Although Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is best-known for its festive Carnival celebrations in February, this city has much more to offer throughout the year.
Nicknamed “Cidade Maravilhosa,” or Marvelous City by Brazilians, this dazzler includes 45 miles of white sand and tropical landscapes, a bay, 23 beaches, mountain ranges, and the world’s largest urban tropical forest.
Filled with beautiful people (both inside and out), monumental attractions and some of the most pristine beaches in the world, the only question you should be asking is…who has the cheapest flights down there?
The first tip is to book a trip during the off season, between March and July (remember, it’s below the equator), when the weather is mild (80s, no humidity) and the crowds have dissipated.
It’s impossible to go to Rio without visiting the beaches. While most people are familiar with Copacabana beach as the hot destination (could it be the song, perhaps?) Ipanema and Leblon are currently the favorite neighborhoods in Rio. While you’re probably heard of Ipanema beach as well, take a hint from the local folks, Cariocas, who go to Posto 9, a part of Ipanema Beach. The “postos” are lifeguard stands with large yellow numbers on the side.
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Take a walk to what looks like the end of Ipanema beach, known as Arpoador, a large rock formation that juts out into the ocean. Here, you will find incredible views of the city, the famous Sugarloaf mountain and Ipanema beaches to the right, and Copacabana and Leme to the left. Take some time to listen to the sounds of the waves crashing against the rocks while watching the surfers battle the current. Don’t be surprised if immediately after sunset there is a roar of applause from the locals showing their gratitude for yet another great day of beach weather.
For a great outdoors experience, go for a morning jog around Lagoa, a large laguna in the center of the city. Approximately six miles around the perimeter there are spectacular views of Christ the Redeemer and all of the surrounding mountain chains. Non-motorized water sports are offered in the laguna year-round. Be sure to stash a few reais in your pocket to pick up some coconut juice at any of the stands along the way. There are usually two men at hand, one cutting a small hole in the top of the fresh coconuts and the other to hand you the straw and large fruit.
If you’re in an adventurous mood, try paragliding off the side of Pedra da Gavea, one of the mountainous peaks overlooking Leblon and Ipanema beaches. It costs R$100, which is less than $50. Lastly, head to Barra beach for 11 miles of cool water and great waves for sports. This is the spot to find surfing, windsurfing, kite surfing and jet skiing.
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Constructed in the early 1900s by Henrique Lage as a display of love to an Italian Opera singer, Parque Lage is a large estate that is now open to the public and home to the School of Visual Arts of Parque Lage. Take a few hours in the late afternoon to stroll the gardens and property. For a perfect end to the day, stop by the Café du Lage (www.cafedulage.com) on the premises for a cup of coffee and pastry. If you are there on a Friday, you’ll hear live music presented by students of the school, including jazz, Bossa Nova and Samba. Rua Jardim Botanico 55-21-2538 1879, www.eavparquelage.org.br (in Portuguese)
The Mosteiro de São Bento (Monastery of St. Benedict) is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, founded in 1590 by Monks from Bahia. It currently houses St. Benedict College; the entire interior is covered with gold leaf plating and paintings. There is a daily mass at 5:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. where you can hear the Eucharist in Gregorian chant. Admission is free. Rua Dom Gerardo 68. 21-2291-7122. www.osb.org.br (Click the British flag for English.)
Playing host to more than 8,000 species of plants and vegetation, the Botanical Gardens is a breathtaking oasis in the big city. Open since 1822, the 340-acre garden features vegetation from around the world. Be sure to visit the orchid house, and take in some of the truly exotic plants like Imperial palm trees and Royal Palms. There are also more than 140 species of birds, and don’t be surprised if you see monkeys playing freely in the tree tops! Admission is R$4. www.jbrj.gov.br (in Portuguese)
Rio is filled with beautiful people so naturally people-watching is a popular activity for visitors. Head to Baixo Leblon, the best area to spot celebrities such as novella (soap opera) stars, artists and athletes. Leblon is one of the most exclusive neighborhoods to live in Rio, playing host to beautiful beaches, a variety of top restaurants, shops, bookstores, cafes and very active nightlife. Letras e Expressoes is a book store/coffee shop that the Carioca’s frequent for entertainment. Leave time to stroll the streets and eat a nice dinner, there are plenty of restaurants.
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Once dusk hits, head to the Palaphita Kitch for a drink or bite to eat. Located on the shores of the Lagoa, this typical Amazonian retreat takes you back to your childhood spent in tree houses. The cedar tables, benches and grass overhang takes a back seat to the spectacular views of the city lights reflected on the laguna. Sip on traditional caiparinhas made with Brazilian rum mixed with fruit and sugar while…shopping? That’s right, all of the furniture you see is for sale. Avienda Epitacio Pessoa, Quiosque 20, Parque do Cantagao, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. 55-21-2227-0837, www.palaphitakitch.com.br
Rio Scenarium, a four story house from the 19th Century, now houses a popular Samba restaurant/bar filled with antiques collected from around the world. Each floor is filled with remnants including a wall of old clocks, a dentist chair from the mid 1900s hidden in the corner of a staircase, horse riding equipment, life-size statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and glass cases filled with purchase documents from the times of slavery.
The sound of the samba band on the main floor resonates throughout the large openings in the middle of each floor and bounces off the antiques, making them practically come to life. Multiple crystal chandeliers hang from every ceiling, the old wooden planked floors creek as you step and there was even a cast-iron elevator that takes you up to the fourth floor if you’ve had too many caiparinhas. Entrance fee is R$15 (about $7). Rua do Lavradio, 20, Centro Antigo. 55-21-3147-9005, www.rioscenarium.com.br
Rio is virtually overflowing with amazing food, from high-end cuisine to after-clubbing bites. Here’s just a sampling of what you can find:
Siri Mole offers some of the best traditional Brazilian food in town, as demonstrated by the elegant crowds that come here each night. Locals rave about the seafood, particularly the restaurant’s signature moqueca de siri mole (softshell crab stew). Rua Francisco Otaviano, Copacabana 55-21-2267-0894, www.sirimole.com.br(in Portuguese)
Pizza Guanabara is a popular local hangout, particularly for fashionably late diners and post-club crowds. If you’ve got an appetite, order the gigante…you’ll probably never have to eat for the rest of your trip! Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva 1228, Leblon 55-21-2294-0797, www.pizzariaguanabara.com.br (in Portuguese)
Koni Store is the new craze in Rio. This fast-food Japanese restaurant specializes in temakis/hand rolls. Rua Maria Quitéria, 77 lj. E., Ipanema 55-21-2521-9348; Av. Ataulfo de Paiva, 1.174 lj E., Leblon 55-21-3502-3664
Celeiro is one of the few organic restaurants in Rio, and perhaps one of the best in Brazil. It’s a vegetarian mecca, with more options than you can even imagine. Rua Dias Ferreira, 199, Leblon 55-21-2294-2249, www.celeiroculinaria.com.br (in Portuguese)
Sushi Leblon is said to have the best sushi in Rio, according to the locals. It’s expensive and you may have to wait in line, but worth it for the fresh fish and excellent people watching. Rua Dias Ferreira 256, Leblon 55-21-2512-7830, www.sushileblon.com
By Sarah Price for PeterGreenberg.com.
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