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City of God: Rio de Janeiro

Transformed in the 21st century, Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular beauty is matched only by its dedication to hedonistic lifestyle, modernist architecture and exquisite cuisine.

City of God: Rio de Janeiro
Laid-back Cariocas. Image: Getty

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There just isn’t a more beautiful city than Rio de Janeiro. Florence and Manhattan have their disparate architectural glory and sunsets, but when the world’s natural beauty was being handed out, Rio, with its undulating verdant mountains, sweeping brushstrokes of golden sand, effervescent surf and backdrop of rainforest, was right at the head of the queue. Even its infamous favelas — popular with rubbernecking wealthy tourists — are picturesque and candy coloured.

Rio is an aesthetic joy, from the pavements decorated with Roberto Burle Marx’s iconic tiled waves, to the tropical trees lining the streets of Santa Teresa and Ipanema, their tendrils tickling the cobbles and their trunks blooming with orchids growing around their circumference. Incredible, immense, frigate birds glide over the seafront like pretty pterodactyls. Below, skateboarding Cariocas weave their way past the street vendors; shiny, toned youths perform chin-ups on outdoor parallel bars; and surfers ride the waves towards Prainha Beach.

Since my first visit to Rio in the lawless early 1990s, the tone of the city has changed drastically. The beaches are still the focus of everyday life but the streets around Barra, Santa Teresa, Leblon, Ipanema and the Botanical Gardens today have their own distinctive kind of urban life, with hip bars, restaurants and boutiques. Chloé-clad women lunching at the frequently paparazzi-besieged restaurant Celeiro in Leblon cheerfully leave expensive handbags on their pavement tables while they peruse the salad bar inside.

“Most of the Favelas have been pacified since the 80s and 90s,” says tour guide Felipe Heras Rocha, on our way to see native architect Oscar Niemeyer’s as-yet unfinished collection of buildings in Niteroi. “The bandits have headed north.”

And yet, on a particularly idyllic afternoon, two police helicopters chopper low, at speed, over the beach in Ipanema towards the slums across the water. “Trouble near Sao Conrado,” remarks one of the many young and beautiful on the most fashionable stretch of sand in the city, between the rainbow flags of the gay beach and lifeguard station number 9. As the noise of the helicopter blades fades, everyone returns to their beer and brightly coloured bags of tapioca crisps. A beautiful boy spins in mid-air performing capoeria moves while a fashion shoot gets underway on a nearby rooftop. Life in laid-back, and sun-drunk, photogenic Rio de Janeiro goes on as normal.

Sights

Start by taking the funicular railway to the top of the Corcovado on a clear afternoon to see Christ the Redeemer and then take a helicopter around it the next day from the heliport on the lagoon. It might seem repellently touristy, but you’ll forgive yourself once you’ve circled the city and got a totally unique perspective on its beauty.

Once you’ve had your fill of the beach, head downtown. The Theatro Municipal — a scaled-down replica of the Paris Opera — has had its gold curls and columns tarted up, but most of the once-ravishing colonial buildings around town have been left to rot. Instead there is unlikely beauty in the form of the St Sebastian cathedral, inaugurated in 1976. From the outside it’s an unsettling, soot-covered concrete Blade Runner cone, but inside it’s a transporting, if still sinister, masterclass in contemporary stained glass and angles. It feels otherworldly and the experience is quite overwhelming. Unlovely concrete has been turned into a fine art elsewhere in the city in the hands of Brazil’s architectural superstar Oscar Niemeyer, who now is over 100. Rio has a wealth of post-war modernist architecture, but none of it more amazing than his white flying saucer-like Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi and, nearby, the still unfinished Caminho Niemeyer buildings (including the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation). Then there’s the private home he abandoned when he was briefly in political exile, the Canaos House. Bizarrely, few visitors make appointments to see the latter. English isn’t spoken, so unless you’re fluent in Portuguese, visit with a guide. It’s a tranquil spot in the hills past Niemeyer’s abandoned tube-shaped skyscraper hotel in Sao Conrado, and a paradigm of his fluid, Jetsons-modernist style.

Eats

A decade ago, food in Rio was lacking to say the least — either insufferably salty or sweet, with few options beyond the meat feasts at the churrascarias. There’s been a transformation though, with globe- trotting local chefs embracing European techniques along with uniquely Brazilian, specifically rare Amazonian, ingredients. You’ll eat dishes here that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, much of it a revelation and quite the adventure. “I want you to have fun in my restaurant. Enjoy!” demands Felipe Bronze, the chef at Oro, as a waiter puts down a plate of his ‘Caprese Reveal’, a perfectly polished orange dome that disintegrates, as if by time-lapse photography, when a hot consommé is poured over it. Bowls of dry ice are ferried from table to table while diners tuck into beef rib that’s been cooked for 45 hours, served with jabuticaba fruit.

