Sprawling in majestic disarray across a strip of land between granite peaks and the South Atlantic Ocean, with the enormous Bay of Guanabara flanking it to the east, Rio de Janeiro is a victory of fantasy over fact.
Each day, Rio’s streets and sidewalks support 14 million people, transported by a million cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and scooters. This spectacular chaos, though, is normal, and does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the cariocas, Rio’s residents. For the carioca, all things are relative, except one – the wonder and beauty of their city.
There are just over 6 million residents of Rio proper, but an additional 8 million live in suburbs ringing the city. Many are poor by American or European standards – at least 70 percent. But there is the beach and there is the samba and there is Carnival. And, not least of all, there is the comforting presence of Rio’s extraordinary beauty. The city’s residents can also look forward to hosting the World Cup in 2014, including the final, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016.
Rio was Brazil’s capital city until 1960, when the seat of government was moved from here to landlocked Brasília and fun became Rio’s main moneymaker. Nothing quite prepares you for Rio, which Brazilians call a cidade maravilhosa – the marvellous city: not the postcards, not the films, not the reports. There are other cities that have grown up backed by mountains and fronted by the sea, but there is none where the play of light, the shifting of shadows, the mix of colors and hues are so vibrant and mobile.
The Mosteiro de São Bento, parts of which date from 1633, is a monastery overlooking the bay – however more impressive and spectacular than the view from the hill is the splendor of the monastery’s gold-leaf woodcarvings.The hill on which the monastery stands is one of the few that survive in downtown Rio. The others that existed during the colonial period have fallen victim to one form of carioca progress: a penchant for removing hills to fill in the bay.
Probably the most famous stadium in the world, this is the country’s temple of soccer, built for the 1950 World Cup and where Pelé scored his 1,000th goal in 1969. Trips to matches and to the stadium’s hall of fame (on non-match days) can be arranged through the concierges of most hotels. Although totally refurbished for the 2007 Pan-American Games, Maracanã is expected to stay closed for several years as further work is done to prepare it for the 2014 World Cup when it will host a number of games, including the final. It is also scheduled to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games. As well as soccer games, Maracanã is the venue for major concerts.
Little House in the Sky Museum
Nobre 93 Rua Murtinho
Yellow trolley cars make the picturesque climb up the mountain and along the surprise-filled streets of the Santa Teresa neighborhood, crossing the old Carioca Aqueduct, or Arcos da Lapa, in the process (one of downtown Rio’s most striking landmarks which switched from aqueduct to viaduct in 1896). Hanging from the hillsides and flanking the winding, cobblestoned streets, the architectural hodgepodge of Santa Teresa’s homes is one of Rio’s most distinctive features. Gabled mansions with wrought-iron fixtures and stained-glass windows stand beside more staid and proper edifices, all perfectly at home on a mountain that provides a spectacular vista of the Bay of Guanabara. Be sure to see the Museu Chácara do Céu (Little House in the Sky Museum) set in gardens that look out over the city. There’s a great collection of works by Brazilian Modernists, including paintings by Brazil’s greatest modern artist, as well as by a number of European masters.
Undoubtedly the most famous landmark on Guanabara Bay is Sugar Loaf, the granite prominence that rises 396 meters (1,300ft) high at the bay’s entrance. Visitors are whisked up in bubble-shaped cable cars manufactured in Switzerland and introduced in June 2009, each of which holds up to 65 passengers and offers 360-degree views. Departures are from the Praia Vermelho station (www.bondinho.com.br). From Sugar Loaf, paths lead to viewpoints affording visitors extraordinarily beautiful views on all sides, day or night.
Although aged, and in some places somewhat the worse for wear, Praia de Copacabana remains the centerpiece of Rio de Janeiro’s beaches and the international tourist trade. Its classic crescent curve, anchored at one end by the imposing presence of Sugar Loaf, has made Copacabana a world-class picture-postcard scene. On any given summer weekend, up to half-a-million cariocas and tourists will descend to promenade on Copacabana. Hawkers of beverages, food, suntan lotions, and hats sway across the beach, adding musical accompaniment with their singsong voices, whirling metal ratchets and the rhythms that they beat on small drums. The crush of the beach is an extension of the crush beyond the beach: the quintessential Rio neighborhood, Copacabana consists of 109 streets on which more than 350,000 people live, squeezed close together into high-rises by the mountains at their back and the Atlantic in front. For this urban mass, the beach is their escape to an open space.
