Watched over by the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro's setting is breathtakingly beautiful. The main part of the city stands on Guanabara Bay, a gorgeous wide inlet dotted with small hills. The south of the city faces the ocean, lined by the glamorous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
Sugar Loaf Mountain, the most famous of Rio de Janeiro's many hills, presides over the entrance to Guanabara Bay. Facing Sugar Loaf and separating the old city from Copacabana and Ipanema is Corcovado mountain, from which the statue of Christ the Redeemer has since 1931 enjoyed one of the best views in the world.
Rio de Janeiro used to be the capital of Brazil (and so, for a while, the capital of Portugal too). The historic centre of the older part of Rio, facing the bay, is where you'll find the city's colonial buildings, baroque churches, and museums. This is also where the business of Rio de Janeiro is done, and where most of the city lives, works, buys its groceries, watches football, plays samba and goes to church.
With all that stuff taken care of, the 'zona sul', the part of Rio next to the ocean, is given over to affluent ease. Its streets are lined with chic boutiques, bars and restaurants and apartment blocks for the well-to-do. Living life well, with grace and not too much ostentation, is raised to an art form here, in a place where 'the Girl from Ipanema' is not just a song, she might be your auntie.
Every large city in Latin America has poor districts. Rio de Janeiro's dramatic 'favelas', many perched on the city's steepest hills, are symbols of the stark divisions that afflict Brazilian society - slowly easing as more enlightened attitudes spread on both sides of the divide.
A short guide to Rio de Janeiro's neighbourhoods
When Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil, the centre of the city was filled with fine colonial buildings. In the name of progress and wider streets for cars, much of this has been swept away. You can think of this as a blessed relief, because now in half a day or so you can see the majority of what is left of the past, which gives you more time to enjoy the present.
Even so, that short time to explore Centro does give a good insight into Rio de Janeiro's history and its central place in the history of Brazil.
There are also two good, but not essential, art museums: the Museu Nacional das Belas Artes and the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro. For a while it seemed that Rio would get its own Guggenheim, but affordability issues have stalled it indefinitely. Instead the neighbouring town of Niteroi has its own temple to contemporary art - see below.
Lapa's Passeio Publico park is one of the oldest public parks in the Americas, created in 1781 at the time when Rio was setting itself up as the new capital of Brazil. In recent years much work has been done to restore and smarten the park, with its magnificent original rococo gates in iron and carved stone fountains in the cool shade of tall trees.
Gloria, Catete and Flamengo
Continuing south from Lapa, and lining the rest of the bay towards Sugar Loaf, these three quieter neighbourhoods had their heyday in the 1950s. The Flamengo Park, designed by Burle Marx on land claimed from the bay, added a long sandy beach and an area that's much used for sports - with the red and black stripes of the Flamengo football club comfortably outnumbering all the others.
The bo-ho neighbourhood of Santa Teresa is set on a hillside above Lapa and Gloria, with wide views of the city and the Guanabara Bay from many of its upscale residences. It is a wonderful place to escape the bustle of the city below. A short ride on a rickety tram will take you from street level downtown, over an arched viaduct (great views), to clatter up Santa Teresa's winding cobbled streets. Small boutiques and galleries stocked with local arts and crafts lie in wait for you along its leafy narrow streets. Many painters and sculptors live and work in Santa Teresa and on the last weekend in May and November every year they throw open their studios to the public.
One of the best views of this part of the city is from the Chácara do Céu Museum, which hosts an eclectic mix of local and foreign art, and its neighbour, the Parque das Ruinas, which has a cultural centre and café housed in the ruins of a former mansion. Rio's artists and intellectuals used to gather here in the early twentieth century.
Don't wander too far, though: Santa Teresa is skirted by some of the city's tougher favelas.
Rio de Janeiro's Zona Sul
On the ocean side of the city, to the south, Sugar Loaf marks the beginning of a succession of long, gently curving bays, their greenish ocean water sparkling in the southern sun as shallow waves flop lazily against wide beaches of gleaming soft sand. Beaches of this perfection would be far to good for a proper city, but this is Rio - where everything is possible.
It all starts with a bang, with the Avenida Atlantica, one of the world's most glamorous pieces of tarmac, skirting the beach of Copacabana. Its broad oceanfront promenade is paved in sensuous black and white curves in patterns created by Roberto Burle Marx that have become an instant evocation of Rio to those in the know.
Copacabana was little more than a road and a beach when in 1923 a stupendously wealthy socialite built the Copacabana Palace, bringing Monte Carlo to Rio in one fell swoop. This wonderful hotel, on which no expense or hostly indulgence was spared, instantly became a magnet for the world's glitterati, and Copacabana found itself propelled to the top of the international style lists.
