. Families predominate in the area by near Posto (Post) 10, for instance, and the gay community clusters near Posto 8. Throughout the day you'll see groups playing beach volleyball and soccer, and if you're lucky you might even come across the Brazilian Olympic volleyball team practicing here. At kiosks all along the boardwalk, you can sample all sorts of food and drink, from the typical coconut water to fried shrimp and turnovers.
Amenities: food and
drink; lifeguards; showers; toilets. Best for: walking; sunset.
Praia do Arpoador
At the point where Ipanema Beach meets Copacabana, Praia do Arpoador has great waves for surfing. They're so great that nonsurfers tend to avoid the water for fear of getting hit by boards. A giant rock jutting out into the waves provides panoramic views over the beaches and out to sea. Not surprisingly, the rock is a favorite haunt of romantic couples looking to catch the sunset. With more elbow room and fewer vendors than Ipanema, this beach is a prime spot for a relaxed sunbathing session.
Amenities: food and drink; toilets; showers; lifeguards. Best for: sunset; surfing.