The dramatic landmarks of Sugarloaf and the Christ statue lording over spectacular stretches of famed urban beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema; delicious food and wine with a Latin flair; the sensual moves of samba dance and rhythms of traditional music on display every day of the year including, of course, the bacchanalian Carnival; and a passionate, cosmopolitan and, most of all, friendly people are only some of the ways that Rio constantly affirms its status as a favorite travel destination. Its reputation will only grow when it plays host to the Summer Olympics in 2016.
While not the largest city in the 190 million-resident behemoth that is Brazil — that honor goes to Sao Paulo — Rio’s six million diverse residents (called “Cariocas”) are keenly proud of their city’s stature. They are the most outspoken, lively and just plain fun people you’ll probably ever encounter. The Cariocas’ unmistakable joie de vivre and welcoming spirit is infectious, as they’ll gladly share their local secrets on where to go to experience the most important architectural treasures, the most cutting-edge art museums, the most action-packed water sports, or the most memorable caipirinha (the national drink that packs a wallop). But this isn’t surprising. Who wouldn’t have an open outlook on life living in this perpetually sunny, joyful and fascinating melange of Portuguese, African, European and South American cultures?
Another definite advantage to visiting Rio and Brazil as a tourist is that it remains one of the few true travel bargains left today in this age of the declining dollar. Like its more dressed-up cousin to the south, Buenos Aires, Rio offers the opportunity to live grandly for a day or a week on a much smaller budget than in comparable cities like Paris or London, with reasonable prices for five-star accommodations, good bargain prices for world-class cuisine and wine, and the ability to shop till you drop when searching out the latest trendy fashion items and jewelry.
While inarguably exciting, visiting Rio is still equated with the word “danger” in some conversations. In reality, there are some safety concerns if you venture far out of the normal tourist quarters. But the overall situation for visitors has improved greatly in the past decade, and pickpocketing and mugging incidents are not common. So kick back and relax as you are drawn into Rio’s magnificent orbit.
Rio de Janeiro Attractions
Beautiful and glamorous beaches are a huge attraction in Rio de Janeiro, and are part of the daily social and recreation fabric of all Cariocas. The two most famous — Copacabana and Ipanema — are easily accessible and ideal for day-trippers who want to plunge headlong into this most democratic of activities (look for raucous kids from the favelas, or slums, sitting right next to wealthy, posing locals and hordes of hip gay men from the U.S. and Europe).
Copacabana, a long two-mile stretch, is lined with high-rise hotels and cafes, and attracts more tourists than locals. The mile-long beach at Ipanema, south of Copacabana, is more about “the scene” (the tighter the body, squeezed into the smaller the swimsuit, the better). But everyone, no matter where they come from or what they look like, feels welcome at Rio’s beaches. To better take in the remarkable beauty of the water and beaches (and hone your people-watching skills!), rent bikes and rollerblades and just hang loose as the locals do.
Downtown, there are numerous gorgeous churches dating back to the 17th century. Among those worth seeing is Convento do Santo Antonio (Largo da Carioca, 5), which dates back to 1615; don’t miss its colonial-era artifacts. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelaria (Praca Pio X) represents Brazil’s 18th century. At the Mosteiro de Sao Bento (Rua Dom Gerardo, 32), the highlight among many is its intricately wood-carved altar. For those with more contemporary tastes, check out the daring and modern Catedral de Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro (Av. Republica do Chile, 245), which was built in the early 1960’s.
Art museum aficionados should head to Rio’s Flamengo neighborhood. Main attractions there include the Museu de Arte Moderna (Av. Infante Dom Henrique, 85) to see a huge collection of contemporary works. The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, otherwise known as the National Museum of Fine Arts (Av. Rio Branco, 199), features Brazil’s best artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
And for a fun stop, check out the Museu Carmen Miranda (Av. Rui Barbosa, 560), which memorializes Brazil’s most famous bombshell — not to mention star in the arts of samba, singing, dancing and acting. Another must-see stop on the cultural radar is the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporarea de Niteroi (Mirante de Boa Viagem, Niteroi), a contemporary art museum where cutting-edge masterworks meet a striking “spaceship” building with unparalleled views of the city.
Corcovado: The Art Deco-style statue of Christ the Redeemer is Rio’s most famous and enduring symbol, perched atop the 2,300-foot hill of Corcovado. Spectacular views of mountains, bays and beaches await those who take the easy funicular ride; the trains leave Cosme Velho station every 20 minutes.
Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Acugar): The views from the top of this imposing natural wonder amply demonstrate why no other city in the world can compete with Rio’s scenic beauty and setting — a magnificent harbor and impossibly beautiful beaches are nudged tight against dramatic Tijuca National Park, the largest urban expanse of tropical forest and mountains on the planet. To get to Sugarloaf, take a taxi to the cable car station at the base.
The Jardim Botanico (Rua Jardim Botanico, 1008) is a lovely, peaceful respite from always-busy Rio. It’s spread out over 340 acres, and its biggest attraction is Avenue of the Palms, part of the world’s largest collection relating to the Amazon.
The Burle Marx House (Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba, 2019) is a large, expansive estate that has morphed into an art gallery and museum honoring famed Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. The highlight is the elegant landscaping and plants that surround the house.