Copacabana has been in and out of the headlines a few times since then, losing some ground in the 1990s in its inevitable rivalry with neighbouring Ipanema. These days it is having a quiet renaissance - more and more people say they prefer the quieter chic of Copacabana, and we tend to concur. Copacabana Palace is a favourite hotel for George Clooney and Mick Jagger, with either of whom it would be difficult to disagree.
New Year's Eve is Copacabana's special night, when 2 million people, all dressed in white, celebrate on the beach.
Something as amazing as Copacabana had to be repeated, and so the idea spread around a little headland to the next bay, every bit as gorgeous as Copacabana's.
This is Ipanema: younger, hipper, and more interested in designer labels. The beach is almost identical to the Copacabana's, but the streets behind are lined with trendy boutiques, and plush big name stores: H. Stern for diamonds, Louis Vuitton, Gucci - you can guess the rest. The hippest stretch of beach is reckoned to be 'Posto 9', but this may have changed since last week.
'The Girl from Ipanema', tantalisingly sung by Astrud Gilberto, spread bossa nova to the world from the streets and little bars in Ipanema and Copacabana where it was born. You can sip a beer at the cafe where the lyricist Vinicius Moraes and composer Tom Jobim's heart-strings were tugged by sight of a 15 year old girl passing by on her way to the beach, and visit another bar owned by the girl herself, Helo Pinheiro - now somewhat more advanced in years.
If Ipanema is too self-consciously hip, and Copacabana's old school charm doesn't work for you, then there's another stretch of beach to consider just past Ipanema on the same bay. This is the alt-Rio neighbourhood of Leblon. Again it's full of clothes shops, cafes and restaurants, but life is all a little more thoughtful and radical here: there are bookshops too.
Leblon is where many of Rio's own celebrities and artists retreat to: Chico Buarque stops at the same newspaper stand every day when he's home then sets off for his walk along the promenade.
The little neighbourhood of Leme is right back at the beginning, on the first bay, before the start of Copacabana proper. Tucked under the hillside, there is just room for two streets to run parallel to the sands. Leme is primarily a residential area and its stretch of beach is more popular with families.
Behind the beaches: Lagoa, Botafogo, Jardim Botanico and the Jockey Club
The Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (or simply 'Lagoa') is a lagoon linked to the ocean by a narrow channel. The lake is set in the Parque Tom Jobim, which is a pleasant alternative place to walk, jog etc if you were ever to tire of walking or jogging by the beach (Cariocas think of everything). It is especially lively on Sundays.
A little group of four of Rio's many hills rise steeply by the side of the lake, behind Copacabana. On their other side is the neighbourhood of Botafogo, tightly sandwiched between them and the foot of Corcavado. Here there is a museum dedicated to Hector Villa-Lobos, Latin America's most famous classical composer, and the Museu de Indio - an absorbing collection of artefacts, photographs and exhibits relating to Brazil's indigenous peoples.
Rio's Botanical Garden or Jardim Botânico was founded in 1808 by Joao VI, the Portuguese king. It lies behind Leblon, at the foot of Corcovado, more or less under the right arm of the statue of Christ the Redeemer high above, and contain more than 6,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants and trees, including 900 varieties of palm. A 750m line of 134 palms, all descended from a single tree, forms the Avenue of Royal Palms leading from the entrance. Features include an old gunpowder factory, a lake with large Victoria Amazonica lily pads, a Japanese Garden, and many sculptures and fountains. The park's 140 hectares extends into the Atlantic forest that covers the slopes of Corcovado and is a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
The park contains 140 species of birds, many of which have become accustomed to humans and consequently much easier to see than in the wild. Look for Channel-billed toucan, Dusky-legged guan and Slaty-breasted rail, for example. Howler monkeys and Tufted-eared marmosets are also present. The garden has a research institute whose collections include bromeliads, orchids, carnivorous plants and cacti.
Next to the Botanical Garden is Rio's horse-racing track: the Jockey Club. There are races 4 times a week, and it is a great way to mix with the locals. One of the benefits of being a foreigner is that you can get in the impressive members stand for a few reais.
Around Rio de Janeiro
A ferry ride across Guanabara Bay, the suburban town of Niteroi was worried that it might be a little off the map, so it commissioned Oscar Niemeyer to design it an art museum. The result, Niemeyer's astounding Contemporary Art Museum, suddenly made Niteroi world famous.
Niemeyer's disk-shaped building floats over a wide reflecting pool, appearing "like a flower" in the words of the centegenarian architect. Its cliff-top setting is made even more dramatic by the sinuous red ramp that folds over itself as it leads to the building, like a scarf blowing in the wind. The gallery shows a permanent collection of contemporary Brazilian art as well as temporary exhibitions. There is a stylish restaurant below the museum with fabulous views across the bay.
