Insider Guide: Best of Rio de Janeiro
Travel fantasies don’t always live up to the reality, but the “marvelous city,” as Rio de Janeiro's citizens call their beloved hometown, can knock even the most jaded travelers off their seen-it-all perches.
The marvels range from singular settings -- primo beaches surrounded by jungled slopes and granite monoliths -- to some of the best music on the planet, to a lifestyle that invites all to slow down and sample life at a beachside kiosk, sidewalk bar or juice stand.
Famed for girls from Ipanema and Carnaval, the best of Rio is all that but a lot more.
The party goes on year-round in the cultural heart of Brazil, from the samba renaissance in the Lapa District, where you can choose from an array of great clubs, music and restaurants; to Carnaval rehearsals at local samba schools that redefine the word “celebration.”
As it prepares for the Olympics in 2016, the city has launched a massive security program that’s finally addressing long-standing safety concerns. The best of Rio beaches of the Zona Sul are heavily patrolled and many other areas -- especially those troubled by crime and drugs -- have been cleaned up.
Mostly Rio specializes in life celebrants who bring you into the fold. Whether it’s hanging out over caipirinhas at a neighborhood bar, hiking in the rainforest or dancing in a circle of samba at an old dancehall, Rio is a realm of the senses, some of which you may find have been AWOL for a while.
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Like a glistening casino in Monte Carlo, the massive white edifice of the Copacabana Palace looms above the beach strip of Avenida Atlantica.
The most storied hotel in Rio, the Copacabana opened its doors in 1923 as a roost for dignitaries and diplomats. The 1933 film “Flying Down to Rio,” set at the Palace but filmed in Hollywood, made it a hangout for celebs.
Orson Welles trashed his room here following a fight with Dolores del Rio, as did Ava Gardner after Sinatra dumped her.
The furniture doesn’t fly like it used to, but this best of Rio hotel still brings in the royals and their modern counterparts, rock stars.
It’ll set you back a bit for a stay in one of the 245 rooms, but you won’t complain about the impeccable staff or features such as “Juliet balconies” (in some rooms), spacious rooms and classic furniture. More recently constructed rooms with city views are located in the Tower Wing Building.
Copacabana Palace, Avenida Atlantica 1702, Copacabana; +55 21 2548 7070; rooms from $450 to $1,200 per night
Arena Copacabana Hotel
One of the newer addresses on Copacabana’s hotel row, the Arena Hotel has great views up and down the coast of the Zona Sul. The mirrored-glass exterior stands out from the crowd, as do the modern interiors.
At the rooftop pool you’ll find postcard views and cold beer.
The hotel’s location on a corner of Avenida Atlantica means it has a lot of rooms with ocean views (plan to pay extra for these).
Expedia named this best of Rio hotel an Insider’s Select choice in 2011, and Trip Advisor gave it an award of excellence.
Arena Copacabana Hotel, Avenida Atlantic, 2064, Copacabana; +55 21 3034 1501; rooms from $200 (no views) to $400 (sea views) and higher
This stylish boutique hotel has a primo locale, just five minutes from Ipanema Beach and a few blocks from the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon.
The hippest beach hangouts are minutes away, as are a host of the city’s most happening boutiques, restaurants and bars in one of the safest neighborhoods in Rio. The upscale Leblon district is a five-minute walk.
Mar Ipanema rooms feature tasteful décor accented by Rio motifs that feel custom-crafted.
Wi-Fi is available in all rooms.
The hotel won a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor in 2011. The one downside: you have to use the restaurant next door for dining. Room rates are below most in the neighborhood.
Mar Ipanema, Rua Visconde de Pirajat, 539, Ipanema; +55 21 3875 9191; rooms from $235-$350 per night
Hotel Novo Mundo
Built in 1950, this three-star hotel has been a favorite of Brazilians over the years for its prices, views and proximity to Santos Dumont airport, the terminal for domestic flights. Soccer great Pele used to stay here when he had a game in Rio.
The hotel is located at Flamengo Beach, a coastal stretch as scenic as the Zona Sul, but often overlooked by travelers.
Flamengo Park, a long stretch of green that parallels the coast, is across the street; outside are great views of Sugarloaf and Guanabara Bay; the metro is a block away.
