“We are part African slaves, part white Portuguese and part native indigenous,” explains Simone Almeida, a vivacious and beautiful local chef who encapsulates everything it is to be a modern Brazilian. I’m standing in an unassuming room, just off Copacabana beach, learning how to cook feijoada, the rich local stew that brings Rio’s residents together for a hearty brunch every Saturday. “We’re proud to be mixed,” Simone continues. “It’s part of our history, our music, our dance and, of course, our food. We have the best of everyone.”
From the endless beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, to the undulating, rainforested humps of Sugarloaf and Corcovado mountains, the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ (Marvellous City) seduces repeat visitors as much as it leaves first-time travellers with a burning desire to return.
For artists and bohemians, the crumbling 19th-century mansions and colourful street art of hilly Santa Teresa is a must, while night owls indulge in the samba clubs and sticky bars of graffiti-strewn Lapa. But there are sanctuaries to be found in this bustling metropolis of more than six million people — the tropical refuge of Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s foremost landscape gardener, being a top choice.
Today, however, Rio’s attention is turning to the 2016 Olympic Games. Much of the focus is on Barra, a seafront enclave to the west of the city centre, that’s likened by locals to Miami Beach. Playing host to the athletes’ village and the main Olympic Park, it’s one of four key ‘Games Zones’ across Rio. Elsewhere, there will be equestrian events, biking and rugby in Deodoro; beach volleyball on Copacabana; and the opening and closing ceremonies in the recently-renovated Maracanã, football’s spiritual home.
So if you’ve got yourself a ticket, it’s time to plan the ultimate escape and get set for the party of a lifetime in this kaleidoscopic city of many faces.
What to see & do
Santa Teresa: After a period of decline, artists, writers and bohemians are reclaiming this hilltop neighbourhood, transforming its once-grand former mansions back into lavish private homes or boutique hotels. Take in the street art, explore the restaurants around Largo do Guimarães and visit the Museu da Chácara do Céu and park — former home to the wealthy Castro Maya family. Museum R$2 (40p); park free. museuscastromaya.com.br
Lapa: To feel the rhythm at the heart of Rio, stroll the streets around Lapa. By day, you can admire the graffiti murals, gaze at the 18th-century aqueduct and walk the Escadaria Selarón — an elaborately-tiled staircase, created by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. As nightfall descends, the streets come alive as bars around Mem de Sá and Lavradio spread their chairs onto the pavements and samba music sings.
Barra: Rio’s answer to Miami Beach is currently a construction site ahead of the Games, with stadia and hotels being built around the area’s 11-mile beach. Don’t miss the tranquil Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, former home and life’s work of Brazil’s leading landscape architect, who also designed the wave motif on Rio’s pavements. Pre-booked 90-minute tours at 9.30am and 1.30pm daily. sitioburlemarx.blogspot.co.uk
Lagoa: The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon — or ‘Lagoa’ — is an inland body of water, set back from Ipanema and Leblon beaches. Surrounded by upmarket neighbourhoods, it’s a fine place to cycle, run and walk, or indulge in some open-air dining at The Lagoon — a new complex of sleek waterside restaurants and bars. lagoon.com.br
Sugarloaf: This iconic bluff is accessed via a glass-sided cable car from Avenida Pasteur 520, taking you first to little Morro da Urca, before reaching the peak. Tickets from R$62 (£12.80). To linger a little longer, reserve a table at Cota 200, a new fine-dining restaurant at the top. cota200restaurante.com.br
Like a local
Snacking: From the delicious salgados (salty snacks) seen at counters around the city, to the somewhat healthier coconut water you can drink from husks at kiosks along the beach, residents of Rio like to take regular refuelling stops. Try açaí — made using the Brazilian super-berry and in this instance, frozen into a cooling dessert — at the Copacabana branch of Bibi Sucos, R$6.90 (£1.40). bibisucos.com.br
Arpoador: As the day draws to a close, locals head to this rocky outcrop, jutting out between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches to watch the sun set. Afterwards, cram into the cool, tiled interior of Bar Astor. barastor.com.br
Where to eat
Aprazível: Hidden away at the top of Santa Teresa, this romantic restaurant features secluded tables, scattered up a tree-strewn hillside. The lighting is atmospheric and the food isn’t half bad, either. Try the excellent slow-roasted lamb shoulder, which comes in at R$92 (£18.90). aprazivel.com.br
Sushi Leblon: After a long day on the sand, there’s only one place Rio’s young and beautiful go for an after-sun snack. Sushi Leblon is set back from the beach, on Rua Dias Ferreira. Japanese cuisine is big in Rio and this place is regarded as one of the city’s best. sushileblon.com
Hippie Fair: For more conventional souvenirs and curiosities, head to Praça General Osório in Ipanema on Sundays from 7am-7pm for the Feria de Arte or ‘Hippie Fair’. You’ll find jewellery, clothing and creative gifts, plus stalls selling delicious snacks and super-strong caipirinhas. feirahippieipanema.com
Galeria River: This parade of shops on the beach near Arpoador is the place to pick up Brazilian beachwear, grab a burger and rent a surf (or stand-up paddle) board. galeriariver.com.br
Downtown bars: In the area around Rua do Ouvidor, tables and chairs spill out on to the streets beneath colourful colonial buildings. It has the feel of Covent Garden in summertime as locals gather for an after-work chope (draft beer). Check out Cais’s greenhouse-style interiors. caisgourmet.com.br
Skylab: For a more sedate after-dinner drink, aim for the 30th floor of the Othon Palace Hotel on the seafront promenade overlooking Copacabana for fantastic views of the twinkling city at night. restauranteskylab.com.br
Where to stay
Villa No 174: Breathtaking views make a stay at this art-filled B&B in Santa Teresa a real experience. There are just four rooms, three of which have balconies overlooking the city, with hammocks for lazy afternoons. Downstairs, there’s a chic communal pool and a resident macaw named Nino. villa174.com
Fasano: Pitched between Arpoador and Ipanema beach, this pricey hotel in a prime location is where the jet-set stay. With interiors by Philippe Starck, it features an open-air infinity pool and oceanfront rooms, along with a highly-regarded Italian restaurant and cocktail bar where DJs play nightly. fasano.com.br
British Airways flies direct from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 11h
Rio’s metro has two lines and construction is underway to link the Olympic site of Barra with the beaches of Leblon, Ipanema and beyond. The website has maps, including one highlighting different attractions — single tickets R$3,70 (75p).
Alternatively, taxis (hailed and metered) are cheap and preferable at night.
When to go
Peak season (December-March) brings crowds and +40C heat. Visit instead
from May-October, when temperatures rest in the 20Cs.
Need to know
Currency: Reais (R$). £1 = £4.87.
International dial code: 00 55.
Time difference: GMT -4.
How to do it
Wild Frontiers offers five nights’ B&B at Mama Ruisa with tours, airport transfers and flights from £1,949 per person.
A local guide can be invaluable here. Inspire Travel offers customised tours, such as the cooking class with Simone Almeida and excursions to Sítio Roberto Burle Marx. Daily from $525 (£329) per person, including a private driver and guide.
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)