There’s culinary sorcery afoot, but with a little more restraint, at celebrity chef Roberta Sudbrack’s restaurant. The stand-out dishes include pork rib with what really are the best chips of all time, and a ‘pre-dessert’ of chocolate and manioc — a posh version of the Brazilian fondant Brigadeiro cake.

The Amazonian tasting menu at Le Pré Catelan comes with an illustrated booklet, highlighting the more esoteric ingredients in the dishes — its food is a whole evening’s entertainment. Dinner is resplendent with umami flavours, savoury marzipans and even an anaesthetic tingle from the jambu herb. A cut of the mighty tambaqui fish is served as a section of rib with a smoked mousse.

Much Brazilian food continues to be lead-heavy and rich. When you crave something lighter, go to Celeiro — the most fashionable of the a kilo restaurants, where you self-serve a salad and pay by weight. Or book a table at Market, where owner Beatriz Laboto has created the kind of place you want to go, as she says, “straight from the beach”. Everything, from grilled salmon with black rice to quinoa risotto or a smoothie is light and fresh; it’s a delicious, colourful, sun-drenched kind of cuisine.

Shopping

The best shopping, if you’re looking for unique-to-Rio stores, is done on foot around Ipanema and Leblon. This is where ladies who lunch go for retail safaris before heading to Gero for duck ravioli and a glass of Chardonnay. Go to the chocolate shop Aquim, designed along the lines of a fine jewellery store, where you’ll find chef Samantha Aquim’s meticulously blended bars and bonbons. Aquim is an alchemist with cocoa, and she even has a fan in Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the wave-shaped bar that comes with her extremely limited edition Q chocolate presentation box. Many international experts consider Aquim’s chocolate the very best in the world.

Forget Havaianas and instead buy the recycled flip-flops at the chic design and fashion store Osklen. Their salmon-skin trainers are also strangely beautiful, and the fashion is unusual and leftfield.

Many hotels in Rio use local heritage brand Granado to supply their bathroom products. The highly decorative packaging is a nod to the company’s 19th-century roots, and the yellow and green range — Castanho do Brasil, made with brazil nuts — is particularly good. They have a flagship store in Leblon, and prices are surprisingly low for this level of quality and style.

For the very best in Brazilian design, window shop at Arquivo Contemporaneo, four floors of clean lines and elegant modern wood furniture. The star name at the store is Sergio Rodrigues, who rose to fame along with Niemeyer when he furnished much of Brasilia in the 50s. His own atelier is a place of pilgrimage for design disciples from all over the world, while the jovial master craftsman — now in his 80s — remains remarkably unassuming. “People say I’m modernist or postmodernist but I just make what I like”, he says.

Stays

The landscape of Copacabana is dominated by bland conference-oriented tower-hotels, but there are a couple of exceptions: the Sofitel has excellent service with a French twist, stylish sea-view rooms, one of the best restaurants in town (Le Pré Catelan) and a great position, right beside the old fort — the best place for sunset views. Higher up the price ladder, the Orient Express’ Copacabana Palace, an elegant, frothy white folly with an aura of very special occasion, serves an amazing Champagne brunch on a Sunday. And bridal gowns frequently drift by the pool’s edge at sunset.

The Fasano is hands-down the most fashionable hotel on the Brazilian coast, with refreshingly pared-back Starck-designed interiors, Sergio Rodrigues chairs on every balcony and a rooftop pool deck for guests that feels, and operates, like a private members club. Diners at its restaurant Al Mare (the chef hails from the legendary Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence) frequently have to negotiate mobs and barriers when megastars are in residence.

The other hotel of choice for music artists on tour is the secluded Relais & Chateaux Hotel Santa Teresa, the best place to stay in Santa Teresa’s arty, cobbled district, close to the rainforest. It’s a world away from the mania of the beach, with a peaceful garden, a secluded pool with a fabulous view and a lovely tropical-tinged, predominately wooden interior design. Again, Rodrigues furniture abounds while the restaurant, Térèze, is in the city’s top five. Chef Damien Montecer’s white bean soup with poached duck egg and truffle and walnut crumble is a knockout.

