Although this is a big, hectic city with a population of 6.3 million, its laid-back charm, its predilection for good times, its tropical vibe and, of course, its beaches make the Rio brand unmistakable.
The sheer stone mountains that drop into the sea, lush greenery clinging to the hillsides, iconic vistas with bays that cut into the coastline and miles of beaches have been creating postcards for generations.
You could spend years exploring Rio, but if time is limited, I would concentrate on beach life, music — from the smooth rhythms of bossa nova to samba — and a quick jaunt to the mountains.
On my itinerary, you won’t escape — nor should you want to — a visit to Christ the Redeemer statue that stands atop 2,326-foot Corcovado with its arms outstretched to the world. Sugarloaf Mountain ( Pão de Açúcar) is another must-see; it provides panoramic views of the beaches, planes taking off from Santos Dumont Airport and sailboats bobbing in the cove below.
But to avoid the huge crowds, begin your day at Corcovado, which opens at 8:30 a.m., and consider taking the cable car up Sugarloaf as the day fades into dusk.
Without visiting these two iconic destinations, you won’t get the true lay of the land or understand how the mountains meld with the sea, the extent of Rio’s urban forests, or how minute its narrow ribbon of beaches is compared with the teeming city.
My daughter, an architect, would add the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museum of Modern Art, which looks like a flying saucer as it perches on a rocky outcropping across Guanabara Bay from Rio in the city of Niterói. You can take the bridge, or the more scenic Niterói ferry that leaves every half hour from Praça XV in downtown Rio.
I’ll give her that one. The museum, entered by a staircase that spirals into its womb-like interior, is a stunner. But then I’ll also add Maracanã Stadium, Brazil’s temple of soccer and scene of seven FIFA World Cup games, including the final on July 13.
It’s fun to visit Maracanã and wander through the warm-up room and locker room where soccer greats like Neymar get ready, to see the ball that the great Pelé used to kick his 1,000th goal. But right now the stadium is in the hands of FIFA. Tours won’t resume until July 21.
But let’s get back to the beach. If Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, is all about business, Rio is all about the beach. There’s a culture and an order to beach life in the Zona Sul, the southern part of the city.
Along Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana, you’ll find the big hotels, including the Copacabana Palace, an elegant wedding cake of a hotel where world leaders have rested their heads for generations. If you can’t pay $559 to $1,000-plus per night, you can feel like a star by stopping for a drink and a snack at the poolside cafe, where you’ll still get five-star service.
But many of Copacabana’s seaside hotels could use an update. It is along the side streets that you’ll discover the neighborhood’s charm. Everyone has their favorite boteco, or open-air bar. You’ll find these hangouts, which offer ice-cold beer and tasty appetizers, on almost every corner.
One of Cecilia Magalhaes’ favorites is Cervantes at Avenida Junior 335B. The Miami vet and Rio native swears by the pork and pineapple sandwiches. “It’s a little tiny restaurant and bar, the kind of place where the table next to yours will listen to everything you say,” Magalhaes said.
Though few people — except the tourists — venture into water that could be cleaner, you’ll see beach life in all its glory along the curve of Copacabana Beach. You don’t need to take much of anything to the beach. Vendors ply the sands offering everything from rental chairs and umbrellas to suntan oil, coconut water and beer. Brazil’s signature caipirinha cocktail is also readily available at beachfront kiosks.
Even if you don’t play, it’s fun to watch the balletic move of the beach volleyball and futevolei (no hands allowed) players.
Moving down the coast, Arpoador Beach between Ipanema and Copacabana is the best place to watch the surfers and catch the sunset.
Ipanema is the golden Rio. On any given sunny day, you may find the the city’s hippest and most artistic at Posto 9, the lifeguard post that stands guard over this fashionable stretch of sand. A little further along the coast, you’ll find Leblon, also an upscale neighborhood.
Part of the beach lifestyle is stopping at one of the many juice bars (Polis Sucos and Fruti Vita among them) en route to the sand.
Ipanema is also a good place to begin your musical tour at A Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) bar at Rua Vinícius de Moraes 49. You need to hoist a chopp (draft) to commemorate the bar’s namesake song.
It is here, when the place was known as Bar Veloso, that Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes shared drinks and watched a lovely young girl from the neighborhood head to the beach. That girl, Helô Pinheiro, inspired the pair to write the song that brought the mellow rhythms of bossa nova to the world.
Before leaving Ipanema, stop by Toca do Vinícius, a book and music store devoted to bossa nova. Located at Vinícius de Moraes 129, it has a wonderful selection of both old and new bossa nova artists.
True bossa nova aficionados might also want to visit Casa Villarino Bar, Av. Calogeras 6 loja B in downtown Rio, where Jobim was introduced to de Moraes in 1956.
Switching genres, no music tour of Rio is complete without a stop at Pedra do Sal in the Saúde neighborhood where African slaves were auctioned. Imbued with historic, religious and cultural significance, the area was known as Little Africa and is acknowledged as the cradle of samba and choro music and Rio’s Carnival itself.
Now musicians gather at 7 p.m. on most Monday nights at Pedra do Sal for samba da roda sessions. The beer flows and the dancing pounds into the night on the ancient stones where slaves once toiled. Musicians also gather at the Salt Stone on Fridays.
After a few days of running around Rio, you’ll be ready for a cool-down. My favorite spot for a respite is Tijuca National Forest. You’ll find waterfalls, misty views, hiking trails, butterflies, hummingbirds, monkeys and if you’re patient, you might even catch sight of a slow-moving sloth.
It’s only about a 20-minute trip up the mountain, but the easiest way to see the forest is probably a tour. Although driving yourself is best because you can spend more time at the spots you like, I wouldn’t advocate it unless you know your way around Rio. Just getting over to Lopes Quintas — the street that winds up the mountain to the forest — will involve playing chicken with bus drivers and weaving, darting taxi drivers.
Some tours will take you to both the forest and Jardim Botânico, the Botanical Garden, a lovely 350-acre oasis in the heart of the city. It opened to the public in 1822. Near Lagoa at Rua Jardim Botanico 920, the garden is often overlooked by tourists. But it’s well worth a few hours among the giant lily pads, carnivorous plants and thousands of other species of plants and trees.
If you’ve still got the rhythms of Rio running through your head, head to Bip Bip for samba jams. Because there are noise restrictions, things can’t get too raucous at this tiny locale (Rua Almirante Gonçalves 50). Patrons signal their approval by snapping their fingers.
And if it’s dancing you want, head to Lapa, a neighborhood marked by the curved arches of an overhead aqueduct. You’ll find plenty of live music, caipirinhas and beer .
Lapa was a down-at-the-heels neighborhood — and it’s still a bit rough around the edges — before the dance halls moved into the old 19th century buildings. There are plenty of places to catch samba, choro and pagode music, but you may as well start with one of the pioneers, Carioca Gema, at Avenida Mem de Sá 79.