The Zona Norte
This is the part of Rio that becomes less marvellous and more to do with making a living in the ordinary way. Rio's massive football stadium, the Maracana, is in this side of town.
21 things to see and do in Rio
- take a taxi, or the cog-train, up the Corcovado to the foot of Christ the Redeemer. The view of Rio stretched out beneath you is incredible: Sugar Loaf, Guanabara bay, across the bay to Niteroi, and down to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipamena and beyond.
- take the cable car up Sugar Loaf mountain for fantastic picture-postcard views back over Rio. The view on a clear night is especially magical.
- go hiking on trails in the Tijuca National Park, the forest that covers Corcavado, which was replanted from coffee plantations on the orders of Don Pedro II in 1861 and is now indistinguishable from primary 'mata Atlantica'. Cascading streams and 30 waterfalls cool the air, and there are many viewpoints over the city.
- go hang-gliding
- take a jeep tour of Corcovado
- buy a pair of Havaianas - the brand of flip flops that Brazilians have been wearing for years, now available in the UK at vastly inflated prices.
- visit Escadaria Selarón between Santa Teresa and Lapa. Jorge Selarón, a Chilean-born artist, has transformed 125m of a stepped street outside his home with colourful tiled mosaics and paintings in homage to his adopted country. Selarón also sells his portraits of a pregnant African woman ("a personal problem from my past" which he claims he has painted 25,000 times.
- surfing at one of Rio's many beaches - Prainha, Arpoador,
- visit Sitio Burle Marx
- favela tour
- stroll the beachside promenade of Avenida Atlantica from Copacabana to Leblon, stopping for a coffee, a fresh fruit juice, or something stronger, at one of the stalls along the beach
- dance the samba at Rio Scenarium in Lapa, a restored mansion quirkily filled with antiques and artefacts and host to some great samba bands
- visit the Carmen Miranda Museum in Flamengo, for a quirky collection of memorabilia of this fruit-behatted star who made it big in Hollywood in the 1940s.
- order a caipirinha at the Copacabana Palace's new cocktail bar
- gaze up in awe at the offices of Oscar Niemeyer, facing the ocean on Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana
- watch Flamengo, the most popular football team in Brazil. Most games are played in the Maracana. Buy your ticket on the day but turn up early and dress down.
- buy an Elis Regina CD at Modern Sound. The wonderful bossa nova singer's dramatic voice, troubled life and early death has made her a legend. See what you think by clicking this. Modern Sound is the best music store in the world, bar none.
- buy a bottle of cachaça. Don't wait till you get to the airport duty-free section. Cachaça is cheaper in the supermarket and can be transported in checked-in baggage. Then, as the Brazilians say, if life happens to throw you a sour lemon you can make a caipirinha with it.
- summon up an appetite for a meal at a churrascaria restaurant, an all-you-can-eat extravaganza in which every kind of meat is carved at your table until you sigh heavily and admit defeat.
- buy some art
- go horse-racing at the Jockey Club
How to be a carioca
The name 'carioca' for a person from Rio de Janeiro means 'from the yolk of the egg' ('carioca de gema'). But you don't have to be born in Rio de Janeiro to earn that label. There are cariocas from all over Brazil, and from all over the world. You can be one too.
A deep tan, a tight swimsuit, a pair of Havaianas, and a high level of beach volleyball skill would all help, but what really makes a carioca is to exude Rio's 'jeito' - its indefinable spirit.
As Ruy Castro, that maestro of Rio observers, raconteurs and music lovers, says:
"By jeito we mean, among other things, an almost masochistic refusal to take oneself very seriously, a combination of boredom and mockery in the face of any kind of power, and, not least, a joie de vivre which defies any kind of rational argument. A carioca could never be Swiss, but a Swiss might be able to become a carioca, if Rio is given time to seduce him." Ruy Castro 'Rio', 2004 (Bloomsbury)
A good start would be to burn your suit and head down to Modern Sound (the world's nicest record store, on Rua Barata Ribeiro in Copacabana).
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro's Carnival - a 5 day explosion of colour, music, dancing and revelry - is a party like no other. Rio ignites with Carnival fervour, mainly centred around the Sambadromo, where samba schools and their floats brimming with fantastical costumes, performers and musicians parade in front of crowds and judges vying for the title of carnival champions.
The atmosphere during Carnival is electric throughout Rio with lively 'bandas' or street parties on the go anywhere and everywhere. Almost as soon as one year's Carnival finishes, preparations begin for the next.