Rio de Janeiro city of marvels
Seductive and spirited, must-see Rio de Janeiro kicks into even higher gear this August when the Olympic Games come to town, says BRIAN JOHNSTON.
WELCOME to the new Rio, and let the Games begin. The city has been transformed over the past decade, following a booming (though now stumbling) Brazilian economy and the hosting of the FIFA (soccer) World Cup in 2014. The Olympic Games, which take place in August this year, also encouraged waterfront transformations, public works projects and the renovation of landmark buildings such as the Municipal Theatre. Crime has been vastly reduced, the city buzzes with newfound energy and optimism, and life has returned to its streets. Rio is shaking its tail feathers once more. For any visitor, the highlight of Rio de Janeiro is the city’s fabulous natural setting in which humped mountains collide with the ocean. You could choose one of several particularly gorgeous viewpoints, though many people are seduced by all of them. The first is Sugarloaf Mountain, whose peak, reached by cable-car, leaves you almost surrounded by water. Rio’s coastline unfolds below in golden sands and sparkling bays backed by jungle-draped mountains. Incidentally, the Art Deco neighbourhood of Urca below Sugarloaf is curiously overlooked but lovely; its sea wall is stunning at sunset. Alternatively, a ride by rack railway up Corcovado Mountain provides an equally splendid outlook (though from an inland angle), plus a close-up encounter with the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outspread in welcome. Go early in the morning before the crowds, and just as the mist lifts to reveal the entire city at your feet. If queues for the railway get too much, consider a taxi to Mirante do Pasmado, a park hardly known to tourists with a very similar (though less iconic) panorama. Behind Corcovado lies the world’s largest urban forest, Tijuca Forest National Park, studded with waterfalls and limestone caves. A guided eco-walk here brings you face to face with toucans, parakeets and monkeys. Adrenaline enthusiasts – and visitors who dare to go along for a tandem ride – use one of its rocky outcrops, Pedro Bonita, as a launching spot for hang-gliders, which drift over the city to land on Rio’s beaches far below. At upmarket beach suburbs Copacabana and Ipamema, Rio’s bold and the beautiful cavort on the beach in skimpy swimwear, roller-blade along the promenades, and enjoy cold beer and barbecued prawns from street stalls. Surfing, beach volleyball and strutting are quite the pastimes here but, beyond the sands, you’ll also find excellent dining and shopping. Ipanema is notable for fashion boutiques, while Copacabana has chic jewellery stores and a weekend crafts market.
After admiring beautiful Rio, head to the city centre to get to grips with the city’s history and modern dynamism. Avenida Rio Branco is Rio’s version of the ChampsElysées and cuts through Centro, best visited on weekdays; it’s practically dead on Sundays. Centro is interesting for colonial-era squares, winding streets and Portuguese-style churches whose interiors are a riot of gilded baroque. Browse fancy boutiques, plunder bargain street markets, and enjoy cream cakes and coffee in grand cafés flaunting marble-topped tables and chandeliers. You’ll also find art museums and evening concerts and ballet in this district. In the evenings, head to adjacent Lapa, where you’ll find a combination of gritty pubs, sophisticated bars and live-music venues, many in elegantly restored heritage buildings. Locals come late – dinner may not be until eleven – and stay late, with the partying and caipirinha drinking often continuing until dawn breaks over the Atlantic Ocean. Santa Teresa is another city-centre district worth visiting. Once, an infamously rickety tram hauled visitors up into this hillside neighbourhood, but now you’ll have to be content with bus or taxi. Santa Teresa was home to the city’s elite in the nineteenth century; now its mansions crumble and its tropical gardens are overgrown. An arty crowd has moved in, opening galleries and quirky restaurants, and the vibe is especially lively on weekends. As you walk down towards Centro, you’re rewarded with great views over the ocean. For something unusual, join a tour to a favela or shantytown. Although Rio’s shantytowns are a shocking urban blight, they’ve given rise to much of Rio’s music and samba, and provide a fascinating glimpse into Rio’s alter ego. Garden lovers, meanwhile, should visit the Botanical Gardens, particularly fine for their water lilies and avenues of palm trees; you’ll also spot parrots and monkeys. Art aficionados could head to the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum for Brazilian art exhibited in a spectacular flying saucer of a building perched on the coast. A match at fabled Maracanã stadium among soccer-mad Brazilians is another brilliant experience. So too is a visit to a samba school or samba club for a spectacle of sequins and feathers. Rio’s passion with samba culminates in its February carnival, a fourday fantasy of dancing and drumming, and a truly glorious experience that culminates in the Passarela do Samba, the grandstand parade that will leave you bedazzled. A city of passion and many pleasures, it’s no wonder locals refer to Rio as La Cuidad Marvelosa, the marvellous city.