Ipanema plays home to the wealthy. From the 1950s to the present day, Ipanema underwent an extraordinary real-estate boom and population explosion, and since the 1960s, a surging army of high-rises have turned the Ipanema skyline into a smaller version of Copacabana. In the morning, joggers and cyclists rub shoulders, while exercise-class participants go through their public gyrations; during the day, and for much of the evening, this is where the beautiful people of the city hang out. At sunset, the paved sidewalk is crowded with lovers of all ages, strolling along hand in hand. Ipanema is less boisterous than Copacabana, and it preserves the romance of Rio more than any of the city’s 22 other beaches – palm trees add to the intimate setting, as does the relative lack of beach-front hotels and bars. Ipanema and Leblon are essentially the same neighborhood and remain Rio’s center of chic and sophistication.
Overlooking Rio is the world-famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, standing with his arms outstretched atop Corcovado, or Hunchback Mountain. To reach the 710-meter (2,330ft) summit, you could go by rented car or taxi, but the recommended method is the Corcovado Railroad (www.corcovado.com.br). From the upper station, a recently installed escalator takes visitors the short distance to the summit – although it’s easy enough to walk as long as you are fit. At the top of Corcovado, the granite statue, which was given a general face-lift in 2010, stands 38 meters (125ft) tall; the work of a team of artisans headed by French sculptor Paul Landowsky, it was completed in 1931. Enveloping Corcovado is the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, one of Rio’s most enchanting natural attractions, a tropical reserve that includes 100km (60 miles) of narrow, two-lane roads winding through the forest’s thick vegetation, and punctuated by waterfalls.
80 Avenida Vieira Souto, Ipanema
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-3202 4000
Rio’s most fashionable boutique hotel since opening in 2007. Designed by Philippe Starck and Rogério Fasano, the hotel found itself hosting Madonna, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys on the eve of Carnival 2010. The restaurant and bar are highly rated and there's an exclusive pool and spa.
660 Avenida Almirante Alexandrino, Santa Teresa
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-3380 0200
Stylish, new award-winning boutique hotel in the bohemian district of Santa Teresa, located in an old coffee-plantation mansion and 2010 winner of a Wallpaper magazine design award for the best new hotel suite. It’s no good if you want to be on the beach-front, but it offers stylish accommodations in a very special place.
1702 Avenida Atlântica, Copacabana
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-2548 7070
An iconic oasis of calm (and part of the Orient-Express group) with a superb restaurant, excellent pool area and one of Rio’s most fashionable nightclubs. Good business facilities; best afternoon tea in Brazil. It's classic luxury in the heart of Copacabana beach.
157 Rua Anibal de Mendonça, Ipanema
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-2239 8158
Gero, part of the Fasano family, is one of the hotspots on Rio’s gastronomic map, and has been since opening in 2002. Serves sophisticated Italian cuisine.
218 Avenida Barra da Torre, Ipanema
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-3389 8989
If you choose just one barbecue house, this must be it. One of the first, and still one of the best – the food is wonderful.
1674 Avenida Epitácio Pessoa, Lagoa
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-2523 1135
A carioca institution since 1934. Good-value Art Deco bar for full meal or a drink.
64 Rua Dias Ferreira, Leblon
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-2540 6821
Small, laid-back bistro, one of Rio’s most popular with the in-crowd. Dishes mix innovation with the classics.
32 Goncalves Dias, Centro
Rio de Janeiro
tel: 21-2505 1500
A Rio institution, Art Nouveau decor with mirrored walls serving light meals and a buffet, but most famous for its afternoon teas. A delightful branch is also operating in the Forte de Copacabana.
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