For many, Rio means string bikinis, late-night caipirinhas, and Carnival dancers in giant headpieces (and little else). Connie McCabe looks for life beyond Copacabana.
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.
Related: Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide
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.
No one wants to fall prey to a city's tourist traps, but some of Rio's highlights are worth braving the crowds for. The iconic open-armed Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado has kept watch from its post since 1931. Pilgrimages there have always been popular—less for the spiritual enlightenment than for the 360-degree city views. Thanks to a new series of inconspicuous elevators and escalators, the 220-stair climb is now optional. • It seems only natural that this futebol-obsessed nation—5 out of 18 World Cup titles, and a bid to host the tournament in 2010—should be home to the world's biggest temple to the sport, Maracanã Stadium (Avda. Maracanã; 55-21/2568-9962). Take a tour of the 110,000-seat space ($1), visit the ode-to-soccer museum at gate No. 16, or, best of all, watch a game (schedules are listed in the newspaper; tickets are $7-$17) • Splashing water, creaking bamboo, and the crunch of gravel underfoot—that's as loud as it gets at Jardim Botânico (1008 Rua Jardim Botânico; 55-21/2294-9349), a lush landscape stretching over 340 acres. Among the 7,200 plant species are a cavalcade of 161-year-old imperial palms and, in the Orchiderio section, hundreds of endangered orchids, all part of the garden's program to reintroduce the bloom to the area. • For a truly breathtaking experience, take off by hang glider from Pedra Bonita in São Conrado and soar over treetops, mansions, and sunbathers basking on Pepino Beach. You'll be in good hands with brothers Paulo and Roni Falcão of Rio Tandem Fly (55-21/2422-6371; www.riotandemfly.com.br; $80 per person). • Santa Teresa is a steep, hilly village populated with clattering bonde (streetcars), century-old houses, vintage bars, and artists' workshops, 50 of which open their doors to visitors one weekend in March and October during Open House Art (www.artedeportasabertas.com.br). For lunch, and the best view of Guanabara Bay, reserve the corner table on the terrace of the cliff-hugging Aprazivel (62 Rua Aprazivel; 55-21/2508-9174; open Thursday-Sunday). • Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil's own Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the striking Museu de Arte Contemporânea (Mirante da Boa Viagem, Niterói; 55-21/2620-2400; www.macniteroi.com.br). The UFO-shaped structure houses more than 1,000 works by contemporary regional artists and offers amazing panoramas of Niterói and its surroundings.
The most stylish boutiques in Rio are clustered at the crossroads of Ipanema's Anibal de Mendonça and Garcia d'Ávila, as well as Visconde de Pirajá and Barão da Torre. Snap up the best local and European labels at São Conrado Fashion Mall (899 Estrada da Gávea; 55-21/3083-0300), or at the many boutiques scattered around the city. • Ten years ago, professional surfer Fred d'Orey added some splash to the surfing scene when he launched a line of funky men's trunks with bold prints in his store, Totem Beach (Fashion Mall, Ipanema 2000, Shopping da Gávea, and BarraShopping; www.totempraia.com.br). "We can't compete with urban fashion, but here in Rio, we know beachwear," says d'Orey, who eventually developed clothing for women and children that includes spirited tunics, pants, shorts, bikinis, trunks, and cangas. • Mixed (476 Rua Visconde de Pirajá, Ipanema; 55-21/2259-0934; www.mixed.com.br) may have originated in São Paulo, but trendy Cariocas consider the place their own. This season, sibling owners and designers Rodrigo and Riccy Trussardi have introduced a collection of miniskirts and pants adorned with Hawaiian-style flowers; chiffon blouses; and pencil pants. • Sollas (68 Rua Henrique Dumont, Ipanema, and 48 Rua Sete de Setembro, Centro; 55-21/2511-6567) is packed with shoes, simple flats, and funky platforms and fabric slip-ons designed by owner Carla Guglielmetti. There's also a counter full of bangly anklets, toe rings, and other fancy foot accessories to match. • One-stop shopping at Galeria Ipanema Secreta (371 Rua Visconde de Pirajá), a not-so-secret second-floor gallery of shops opposite Praça Nossa Señora da Paz, means sexy sling-backs and stilettos by the 25-year-old shoe goddess Constança Basto, as well as candles of all shapes and sizes at Candle Design. • Designer-goldsmith Antonio Bernardo, who specializes in one-of-a-kind gem cuts, has created a cultlike following with his exquisitely simple gold bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. His work is displayed in four boutiques around the city; of Bernardo's two Ipanema addresses, the Pirajá outpost offers the largest and best selection (351 Visconde de Pirajá; 55-21/2523-3192; www.antoniobernardo.com.br).
