Centro’s other main development is the area around Santos Dumont, the domestic airport overlooking Guanabara Bay. The newly revamped airport is now linked to a new shopping mall, while restaurant group Best Fork plans to turn the roof space into a vast Asian-themed restaurant and nightclub, opening at the end of 2016 with 360-degree city views.
And it’s not just new-builds causing a stir in Centro; even traditional sites are getting in on the act. The Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, a colonial-era library, has just reopened after a refurb. And while many of the buildings from Rio’s past as Brazil’s capital have long been converted into art galleries, they’re pulling out the stops with blockbuster exhibitions this year — the Paço Imperial, for example, is currently hosting a Picasso exhibition.
Lagoa & Gávea
This is also one of the best areas for shopping — from the Shopping da Gávea mall, filled with Brazilian labels, to Rua Lopes Quintas, which recently eclipsed Ipanema’s Rua Visconde de Pirajá as the trendiest place to shop. In the past few years, former houses have been transformed into independent boutiques. They include Brir, whose beautiful handmade jewellery is Rio to the core — bright and outré, but beach-ready and laid-back — using materials like rope, string and beads instead of precious stones and metals. Sardina is another single-room shop in a first-floor apartment, with brightly patterned clothes made by the owner.
Dona Coisa, one of the first shops to colonise the street, has a huge stock of local designers’ clothes, accessories and homeware, and even launched its first menswear collection just in time for the Olympics. Oba!, meanwhile, is an architects studio-cum-children’s design store that’s definitely for grown-ups too, with furniture designed in-house, lighting (including lamps shaped like wellies and dogs), and cushions made from bright fabrics that owner, Leila Bittencourt, picks out on her travels.
Nightlife here revolves around the Jockey Club, Brazil’s largest racecourse, with race meetings on weekend afternoons and Monday and Friday evenings. The track is lined with some of the area’s best restaurants and bars — Palaphita is the place to go for drinks overlooking the course, while Rubaiyat Rio combines superb steak with astonishing views of the mountains and Corcovado beyond. Beside the paddock area, Prado.co is known for its weekday lunchtime buffet, showcasing dishes from five regions of Brazil.
By day, there’s a laid-back, village feel to Santa Teresa’s brightly coloured, 18th-century villas and cobbled streets — by turn, artists’ studios (the Arte de Portas Abertas Festival, every July, involves around 80 local artists), bars and small boutiques. Baobá Brasil, which opened earlier this year, is a pop-up-style shop in the corner of a bar — its ‘urban Afro’ fashion takes fabrics from Mozambique and sews them into modern pieces, to eye-popping effect. It sits within São Joaquim, an armazém cultural (‘cultural grocer’) — a bar, restaurant, jazz venue and cultural centre.
Down the street is Cafecito, a restaurant-gallery in an old villa, with a coffee shop in the garden under an almond tree. Armazém São Thiago — another former grocer’s, retaining its original 1920s style — is another popular stop, as is Aprazível, a bar and restaurant styled like a treehouse.
The views from here rival even those from Corcovado, and the best place to see them is the Parque das Ruínas, which offers sweeping views of the Sugarloaf, the Zona Sul and Guanabara Bay from a ruined villa repurposed as an art gallery. Next to it is the Museu da Chacará do Céu, the former home of businessman Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya, now a museum preserving his art collection, which includes works by Modigliani, Picasso and Chagall. It reopened fully after renovations earlier in the summer.
While evenings in Santa Teresa revolve around Largo dos Guimarães and Largo das Neves, down in Lapa, Rua do Lavradio is going from strength to strength as Rio’s alternative nightlife hub. A pedestrianised block is filled with offbeat bars such as Rio Scenarium (a samba venue in an antique-filled villa), Santo Scenarium (kitted out with religious art) and Ateliê Belmonte, an antique shop by day and bar by night. Soon, there’ll be somewhere to stay within stumbling distance, too — next year, Le Paris By Dussol is set to open at the far end of the street.
In Leblon, Giuseppe Grill is known for its booze (92 brands of cachaça and one of the finest wine lists in town) and its meat — it even serves its own signature cuts, like the picanha, a type of rump steak. Fish is hyper-local, supplied by individual fishermen; several dishes are made from staff members’ family recipes; and the signature ‘Romeo and Juliet’ dessert (soft cheese with guava jam) is handmade by a housewife in Minas Gerais province. Other Leblon stand-outs line Rua Dias Ferreira, the main dining drag — Zuka is one option with a fantastic modern Brazilian menu.
If Leblon is the place to eat, Ipanema is the place to shop. Rua Visconde de Pirajá is Rio’s answer to Oxford Street — a never-ending strip of Brazilian stores, from skincare brand Granado, upmarket jeweller H Stern in Rio, Havaianas (which cost a fraction of the price they do in the UK) to a mini mall filled with bikini shops: Ipanema 2000, which includes Salinas (an iconic store said to stock the best bikinis on the planet) and Bumbum.
Trendy but longstanding is the way in Ipanema. The Philippe Starck-designed, Saõ Paulo-operated Fasano has long been the most stylish hotel in Rio, with a rooftop pool and bar that’s open only to guests; locals walk the neon catwalk to the Baretto Londra bar, decorated with a giant Union Jack and rare rock ’n’ roll LPs on exposed brick walls, and the Fasano al Mare restaurant — an outpost of the legendary Saõ Paulo restaurant — offers some of the best Italian
food in town, with signature dishes including mozzarella-stuffed ravioli, as well as local fish. Two blocks away, the Casa da Feijoada was Rio’s first restaurant devoted Brazil’s national dish, feijoada (a stew of beans with beef and pork), when it opened in 1989, and it’s still going strong.
When in Rio…
Buffets are usually great quality and priced by weight. One of the best is Fazendola, in Ipanema. At £14 a kilo, it’s affordable and delicious — especially the daily churrascaria (barbecue) lunch.
Rio is bursting with craft markets — the best known is the Hippie Fair, every Sunday in Praça General Osório; but there are smaller weekend markets on Copacabana and a large one on Rua do Lavradio, in Lapa, every first Friday.
Leme, at the far end of Copacabana Beach, is its nicest, least-rammed stretch. Ipanema and Leblon are also good bets, but if you’ve time, venture to São Conrado — a perfect strip of white sand, with Pedra da Gávea mountain and the Tijuca Forest rearing up behind it.
Pedra da Gávea, towering over the west of the city, is a popular half-day hike, while you can cycle up to the Tijuca Forest. Feeling lazy? Jeep Tours has four-hour trips to Tijuca.
Gamboa, west of Centro, is the home of samba; watch dancing in venues like Trapiche Gamboa and the Cidade do Samba. Otherwise, Rio Scenarium, in nearby Lapa, is a popular place to feel the rhythm.
How to do it
Bespoke Brazil has an 11-day trip, with two nights at La Maison By Dussol, two at Iguassu Falls, at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, four in the Pantanal, at Caiman Ecological Refuge and two nights in Rio, at the Fasano. Includes all flights, transfers and tours. From £3,740 each.
Published in the South America 2016 guide, distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK) October 2016