Hitting the beaches
Best beaches for sunbathing and swimming alongside the cariocas are Copacabana and especially Ipanema.
On Ipanema: Posto 9 (Posto Nove) is the place to see all the hot young things posing and playing football on the beach; Posto 8 is popular among the gay community; towards Posto 7 is the surfer’s pick Arpoador Beach (see below); and if you continue walking to the far end of the beach (towards Copa), up and over the rocks, you’ll find the small, hidden Praia do Diabo (Devil's Beach), popular among families for its calmer swimming waters.
Outside central, head to Barra Beach in the exclusive Barra de Tijuca neighorhood, a popular spot among surfers and windsurfers, with the best people-watching at the famed sandwich shop Cabana do Pepe (“Pepe’s Cabin”, run by the widow of the eponymous hang glider who died in a gliding accident in Japan).
*Note: Botafogo and Flamengo are usually very polluted so avoid swimming here, and avoid swimming at the beaches altogether after rainy spells.
Walking the Copacabana Promenade
Built in 1970, famed Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx’s fetching black and white wave-patterned mosaic promenade runs along the entire length of Copacabana and is the perfect place for grabbing a chilled coconut or cerveja while you people-watch.
Sundowner at Arpoador
Located on the peninsula between Copacabana and Ipanema, this is considered the best urban surf spot and a favourite for its sunset views. Accessed from Ipanema side only, the beach is a popular spot among people living in the nearby favelas so be on the lookout for pickpockets.
(Bikini) Shopping in Ipanema
Set two blocks in from the beach, one of Rio’s best shopping streets Visconde de Pirajá runs the length of Ipanema and has many of the city’s best boutiques and commercial brands on offer. For the ultimate, sexy Brazilian bikinis, stop into Salinas (547 Rua Visconde de Pirajá, #204), as well as Bum Bum (the original Brazilian bikini shop est. in 1979) and celebrity favourite Blue Man (which also has a good range of men’s swimwear), both of which have outlets in the Fórum de Ipanema at 351 Visconde de Pirajá.
Another great boutique with funky men and women’s fashion is Hospedaria (Rua Visconde de Piraja, 303).
Christ Redeemer and Corcovado
Save this one for a clear day otherwise you won’t get any of the smashing views from one of Rio’s most iconic sights, sitting at the very top of 2300ft-high Corcovado mountain. Inaugurated in 1931, this 100ft-high reinforced concrete and soapstone statue was designed by local engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, sculpted by Polish sculptor Paul Landowski in France, then transported up the mountain by Corcovado Railroad. Named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, it survived a direct lightning strike in February 2008.
Cable Car to top of Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar)
Rio’s other stunning viewpoint is reportedly named after the old-time bread-loaf-shaped packages of processed sugar cane. The cable car has two legs to its journey, first ascending 700 feet up form Praia Vermelha (Red Beach) to Morro da Urca (Urca Hill), then another 1300ft up to the top of Sugarloaf mountain. The 360 degree views take in Rio’s famous beaches, Corcovado, the airport and and Guanabara Bay. Plan on about four hours round trip. Adults Reais 44/each.
(English version under construction)
Taking the Tram (the “bonde”) to/from Santa Theresa
Operating since 1891, this is the last true tramway in all of South America and for just $0.25 offers the best introduction to the 19th century colonial-style neighborhood of Santa Theresa. After our delicious lunch at Sobrenatural, it was the perfect way to get down to Centro to have dessert and coffee at Confeitaria Colombo. Like San Fran’s trolleys, this is jump-on-jump-off stuff, so make sure to keep your cameras and other valuables safe from any clinging pickpockets.
Samba at Rio Scenarium
Lapa. Rua do Lavradio 20. +55 (21) 3147-9005.
Equally popular among the tourists and locals for its live samba and funky three-storey space stuffed with antiques and odd curios. Tables are hard to come by, but the sweet and fruity caipirinhas should keep you dancing all night long. Cover charge Reais 15-20/head.
Hang Gliding over Rio
Flights begin from the Pedra Bonita (“pretty rock”) ramp located inside the Tijuca Forest national park and end on the sandy beach of Sao Conrado (“pepino”), catching views of all the major sights (Corcovado, the beaches, and Rocinha the largest favela in Latin America) on the way down. There are many operators in Rio, but both Just Fly (www.justfly.com.br) and Konrad Heilmann’s Rio Hang Gliding (www.riohanggliding.com) have gotten consistently good reviews. $80-100/flight includes air-conditioned transfers from your hotel..
