The seductive rhythm of Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "The Girl from Ipanema" is the perfect reflection of Rio: sexy, spontaneous, and incurably romantic. Thirty-seven white-sand beaches, terraced cafés overflowing with beautiful people, nightlife that never stops—this is a city that lives in the imagination like few others.
Unfortunately, street crime and an unstable economy have deterred many travelers from discovering Rio for themselves. But lately, Cariocas (as the locals are called) have developed a new sense of pride and are beginning to turn the city around. New boutique hotels, stylish shops, trendsetting restaurants, and neighborhoods on the verge are making Rio de Janeiro hotter than ever.
Where to Eat
Black beans and rice may be Brazil's culinary staple, but there's more to eat in Rio than feijoada (meat stew). The giant candle-adorned patio at 00 (240 Avda. Padre Leonel Franca, Planetário da Gávea; 55-21/2540-8041; dinner for two $35), located just behind the planetarium, is the right choice for alfresco dining. The whitewashed restaurant-bar-lounge-gallery delivers a contemporary twist on Brazilian ingredients—think jerked beef and leek-tapioca rolls. Around midnight, a DJ shakes up the dance floor. • After sundown, grab a table on the top floor of ZaZá Bistrò Tropical (40 Rua Joana Angelica, Ipanema; 55-21/2247-9102; dinner for two $21), where soft candlelight and throw pillows set the tone for the barefoot environment (waitresses ask that you leave your shoes at the door). The menu is playfully eclectic, with options ranging from ceviche to Asian noodles. • Stop in for afternoon tea, Saturday feijoada, petits fours, or a slice of walnut cake at Confeitaria Colombo (32 Rua Gonçalves Dias, Centro; 55-21/2232-2300; www.confeitariacolombo.com.br; tea for two $24), an 1894 Art Nouveau landmark. • They're usually the names of dances, but at Brazil's version of Starbucks, Armazém do Café (www.armazemdocafe.com.br), mambo (extra soft), rumba (super stout), and frevo (organic, stout with excellent taste) are three of the nine premium Brazilian blends available by the cup (50 cents) or the bag to go ($3-$6 per pound). • You'll have to splurge on a taxi (roughly $100) to reach the small fishermen's beach of Guaratiba, 45 minutes south of Rio's city limits. The bustling local fish market and Bira (68A Estrada da Vendinha; 55-21/2410-8304; lunch for two $25; open Thursday-Sunday), a private residence turned restaurant perched on a hill, are well worth the trip. (It's slightly off the beaten path, but locals will gladly show you the way.) Order dainty crab pies or moqueca, a rich fish stew laced with palm oil and coconut milk, to accompany the spectacular views of Marambaia Bay.
Where to Stay
With some exceptions, hotels in Rio have traditionally offered visitors dreary-looking 1960's-style rooms with basic amenities. But over the past few years, hoteliers have sharpened their look and boosted their services to accommodate savvy travelers. The best rooms in town overlook Leblon or Ipanema beach, though you won't feel shortchanged with a view of Corcovado. Marina All Suites (696 Avda. Delfim Moreira, Leblon; 55-21/2540-5212; www.marinaallsuites.com.br; doubles from $230), a 38-suite boutique hotel, broke the mold three years ago when it opened with eight "design suites" and an eight-seat movie theater. The 807-square-footDiamante, with its beachfront views, is a favorite with Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. At night, the restaurant, Bar d'Hotel, pulls in local celebrities: soccer player Ronaldinho and singer Caetano Veloso are regulars. • A block away, the Marina Palace (630 Avda. Delfim Moreira, Leblon; 55-21/2540-5212; www.hotelmarina.com.br; doubles from $133) is run by the same family as All Suites and is currently in the midst of a much-needed renovation. The lobby, business center, restaurant, and floors 7, 17, and 24 have been upgraded with contemporary furnishings, large-screen TV's, and luxe bathrooms; the other rooms await their face-lift in 2004. • The renowned Copacabana Palace Hotel (1702 Avda. Atlântica, Copacabana; 800/223-6800; www.orient-expresshotels.com; doubles from $320) turns 80 this year. Old-fashioned?Yes, but royally so. This is where kings, queens, and presidents stay. Book a 600-square-foot room on the fifth level with shiny parquet floors, a deep marble bath, and an ocean view. You needn't go far for dinner: the hotel's Cipriani restaurant consistently ranks among the city's best. • Although the 225-room Caesar Park Ipanema (460 Avda. Vieira Souto, Ipanema; 800/223-6800; www.caesar-park.com; doubles from $357) caters to the business traveler, its central beachside location makes it appealing to vacationers. Down the street, one more option is in the planning stages—in 2005, Philippe Starck and the team behind El Porteño hotel in Buenos Aires are set to open the Rio Universe Hotel, a 98-room state-of-the-art property. • The fluffy comforters, plush towels, and deep bathtubs make the JW Marriott Hotel (2600 Avda. Atlântica, Copacabana; 800/228-9290; www.marriott.com; doubles from $235) a comfortable choice. And for those who want to take part in reveillon, Rio's end-of-the-year blowout on Copacabana Beach, it's one of the best places to get in on the action.
Before declaring "Surf's up!," every beachgoer needs two essential accessories: a bikini and Havaianas (flip-flops). The two-piece is a major fashion statement. The young and lithe wear Salinas, tiny suits with flirty ruffles, beading, and sequins. Women beyond the playful beachcombing stage graduate to Lenny, a more sophisticated choice, which comes in forgiving black and earth tones. For serious beach parading, there's Rosa Cha, which makes see-through panels, removable straps, and suggestive graphics perfect for a Sports Illustrated cover. The gutsiest numbers are on the fourth floor of Rio Sul Shopping (116 Avda. Lauro Müller; 55-21/2545-7200), the second floor of the São Conrado Fashion Mall (899 Estrada da Gávea; 55-21/3083-0300), or in Ipanema's small boutiques. But before you hit the racks, be aware that Brazilian bikini sizes average a good two inches smaller than American ones. (One salesgirl admits that all her foreign shoppers get size G—large.)
Havaianas, the original rubber flip-flops, date back to the sixties and are available in sports stores, select supermarkets, and pharmacies and on-line at www.havaianas.com. This summer they sold for as much as $22 a pair in Europe; here, they're available for as little as $3.50. The season's hottest style: the rugged "trekking" model, with a strap around the back.
It's not an overstatement when people say "Rio is all about the beach." But not all of the city's sandy strips are created equal. Copacabana is long, broad, and lined with hotels. As a result, it's littered with tourists—and pickpockets. • Rocky Arpoador is the best spot to watch the sunset. • West of life-guard station No. 10 (they're called postos) on Ipanema is where the Beautiful People parade. • Essentially an extension of Ipanema, Leblon is usually packed with families. • Joatinga is an isolated 220-yard stretch of white sand. • Bumping up against a private reserve, Prainha has been claimed—and protected—by surfers. • Grumari feels removed from Rio, with a wide, pristine beach, rough waves, and fishermen-run kiosks selling fried calamari.