A stay on this side of Rio puts you closer to the action downtown, just a short walk away, such as the Lapa District and museums.
Hotel Novo Mundo, Praia do Flamengo, 20, Flamengo; +55 21 2105 7000; rooms $170-$200 per night, suites $375
Golden Tulip Continental
This is not the Copacabana Palace.
It’s a high-volume beach hotel two short blocks from Leme, the least-known beach of the Zona Sul. But the view from its rooftop pool rivals anything the five-stars have, and its complimentary breakfasts are well-stocked.
Rooms are distinctly modest, but they’re good enough for the many airline flight crews who stay here.
Located in a quiet, residential area, the surroundings are a welcome relief from the madding crowd of Copacabana. Whatever you need is nearby -- markets, bakeries, travel agencies, bars. Copacabana is a 10-minute walk.
Golden Tulip Continental, Rua Gustavo Sampaio 320, Leme; +55 21 3545 5300; rooms from $150
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Academia da Cachaca
Sprawling over a large sidewalk in the upscale Leblon district of the Zona Sul, the Academia da Cachaca is a best of Rio hot spot for conversation, creative caipirinhas (pineapple, passion fruit, lime, bittersweet orange, and fruit of the season) and other concoctions, such as the Academic Grit (orange, ginger, rum).
The food is excellent and ranges from feijoada (the beans and rice mix that is a staple of the national diet) to escondidinho (shredded jerked beef, trout or chicken, shrimp, mashed cassava, cream cheese au gratin).
The atmosphere is laid back, the tables close together, so if you don’t bring friends, you’ll make some.
This is also one of the best places in Rio for caipirinhas and indulging the sidewalk joie de vivre of Cariocas. The high-octane alcohol at the center of the caipirinha, cachaca, is a sacred spirit here, and there are hundreds of bottles of the sugarcane firewater displayed on the shelves.
Academia da Cachaca, Rua Conde Bernadotte, 26; +55 21 2529 2680; moderate
With its ornate, tiled walls, array of framed pictures and close quarters, Nova Capela feels very Portuguese, but it’s been a Rio fixture since it opened in 1903.
Home to Bohemians and artists through the years and now popular with Lapa denizens, Nova Capela is one of the best restaurants in Rio.
There’s an air of craftsmanship here, with custom dishes (boar, goat) and attention to detail that extends to surprisingly good service, not a Rio signature. The place is stocked with white-jacketed waiters.
The lamb with broccoli is a specialty here and melts in your mouth. The savory fare comes with the intimate vibe of a living room, a loud one.
Nova Capela, Rua Avenue Mem de Sa, 96, Lapa; +55 21 2252 6228; moderate
Zaza Bistro Tropical
This psychedelic eatery is as far from boilerplate dining as it gets.
Owners Zaza Piereck and Preta Moyses turned their imaginations loose on a two-story colonial home in Ipanema in 1999, painting it ultramarine blue and stuffing it with bric-a-brac and figurines from around the world.
The upstairs dining area feels like you tripped down the rabbit hole and wound up in Fez, with Moroccan-style cushions for chairs.
There’s nothing predictable about the food, either. The fare leans toward healthy and organic, and is displayed with a Japanese-like flair for presentation.
Check out the grilled sea bass with sweet and sour caramelized bananas or, for dessert, the petit gateau cake with milk caramel.
Culinary creativity has made Zaza a very popular place, so you’ll need to make reservations -- online only.
Zaza Bistro Tropical, Rua Joana Angelica, 40, Ipanema; +55 21 2247 9101; expensive
Porcao (or “Pig Pen”) is one of Brazil’s top churrascurias, or meat free-for-alls, in which a regiment of waiters wielding skewers of meat enlist you in a stuffing contest, and keep coming back with more.
If you’re of the carnivorous persuasion, this is your Valhalla -- 30 different cuts of meat -- beef, chicken, lamb and steaks galore.
The place attracts die-hard fans not just for the volume of meat, but the taste.
There are several branches. The one you want is the Flamengo restaurant, which has one of the best views in town, a panorama of the coast, Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf jutting up from the sea.
Porcao Rio, Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, Parque do Flamengo; +55 21 3461 9020; expensive
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An old house full of antiques might not sound like the coolest ambience for a happening night spot, but Rio Scenarium pulls it off.
