Rio de Janeiro has one of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular settings of any city in the world. Whether viewed from street-level while sipping a caipirinha or watching the sunset from Sugar Loaf mountain, the place never fails to impress and inspire. I once taught a student from Rio who commuted to São Paulo for work and English classes, but always went back to his home city for the weekend. Like all cariocas, residents of Rio, he was proud of his city and also knew how lucky he was to live there. He gave me a tip – sit on the right side of the plane when flying from São Paulo to Rio for some incredible views if you are arriving at the local airport. No matter how many times he had done this journey, he told me, he always got quite emotional at the sight of Rio from the air.
You could spend days or even weeks here. There are must-see sights like taking the cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain and the funicular railway up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer. But for me one of the best things about Rio is simply hanging out and people watching. The beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema have a spectacular setting and each area of beach attacts its own crowd. But rememember these are city beaches and just one block back from the seafront you’ll find bars, restaurants and boutiques with locals strutting the streets in speedos and bikinis. It’s all very laid-back.
The centre of Rio is the business area and also has plenty of colonial era buildings, many of which are currently being restored. Lapa is the place to go on a Friday night when the neighbourhood becomes one vast outdoor party, with food and drinks stalls lining the streets and samba music blaring out everywhere you go. I first went there in 1998 before it had been re-developed and was still a pretty dodgy area, with the only music coming from speakers propped up in the doorways of decaying buildings. Nowadays there are some high-end restaurants and it’s pretty safe, but watch your pockets in the crowds.
In fact, safety is one of the major concerns that first-time visitors have, although I reckon that reports of violence are often exaggerated in the foreign press. When I first came to Rio in 1996, I was convinced that I was going to be jumped on by gangs of thieves within moments of leaving the airport. Now, I don’t believe it’s any more dangerous than many big cities around the world. You just need to have your wits about you and don’t take any risks.
If you want to see more than just the obvious tourist sites, head for neighbourhoods like Catete and Botofogo. These lie between the centre and Copacabana and began to be developed as the city expanded in the 19th century and contain some lovely turn-of-the-century buildings. Also recommended is the Parque Lage, a wonderful oasis near the Botanical Gardens. Another worthwhile day trip is to take the local ferry across the bay to Niteroi and visit the Museum of Contemporary Art designed by the great Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. But if this all seems like too much effort, it’s quite easy to just sit down at one of the many barracas or beach bars, buy a fresh coconut juice and watch the world go by.
As fun and as exciting as Copacabana and Ipanema can be, you really need to get out of the city and explore the fabulous beaches along the coast. Heading north for a few hours takes you to Búzios, a place made famous by Brigitte Bardot in the 60s. In fact there is a statue of her in the town. It’s quite upmarket and the beaches are small and nestled in picturesques coves.
Heading south on the way to São Paulo is Paraty. It’s an old town with many beautiful colonial buildings and cobbled streets – practical shoes are a must here! – which partly flood when the tide comes in. There are no beaches in the town itself, but there are boats in the harbour which will take you around some stunning beaches and islands. A short busride away is the town of Trindade, popular with surfers and with a very different vibe.
If you’ve ever thought about going to Brazil, now is a good time to visit. The clocks have gone forward and summer is approaching. Not only that, but the devaluation of the real means that visitors are going to get some great bargains. Although Brazil is not a cheap destination by any means, the real is now worth only half of what it was a year ago, making things much more affordable. The effects of El Niño are also promising record temperatures this summer. There’s no better place to start than Rio de Janeiro, a cidade maravilhosa, or the marvellous city.