Rio de Janeiro
must be the most exciting and beautiful city in all the Americas, if not the world. Ok, so perhaps I am a bit biased – my mother’s family is from Rio – but where else in the world can you find a city that has rainforest growing inside it, where huge outcrops of rock pepper the landscape and white sand beaches hug the coast line? Apart from Rio’s incredible topography, what really makes this city so special are the locals, who are justifiably famous for their easy-going nature and party-loving reputation.
The weather in Rio can be difficult to predict, so if you only have two days and the first is clear and sunny, don’t waste any time – head up to the Sugar Loaf
and/or Corcovado where Christ the Redeemer
overlooks the city for those legendary Rio views.
Most tourists will stay in the southern part of the city, often in Copacabana or Ipanema, both conveniently located for sightseeing. From here you can take a taxi heading east – past Guanabara Bay to Praia Vermelha where you take the cable-car, in two stages, to the top of the Sugar Loaf and look back towards the city. You can also walk up through rainforest to the top of the first hill. Morro de Urca, from a nature trail skirting the bottom. Once you've descended, venture into the little neighbourhood at the foot of the mountain - you will have seen it from the top, jutting out into the sea. This is Urca, an arty district with a villagey feel. It is safe to wander around and you might have lunch in the Garota da Urca restaurant on its tiny beach. Or head back to Copacabana or Ipanema and try one of the many “weigh and pay” (comida por kilo) restaurants. This is a typically Brazilian way to have lunch on the go – plus if you are not sure about ordering off a menu, it is a great introduction to the local cuisine as you choose the food from a buffet. Take as much as you like and your plate will be weighed at the till so you only pay for what you eat. If you're arriving on a Saturday though, make sure you try feijoada
– Brazil’s national dish, eaten every Saturday in the same way as we would enjoy a Sunday roast back home.
You might want a siesta on the beach after your meal, but if you are still raring to go then I recommend an afternoon in the most bohemian part of town, Santa Teresa. You can take a tram to Largo dos Guimarães from where you can wander the twisting cobbled streets and soak up the chilled atmosphere from one of the many pavement cafés.
In the evening, head to Ipanema or Leblon (the upmarket neighbourhood next door to Ipanema) for an array of trendy restaurants. You’ll find a number of atmospheric bars within strolling distance, but if you really feel like partying the night away, take a taxi to the Lapa neighbourhood where revellers dance samba and forró till dawn – this is Rio’s hippest hangout. Try Rio Scenarium or Carioca da Gema, two of my favourite clubs.
If your second day is a Sunday, take a stroll to the hippie market in Ipanema. Here you’ll find a maze of stalls selling everything from jewellery to musical instruments – a great place to pick up a bargain. For designer clothes, shoes and Brazil’s famous itsy-bitsy bikinis take a walk down Visconde de Pirajá (the road that runs parallel to Ipanema beach) and you'll be spoiled for choice. In the afternoon, take a taxi to the base of Corcovado mountain, from where you can board a train to the summit with its iconic Christ statue. The view of the city spilling down into the bay beneath is absolutely breathtaking.
Alternatively you can escape the heat of the city by visiting the cool and tranquil botanical gardens
, where towering palms and lily pads the size of coffee tables adorn a spectacular park and wildlife is abundant. If you can, head back via the amazing sunset at Apoador, a beach which leads into Ipanema and overlooks the Dois Irmãos mountains.
For dinner you might try a churrascaria, a restaurant that serves every cut of meat you can imagine. You pay a set price and the waiters do rounds of all the tables serving mouth-watering cuts of steak until you just cannot eat another bite. Of course it goes without saying that the drink of choice to wash it all down with is a caipirinha. This is Brazil’s national drink and is simply a mix of cachaça
, sugar and lime over ice. Drink more than three or four at your peril!
Where to eat in Rio de Janeiro
Note that in Brazilian restaurants one portion is usually more than enough for two people. Three of the restaurants I always go to when in Rio are:
- Grill Inn – on Nossa Señhora de Copacabana (in between Sá Ferreira and Souza Lima roads). This is a comida por kilo (weigh and pay) restaurant which represents excellent value for money.
- Garota de Copacabana – on Avenida Atlantica, Copacabana. Try the picanha na chapa – grilled rump steak served on a searing griddle plate. Reasonable prices.
- Agua na Boca - on Rua Duvivier just off Copacabana Beach close to the Porto Bay International hotel. An economical restaurant with a family - run feel. A shared feijoada here costs just £3.50 for two!
- Zuka - a smart eaterie on Rua Dias Ferreira, the trendiest and liveliest street for restaurants bars and nightlife in Leblon
- Guimas - a long standing favourite among the literatii of Gavea, a pleasant district close to the lagoon and Jockey Club.