Rio de Janeiro
Brazil's most iconic city, Rio de Janeiro is also one of the most eye-catching cities in the world...
Set amidst forest-covered mountains hugging the coastline, Rio de Janeiro boasts one of the most beautiful settings on the planet for a major city and is the first stopping point on any holiday to Brazil. From the much photographed vistas of Sugar Loaf and Corcovado, to the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and the bars and samba clubs of Lapa, Rio is an iconic city which should be on everyone’s list of places to visit. And with the World Cup behind them and the Olympic Games to look forward to, Rio is more focussed on tourism than ever, with newly pedestrianised streets, improved transport links and spruced up hotels, meaning there is no better time to visit.
Despite the seat of the government having moved to Brasilia and Sao Paulo being the economic centre of the country, Rio continues to be one of Brazil’s most influential and attractive cities. This has been the case ever since the bay Rio sits in, Guaranaba Bay, was ‘discovered’ in January 1502 by Portuguese explorers searching for the New World. The influx of the slave trade helped to turn Rio into Brazil’s third-most important settlement and, during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Portuguese King Dom João VI was forced to relocate to Rio, he became so enamoured with the city that he moved his court to Brazil and governed the empire from there for 12 years.
Rio’s rich history has certainly left its mark on the city and its people, with its blend of racial and cultural ancestry, mixture of old and new architecture and rich and poor neighbourhoods, making it a lively and captivating place to visit.
The most popular areas to stay are the beachside areas of Copacabana and Ipanema in the southern ‘zone’ of the city. These areas provide a great base for exploring Rio’s main sites, like Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf, and give you the added advantage of being able to come back and relax on the beach afterwards. These parts of town are made up of modern tower blocks and cool tree-lined streets, lined with cafes, restaurants and boutiques, which provide a welcome respite from the fierce heat of the sun. Rio’s best bars and restaurants are mostly found between Ipanema, Leblon and the Botanical Gardens, however, this is only a short taxi ride from Copacabana.
The picturesque neighbourhood of Santa Teresa is Rio’s bohemian district, and is characterised by steep cobbled streets, pastel-coloured colonial mansions and arty cafés and bars. Nestled on a hill above Lapa, Santa Teresa attracts artists, writers, musicians and craftsmen and has more of a quiet, community feel than the glamorous Zona Sul. Activity centres around the artesian shops and cafés of the Largo dos Guimarães which comes alive at night with live music and locals spilling out of bars onto the streets. It is also here in the Parque das Ruinas, where you can get some of the best views over Rio and the Guanabara Bay.
Although we wouldn’t necessarily recommend staying here, we would recommend visiting the area north of Santa Teresa which is Rio’s old colonial centre. Walking through the historical centre with its 18th century portuguese architecture provides an insight into Brazil’s colonial past, while the area around the Lapa Arches, traditionally the area which housed Rio’s bohemians and outcasts, provides a glimpse into the city’s more recent history. Lapa comes alive at night when tables line the streets outside bars and clubs are taken over by the sounds of samba beats.
Also well worth exploring is the picturesque Urca peninsula, for its sheltered beach and colourful fishing boats which line the surrounding waters.