Take in a “futebol” (soccer) match at Estadio do Maracana, Rio’s gargantuan stadium (the largest in South America), which holds nearly 95,000 passionate fans.
Plunge headfirst into the celebration (and madness) of Rio’s world-famous Carnival celebration by scheduling your trip around this unique and joyous party. A four-day event, it begins on a Saturday and ends on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday); the date changes every year.
Rio Scenarium (Rua do Lavradio, 36) is a large nightclub and restaurant with eclectic decor that’s part fun house, part antique store. A rotating selection of local groups plays samba and forro, the accordion music of Brazil’s northeast, and everyone eventually gets up to dance the night away.
Take an in-depth tour of Rio’s favelas (translated as “shantytowns” but actually much more lively and diverse than the name implies). Marcelo Armstrong is a local insider who helps visitors tour the favelas safely and offers unique insights into the daily lives of the majority of Rio residents. (See FavelaTour.com.br for details.)
Rio de Janeiro Restaurants
The quintessential Rio dining experience is eating rodizio (or all-you-can-eat) style in one of the many meat-focused “churrascarias.” There are numerous restaurants in the city where platters of delicious grilled meats and sides are brought to your table until you say “no more!” Most of these popular establishments feature expansive salad bars as well. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the reasonable prices for a satisfying lunch. There are many other dining choices in this international city as well, but while in Rio, you must try feijoada, a dish of black beans and pork served with rice, and pair it with a caipirinha, a typical Brazilian cocktail made of sugar cane rum, lime and sugar.
For convenient and easy lunch choices, we’ve had great luck wandering the streets of Ipanema and Copacabana and just going to any local lanchonetes (lunch counters), where you can sample any kind of fruit juice imaginable, along with a good selection of sandwiches and snacks (one example is Big Nectar at 34A Teixiera de Melo in Ipanema). Also, look for restaurants in the tourist areas with menus that are posted outside. Most are excellent and offer fresh selections and good value. Make sure that you verify whether credit cards are accepted. And note that some churrasco restaurants charge based on what you take, rather than a fixed, all-you-can eat American-style buffet.
Here are some highly recommended restaurants to sample typical or interesting cuisine in the city:
Confeitaria Colombo (Rua Goncalves Dias, 32): This ornate historic restaurant is a magnificent showcase for Brazil’s Belle Epoque architecture, as well as the best in local meats and seafood, served buffet-style. Tourists and locals alike rave about the selection and quality here.
Marius Degustare (Av. Atlantica, 290, Leme): This traditional all-you-can-eat Brazilian rodizio restaurant has evolved — into an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant, located right next door to its carnivorous cousin. Besides the delicious buffet of antipasto and cold seafood, ravenous diners can look forward to the prime catch that waiters bring to your table: fresher-than-fresh lobster, prawns, salmon, tuna and more.
Casa de Feijoada (Rua Prudente de Moraes 10, Ipanema): The Brazilian national dish of feijoada (bean stew) is usually served only once a week, but you can join the locals who have a hankering for the ultimate comfort food any day of the week at this popular Ipanema restaurant. The actual bean stew is served in a traditional clay pot with whatever meat you choose (bacon, sausage, dried meat, etc.). A plethora of side dishes as well as a large cocktail menu make for a memorable taste of the city.
Bar d’Hotel (Av. Delfim Moreira, 696, inside the Marina All Suites Hotel): This hip eatery located inside the coolest boutique hotel in the city is the place where the trendy, younger set and in-the-know diners come to enjoy innovative Brazilian dishes like duck magret with fried gnocchi.
Shopping in Rio de Janeiro
Combining beach time with shopping in Rio is easy because the two most famous beaches abut the best areas of the city for shopping (and dining). Exhausted the areas near Ipanema and Copacabana? Head downtown for more shopping in the Centro district. Brazil is the world’s largest producer of colored gemstones (hence the presence of so many reputable international retailers like H. Stern), and is also a major gold producer. Other possibilities to add to your Rio shopping list include designer clothing, handicrafts, leather goods and unique fabrics.
Ipanema is the heart of chic and glamorous Rio, featuring lots of one-of-a-kind and designer boutiques, pleasant parks, and outdoor cafes. The main drag, where you’ll find the majority of upscale shops, is Rua Visconde de Piraja.
Every Sunday, rain or shine, Ipanema hosts the Feira Hippie, a handicrafts fair held at Praca General Osorio (a former hippie hangout in the 1960’s). It’s a great place to browse for jewelry, leather goods, artwork and other handmade items.
Virtually adjacent to Ipanema is Copacabana, which offers a more eclectic array of shopping spots. The best of the area’s bookstores, clothing boutiques, souvenir shops and other retailers can be found on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana (and its adjacent streets). Also worth a look is Avenida Atlantica, which offers some of the city’s best jewelry and hosts the work of Brazilian artisans on evenings and weekends; it’s a great place to find local handicrafts and artwork.
Downtown in the Centro district are more affordable places to shop for shoes and clothing, as well as plenty of street vendors peddling a variety of discount goodies. Check out streets like Rua da Alfandega, Rua Uruguaiana and Rua Buenos Aires.
Looking for musical instruments — like tambourines or small drums — to take home as souvenirs? There are a number of music stores clustered together on Rua da Carioca.
–written by Stan Wu