The decor, no doubt, has something to do with that. The best of Rio club is three floors’ worth of antique clocks, paintings and chandeliers, carved out of a 19th-century mansion in the Lapa district.
This Victorian set decorator’s fantasy bridges vintage with modern, since Rio Scenarium is also a top music venue, with a first-floor stage and dance area that hosts the gamut of Brazilian rhythms, from rock to choro, to MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) and samba.
To keep the caipirinhas from ending the night before it gets started, you can take some food breaks, say, penne sautéed in pesto sauce or grilled fish filet.
Rio Scenarium, RRua do Lavradio 20; +55 21 3147 9005
Casa da Matriz
One of the originators of the Rio club scene, Casa da Matriz, or Matrix House, has been a hip home for all-night scenesters since the 1990s.
Lodged in the Botafogo district, Casa da Matriz has an arty vibe, with a colorful decor and various environment spaces.
The music lineup ranges from deejays to live performances, from the Mad Professor to Joao Brasil. If you’d like to spin, the club offers a DJ course.
On Mondays, the walls rattle with indie rock. On Thursdays, it’s pop, rock, funk and drum 'n' bass. Fridays the dancing goes local, with samba, from the Rio suburbs, to the mangue beat of Chico Science, and samba diva Clara Nunes.
Saturdays go global danceorama, with DJs Tito and Edinho spinning pop, rock, soul and electronica.
Drinks are reasonable compared to clubs in the Zona Sul, at $9.50.
Casa da Matriz, Rua Henrique de Novaes, 107, Botafogo; +55 21 2226 9691
The neighborhood bar, or botequim, is the Carioca version of the British pub, a place where the neighborhood comes to imbibe and unburden.
At the best botequims, like Jobi in Leblon, a stranger never remains alone for long.
This classic Rio bar has been a hub of socializing, venting and gesticulating since 1956.
In the usual style, the bar spills from indoors to outdoors, with tables sprawled across the sidewalk. Pedestrians don’t come first here -- gabbing does.
Signature menu items are shrimp with cheese or shredded dried meat with farofa and onions.
There’s also live music. There’s no rush to get your point across at Jobi, which doesn’t close until 4:30 a.m.
Jobi Bar, Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva, 1166, Leblon; +55 21 2274 0547
Like a lot of bars in Rio, there’s no attempt at fancy furnishings at this modest Copacabana hangout. The walls are a haphazard mélange of photos and old newspaper clips, and the unadorned tables are jammed into a sardine can.
It’s so informal that customers wander to the fridge themselves to get beer, and sometimes even tabulate the bill.
Under the cover of night, however, Bip Bip turns into a music destination, a must-stop for local and touring musicians, which has helped the bar build a following that belies its humble digs.
Guests down suds and eat croquettes to a variety of musical offerings, with artists jamming casually at tables.
Tuesday is chorinho night, reserved for the intricate guitars and cavaquinhos of traditional choro music. Wednesday, there’s bossa nova. Friday and Sunday, it’s samba de roda, the circle of percussion and voice from which this art form sprang.
Bip Bip, Rua Almirante Gonzalves, 50, Copacabana; +55 21 2267 9696; opening daily 7 p.m.-11:45 p.m.
A former run-down collection of 19th-century mansions, the Lapa district, near the city center, has been rehabilitated over the last decade into the heart of a cultural renaissance in Rio.
Many of the crumbling edifices have been restored to their previous luster. The sidewalks are packed and the bars pulsing with live music, mostly samba, which has fueled the revival.
Walk a few blocks here and you’ll have more musical options than fingers.
At one bar, it’s an acoustic samba de roda group with drums and mandolin. At another, there’s a gray-haired sambista belting out a classic samba canção (ballad) aided only by tambourine. At still another, there’s a lively band with a horn section doing samba gafieira, the swinging brass version of the music, with the crowd dancing along.
You may find yourself “eating your ears,” as the locals call the ear-to-ear grin.
Here you’ll find a great guide (in Portuguese) to everything happening at all the joints in Lapa.
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Like it has in much of the world, shopping in Rio has shifted to malls.