Next Great Neighborhood Baixo Leblon
This once-bohemian area is where the fashionable girls from Ipanema (and all their followers) like to party. • At Melt (47 Rua Rita Ludolf; 55-21/2249-9309), live music plays while the crowd lingers over caipirinhas and Brazilian-Asian dishes. • A foodie's paradise, Garcia & Rodrigues (1251 Avda. Ataulfo de Paiva; 55-21/2512-8188) has a bakery, café, wineshop, and restaurant. • Don't miss Bracarense (85B Rua José Linhares; 55-21/2294-3549) and Jobi (1166 Avda. Ataulfo de Paiva; 55-21/2274-0547), 1950's watering holes that serve up cold beer with croquettes. • Chef Felipe Bronze, formerly of Nobu and Le Bernardin, blends French and Asian cuisines to produce teriyaki-glazed foie gras at Zuka (233 Rua Dias Ferreira; 55-21/3205-7154; dinner for two $50). • With 500 types of cachaça, Academia da Cachaça (26 Rua Conde Bernadotte; 55-21/2493-7956) is the place to sip Brazil's national drink.
Seu Jorge ACTOR, SINGER, AND MUSICIAN
GET INTO THE GROOVE "Samba is the soul of Rio. Go to Lapa, a downtown neighborhood packed with bars and pulsating music, to hear the newest and best of it."
DANCE FEVER "Rio Scenarium [20 Rua do Lavradio; 55-21/3852-5516], a huge antiques emporium, turns into party central Tuesday through Saturday with live samba and chorinho [an instrumental style that fuses European and Afro-Brazilian traditions]."
HOT TRACKS "Modern Sound [502D Rua Barata Ribeiro; 55-21/2548-5005; www.modernsound.com.br], in Copacabana, and Tracks [140 Praça Santos Dumont; 55-21/2274-7182], in Gávea, have the best choice of Brazilian pop and alternative albums.
"My favorites are the sound track to Cidade de Deus (City of God), which exposed the seedy underbelly of Rio's housing projects, and Procura da Batida Perfeita, an electronic rap and samba mix by emerging DJ Marcelo D2."
Chill Out Where to Beat the Heat
Chope (beer) is served in choperias and cervejarias (taverns), botequims, and botecos (bistros), but those in the know line up for ice-cold loura (lager), ruiva (ale), and negra (dark ale) at Rio's only brewpub, Devassa (1241 Rua General San Martin; 55-21/2540-6087). • For a variation on the traditional caipirinha, try a "caipiroska" (with vodka) or a "caipisaque" (with sake) at Bar d'Hotel (696 Avda. Delfim Moreira; 55-21/2540-4990). • Suco—melon, strawberry, or pineapple juice with graviola, a native Brazilian fruit—is served straight up or blended at Balada Sumos (620 Avda. Ataulfo de Paiva, Leblon; 55-21/2239-2699). • Mil Frutas Café (134A Rua Garcia d'Ávila, Ipanema; 55-21/2521-1384) offers more than 120 exotic flavors of sorvete (ice cream). • The pulp of açaí, an antioxidant-rich fruit derived from the palm tree,is frozen and mixed with guarana syrup to make an intense berry-like slush at BiBi Sucos (591A Avda. Ataulfo de Paiva, Leblon; 55-21/2259-4298).
Play It Safe
Rio has been battling crime, mostly in and around the favelas (the poorer sections of the city). This shouldn't deter you from visiting the city, but do take the following precautions. • Don't go in or near any favela without a guide. • Leave expensive jewelry, watches, and accessories at home. • Keep large sums of money and credit cards at your hotel or hidden deep in your pockets. • Have small change ready to pay for buses and taxis. • Avoid downtown after dark. • And be aware—thieves often work in teams (one hits you while the other grabs your wallet) before fleeing on bikes.
Feathers used this year in costumes for Imperatriz Leopoldinense, one of Rio's largest samba schools.
Pairs of Havaianas sold since their creation in 1962.
Lifeguards working the beaches of Rio.
Zazá Bistrô Tropical
This restaurant serves Brazilian-tinged Asian fare in opium den-like surroundings.
Belmond Copacabana Palace
1923 landmark French Riviera-style palace with a modern, all-suite annex, on one of the world's most famous stretches of sand, the 2½-mile Copacabana Beach. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire once graced the halls of this 245-room Art Deco grande dame.
JW Marriott Hotel, Rio de Janeiro
Judging simply by the stately building in the heart of Rio's famed Copacabana Beach, this might seem like any other Marriott elsewhere in the world. Until: a trip to the rooftop pool, with its sweeping views of Sugaloaf Mountain and Corcovado, to remind visitors where they are so lucky to be. The rooms might be small, but the executives who clamor here are likely spending most of their time in the Griffin Lounge, an elegant business center with comfortable work stations, free snacks, and a five-story bay window overlooking the beach.
Caesar Park, Ipanema
23-floor contemporary business hotel on stylish Ipanema Beach with spacious rooms; a renovation of public spaces began in 2009.
Room to Book: One of the 37 Deluxe City View rooms that offer a partial beach view.
The Marina Palace
Boutique property on Leblon Beach, located within walking distance of some of the city's best restaurants.
Marina All Suites
Entering the lobby from the famous Roberto Burle Marx-mosaic promenade, the Marina All Suites is a tall narrow building with 38 suites. The hotel features its designer series, like the mostly white Opala, or the Topázio—which has a glass wall between the bedroom and living area, but generally the air-conditioned accommodations are decorated in soft neutrals with an occasional bright accent. Most suites have kitchens with microwaves and refrigerators. Dine in the neon-retro Bar D’Hotel on the second floor, rent the private movie theater, or sun by the rooftop pool above Leblon Beach.