And if the your timing is right...
Soccer at Maracana Stadium
Opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup, this is one of the largest football/soccer stadiums in the world with a current seating capacity of 90,000 (though the official, paid attendance at the final 1950 World Cup game was reportedly 199,854 people, estimated to be more like 210,000). If you’re here off-season (mid December to mid January), you can still join a tour of the stadium.
This annual party extravaganza is held over the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday. The type of partying differs in each region of Brazil, but in Rio, bloco (block) parades and a massive samba competition among the many samba schools are among the highlights.
WHERE TO STAY
You can pretty much take your pick of all the international hotel chains, but why would you? If you want to share in a bit of star-studded history, book into a Rio icon, the Belmond Copacabana Palace, aka “the Copa”, open since 1923.
Rio Guesthouse (aka Marta’s Guesthouse)
Copacabana. Rua Francisco Sa , 5. +55 (21) 2521-8568.
You’ll feel like a real carioca in this intimate guesthouse on the top two floors of a highrise right across from Copacabana Beach. While it looks like the place hasn’t been redecorated since the 1980s (the old-school bathrooms could REALLY use an overhaul), there’s no better place for breakfast than on the huge outdoor terrace with stunning views over the beach and Sugarloaf mountain in the distance; it’s also just a short walk to the shopping and sunbathers of Ipanema. The vivacious owner Marta might be bit much for some, but we thought she was thoroughly welcoming and a terrific resource for exploring the city. A real gem compared to the dull corporate hotels in the area, and a steal at Reais330/$165 per night for a double room, including breakfast (you’ll pay at least double that in nearby Ipanema and Leblon).
Other popular stays:
Ipanema. Avenida Viera Souto, 80. + 55 (21) 3896-4000.
Still white hot since its late-2007 opening, the Philippe Starck-redesigned Fasano Hotel has a highly-acclaimed Mediterannean-style seafood restaurant (Fasano Mare) and ultra-hip guest-only sizzling rooftop pool and bar...all right across the street from Ipanema beach.
La Suite by Dussol
Joatinga. Rua Jackson de Figueiredo 501. +55 (21) 2484 1962
Boutique guesthouse perched high up in one of the more exclusive residential neighborhoods in Rio, the trade off is the need to take a taxi everywhere (except for the well-kept secret Joatinga beach). Run by a French and Brazilian couple, the design is chic but relaxed, the seven richly coloured rooms are well appointed and come with private terraces, there are two pools, one of which is an infinity with stunning, distant views of Ipanema and Sugarloaf.
La Maison by Dussol
Gavea. Rua Sérgio Porto 58. +55 (21) 3205-3585.
Sister hotel to La Suite, this 5-room guesthouse is located in a quiet and stylish neighborhood 15 minutes from Copacabana, 10 from Ipanema by taxi. Each room is unique and thematically decorated, from the red and black Shanghai room to the turquoise Tiffany, and while not all are equipped with A/C, each has a private outdoor patio or terrace. There’s a swimming pool and a leafy garden too.
HOW TO GET THERE (AND GETTING AROUND)
International flights land in Rio Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport (GIG) which is approx 30 minutes away ($25/person) from Ipanema and Copacabana, usually via the Linha Vermelha, though I’ve read some people advising to take the Avenida Brasil late at night to avoid the sketchy areas. Our transfer was organized by our accommodation, but there are plenty of taxis at the airport. Might also be worth checking out www.rioairporttransfer.com, where you can book a transfer in a decent, A/C car ahead of time.
Once you’re there, taxis are cheap and the main way to get around and help to avoid any problematic situations. During the day, the subway is very good too.
Stay & Play: Rio
Walking along Ipanema's beach sidewalk
Sweeping view of Copacabana from Marta's Guesthouse
Christ Redeemer on a foggy day
View over Jockey Club and the polluted Rodrigo Freitas lagoon
Aboard the bonde
End of the line
Loading up on caipirinhas and samba at Rio Scenarium
Charming faded colonial architecture of Santa Theresa