Although Rio may best be known for Carnaval, the city is a non-stop party and its sun-soaked coastline can best be enjoyed after the samba-dancing crowds have fled. Rio’s intoxicating energy envelopes visitors with open arms and the city’s’ passion for music, dancing, and soccer is infectious. After spending a few days in this subtropical urban whirlwind, it’s easy to see why the locals have such huge smiles on their faces. No other city has such jaw-dropping beauty with lush tropical forest mountains lining endless miles of white-sand beaches.
A study in contrasts, Rio offers everything from sophisticated dining to local juice stands; first-class shopping next to creative open-air markets; and luxury hotels tucked between impoverished favelas. With Brazil’s trillion dollar economy and newly-discovered oil reserves, this metropolis of 10 million is truly booming. But since this former Portuguese colony is nestled between dramatic mountainsides and the largest urban forest in the world, Rio feels more like an expanded beach community than a chaotic capital of the second largest economy in the Americas.
The laid-back vibe of the locals never overwhelms and their care-free spirit can be seen as they play volleyball until dusk and samba till dawn. Life in Rio revolves around the beach. The best place to feel like a Carioca (resident of Rio) is the legendary sands of Ipanema and Copacabana. The stretch of beach from Leblon past Copacabana called Zona Sul is divided into sections marked by numbered lifeguard ‘postos’. International modeling scouts hover around Posto 9 where Rio’s “beautiful people” play hacky sack with a soccer ball and suntan their gorgeous bods. Posto 8 is favored by the gay community, while families prefer Posto 11 and 12. Cafes, juice stands, and food stalls line the beaches and offer delicious snacks like frozen acai, fresh coconut juice or a delicious Caipirinha.
Rio’s vibrant beach culture and healthy lifestyle inspires as ultra fit bodies can be seen walking, biking, or jogging from early morning until late at night on the main streets of Ave Vieira Souto and Ave Atlantica that extend the length of the three main beaches. Surfers also flock to Zona Sul but the best breaks are just outside of the city. Jump on a surf bus and head out to Prainha or Barra de Tijuca, about a thirty minute ride from Ipanema. Barra feels a bit like Miami with high rise condos housing locals who have moved to this posh Rio suburb filled with luxury shopping malls and quieter beaches.
After soaking in the rays, relax at one of Ipanema’s trendy coffee shops or take advantage of the favorable Real exchange rate in the numerous fashionable boutiques like Lenny and Osklen, Brazil’s high-end surf and leisure wear. Or grab a pair of Brazil’s favorite flip flops, Havaianas, for US$4. Don’t miss the open-air flea markets like the Hippie Fair that is only open on Sundays. This lively street market in Ipanema takes over an entire city square and offers handicrafts, leather handbags, artisan jewelry, clothes, paintings and much more.
Rio has received a bad rap for being a dangerous city, but as long as you are a smart traveler, your visit here will be a safe one. Just be aware of your surroundings and remember to leave your flashy jewelry at home. Most of the crime in Rio is concentrated in the favelas — shanty towns where the drugs and gangs often lead to violence — so stay clear of these areas.
The best spots for a panoramic view of this spectacular city are Sugar Loaf and Corcovado Mountain. A short gondola ride takes you to the top of Sugar Loaf where a breathtaking 360-degree view of Rio and Guanabara Bay awaits. Another must-see landmark is Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue on top of Corcovado Mountain. A steep tram ride delivers you through the world’s largest urban jungle to the top where you can view the 100-foot, concrete statue that is now one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
For any true football (soccer) fan, a visit to the Maracana Stadium is a required pilgrimage. Visitors can literally walk in the footsteps of legends like Pele and take a guided tour through the stands and locker rooms. Next you can hop in a bondinho (streetcar) and check out the hilly Santa Teresa neighborhood just west of Lapa. With its narrow, winding streets, stone stairs and late-19th-century house, this artistic community has a bohemian vibe with trendy restaurants, shops, and art galleries. Colonial-era mansions line the cobblestone streets and offer unrivaled views of Guanabara Bay. There are numerous houses here that offer rooms for rent or you can stay at one of the boutique hotels like the newly opened Santa Teresa. For dinner don’t miss the hotel’s Terese restaurant with delicious global cuisine and sweeping city views.
When night falls, life in Rio is just getting started. Head to the Lapa District and book a table at Rio Scenarium. This antique shop, restaurant, and bar features unbelievable live music where you can practice your Samba until the early morning hours. When sleep finally beckons, Fasano in Ipanema attracts a young clientele looking to rest their heads in Rio’s most noteworthy boutique hotel . Designed by Philippe Starck, this modern hotel features a glitzy rooftop infinity pool and a modern take on an English pub where DJ’s spin down tempo tunes for the beautiful crowd. Or check into the legendary Copacabana Palace. This lavish hotel’s white neo classical facade exudes an old-world charm and is the perfect spot to bask in the city’s golden age glamour. But no matter which hotel you choose, rest assured knowing that waking-up in Rio means getting to enjoy another day in a pleasure-seeker’s paradise.