When I moved here in 1994, Rio was at a low ebb. Losing its status as national capital to newly built Brasilia in 1960 had hit hard. Rio’s leaders were at constant loggerheads with central government and population growth and economic decline only made matters worse.
Much has changed, and once-deserted streets now surge with self-confidence. But the most striking thing about Rio will always be the beauty of its natural setting — a glorious bay sandwiched between verdant mountains and the Atlantic. Sure, Sugar Loaf and the Christ statue on Corcovado mountain are tourist cliches — but only because they’re so outstanding.
Sugar Loaf is full of little paths to explore. On one side it offers views of Guanabara Bay and the city centre’s colonial churches and skyscrapers. On the other is the ocean, and the chance to follow the city’s 20th-century, southward drift through the beachside neighbourhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.
Corcovado puts the city into perspective from the sprawl around the hills to the working class suburbs of the north — bringing with it realisation of how little of Rio you’re likely to see.
As well as geography, language is a barrier to getting to grips with day-to-day life. English still isn’t widely spoken; you’ll need fluent Portuguese to get a true sense of what it’s all about. But Rio likes to deceive. In the 1930s and ’40s, Carnaval, samba and radio were used by the government to spread the idea of an all-happy, all-dancing population — useful propaganda in a land with a startling divide between rich and poor.
It’s easy to glance at a packed Copacabana beach on a weekday and conclude that hedonism is the city’s way of life. For many, though, Rio’s soul is more likely to be found among those standing on overcrowded buses stuck in traffic at 7am. Indeed, the success of the 2016 Olympics may well hinge on how much it helps solve the appalling congestion.
The lush palace grounds are home to a cafe and a little cinema, and at dusk old-timers gather here to sing songs of their youth. Up until Flamengo Park was built in 1965, the sea used to lap against the rear of the palace grounds. From Guanabara Bay, the park is perfectly framed — city centre to the left, Sugar Loaf to the right. It’s a reminder of a time when, as one local academic puts it, “Brazil was modern” — being shaped by daring urbanists and architects.
There’s another example to the north of the city centre. The Sao Cristovao Pavilion is full of sinuous curves, in the best traditions of Brazilian Modernism; at weekends, it hosts the lively Feira dos nordestinos (Fair of the Northeasterners), a magnet for migrants from this region of the country, who make up much of the city’s working class. They gather here to catch up over spicy snacks and music.
At the other end of the social scale is the Jardim Botanico (Botanical Garden). In 1808, under threat from Napoleon, the Portuguese royal family were escorted by the British fleet across the Atlantic to safety in Rio. The city was transformed from a provincial outpost to the capital of an empire. The Prince Regent, the future João VI, was a nature lover, and one of his first acts was to build the garden. Today, with its orchids and bromelias, streams and little monkeys, it’s a charming place in which to spend an afternoon.
Chope is most often consumed in a boteco or botequim — informal bars (some of them in such a ramshackle state they’re referred to as ‘dirty feet’) that are typically carioca, and found everywhere. A good example in Ipanema is Bunda de Fora, which translates as ‘Arse Hanging Out’.
But where most young people are hanging out these days is in Lapa, just south of the city centre. It’s an old bohemian area, associated with the 1930s and ’40s, with samba musicians and malandros (hoodlums) parading in linen suits and Panama hats. Twenty years ago, little was going on in Lapa. Its recent rejuvenation typifies the city’s current wave of self-confidence.
Formed by a triangle of streets — Avenida Mem de Sá, Rua do Lavradio and Rua do Riachuelo — Lapa now bubbles with life, noise and music. Jazz blaring from Leviano Bar competes with the samba from Sarau opposite. Samba lovers will relish Carioca da Gema, while a wide range of musical styles and cultural events are on offer around the corner at Rio Scenarium.
These places are packed and loud, but a short wander will take you somewhere for a quiet drink while you watch the world go by — or, another tradition of the area, somewhere to combine a chope with some sinuca (snooker).
Where to eat
Waiters bring round the fare with bewildering speed, trying to fill you up quickly. The trick is to take your time — which is why Porcão Rios is a good option. Located on Flamengo Park within the bay, it gives you a stunning view to appreciate between bites. Around the corner near Botafogo Beach, seafood restaurant Sol e Mar is another with a vista to enjoy.
One of the most scenic neighbourhoods in which to eat is Santa Teresa, a picturesque tropical Montmartre up on the hill above Lapa. It’s poorly served by public transport, but well worth a taxi ride. The many options here include Bar dos Descasados, an old colonial building recently restored and full of charm. The cocktails are probably more noteworthy than the food, but with its panorama of northern Rio, it’s the ideal venue for a romantic, sunset meal.
The settings matter because the cuisine can — unusually for the tropics — be a bit bland. Along with the meat, the typical dish will contain rice, feijao (black beans) and a grainy farofa flour. Filling but not always memorable. For something more exotic, maybe head to Intihuasi, a little Peruvian in the Flamengo area. Alternatively, try an Arab-influenced lanchonette (snack bar). The esfiha — a small pizza-eque nibble, filled with beef, chicken, spinach or cheese — is delicious, as is the quibe, a wheat snack with ground beef, onions and mint. Inside a Largo do Machado shopping gallery, Rotisseria Sirio Lebanesa has a restaurant and a stand-up snack bar, and for decades has drawn cariocas for miles around.
Top 10 local tips
02 Fruit juice is one of Rio’s great pleasures. Favourites include acerola, fruta de conde, graviola and acai.
03 Take the short ferry ride across the bay to Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, an extraordinary, spaceship-like building designed by Oscar Niemeyer.
04 Watch a football match at the newly rebuilt Maracanã Stadium. Big games apart, they rarely sell out.
05 Cine Jóia, in Copacabana, is an acclaimed independent cinema.
06 The cable-car to Sugar Loaf sets off from Urca, a neighbourhood with a fishing village feel. From here, take the Pista Cláudio Coutinho walkway into the verdant hills.
07 Avoid hotels in Barra da Tijuca, much of which is a fake Miami monstrosity.
08 The metro doesn’t cover nearly enough of the city (although it’s being extended to Barra for the Olympics), but is good for linking Ipanema and Copacabana with the centre.
09 Catching the sunset at Arpoador, between Copacabana and Ipanema, is a local tradition, especially in summer.
10 Street crime is a problem in some areas. If the worst happens, keep calm and hand over your valuables.
Samba, by Alma Guillermoprieto. RRP: £10 (Vintage). Mexican journalist Guillermoprieto moved to the Mangueira favela to report on preparations for a late-1980s Carnival, spending a season studying at a samba school. It offers fascinating insights into Afro-Brazilian history and the Carnival tradition.
Father of the Poor?, by Robert M Levine. RRP: £19.99 (Cambridge University Press). Excellent study of the life and enduring legacy of Getúlio Vargas, the nation’s former dictator and president, widely acclaimed as the father of modern Brazil.
Futebol Nation, by David Goldblatt. RRP: £9.99 (Nation Books). The story of Brazil through football, as the sub-heading puts it. Its sociological insights are guaranteed to make it interesting even to those with little interest in the beautiful game.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)