There are still great specialty shops: for musical instruments (Casa Oliveira), surfwear (Draco), hand-crafted jewelry (Maria Oiticica), books (Livraria da Travessa) and excellent bargains at the Target-like Lojas Americanas chain, particularly on CDs and DVDs.
But the best of Rio malls probably have what you need.
Shopping Leblon has more than 200 stores and easy access from the Zona Sul and tourist zones.
Botafogo Praia Shopping, in Botafogo, has a large selection of stores. From a side door to the food court on the top floor, you can wander out to the rooftop for a stunning view of the marina and Sugarloaf.
For tourist fare, the outdoor flea market that springs up at night along Avenida Atlantica has the usual grab bag of T-shirts that fall apart with one wash, dresses and trinkets.
The Hippie Fair, held in Ipanema on weekends at Praca General Osorio, has better quality crafts.
Casa Oliveira Musicas, Rua da Carioca, 70, Rio Centro; +55 21 2508 8539
Draco, Rua Francisco Otaniano, Arpoador; +55 21 2227-7393
Maria Oiticica, Shopping Leblon; +55 21 3875 8025
Livraria da Travessa, Leblon and Centro
Botafogo Praia Shopping, Praia de Botafogo, 400; +55 21 3171 9872
Known as Sugarloaf for fairly obvious reasons, Pao de Acucar has posed for more photos than a truckful of supermodels, but there’s more to this monolith than mere prop.
It’s a show in its own right, something you find with a cable car trip to the top of the 396-meter peak.
You board two modern cable cars, the first to a peak called Urca, where caipirinhas and beer are available to steady wobbly knees. The second gets you to the top of Sugarloaf for arguably the most spectacular city vista on the planet.
The scene is dazzling, with views from the beaches of the Zona Sul to the jagged Two Brothers peaks, to lush mountains out of Tahiti.
Like any tourist mecca, it can get crowded at peak hours, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so early or just before sunset is best -- and pick a day when the skies are clear.
If you arrive early you can spend the day at Praia Velmelho, an idyllic beach in a cove-like setting a short walk from the base of the cable car.
Sugarloaf, Avenida Pasteur, 520. Urca; +55 21 2546 8400; cable car tickets $26
Cristo Redentor and Corcovado
Since taking his post atop Corcovado Mountain in 1930, Cristo Redentor has had to put up with monsoonal rains, marinating humidity and swarms of kids posing in his famous flying posture.
Yet Rio’s iconic Christ statue remains unfazed, a focal point for locals and travelers, 710 meters high on a ridge top in the Tijuca National Forest.
No trip to Rio is complete without a journey to this high-flying landmark. Get alongside it, and it’s so massive (39 meters high, 635 tons) that it’s hard to get the whole thing into a photo.
Cristo Redentor does a little tour guiding on the side, the left arm pointing to the older north of Rio and the giant soccer stadium, Maracana, while the right arm waves to the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoa and the beaches of the Zona Sul. Straight ahead from the platform is the city center, or Centro, the bay and Sugarloaf.
The key to an awesome day atop Corcovado is weather. Wait for a clear day, or you’ll be staring at a layer of cumulus.
Cristo Redentor and Corcovado, Rua Cosme Velho, 513; +55 21 2558-1329; round trip tram ticket $22
The best show in Rio is free on the beaches of the Zona Sul. Park on the sand or walk the promenade of Avenida Atlantica, and you’ll have a front row seat to the wear-less, play-hard philosophy of Cariocas.
Cyclists, joggers and skaters jam the bike and pedestrian lanes that hug the beach. On the sand and in the water, it’s volleyball, soccer and surfing. And everywhere, bodies dark and tanned, do their best to ration bathing suit material.
Copacabana is the largest beach, opposite many of the hotels that line Avenida Atlantica, while Ipanema and Leblon are the hippest, home to artists and dedicated followers of fashion.
Rio has enough outdoor options to rival Boulder, Colorado, in the United States.
You can rock climb on Sugarloaf or in Niteroi, hang glide from a ridge top, hike in the forest surrounding the city or bike around one of the best outdoor refuges in town, the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoa.
A saltwater lagoon backed by steep hills and forest, Lagoa is the Central Park of Rio, a sanctuary from heat and urban chaos. It’s a great place to walk, jog and play, maybe even a little baseball. There are a couple of diamonds here.