Also away from the busier beaches, La Suite feels like a very plush private home set into a cliffside, 15 minutes’ drive south of Leblon. Outside, all is stark and modernist. Inside there’s one black Baccarat crystal chandelier, two pools, three dachshunds and a fiesta of pop-art maximalism. As with the other hotels recommended above, if you want to eat-in, the food — from risotto to filet mignon — is nothing short of fantastic.

Nightlife

“This isn’t really a city that’s about nightlife,” says Niteroi-born fashion designer Daniella Helayel. “Rio is a daytime, beach town.” Carnival is different, of course — the parties don’t stop for days and days, and you just go with the flow. The rest of the year, the focus is on sundown drinks at the Fasano (Helayel is a regular) before a migration to the Baixo Leblon area for sushi or pizza or just an evening hanging out with the regulars at Jobi. It’s a rowdy neon-drenched see and be seen street scene, but not as rowdy as the bars of Lapa.

The de facto club in this downtown-adjacent district is the Rio Scenarium, a shambolic, multi-floored, antique-strewn dancehall with shamelessly bad service but a giddy and unique samba-fuelled atmosphere. More low-key is the local’s bar Aconchego Carioca near Praça da Banderia, which has become a go-to destination for foodies as well as night owls, for its wondrous croquettes and Brazilian tapas. There’s an epic beer selection and some of the strongest cachaça-based cocktails in the city.

 

ESSENTIALS Rio de Janeiro

Getting there
British Airways and TAM both fly direct between Heathrow and Rio six times a week.
Air France, KLM and Iberia depart several times a day from most UK cities, with short connections in Paris, Amsterdam or Madrid. www.tam.com.brwww.ba.comwww.airfrance.co.ukwww.iberia.com
Average flight time: 11h.

Getting around
There is an underground Metro system, but buses are more frequent than the Metro.
Register on the Bike Rio Samba website to use the R$5 (£1.83) daily public rental bikes. www.mobilicidade.com.br
Taxis are safe and metered. They’re also relatively cheap and plentiful and can be flagged down on most busy streets. Few drivers speak English, so it’s best to have your address written down.

When we go
The months from January to May are the brightest, driest and least humid. Spring (September and October) is also beautiful. New Year and Carnival (late February) see prices rocket and hotel rooms disappear.

Need to know
Visas: UK passport holders don’t require a tourist visa. Entry is by embarkation card, filled in on arrival.
Time difference: GMT -2.
Currency: Real (BRL). £1 = R$2.8.
International dial code: 00 55 21.

Sights
Helicopter tours. www.helisight.com.br
Canaos House. Niemeyer.org.br
Corcovado. www.corcovado.com
Museum of Contemporary Art.www.macniteroi.com.br
San Sebastian Cathedral. www.catedral.com.br
Theatro Municipal. www.theatromunicipal.rj.gov.br

Eats
Celeiro. 199A Rua Dias Ferreira.www.celeiroculinaria.com.br
Market. 499 Rua Visconde de Pirajá. www.marketipanema.com.br
Oro. 20 Rua Frei Leandro. www.ororestaurante.com
Le Pre Catelan. Sofitel Hotel.www.leprecatelan.com.br
Roberta Sudbrack. 916 Rua Lineu de Paula Machado. www.robertasudbrack.com.br

Shopping
Aquim. 149 Rua Garcia D’Avila.www.aquimgastronomia.com.br
Arquivo Contemporaneo. 147 Rua Redentor. www.arquivocontemporaneo.com.br
Granado. 470 Rua General Artigas.www.granado.com.br
Osklen. 85 Rua Maria Quitéria. osklen.com
Sergio Rodrigues. 63 Rua Conda de Irajá. www.sergiorodrigues.com.br

Sleep
Fasano. www.fasano.com.br
Relais & Chateaux Hotel Santa Teresa. www.relaischateaux.com
Sofitel. www.sofitel.com
La Suite. www.lasuiterio.com
Copacabana Palace. www.copacabanapalace.com.br

Nightlife
Aconchego Carioca. 379 Rua Barao de Igutemi.
Jobi. 1166 Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva.
Rio Scenarium. 20 Rua do Lavradio. www.rioscenarium.com.br

More info
www.embratur.org.br
dailyriolife.typepad.com
www.rioguiaoficial.com.br

How to do it
Jacada Travel offers flights to Rio from Heathrow with Air France, transfers, a full day private tour and seven nights at the Relais & Chateaux Hotel Santa Teresa including breakfast, from £2,084 per person.  www.jacadatravel.com

Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)