The Lagoa circuit leads to a great hike in Parque Catacumba. The trail leads through the rainforest to some great views at the top.
Lagoa Adventures, a local outfitter, offers a canopy walkway high in the trees, a zip line, rock climbing wall and rappelling lessons.
Rio Adventures has an extensive range of pulse-pumpers, from a rope course and canopy adventure in the Atlantic Rain Forest to a hike up Pedro Bonita, to hang gliding.
Rio Adventures, +55 21 2705 5747
Lagoa Adventures; Avenida Epitacio Pessoa, 3000, Parque de Catacumba; +55 21 4105 0079
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Drinking, partying and, yes, even the Rio beautiful-body parade all revolve around music. Here’s where to experience the heart, soul and never-ending rhythm of the most musical city on the planet.
Carioca Da Gema
This best of Rio venue was one of the trailblazers of the Lapa renaissance, and is always jammed on the weekends, when the top samba artists perform.
It’s the premiere club for two great art forms in Rio, samba and choro, an intricate, chamber-folk sound.
Many of Rio’s top samba artists perform here regularly. Be on the lookout for Ana Costa, Arlindo Cruz and the queen of Lapa, Teresa Cristina, for a pure fix of the marvelous city’s marvelous music.
The main floor is for dancing, and the few tables fill up quickly, so get here well before the 9 p.m. show time, especially on weekends.
Carioca da Gema, Rua Mem de Sa 79, Lapa; +55 21 2221 0043; cover from $12
Bossa nova has legions of fans around the world, but in its home country, it’s all but vanished under a tidal wave of rap and sertanejo, a popular Tex-Mex sound.
The best place to catch the music made famous by Tom Jobim and Bebel Gilberto’s dad, Joao, is at Vinicius Bar, opened as an homage to the great lyricist and poet Vinicius de Moraes, who penned some of the most famous bossa songs, including “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Felicidade.”
Located a couple of minutes' walk from the beach in Ipanema, the bar spotlights the jazz-tinged, languid sounds of a much slower Rio. In keeping with the habits of de Moraes, a legendary bon vivant, the place is well stocked for imbibing.
The breaded shrimp and Greek rice go nicely with a tangerosco, a tangerine-vodka combo.
Vinivius Bar, Rua Vinicius de Moraes, 39, Ipanema; +55 21 2287 1497
This classic dance hall on the fringes of the Lapa district has been serving up happy feet for 83 years.
Ascend the wide wooden staircase and you’re no longer in the tourist bubble but inside the local culture with working-class folks who’ve put on their nighttime best to dance and party with giant bottles of Brahma.
They’re serious about their samba here. Bands play 90-minute sets. If you see a guy in a tank top on the dance floor going nonstop on a Friday night, it’s probably Reynaldo dos Santos, a 72-year-old sambista who dances circles around people half his age. He’ll be happy to give you a dance lesson, or you can take one of the classes offered here.
The banner on the back wall says it best: “As long as there is dance, there will be hope.” Lots of that here.
Estudantina Musica, Praca Tiradentes 79, Centro; +55 21 2232 1149; cover from $10
Mangueira Samba School
If you can’t make it to Carnaval, you can still get a surround-sound feel of the experience at one of the rehearsal halls for the samba schools that parade in the blowout each February.
Each of the samba schools sends an army of 3,000 or so drummers, theoretically clothed dancers and celebrants to the big event, who are graded on how they march, sound and look. They start practicing their moves in September.
Between September and February you can catch the rehearsals every Saturday night.
Take a taxi to the oldest and most revered of the schools, Mangueira (founded in 1928), where the lore is so deep, there’s a mini-museum inside its gaudy pink and green palace.
A cross between a Fellini film and the Ringling Brothers to the tenth power, Mangueira’s parties test the limits of eyeballs and eardrums. When the drum section kicks in, the festivities rumble in your kidneys.
Mangueira’s Palacio de Samba is located in a favela, but it’s safe for travelers. A taxi costs about $12 each way from Copacabana and Ipanema.
Mangueira Samba School, Palácio do Samba, Rua Visconde de Niterói, 1072, Mangueira; +55 21 2567 4637
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